by Bobby Mac
Muhammad Ali and Jerry Quarry fought each other twice in the early 70s, never for a world title but for the opportunity of projected future stakes.
Ali vs Quarry
Ali won both times via early cut stoppages that always lent an anti-climatic ending to the fights before they seemed to be properly warmed up. The best action of the abbreviated series for me was the 2nd fight when Quarry picked up Ali on his shoulder at one frustrating point and threatened to dump him onto the arena concrete floor before setting him down again.
Quarry was understandably upset both times with the stoppages, yet always in vain since The Powers That Be that conspire with The Fates always had bigger things in store for the Gold Medalist darling of the 1960 Olympic Games who was well on his way to becoming Muhammad Ali of legend.
Despite the divergence of their careers, Ali the long time champ with Quarry as the long time contender, there are enough parallels between Ali and Quarry that it could almost be said that Ali was the long lost “eldestth” brother of Jerry, Mike, Bobby and James Quarry.
OK, so Ali had his own brother in boxing, Rudy, so maybe that’s stretching things too far, but hear me out on the parallels as we follow their timelines.
Ali and Quarry both turned pro as popular teenagers after acclaimed amateur careers and experienced great success. Ali got his first title shot at age 22 against Sonny Liston, whereas 22yr old Quarry proved himself against the widely ducked contender of the 50-60s, Eddie Machen. Though there was a stark difference in results, I thought Quarry did enough to pocket the win against the crafty Machen in their non title affair. The close loss against a defensive minded Machen turned out to be a plague that resurfaced like a bad rash at the most inopportune moments for the rest of Quarry’s career.
Both Ail and Quarry were involved in Ring Fights of the Year for their first title shots, Ali against aforementioned Liston in 1964, and Quarry in 1969 against a prime Joe Frazier in what is surely the most ferociously fought battle of the modern heavyweight era. The blistering pace and the bruising phone booth style slugging that sees Quarry and Frazier hammer each other back and forth across the ring simply has to be witnessed to be believed.:
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Jerry Quarry was three years younger than Ali and one year younger than Frazier, first appearing in Ring rankings during Ali’s last year of boxing, 1967, the fateful year that Ali’s draft conviction propelled him into exile. It fell to Quarry, Jimmy Ellis, and Joe Frazier primarily to fight the prime lot of late 60s contenders that Ali missed out on, names like Buster Mathis, Oscar Bonavena, Bob Foster, and each other, all fought before Ali got to them in the 70s.
That late 60s era was as vibrant and competitive as any in history, yet is often overlooked as though boxing had officially ended when Ali went into exile. We can envision Ali fans all queuing up Don McLean’s big hit, The Day the Music Died when Ali announces that he is vacating his title. Boxing may have died for Ali fans, but the many compelling heavyweight fights waged during the Ali exile were often ambitious undertakings that deserve a special niche in heavyweight history.
More important to the still developing Jerry Quarry was his part in the late ‘60s eight man WBA elimination tourney that saw him defeat Floyd Patterson and Thad Spencer before just losing out to defensive minded Jimmy Ellis in the finals. That fight, again, could have just as easily gone Quarry’s way as the more active aggressor landing the bigger shots, a role that the naturally counterpunching Quarry was forced into adapting to make the fight happen after the elusive jab & move style of Ellis negated much of Quarry’s bread and butter counterpunch style at ring center.
Quarry retained his high Ring rankings into the mid 70s, so during 1970 when Ali scrambled to find a venue to stage his return to the ring, Atlanta, Georgia as it turned out, it was Jerry Quarry who was willing to run the public political gauntlet to get the fight made at a backwater venue lacking a boxing commission. Beating Quarry in his highly publicized comeback enabled Ali’s push towards his goal of challenging Joe Frazier for the rights to his old title, the fabled Fight of the Century promotion.
Just like Quarry in 1969, Ali lost out to the pulverizing Frazier in 1971’s Ring Fight of the Year, one of the truly memorial classics that bookmark people’s exact moment in their lives forever.
Was Smokin’ Joe ever in a dull fight?
When Ali beat Quarry again in 1972, Ali was again successfully maneuvering his way through the changing heavyweight landscape that ultimately saw him challenge and defeat the new champ, George Foreman, in the 1974 Rumble in the Jungle.
Jerry Quarry could never quite put together the correct winning sequence of fights to manage a crack against Big George, but the fight was out there, waiting for the right moment like so many great fights that never get made.
Foreman vs Quarry
Nonetheless, Quarry stayed more than relevant with his own “best ever” performances, knocking out undefeated KO artist Mac Foster along side a stunning 1st round KO of Ernie Shavers to go with his beatdown of Ron Lyle well before Ali ever laid a glove to them.
That’s three of some of the hardest hitting preeminent sluggers of any era who took it hard to Ali big time, yet they were chopped down as if they were nothing more than a pesky patch of scrub brush to be cleared by Quarry.
And yet there was nothing more Irish Jerry Quarry could ever do that was enough to reclaim another challenge to the title after his only two shots fell short in 1969. He was helpless to prevent the Standers, Romans, Wepners, Coopmans, and Dunns from staking their “challenges” to the title. Time and promoters had simply bypassed Quarry who had the ultimate misfortune to be tagged by the media with the “Great White Hope” and “He cuts” monikers, dismissing him as a bloody hapless no hoper, the pugilistic kiss of death.
