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The Great White Hope

There has always been a racial and ethnic undertone to boxing, and for a guy like Jerry Quarry, a white heavyweight with an Irish background, to come to New York now is a fight promoter's dream.

From the June 23, 1969 issue of New York Magazine.

"It's up to you, Jeff, to save the white race."—Jack London to James J. Jeffries on the eve of Jeffries' fight with Jack Johnson in 1910.

In the ski lodge at Grossinger's, a tall, lanky sparring partner named Alan Boursse played listlessly with a speed bag. He slapped it gently, listening to the sound echoing around the room, then ripped off a barrage of punches, then grabbed it in his hands to quiet it and walked away to look out into the gray afternoon at the workmen repairing the ski slope in the distance. The audience watched him the way people watch the inhabitants of zoos.

"This is a fine young boxer, ladies and gentlemen," the announcer was saying. "He will be boxing today with the next heavyweight champion of the world!"

About ten after three, the man who might be the next heavyweight champion of the world walked briskly into the large room.

"Ladies and gentlemen, Jerry Quarry has now arrived," the pitchman said. "Jerry Quarry, who fights Joe Frazier for the title on June 23 at Madison Square Garden! He'll begin boxing shortly."

Jerry Quarry was dressed in natty gray sharkskin trousers, a cobalt-blue shirt and white shoes, and he looked like all those young men in Southern California who don't take drugs or wear their hair long or go off to Berkeley. The dark blond hair was combed straight back, with long sideburns, and you were sure that a few years ago he wore a ducktail. The face itself had that rugged blockiness you see a lot in California: straight short nose, good jaw, neat ears; only Quarry's eyes had that peculiar maturity that comes with the acceptance of pain. He nodded and disappeared into the dressing room.

After awhile, Quarry returned and hopped into the ring. He was wearing green trunks and white boxing shoes, and he started to move briskly around the ring, flicking his bandaged hands at the air. The hard body was tanned and trim, and he twisted it and stretched it, the hands always moving, describing patterns of punches, the jab whipping straight out, the right hand jamming behind it, the short flat hook whipping horizontally across Quarry's own chin-line. The audience seemed hypnotized.

Then Quarry went over to the side of the ring, where his trainer Teddy Bentham smeared Vaseline on his face and laced on a pair of 10-ounce red boxing gloves. Boursse came into the ring, his face masked by headgear. Quarry did not wear headgear, and you could see the blanched look on the face of John Condon, the Garden public relations man. Quarry's fight with Frazier is the hottest prizefight of the year; the Garden might be sold out, and if it is, the live gate alone could be $750,000, with another million coming from closed-circuit television. If Quarry were cut in training it would cost someone a lot of money. But Quarry is a fighter, and the real fighters don't really care much for headgear.

Bentham shouted, "Time!" and the fighters moved at each other. Quarry jabbed, threw a vicious hook to Boursse's side, and then brought the hook up to the head. Boursse held, and Quarry pushed him off and went at him again. For two rounds it went that way: Quarry pursuing, Boursse retreating, and Quarry landing thunderous body punches.

Once, in a corner, he made a move that the good ones take a long time to learn: he threw a left hook-right hand to the body. Most fighters stop at that point and hold on, or come up with swinging hooks to the head. Quarry leaned in, as if to hold Boursse, then stepped back an inch and ripped off a tight fierce uppercut that went between Boursse's gloves to the chin.

"He hits Frazier with that punch, Frazier goes," said Bentham, a small, intelligent man who went to St. Anthony's School in the Village and now lives in L.A. "That is a sweet punch."

Watching Quarry work, I realized suddenly why I was as transfixed by the exhibition as the audience was. Quarry was white. And he was good. I've been around fighters and training camps most of my life, but those camps have always involved black men or Puerto Ricans: Jose Torres, Floyd Patterson, Sonny Liston, Muhammad Ali, Emile Griffith, others. With the exception of Joey Archer, most of the white fighters of my time have been imports like Nino Benvenuti, or Ingemar Johansson, or flabby, out-of-shape dockworkers looking for paydays, or stiffs who can't fight. The training camps had peculiar, special atmospheres: paranoid (Muhammad Ali), Spartan (Floyd Patterson), rowdy and boisterous (Torres). They never looked like the training camps in the movies. Quarry's camp did.


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