Jerry Quarry thumps his hard belly with both fists. Smiles at the sound. Like a stone against a tree.
“Feel it,” he says proudly, punching himself again and again.
He pounds big, gnarled fists into meaty palms. Right, left. Right, left. Cocks his head. Stares. Vacant blue eyes. Punch-drunk at 50. Medical name: Dementia pugilistica. Thousands of shots to the head by the best in boxing and, three years ago, the worst.
Once one of the most popular fighters in the country, a top heavyweight contender in the 1960s and ‘70s, he needs help shaving, showering, putting on shoes and socks. Soon, probably, diapers. His older brother James cuts meat into little pieces for him so he won’t choke, has to coax him to eat anything except the Apple Cinnamon Cheerios he loves in the morning. Jerry smiles like a kid. Shuffles like an old man.
Slow, slurred speech. Random thoughts snagged on branches in a dying brain. Time blurred. Memories twisted. Voices no one else hears.
“Jerry Quarry now has the brain of an 80-year-old,” says Dr. Peter Russell, a neuropsychologist who examined him recently. “Fighting aged him 30 years. He’s at third-stage dementia, very similar to Alzheimer’s. If he lives another 10 years, he’ll be lucky.”
Three Quarry brothers - Jerry, Mike and Robert - ended up brain-damaged from boxing, their lives battered by cocaine and booze, their family torn by violence and divorce.
Everything Jerry had in his career is gone. Three wives, $2.1 million in purses, $500,000 in savings. He’s helpless and lost, caught feebly in the middle of a passionate family feud over his treatment.
A magnetic image of Jerry Quarry’s brain three weeks ago and a CT scan last year showed the same thing: extreme cerebral atrophy, enlarged ventricles filled with fluid, a deep tunnel-like cave in the septum. His brain was rapidly shrinking, dead cells dissolving like sugar in water. Tests showed severely impaired short-term memory, reasoning ability and motor skills.
“Boxers typically get a lot of repeated cerebral vascular damage,” Russell said. “The small arteries and small capillaries in the brain rupture and it then leads to this kind of global atrophy of the brain.”
The early signs of dementia showed up on a CT scan and in neurological tests in 1983, before his short-term memory loss and motor skills deteriorated so noticeably and before his last three fights.
Three years ago in Aurora, Colo., he thought he’d make a comeback like George Foreman, starting in a state where no license was required. Friends talked him into believing book and movie deals were in the works. He just had to get in shape and beat a couple of pugs. Instead, a clumsy club fighter whipped him in a six-round scam. The deals vanished. Broken teeth. Cuts over both eyes. Brains scrambled worse than ever. All for $1,050.
“He was missing the accolades,” James says. “In making those comebacks, Jerry would walk around saying, ‘I’m going to be a hero again.’ To this day, if we’re walking down the street or in the grocery store, he’ll go tap strangers on the shoulder and ask, ‘Do you follow boxing?’ And if they say no, he’ll ask, ‘Have you ever heard of Jerry Quarry?’ If they say no, he’ll say, ‘Well, I know you’ve heard of Muhammad Ali.’ And they’ll say yes. And he’ll say, ‘Well, I fought him twice, and I’m Jerry Quarry.’
“He still misses that recognition. When we take him to events and he gets the attention, his face lights up and he’ll shake hands. He loves to shake hands.”
Jerry, his blond hair now gray, lives with James and James’ girlfriend, Brandy, in a small house on a winding hill overlooking orange groves in Hemet, near Los Angeles.
“Why don’t we just leave?” Jerry asks.
“Where?” James responds.
“To Never-Never Land.”
When James goes to work as a loan officer, Jerry, virtually in a stupor from the dementia and prescription drugs, stays home under Brandy’s supervision.
“At first, all I could see is a big, 200-pound, 6-foot gorilla, and it was hard for me to accept that he was an invalid,” James says. “Now I don’t get upset with him. I do get a little frustrated when he walks off four or five times a day and we have to go find him. Sometimes we can’t find him and we have to call the police and they bring him back.”