Like Ali, Quarry toyed with retirement and then soldiered on past his twilight years, neither one ever finding that graceful exit from the sport that brought them so much acclaim that it becomes an addictive way of life.
Like Ali, Quarry’s health took a precipitous decline as he aged, suffering from a morbidly flat affectation that robbed him of his sharp personality and wit. Of all the guest commentators over the years that I’ve seen at big matches, Jerry Quarry was by far the most intelligent and insightful with the ability to translate the boxing in the ring into a common, easy to understand language for the public, but that Jerry Quarry was soon lost forever.
Just as with Ali, it was tragic to see him robbed of his speech and ability to care for himself, these cocky, two physically compelling iron chinned warriors who defined their heavyweight eras. Perhaps the most chilling part of what should have been his post career highlight is to see the mid 50ish Jerry Quarry interviewed on the eve of his induction to the World Boxing Hall of Fame looking as helpless as a little lost lamb at a barbecue when he looks feebly down at his feet after a question.
It was from a distant place far, far away in his mind when Jerry Quarry is barely able to mumble, “I feel……like an old man.”
The widely acclaimed Ali has more notably declined before our very eyes, to the point of needing a wheelchair when he was sometimes so enfeebled, but some good news is that his medical team in charge of his therapy has seemingly revitalized him to some extent, probably with the latest drug developments. The last I saw him, he was looking fairly well and sturdy again even if he needs the assistance of his wife and a female aid to keep him in an upright position as he shuffles about.
But it’s already been a couple of years since I’ve seen him in public, so as Ali nears his allotted three score and 10 years, any good health still possessed by him is sure to become more uncertain.
Ali the Hawk
Yet in the midst of their incapacities, there were always inner glimpses of the warriors of old when Ali and Quarry momentarily find a glint of that ruthless, hawkish, predator mentality that looks to swoop down on helpless prey for the finish.
And like Jerry Quarry, Ali also has his own Irish links. Yes, Virginia, that was a leprechaun a dancin’a jig in the ol’ Kintuck woodpile.
Ali returned to the roots of his Irish great grandfather’s birthplace, visting Ennis, County Clare, Ireland to his usual throng of admiring crowds only two years ago.
Mama Clay at Play
Ali’s great-grandfather, Abe Grady eventually settled in the US state of Kentucky in the 1860s and married a freed slave. One of their grandchildren, Odessa Lee Grady Clay, gave birth to Ali, AKA Cassius Clay, and Ali truly did love his Mama dearly.
His previous, more private visit years before to the green emerald had been less heralded but more informative. Like so many Americans influenced by the ground breaking Roots episodic TV movie, he finally saw fit to connect with the Irish side of his heritage after so many years of connecting to African roots.
It was inevitable that Ali was steered in the direction of the undefeated King of the Gypsies, Bartley Gorman, famed Irish Traveler bare knucks champ whose signature finishing move was his legendary Bull Hammer Punch. Gorman is also known as a distant uncle to the up and coming fringe British heavyweight contender Tyson Fury.
Gorman was a great admirer of Ali, so apparently they hit if off immensely, and as legendary encounters of the sweet science are want to go, they staged an historic private sparring session as each put the other through their paces on the way to mutual respect.
Gorman vs Ali
It’s pure speculation that somewhere in these Irish genes are the roots of the legendary toughness of Muhammad Ali and Jerry Quarry as well as their propensity to suffer immensely from the delayed effects of too many punches, yet they share so many common bonds that defined their early successes and later problems in life that a connection cannot be easily dismissed either.
Ali and Quarry both finished their careers with similar numbers, Ali at 56-5, 37 KO in 61 fights with 550 professional rounds to Quarry at 53-9-4, 32 KO in 66 fights with 419 ring rounds. Quarry is supposed to have first donned the gloves at age 3 and Ali as a young teen, so adding in all their amateur rounds and untold sparring and exhibition rounds that both were very fond of, each is doubtless well into the hundreds of spar sessions over thousands of rounds.
Yet we have examples of fighters with longer professional careers of the same era who aged well with less readily apparent damage to their mental and physical functions in George Foreman, Larry Holmes, and Earnie Shavers. True understanding of pugilistic related declines and maladies is an ongoing process. Athletes from other physical sports suffering from the effects of hard body collisions and head concussions such as American Football, “Soccer,” Ice Hockey, and rodeo are being interviewed and evaluated. Even work related accidents and traffic accidents and now the military have become part of a broader study, yet there can be little doubt that life itself can take a toll on anyone as it usually does as we make our way through our preciously allotted time on this earth, much less adding in too much boxing on top of that.
Jerry Quarry has already been released from his earthly bonds, R.I.P., January 3, 1999. He never reaped the benefits of modern research, but we should all thank our stars above for the opportunity to have borne witness to Muhammad Ali and Jerry Quarry and the rest of their era mixing in with our own timelines.
Go forth with the big right hand of God guiding you gentlemen and thanks for all the great fights and memories.