50 years ago, Muhammad Ali launched a comeback unlike any other vs. Jerry Quarry
They were the most famous heavyweights of their eras, lightning rods for global attention and no small amount of domestic controversy. One called himself the GOAT, “Greatest of All Time,” and he just might have been that. The other, more simply billed as “Iron Mike,” was his predecessor’s physical and stylistic opposite, but in his own way every bit as dominant in the plying of their shared trade.
Among the similarities linking Muhammad Ali and Mike Tyson is their involuntarily enforced three-plus-year layoffs from the ring, Ali’s the result of his refusal to be inducted into the U.S. Army on religious grounds after being drafted during the Vietnam War, Tyson’s owing to the three-year prison stretch he did in Indiana after his conviction for the rape of an 18-year-old beauty pageant contestant. But it is the circumstances of their returns that are so strikingly different. Tyson’s comeback bout, on August 19, 1995, at Las Vegas’ MGM Grand, was pure slapstick, a carnival sideshow against a no-chance opponent named Peter McNeeley whose wildly inflated record (36-1, 30 KOs) had been compiled against the division’s riff-raff and flotsam. McNeeley got the high-visibility gig because he was white, son of a onetime heavyweight title challenger and prone to outrageous boasts he had no chance of fulfilling once the opening bell rang. “Hurricane” Peter proved to be not even a mild breeze, knocked down less than 10 seconds into the first round and again shortly thereafter, whereupon his manager, Vinnie Vecchione, mounted the ring apron to signal surrender to referee Mills Lane, resulting in a disqualification victory for Tyson after an elapsed time of 1 minute, 29 seconds.
Ali’s much-awaited comeback bout, a third-round stoppage of the very legitimate Jerry Quarry – occurred on October 26, 1970, thus marking today’s golden anniversary – also was slapstick of a sort, but only in the manner in which the haphazard promotion was staged by neophyte officials who knew they were involved in a major event even if many seemingly minor details had escaped their attention. “The people in charge knew nothing whatever,” said Bob Goodman, who along with his legendary publicist father Murray Goodman was tasked with seeing that the litany of oversights at the 5,000-seat Atlanta Municipal Auditorium were remedied. “They forgot to order the gloves for the main eventers. I sent a cab to the airport to get a set which we had hurriedly ordered when we learned of their forgetfulness.
“We sweated it out. The cab didn’t show until 10 minutes before the fight was scheduled to go on. That’s why there was a delay in starting the fight on closed circuit.”
And if all that weren’t enough, some 200 of the more glamorous and well-off spectators who had attended the show were lured by printed and word-of-mouth invitations to a post-fight party where they were greeted at the front door by masked gunmen who robbed them of cash, jewelry and clothing (including one man’s full-length chinchilla coat) said to be worth at least $500,000.
But while certain elements of Ali-Quarry I – there would be a rematch on June 27, 1972, in the Las Vegas Convention Center,
which Ali won via seventh-round TKO – paralleled the craziness of Tyson-McNeeley, there is no disputing that the matchup was for real, pitting an undefeated and indisputably great former champion, stripped of his title for his refusal on principle to be inducted into military service, against a man who was ranked No. 1 by The Ring magazine and No. 3 by the World Boxing Association. Not only did the 25-year-old Quarry bring a 37-4-1 record with 24 KOs to the table, that record was compiled against a Murderer’s Row of top-flight opposition, with victories to that point achieved against the formidable likes of Buster Mathis, George Chuvalo, Floyd Patterson, Mac Foster, Jimmy Ellis, Thad Spencer and Brian London. After his first loss to Ali, the blond Californian would later post wins over Ron Lyle and Earnie Shavers.
One of Quarry’s former mentors, the late, great Gil Clancy, described him as “one of the best fighters I ever trained. He could do it all. He could punch with either hand, and he could take a punch better than anyone outside of Ali.”
It is to the-then-28-year-old Ali’s credit that, having been away from the ring wars for 43 long months, which for many lesser fighters would have resulted in a thick coat of ring rust needing to be scraped off, he chose to jump right back into the deep end of the pool against as highly rated a contender as Quarry. It also speaks volumes about Quarry’s confidence in himself and his desire to rise even higher in the heavyweight pantheon that he leaped at the opportunity to test himself against a towering figure that, 3½ years of inactivity or not, went off as a 5-1 favorite.
If only it had been left up to the ready, willing and able Ali and Quarry, the bout could have been made much more quickly than it was, and not just because of the standard haranguing over how the hefty anticipated revenues would be split. Ali, free to box again by verdict of the U.S. Supreme Court, was viewed as a draft dodger by many Americans, with boxing authorities in 22 states refusing to host the fight. Not only that, but the country remained embroiled in a racially tinged climate carried over from the tumultuous 1960s, with Ali widely thought of as a polarizing presence.
Given all the factors at play, it is remarkable that the fight wound up in the Deep South, perhaps especially so in Georgia, whose governor was staunch segregationist Lester Maddox, whose claim to fame prior to his ascendance to that office was that he had once chased would-be black diners from his Atlanta restaurant with a pistol in one hand and an ax handle in the other. Robert Kassel, a white Atlantan and graduate of that city’s private Emory University, and his partners (also white) had formed a company called House of Sports in the hope that they could somehow bring Ali-Quarry to their hometown. Toward that end, they enlisted the aid of a Georgia state senator, Leroy Johnson, who was one of the most influential black politicians in the state. Together the group was able to convince a skeptical Maddox that a major boxing event would prove a significant and needed economic boost. With some of the barriers removed, Ali was granted a boxing license from the Atlanta Athletic Commission on August 12, 1970.