James recently started the Jerry Quarry Foundation, sending out letters to raise money for him - Jerry’s only income is $614 a month from Social Security - and to help other boxers with dementia. He removed Jerry from Dr. Russell’s care and enlisted the help of the Southwest Institute for Clinical Research, which tests new drugs for pharmaceutical companies, to examine and treat Jerry and document the severity of dementia in boxers around his age.
“He’s spaced out most of the time,” James says. “He hallucinates. He hears voices. He cries. He gets scared. He gets confused. He can’t go outside because of the medication that he’s on. It makes him real sensitive to the sun. He lives in a very, very small world.”
Mike’s world is not much larger. He once fought for the light heavyweight title. Now he walks on his heels, swaying, losing balance. He bolts out of sleep screaming and panicking from night terrors, punches holes in walls. One eye sees up, the other down. He remembers everything about boxing, forgets things that happened a few minutes ago. Can’t hold a job even as a landscaper’s assistant.
He’s sweet-natured and childlike at 44, still athletically built and not much above his fighting weight - “a studly 185,” says his wife Ellen, a marriage and family counselor working on a doctorate in education.
“He runs, does situps,” she said. “He’s cut himself running, put his foot through a lead pipe and didn’t know it. He came home and his foot was all bloody. He doesn’t feel pain.”
Less drugged and far more lucid than Jerry, Mike has the same furry edge to his speech.
“I had kind of a death wish,” Mike says at his home near Los Angeles, trying to explain why he fought for 10 years after waking up in the locker room following a knockout by champion Bob Foster in 1972. “Looking back, I know I should have quit after that fight. That’s when my heart went out of boxing. When a boxer is just going through the motions, that’s when he gets hurt the most.”
Jerry and Mike both turned to cocaine and alcohol on the down-slopes of their careers, dulling their reflexes and leaving them virtually defenseless in the ring.
“The drug thing that I experienced was ignorance and rebellion,” he says. “I was always in Jerry’s shadow, and I rebelled against it. No matter what I did, I never surfaced on my own.”
Robert, 32, is in jail in San Luis Obispo, trembling with symptoms of Parkinson’s disease from the shots he absorbed during a mediocre, drug-filled heavyweight career.
“He got knocked out by Tommy Morrison a few years ago,” James says. “Didn’t spar a round and didn’t run a mile. He thought that with the name Quarry he could just go out there and get paid big bucks. Well, that didn’t happen.”
Jerry Quarry made big bucks a few times and paid for it all with his blood. His pro record: 53-9-4; amateur, 170-13-54. Fought once with a broken hand, once with hepatitis, once with a broken back.
Thick slabs of scar tissue hang over Jerry’s eyes. Jagged lines from old stitches form a map of his career’s decline, long after he lost his only title bout against Jimmy Ellis in 1968.
On the edge of the bed in James’ room, Jerry watches videotapes of the chapters of his life, grainy images that preserve the past and jog his memory. He soared at times, beating Floyd Patterson, knocking out Earnie Shavers in one round, meeting presidents and the queen of England.
“I’d do it all again, same way,” he says, his speech so slow that it becomes clear only when speeded up later on a tape recorder.
Twenty-five years ago, Oct. 26, 1970, Jerry Quarry, young and blond and the top contender, earned his biggest purse, $338,000, in one blood-laced, pulsating night of racial tension in Atlanta, playing the foil for Muhammad Ali’s comeback. They butted heads, a gash opened above Quarry’s left eye, and Ali took aim at it with fist-twisting jabs, cutting it raw and stopping him in three.
Quarry begged to fight on that night, stalked the ring in frustration when the ref signaled the end. Standing outside the arena afterward, his father and manager, Jack Quarry, a former fighter with “HARD” tattooed on the knuckles of one hand and “LUCK” tattooed on the other, advised him to quit forever.
