People who listen to the radio are familiar with Paul Harvey, the God-voiced commentator out of Chicago who likes to introduce a different spin on some factual item or historical event by saying, “You know what the news is. In a minute, you're going to hear … the r-r-r-rest of the story!”
With the indulgence of my talented TSS.com colleague David Avila, I’m going to play Paul Harvey now and give “the rest of the story” regarding the 1966 Jerry Quarry-Joey Orbillo heavyweight fight in Los Angeles, about which David wrote with his usual skill recently.
Jerry Quarry and Joey Orbillo weren’t just two of the most talked-about young heavyweights in America when they met 40 years ago this December 15. They were also firm friends, going back to their days in the Jr. Olympics boxing program, when they both had their first boxing match – not against one-another – at age five.
By the time he turned pro on May 7, 1965, winning a four-round decision over Gene Hamilton, Quarry was a veteran of over 200 amateur fights, and had won the 1965 National Golden Gloves title by knocking out five straight opponents.
Like Quarry, Orbillo had been forcibly introduced to boxing by his father, who happened to look out the window of their house one day and saw Joe getting thumped by another little kid. “If you’re going to fight,” the elder Orbillo said, “you’d better learn how to do it.” Two weeks later, Joe recalls, “I was in the ring with a kid who looked like a grasshopper.” It was his first and last amateur fight. But as David Avila reported, as a youngster Orbillo became known as a prodigy at the Hoover St. Gym, where he regularly sparred with Archie Moore, Amos “Big Train” Lincoln and other well-known pros. He was also a football star in his hometown of Wilmington, playing both sides of the line.
Orbillo was a student at Harbor College when he turned pro on May 28, 1964, winning a four-round decision over Henry Clark (later the California State heavyweight champion and a fringe contender). Ring announcer Jimmy Lennon Sr. surprised him before the fight started by introducing him as “Joey” Orbillo (“It said Joe on my robe”) and inventing on the spot the nickname that stuck with Orbillo through his seven-year pro career: “The Harbor Hawk.”
His dimensions were almost sparrow-like compared to other heavyweights. Orbillo was 5’10” tall and barely 190 pounds. Once he gobbled water pills in an effort to get down to the light heavyweight class, but when he reached a very dehydrated179 he gave up and stayed with the big boys.
In his third fight, Orbillo fought an eight-round draw with Manuel Ramos, who four years later wobbled Joe Frazier in their fight for Joe’s heavyweight title with a big left hook. Orbillo found out what that was like in a rematch with Ramos a year after their draw. He survived a Ramos blast in the eighth so hard “I think I’d still be flying if the ropes weren’t there,” knocked the Mexican heavyweight champion down three times and won a 10-round decision.
The 1960s were loaded with excellent young heavyweights, and Orbillo beat several of them. In 1965 he won a decision over Irish Billy Stephan after knocking Stephan down in the eighth round. “I hit him with a right hand so hard he went straight down,” Orbillo recalls. He figured the fight was over, but when he turned around Stephan “was up and smiling. I said, ‘Oh, sh–!’ It turned out to be a war.”
So was his bout with Tony Doyle on March 31, 1966, thanks to a wardrobe disagreement. At the weigh-ins before his fights, Orbillo always liked to be the first one on the scales. The tradition then was that the first one to weigh-in got to choose the color of trunks he’d wear in the ring. (In those days the choices were limited to black or white.) Orbillo got weighed before Doyle and picked white. But Doyle’s manager, Marv Jensen, had already told the commission that Doyle would wear white, and their refusal to budge put Orbillo in black trunks and a blacker mood. After 10 torrid rounds, Orbillo got a split-decision over his taller, 15-pounds heavier foe.
“It’s weird, what can turn your clock,” he says.
Three months later, crafty veteran Eddie Machen handed Orbillo his first loss in 12 fights. During the fight, Machen discombobulated his younger opponent by telling him in the clinches, “Now don’t hurt the old man, Joey!”, and “Take it easy on your elders, Joey!” After winning a split-decision, Machen told Orbillo, “You’re the best I fought in a long time.”
A month later, Jerry Quarry lost his first pro fight to Machen.
On February 21, 1966, Sports Illustrated ran a feature story heralding the “Sudden Rush of New Heavies” recharging public interest in boxing. Quarry and Orbillo got top billing in the piece, which noted the inevitability of a march between Southern California’s top young heavyweights, whose long friendship didn’t prevent one of them from going for the psychological advantage.
“I would knock him out in the fourth round,” Quarry was quoted as saying of Orbillo. “He’s a three round fighter.”
Orbillo was more circumspect. “Quarry is a good fighter,” he said. “But so am I.”
The fact was, though, that Orbillo wasn’t interested in fighting Quarry then, or anybody else in boxing gloves. Right before the Doyle fight, he had been notified to report for induction into the U.S. Army. Now, after completing basic training at Fort Benning, Georgia, Orbillo's focus was on the fight he was scheduled to have in the jungles of Vietnam.
