- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
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- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
He had a night-court pallor, a consumptive face and a jockey's body, and he reminded one of Sparrow in The Man With the Golden Arm, the stray who collected other people's dogs. This little ghost was a collector, too—for the telephone company. Faking a cop, he made an excellent move on the fighter's corner, and suddenly there he was handing Thad Spencer a piece of paper. It was a summons and it said that Thad Spencer owed a $318 phone bill. Spencer, his hands gloved, dropped the paper as if it were a burning coal, and his manager, Willie Ketchum, kicked it away, babbling: "Git it outta here, ya crazy punk, the fighter's on!"
The afternoon did not improve for Thad Spencer and, much to the bafflement of those who had made him an 8-5 favorite, he was seldom on—or ever close to it—against Jerry Quarry in the last semifinal of the WBA's heavyweight elimination tournament last Saturday afternoon in Oakland, Calif. Quarry's performance was a thorough and balanced piece of work, artistically glinting in areas, and in the 12th and final round he ended it with a knockout, which was really just a technical knockout. The action boggles the mind.
Spencer, being clubbed savagely, did not drop to the floor, but the referee stepped in with only three seconds to go and called it a knockout. It was, of course, a minor point but one of sufficient weight to be compared with all the other nonsense that saturated the area last week, such as Shirley Temple announcing her decision never to run again; or the ceaseless excavation by fans of the barnacled "white hope" pitch; or, finally, Charles (Sonny) Liston, his face almost angelic, saying at a California State Commission hearing: "I never accepted any advice from Blinky Palermo." Blinky is now athletic director in a large iron-barred building in Lewisburg, Pa.
Liston got his license back in California, and Ambrose Bierce, for years a Bay Area scourge for Hearst, would have gleefully cackled at his flawless put-on. Jack London would have viewed it differently. A racist, London spent considerable time in Oakland, which sits on the water like a dark-cowled nun. He pirated oysters there, but contrary to sophisticated opinion he did not commit suicide because of the place. It was London, whose contempt for Jack Johnson was boundless, who created the "white hope" aura around Jim Jeffries, and it is Oakland's misfortune that this dubious heritage from London helped revive the repugnant term.
One doubts if Quarry, naive and ignorant of much around him, had ever understood the expression before coming up to Oakland, but he does now. "It's what they want; they want a white man," said the 22-year-old Quarry, who has always been painfully sensitive to the opinions of others. The large crowd waiting outside his dressing room could not have pleased him more. He walked out of the room, and there the ring announcer, who was acting beyond the call of duty, asked for quiet and said: "Don't try to shake Jerry's hands because they're sore. But please give a big hand to a fellow I think is going to be the next champion."
"Gee," Quarry whispered into a reporter's ear, "I think I've really won the crowd to my side, and that's pretty important."
Had he won their respect as a fighter or only their attention because he was white? Before the Spencer fight, it seemed likely that the latter was true. Quarry had not had many winning or fine fights, and in his own town of Los Angeles he had inspired loud cynicism—not without cause. He had fought two dismal draws with Tony Alongi, had lost to a man ( Eddie Machen) who for his own good should not have had a license, had proved disgusting against Brian London and then had stolen two fights from Floyd Patterson.
Quarry's sometime fans might have tolerated all this if he had not so often excused himself with complaints of low blows and references to the physical disabilities he has suffered. Though in excellent health now, Quarry has had a difficult time physically. At 13 he had nephritis, and he was sent home from the hospital, he says, with the prospect of being a semi-invalid the rest of his life. Somehow, he beat that sickness, but misfortune kept trailing him. He got a broken arm when hit by a baseball, and then a broken knuckle slugging an umpire over a disputed call, another broken knuckle in a street fight, a broken back when he dived into a pool but never reached it, two more broken knuckles from street fights and a cracked ankle bone while sliding into a base.
In Oakland he was still reciting this chronology of disaster. "I'd like, you know, to be less emotional about what people say about me," he says, "but I can't. It seems like I'm always being put in the position where I got to prove something, prove to the people that I'm real. There have been some tough moments. For two weeks after the Machen fight I considered quitting, but I changed my mind. Suddenly, I didn't want to be called a quitter. I thought about how people would come to my children and tell them that I could have made it big but that I was a quitter. Now I consider the Machen loss the best thing that could have happened to me. If I would have won in the condition I was in maybe I would have never learned the importance of conditioning."
Quarry apparently forgot the importance of being in shape before the second Patterson fight. He was not in condition and had nothing left after the sixth round. But he was prepared for Spencer, a prince of the night and neon whose persiflage succeeded in angering Quarry, a man devoid of any sense of humor. Soon the ill feelings between the two were very real, not the work of a publicity man's creativity. "He's a fool," said Spencer, "when he says he's gonna take me out on the street and whup me if I open my mouth again. Why, I was born in the street. You wait, when I'm through he's gonna be catchin' the first thing smokin' outta town after the fight."