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Mike Quarry: He Learned to Walk Away

BY Pete Ehrmann ON June 12, 2006
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In 1991, 40-year-old Mike Quarry watched Tommy Hearns win the World Boxing Council light heavyweight belt from Virgil Hill, and got an itch he first scratched when he was six and put on boxing gloves to win the approval of his father.

“When I saw Hearns take the title, I was kind of intrigued,” said Quarry, who’d retired from boxing in 1982 with a record of 63-13-6 (17 KOs). “I really know I could’ve beat Hill myself with five or six fights under my belt.”

Quarry had once felt that way about another light heavyweight champion. But it didn’t work out that way.

“The only mistake I made was fighting Bob Foster,” he said. The Foster fight was on June 27, 1972, and Mike was 21 years old and undefeated in 36 fights. Foster used the old psychological ploy of making his challenger wait in the ring for 15 minutes before stepping through the ropes himself. When Foster finally did appear, the rattled Quarry thought, “That’s the last time you’ll get in the ring a champion.”

But four rounds later Quarry was on the canvas, his open eyes staring sightlessly at the ceiling after Foster landed a pluperfect left hook.

“I woke up crying in the dressing room,” Quarry remembered. “I was interviewed in the ring, but I don’t remember it.” After that, “I kept fighting, but never really got back to what I was capable of producing.”

Mike Quarry died on June 11, at age 55. Like his more famous older brother Jerry, who died in 1999, Mike suffered from the condition known as pugilistic dementia, the effects of which were just manifesting themselves when we talked 15 years ago.

It was why, after training for several months, Quarry shelved his comeback plans.

“One of the elements I have to deal with,” he said then, “is short-term memory loss. It’s not that great. Once in a while, I’ll forget something. My wife would send me to the store and I’d forget something she told me to get. It’s humbling to have to write something down to remember it, but that’s what I have to do. I have to write things down.

“If I was single, I would do it. I would make a comeback. But a man’s got to know his limitations.”

When he quit boxing, Quarry was very bitter about the sport and his career. “I was always in Jerry’s shadow,” he said. “‘Hey,’ people would say, ‘you’re what’s-his-name’s brother.’”

Jerry got the headlines. “He was a heavyweight, and they get more notoriety and pay,” said Mike, who estimated that he made about $250,000 boxing. But there was no animosity between the brothers Quarry. “I have a great amount of respect for him,” Mike said. “I think Jerry was the best white heavyweight of all time. He was too emotionally involved in all the circumstances surrounding the Ali and Frazier fights (Jerry lost twice to both Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier). But look at what he did against Floyd Patterson, Thad Spencer, Ron Lyle, Buster Mathis and so many others. He was a great, great fighter.”

Some thought that Mike, a mobile, classic boxer, could have become even better than his brother. Early in Mike’s career, Jerry himself said, “He needs experience, but when he gains it I don’t think anybody in the world will beat him.”

But it turned out differently. And after he left boxing, Mike said, “I never even watched a fight for five, six years. I had a bitter taste in my mouth. I kind of gave up on life, really.”

There was a dalliance with cocaine. “It owned me for about a year,” Quarry said. But then he met his wife, Ellen, and “she and the Lord really blessed my life and turned me around.” Mike kicked drugs, and then tackled the most daunting challenge of all: He got a job.

“I thought when my career was over I’d get into broadcasting, but it’s so political and it never happened. So I had to get a regular job and go to work. It was humbling. I worked in construction, and I had to put up with a lot of verbal abuse. A lot of times I’d say to myself, ‘Michael, why didn’t you nail that guy?’ But I learned to walk away.”

At the time we talked, Mike worked for the Bright View Glass Co. in Pomona, California, and was taking classes to become a high school athletic trainer. It was hard, but he was proud of himself.

“That’s the difference between me and Jerry,” he said then. “He’s struggling now with mid-age crisis. He never faced the music and realized he’s not ‘Jerry Quarry the Fighter’ anymore. I got a job.”

The man who had considered himself a failure because he never wore a world championship belt was finally, he said, “more at peace with myself. I feel the Lord has blessed me.”

He just wished that he’d waited for Bob Foster to retire before he fought for the title.

A good, brave fighter who really proved his mettle after he hung up the gloves, Mike Quarry will be laid to rest next to Jerry in Shafter, California.

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