“It’s going to be another cut or another punch in the head,” Jack Quarry told him. “You’ve got the money now. You’ve got some more money out in California. Go do something. Buy ya a service station or get ya an apartment house, anything. Just get out of it.”
Jack Quarry, who once drilled into his children a family motto he made up, “There’s no quit in a Quarry,” then walked out of his son’s life. He drove up a hill one day, overwhelmed by a sense of his family out of control, and grabbed a .357-caliber Magnum.
“I never hesitated,” he says now from his home in Savage, Md. “I reached into the car pocket and took it out and stuck it in my mouth and pulled the trigger just like that. It didn’t fire. The bullet was in there. I looked at it later. It had the hammer mark on it, but it misfired. I started saying, ‘Hey, I guess the man up there has decided that I’m not going to get away that easy.’ I drove back down and went on.”
The breakup of the parents’ marriage deeply hurt all the Quarry children, leaving them feeling betrayed and stranded even as adults. All of them now gathered around Jerry and their mother, Arwanda.
“Jerry was kind of like the spearhead, the reason to get together,” Mike says. “When I was young, 13, 14, he was like a hero to me. But as I grew older, it just kind of dulled. He’s still, in my estimation, the best white heavyweight of all time, with the exception of possibly Marciano.”
As tough as Jerry was, he cut quickly in his big fights. Ali sliced him up again in a rematch. Joe Frazier slashed him worse in their second fight, opening a gash so bad that the side of Quarry’s right eyeball glistened red like a hooked fish through his torn flesh. An aged, punchy Joe Louis refereed that night in Madison Square Garden in 1974, told them to keep fighting even when they both backed off from the carnage and fans roared, “Stop the fight, Joe.”
Arwanda caressed her son’s bloody head after that fight, urging him to quit. He wept. Retired. Changed his mind. Never listened to anyone. Started doing cocaine, drinking. Was drunk in Hawaii when the call came to fight Ken Norton nine months later. Took another terrible beating.
Three years later, almost the same scene. This time, Jerry caressed Mike’s swollen, bloody face after a pounding by Mike Rossman.
“He’s gonna quit, I will make him quit,” Jerry said, then turned to Mike. “Say it.”
“I’m gonna fight one more to go out a winner,” Mike started.
“Say it,” Jerry shouted.
Mike nodded with resignation, but the words wouldn’t come out. Jerry leaned over and kissed his brother on the neck. Mike kept fighting, off and on, for five more years.
“The fame and the fortune that came to the Quarry family broke it up, each and every one of us,” says James, at 52 the oldest of Jack and Arwanda’s four sons and four daughters. “This is a very dysfunctional family. There’s a lot of love, but there’s an awful lot of hate.”
Hate and distrust are at the heart of a violent family quarrel over Jerry’s care.
“Jimmy is a master manipulator,” says his sister, Dianna Quarry, 49, who supports the idea of the Jerry Quarry Foundation but claims James is using Jerry to promote a self-serving book and movie script that are “packed with lies.” Jerry was living with her and their mother last year a few hours away in Atascadero before going to James’ house when Dianna underwent surgery.
“I’m not doing this (for Jerry) for self-serving purposes,” James said. “I’m trying to do some good, probably for the first time in my life.”
Old boxers and writers gathered in Los Angeles this month at a dinner to mark Jerry Quarry’s induction, along with five others, in the World Boxing Hall of Fame. It is a hall without walls, a club not a shrine, a good excuse to get together for a banquet once a year and swap stories.
Jerry Quarry mumbled and rambled in his acceptance speech, couldn’t sign his autograph. Wrote “J-E-R-R” on a glove and stopped. But these friends understood. He’s not the only one who shuffles slowly and slurs his words.
These are the times he lives for. A night of recognition, handshakes, a long, warm standing ovation. A night to escape the solitude and confusion. A night to retreat with a fraternity of fighters into the flickering neon past.
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