Have you ever heard of the old English booth fighters? They were a common species on the fairgrounds during the Victorian period, full of show, guile and usually hungry enough to remove the consciousness of comers for a purse of three to five shillings. Most of all, though, they were required to give only the appearance of assault, just enough to arouse the rabble, and if a mistake was made (if the hayseed happened to get hit too early), a second in the corner might whisper for all to hear: "Gently does it, my lad. Yer don't want to knock 'im out yet. Give us a little show of yer quality afore yer outs 'im."
Oh, it was high comedy for the suckers, replete with barkers doubling as referees and mud pies from the audience. But now and then things would get out of hand, and the event would hang on the precipice of manslaughter, much like what happened when Jerry Quarry and Joe Frazier went at it last week in Madison Square Garden. If it was not altogether a booth fight, it will have to do until something better comes along. What was at stake, after all? Here were two fighters, one, Frazier, past his prime, the other, Quarry, never having reached one, ostensibly trying to qualify for a title shot, but more sensibly merely out to make a shilling. And that they did: $400,000 for Joe, $225,000 for Jerry. But as entertainment, the fight left one feeling queasy, if not guilty, for having watched it.
By dismantling Quarry in five rounds (Referee Joe Louis—belatedly—stopped it) Frazier only underlined what many had sensed and now know: the heavyweight division is desperately impoverished. It has a champion (George Foreman) who is a big hitter but has no defense against fine print and legal niceties. It has a challenger (Muhammad Ali) whose talent is terribly dimmed. And it has Quarry and Frazier, who will never again illuminate the scene, and there is some question if either can continue—try as they may—to profit from it. The only major fight remaining is Foreman vs. Ali; gentlemen with the big cigars, the well is dry.
Frazier's brutal victory over Quarry was reaffirmation of what has long been most obvious: put somebody reasonably stationary in front of Frazier and he will hit him...again and again and again. That was what Frazier did against Quarry in one of the most uncompetitive bouts seen in a long time. Although Frazier does not throw the same volume of punches or advance as irresistibly as he once did, Quarry was never in the fight. His role was that of a catcher, a part previously played by George Chuvalo, but it is doubtful if that long-suffering soul ever took as many clean shots to the head as Quarry.
It was a shutout, although one indulgent judge called the first round even. At the tail end of the fourth round, Frazier tagged Quarry with an overhand right and then came back underneath with a wicked left to the body. Quarry dropped to one knee. The bell rang. He came out for the fifth, and Frazier went immediately after his right eye, which had been cut earlier. Quarry was in awful shape. He tried to survive, to retain the dignity that so many often thought he did not have. As blow after blow ripped to his head he looked for help, from Joe Louis, his corner, anybody.
"Stop it!" people at ringside screamed. "Stop it! He's gonna get killed!"
Frazier backed off. It was an unprecedented move for him, the old warrior who was raised on the raw violence of the Philadelphia gyms. He looked toward Louis to stop the fight, but who knows where Joe was; he might have been lost back in the mist with Max Schmeling. A minute into the fifth round Quarry's mother got up. "Let's go," she said to Jerry's wife. "It's all over." She later said: "Jerry put up no fight at all, really, after the first round. He fought a little then. In the third round I could tell he was in trouble. I don't know what the matter was." Louis waved Frazier on, peered intently at the wreckage for a while and finally stepped in.
Looking at Quarry made the years roll by one after another. So much has always been wrong with him, not with his talent but with his ability to think, to perceive, to free himself from the quicksand of his own mind. First, there was the influence of his Steinbeckian family, a hard people who were fiercely tribal—and meddlesome. His father, old Jack, confused him, involved him in his ploys to remove Jerry's Mexican manager, Johnny Flores. Father Jack was the co-manager and he had a running feud with Flores, with Quarry in the middle. In the end, the father proved what has always been notoriously true in the ring—fathers make bad managers.
Then there was Quarry's failure to assemble himself as a fighter. He never knew precisely what he wanted to do in the ring, never knew whether to be a boxer, a counter-puncher or a brawler. His instinct is for the brawl, but his true talent is, or rather was, as a counter-puncher. Quick and punishing, he could pick a puncher apart. But he seldom did, and he never even tried with Frazier. In their first bout five years ago he was competitive, yet again the wrong way. Out to prove his courage, he engaged Frazier in a war of attrition; it was a war that he could not possibly have won.
This time, though, he promised it would be different. He had a new wife, a new manager (Gil Clancy) and new intelligence, and he was coming off six straight wins. He convinced a lot of people—14,611 paid $517,006—and some of the press but not Joe Frazier, and apparently not even himself. He has seldom looked more ineffectual; he went to the hunt without a gun. "I think he's been around long enough," said his mother. "He should get out of it."
With 15 stitches over his left eye, three over his right eye, a swollen lip and an angry red ear, Quarry said in his dressing room: "I had a long, elusive dream. I'm not too sure it can be made now." As essayist William Hazlitt once wrote, and it seemed applicable to Jerry Quarry after so many self-deceptions: "He has lost nothing by the late fight but his presumption."