Orbillo had volunteered to be a point man in the Infantry’s 199th brigade. Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Jim Murray described what that entailed in a piece about the fighter.
“A point man is a soldier who goes out on a point some 50 to 100 yards ahead of his company so that if he (a) steps on a mine, or (b) gets his throat cut, he will be the only one lost. The others will be forewarned. His life expectancy is symbolized by a decimal point.”
Why would someone volunteer for such a job? Orbillo told Murray, “I figure, look, maybe the guy out on the point in my patrol is married. Or maybe he’s got a girlfriend. Or he’s got something on his mind, so he gets careless. Me, I’m not married, I got no girlfriend. I’m concentrating. Besides, I’m used to dealing with people looking, y’know, to hurt you.”
He fought Quarry the week before he was to ship out for Vietnam.
“I wasn’t going to fight Jerry,” he says. “I just wanted to come home (on leave), have a good time, fool around, and go off to war.”
But Quarry’s co-manager, Johnny Flores, had sent him a letter in which he suggested that Orbillo might want to go for the big fight before he went to Vietnam, in case he didn’t make it back home from the war.
So on December 15, 1966, Orbillo listened to Earl Nightingale motivational tapes in his dressing room at the Olympic Auditorium and then walked to the ring repeating his usual prefight affirmation: “I will survive. I will complete the mission.”
He won the first three rounds, but in the fourth he did a complete somersault on the canvas after Quarry landed a left hook. “I was on all fours and saw (referee) John Thomas showing me five fingers,” Orbillo recalled later. “I thought, ‘Is it the fifth round, or what?’”
Joe got up and fought hard to the final bell, but to this day has no recollection of the rest of the fight, won by Quarry on a unanimous vote of the judges.
The very next thing Orbillo remembers after seeing Thomas holding up those fingers is finding himself in a bowling alley at 2:30 a.m. and being jolted by the loud explosion of bowling pins. He looked around, said “What the hell?!”, and, turning to a friend, asked, “Hey, who won the fight?”
His friend pulled him into a bathroom, turned him toward the mirror and said, “Look at your face and ask me who won.”
Orbillo noted his own swollen features and said, “I guess I lost.”
Twenty-five years after the fight, Jerry Quarry remembered being afraid of killing Orbillo after he put him on the canvas. “I could have knocked him out,” he said, “but there was no way I wanted to do that because we were friends.”
In the last minute of the tenth round, Quarry dropped his hands and danced around the ring like Ali. But he wasn’t showing off. “It was strictly that I didn’t want to hurt him anymore,” he said.
Sportswriters voted Quarry-Orbillo the 1966 “Fight of the Year” in Southern California.
A day later, Orbillo left for Fort Benning, his first stop en route to Saigon and the ultra-dangerous duty that awaited him in Vietnam. But that punch from Quarry that knocked him down also broke both of Orbillo’s eardrums, and instead of being the point man on his unit’s first jungle patrol, he was in the hospital.
That’s why he says that the beating he took from Jerry Quarry “saved my life, in a strange way.” Because the soldier who took Orbillo's place as point man on that first jungle patrol stepped on a land mine and was blown away.
Upon resuming his boxing career, Orbillo won seven bouts. But he dropped a decision to “Big Train” Lincoln, and after Robie Harris unexpectedly stopped him in 1971, the 17-4-1 (9) Orbillo hung them up. “That spark was not there anymore,” he says.
His friendship with Quarry remained constant – “Joe’s still a good buddy of mine,” Jerry said in 1992, “and will be till the day we both drop dead.” Orbillo even briefly dated Quarry’s sister Diana. At the World Boxing Hall of Fame induction weekend in 1993, Orbillo and Quarry even boxed a three-round exhibition. “We almost reenacted our fight,” Orbillo said. “We whacked each other a little bit. I even had a baby headache afterwards.”
When Quarry died in six years later, a devastated Orbillo spoke at the funeral.
The rest of the story has turned out pretty good for The Harbor Hawk. Orbillo was a policeman for a while and then worked as a longshoreman. He also trained heavyweight kickboxing champion Joe Lewis. Now 60, he still works on the San Pedro waterfront, and thanks to regular gym workouts is just a water pill or two away from his old fighting weight.
“My health is good, I got no gripes and I don’t owe nobody nothin’ except the bill collectors,” he says. “I wasn’t a champion or anything, but I’ve had a pretty good life.”
It got even better on October 9, when Orbillo got his own bronze plaque in “The Sportswalk to the Waterfront” in San Pedro, the local version of the Hollywood Walk of Fame. “Those who saw him fight never forgot him,” they said at the ceremony.
Included in that group is boxing historian Bill Schutte. He lives in Wisconsin now, but grew up in Los Angeles and saw several Orbillo fights. “He was one of my very favorite boxers,” Schutte says. “You always got your money's worth when he was in the ring.”
Paul Harvey himself couldn’t put it any better.