Saturday, June 11, 2011

The Quarry Tragedy

The word “tragedy” is greatly misused in the modern vernacular. It has come to mean any unfortunate event, whereas it originally applied to a tragic hero who, through his own hubris, meets a terrible fate. The story of the Quarry brothers is one f the best modern examples I know of to illustrate the original meaning.

If an athlete has the fortune to be the eleventh most talented player in the NBA, the result is a multi-millionaire likely to whine about not being a started in the NBA all-star game. If you are the eleventh best heavyweight in the world, you are likely to end up brain-damaged and dead ahead of your time. If Jerry Quarry had been black, he’d be remembered as a very good fighter not quite of championship caliber. Consider his record. In the mid-sixties he was the only fighter in the history of the Golden Gloves tournament to knock out every one of his opponents. He fought former two-time champion Floyd Patterson twice, with one win by decision and one draw. He fought his way to the finals of a WBA championship tournament only to lose a split decision to Jimmy Ellis. He knocked out Mack Foster when Foster was rated a number one contender, he knocked out Ernie Shaver in one round (the same Ernie Shavers who once decked Larry Holmes), he lost a narrow decision to Muhammad Ali, and once, giving away 20 lbs, gave Ron Lyle a one-sided boxing lesson for a 12-round decision (the same Ron Lyle who fought Ali even for ten rounds and who once decked George Foreman twice). Once, English heavyweight Jack Brodell called Quarry a bum before their bout in London. That match lasted 58 seconds, including both an 8-count and a full ten-count. George Foreman says today that Jerry Quarry was the only fighter he made a point of avoiding.

Ironically enough, if Quarry had been twenty lbs lighter, or if boxing had a junior heavyweight division of under 205 lbs, Jerry Quarry would have been a world champion. Instead, since his best fighting weight was between 196 and 200 pounds, he was always up against bigger, heavier opponents with longer reach than he had. He lost two fights to Muhammad Ali, two to Joe Frasier, and one to Ken Norton in a fifth-round TKO (Quarry was, perhaps, foolish to take that fight on short notice).

Because of his repeated losses in big bouts, Jerry Quarry became a punchline to many. Richard Pryor even made a joke about how Quarry “love getting beat up by n******s”. Quarry stayed in the game far too long, and he paid for it with his health, mentally and physically.

But it wasn’t just Jerry who was ruined by boxing. Jerry’s younger brother Mike was a talented light heavyweight who, after winning 38 straight fights against opposition of questionable quality, managed to get a shot at light heavyweight champion Bob Foster. 4th round, he suffered a frighteningly severe knockout. If he’d had another way to make a living, or good sense, he would have found another way to make a living. Instead, he traded on the Quarry name, and it gave him too many paydays to walk away from.

Jerry and Mike’s younger brother Bobby was a talented athlete who figured he could parlay his name into easy boxing money, although he lacked his older brothers’ skill and work ethic. The fact that he was blind in one eye didn’t help his career much either. Bobby managed to come up with a good, albeit ironic nickname: when a sportswriter asked him if he wanted to be known by any particular moniker, he replied, “Yeah. I wanna be known as Booby “The Rocket Scientist” Quarry.” Any real rocker scientist would know if you’re going to make a living as a fighter, it’s an excellent idea to plan an early retirement. Whoever said boxing is the red light district of sports was dead-on.

The end result of this is that all three Quarry brothers wound up punch-drunk, which sounds like someone who had too much fun at the office Christmas party until you call it by its Latin name of dementia pugilistica. For the last ten years of their lives, Jerry and Mike needed full-time care, rendered incapable of even tying their own shoes. One of the saddest aspects of the whole story is that Jerry and Mike frequently sparred one another, and those sparring sessions usually degenerated into brawls, with Mike coming out worse for the wear. In one of his last moments of lucidity, Harry apologized to Mike for hitting him so hard. He had to live with the knowledge that he was rapidly losing his mind and because of him, his brother would have to suffer the same fate.