Maddox’s acquiescence would prove temporary. Although he by then lacked the authority to unilaterally halt the bout, his public stance shifted 180 degrees when a groundswell of his previous supporters angrily voiced their objections to Ali’s impending arrival, and the likelihood of his enriching himself in the process. (The defrocked champion was guaranteed $200,000 vs. 42.5% of gross revenues, which included 206 closed-circuit venues, making for an eventual $1 million payday; Quarry came away with $400,000.) The governor then ordered the state flag to be flown at half-staff in protest, and he declared the fight date to be a statewide day of mourning.
As it turned out, few, if any, of the mourners were African-American. An estimated 85% of the 5,100 on-site attendees were black, more than a few of whom constituted a Who’s Who of entertainment, sports and politics. Among those on hand to cheer for Ali were Bill Cosby, Sidney Poitier, Hank Aaron, Diana Ross, Arthur Ashe, Curtis Mayfield, Julian Bond, the Rev. Jesse Jackson and Coretta Scott King, widow of slain civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King.
As if he needed any additional motivation to perform at or near his previously luminescent best, Ali had been advised by Mrs. King that “you are not the only champion of boxing, you are champion of justice and peace.”
Bond, a black social activist and leader of the civil rights movement, described the scene thusly to author Thomas Hauser in Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times:
“It was like nothing I’d ever seen. The black elite of America were there. It was a coronation; the King regaining his throne … It was more than a fight, and it was an important moment for Atlanta, because that night Atlanta came into its own as the black political capital of America.”
All that remained was for the fight to take place, and for the most part it did not disappoint. Although Quarry got in a few solid licks, it was the 6’3” Ali, who had not been in a fight that counted since his seventh-round knockout of Zora Folley on March 22, 1967, that revealed himself as having no more than a speck or two of ring rust, if that. At 213½ pounds, he was lithe, sleek and only two pounds above his weight for his utter mastery over the capable Folley.
“The guy I saw with Quarry was the same guy that fought Folley,” Ali’s trainer, Angelo Dundee, said, the wonderment in his voice evident, as if his fighter had arrived intact in Atlanta through some space/time continuum. “It was sort of scary.”
Ali was scary-good, in any case. He executed Dundee’s laid-out fight plan almost perfectly, one that called for extensive use of his lightning-fast and laser-accurate jab, interspersed with his trademark mobility and the occasional cobra-strike overhand right. It was such a right in the third round that opened an ugly gash over Quarry’s left eye that quickly became a crimson cascade of blood. The cut went to the bone and was severe enough to prompt Quarry’s trainer, Teddy Bentham, to urge referee Tony Perez to end things sans consultation with the ring physicians.
“No more,” Bentham said. “Enough. Bad cut.”
It was Quarry’s penchant for getting his cut-prone flesh sliced and diced that proved the greatest hindrance in his six defeats inside the distance, during a career in which he went 53-9-4 with 32 KO wins. At the end of 1970, and despite the setback to Ali, he was voted the most popular fighter in the world according to Boxing Illustrated for an unprecedented third straight year. Although he was a small heavyweight by today’s standards – six feet tall, with a reach of just 72 inches and a weight that ranged from the low 190s to just over 200 pounds – Quarry almost certainly would have been at least an alphabet champion had he come along in an era of four world sanctioning bodies and comparatively shallow talent at the top of the division. It was his rotten luck to have come along at a bountiful juncture in boxing history when true icons Ali, Joe Frazier, George Foreman and Larry Holmes demonstrated just how wide a gap there is between the indisputably great and those who were merely very good.
Times change, and so do perceptions. The Atlanta of 2020 is vastly different from the Atlanta of 1970. Lester Maddox, who was 87 when he passed away on June 25, 2003, quite possibly was aghast that Muhammad Ali had morphed from boastful firebrand into a sympathetic, respected and, yes, widely beloved figure, selected to light the Olympic torch in Atlanta for the 1996 Games. Ali’s transformation in the conversion of many of those once on the other side of a yawning philosophical divide is indicative of the effect time can have on someone’s image.
Five decades after he dared to be great against The Greatest, the Jerry Quarry who reached for but never could quite touch the fringes of superstardom leaves a legacy that shall forever remain under construction. The principal building blocks Ali assembled on his path to boxing immortality continue to be the holy trilogy with Frazier, the two conquests of Sonny Liston, the shocker over George Foreman in the “Rumble in the Jungle” and the somewhat less-celebrated three-dance rhumba with Ken Norton. The first clash with Quarry deserves to be on that list for reasons cited here, but seldom is by historians, Ali aficionados and the world at large, which is a shame.
It is a fact that Jerry Quarry has not been inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame, and likely never will be. He has not even appeared on the ballot. He was inducted into the World Boxing Hall of Fame in California in 1995, but by then his dementia was so advanced he barely was aware of the proceedings during which he was honored. Unable to feed or dress himself, he was hospitalized with pneumonia on December 28, 1998, then suffered cardiac arrest. He never regained consciousness and died on January 3, 1999.