Boxing’s conflicted beauty (An elegy for Jerry Quarry)

by NJ McGarrigle

Sugar Ray Leonard facing Roberto Duran; two of the greatest boxers to pull on a pair of gloves

The beauty in man is that under the press of circumstances he develops what he must possess – Norman Mailer

in the run-up to the Floyd Mayweather Jr v Manny Pacquiao fight, and for a short while afterwards, a few people asked me what it is that I find so fascinating about the sport of boxing.

Some of these questions came with a $500million frame; the estimated pot for a night’s work in Las Vegas for the two men. The money tarnished the views of many who watched the fight, but then what contest was ever going to live up to such an eye-popping figure? The ‘Thrilla in Manila’, maybe…

For the record, I enjoyed the fight, and with happy satisfaction scored it correctly among some friends before either fighter had thrown a fist in anger. Viewers disappointed by the spectacle (or lack thereof) have obviously not watched Mayweather Jr fight in the last five years – or perhaps never at all.

The thing that no one can get around, or come close to undoing, is that Mayweather dominates every fight he walks into. Why? Because he’s so good. He’s got the technique, the tactics, the speed, the brains, and the toughness to take anything that’s thrown at him. In a way, Mayweather is almost anti-boxing. It’s as if he’s found a major flaw in the sport that no one else has been able to tap into.

Putting that thread aside, my intention here is not to spill any more ink on Mayweather Jr, I wish to write a little about my love of something known as ‘The Hurt Business’.

Down the years many more talented and knowledgeable scribes of The Sweet Science – Egan, Liebling, WC Heinz, Hazlitt (even if the latter wrote about a single fight) – have described with mastery and flair the various reasons why boxing has such a knuckled grip on our imagination.

I have thought deeply about this too. Of course, there is no absolute moral justification for boxing. It just happens to be one of life’s beautiful contradictions; both cruel and yet noble, it comprises brutality and grace in equal measure.

Being for or against boxing is an argument that will never be settled, and I’m not going to try. But for better elucidation on the sport’s inherent conflict and melodramatic magnetism, we should turn to a fighter such as Jerry Quarry.

Quarry fought in the golden era of heavyweights in the 1960s and ‘70s, which meant he faced a who’s who of fighters: Ali, Foreman, Frazier, Patterson, Shavers, Norton et al. Jerry’s career ultimately reflected the shattered beauty of what I call boxing’s looking glass. We see a broken man at the end, from the ferocity of pugilism, and yet in some way this image touches us deeply; it reaches in to our deepest psychic well, pulleying all our humanity back to the surface.

He was tagged as the great white hope, went under the banner of ‘Irish Jerry Quarry’, and fought honestly, wholeheartedly and inflicted his own share of pain on others with a sweet left hook. But for every shot Jerry landed, he probably took three in return. And sadly for his sake he was the kind of fighter that didn’t know when to go down, when others with a little more nous would have realised that the game was up.

It’s a well worn truism that there are too many sad stories in the world of boxing, but after reading up on Quarry I still wasn’t sure what way the coin had landed for him. Then I watched a clip on YouTube, which I’ve inserted below (it happily includes music from one of my favourite bands, Explosions In The Sky).

Jerry Quarry

Watching it makes me choke with emotion – I’m sure you will too, even if you despise boxing and all its ways. I will say this in its mitigation: if not for boxing, would I, or anyone, be writing about or remembering the Jerry Quarrys of this world? Would this clip have been created, or watched more than sixty thousand times, if it were just about a regular, tough guy from Bakersfield, California? I’ll let you decide.

But because of boxing, this tough, big-hearted, but limited slugger Jerry Quarry will be remembered down the ages. Because of boxing, Jerry Quarry was loved by anyone who watched a prize-fight (you can see that from the fight fans in this clip). Because of boxing, Jerry Quarry got to live his dreams and live out many of the dreams we hold dear inside; Jerry Quarry had the chance to stand alongside greatness, stepping into a ring with Muhammad Ali, not once, but twice.

His time on this planet was a relatively fleeting fifty-three years, but he experienced most of these years at the height of human emotion, at the very edge of existence; his ardor for boxing also encapsulated his ardor for living. The likes of Jerry Quarry gave their life over to boxing (in his case both physically and mentally). But without boxing, what would life have meant to the likes of Jerry Quarry?