A Life on the Ropes

updated 02/19/1996 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/19/1996 AT 01:00 AM EST

AT HOME IN THE HILLS NORTH OF LOS ANGELES, A mother and son are seated for dinner. The son is picking at his food. "If you don't eat the pizza," says the mother reprovingly, "you don't get to drink the Coke." The son looks up, his fingers on a slice. "Hey," he barks, "I'm eating the pizza. Don't give me no lip." Then he extends a hand, playfully punching his mom in the shoulder.

At this particular dinner table, though, the hand belongs not to a smart-aleck kid but to a 50-year-old man. It is big and beefy and battered around the knuckles from the glory days when heavyweight fighter Jerry Quarry was the latest Great White Hope. Now his memory of those days is lost in a haze caused by too many punches from the likes of Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier.

The fog that has enveloped Quarry is known as dementia pugilistica, a progressive condition caused by repeated blows to the head resulting in severe brain damage. Quarry has the mentality, says neuropsychologist Dr. Peter Russell, of a person with advanced Alzheimer's disease. "If he lives another 10 years, he'll be lucky," says Russell, who has likened Quarry's dying brain cells to sugar dissolving in water.

Quarry has already lost nearly everything. The more than $2 million he made in purses is gone, along with his three wives, two of them the mothers of his three kids. To round out the family tragedy, his younger brothers, and fellow boxers, Mike, 44, and Bobby, 32, are also showing signs of brain damage. Only Jimmy, 51, the oldest brother, is in good health.

Until recently, Jerry lived with Jimmy, a loan officer, in Hemet, Calif. Jimmy started the Jerry Quarry Foundation in 1994, purportedly to raise funds for dementia pugilistica. But Jerry's father, Jack, 73, and his sister, Dianna, 49, say the foundation is a ruse—that Jimmy was using Jerry for his own book and movie deals. Jimmy denies the charges. "My dream," says Jimmy, "is to help fighters."

That may be, but the family became alarmed last October when Jerry was inducted into the World Boxing Hall of Fame. Quarry sat like a stone among the honorees. When it came time for autographs, he could not sign his name. Three weeks later, Jerry's son Jerry Lyn Quarry, 29, went to Jimmy's house and spirited his father away to live with his mother, Arwanda. She discovered Jerry had been overmedicated. "He was like a zombie," says Arwanda, 69, who, under Dr. Russell's supervision, weaned him from the drugs. "But as Jerry's dad used to say, 'There is no quit in a Quarry.' "

Maybe there should have been. Maybe then, Jerry would not be slurring his words, pounding his stomach, and picking absently at his pizza.

The Quarrys have boxing in their blood. Jack Quarry weathered the Great Depression by picking cotton during the week and fighting on weekends. "When I was 14, I chopped cotton for $1 a day in Roswell, N. Mex.," says Jack, who was divorced from Arwanda in 1972. "You could go out on Sunday and fight three rounds for $3—that was three days' work!"

Like a character out of The Grapes of Wrath, Jack came to California riding a freight car. Soon he and Arwanda were rearing a family in the migrant-labor camps. Jerry was born in Bakersfield in 1945 and first put on boxing gloves at age 3—though nowadays no one in the family wants to take credit for it. Arwanda says her husband took the boys to a gym in L.A. Jack says that Arwanda "wanted me to get the boys out of her hair."

One thing is certain: Jack, who had HARD tattooed on his left hand and LUCK on his right, did not abide sissies. The lesson that left the most lasting impression, according to Jimmy, came in a camp in Shafter, Calif., after a softball game. "The umpire called me out on strikes," says Jimmy. "I disagreed. He hit me, and I wouldn't hit him back. My dad saw that. He called me into the bungalow and had my mother put a baby bonnet and a diaper on me, and he made me suck a bottle laying on my bed. I was humiliated." Jerry was impressed too. Jimmy recalls his saying, "I will never let that happen to me."

Jack denies the incident ever occurred, but there is no question his boys learned to hit back. "We fought in barrooms to please my father's friends," says Jimmy. "Jerry never wanted to be a fighter. He did it for the attention of my father." Sadly, Jerry can't remember. Asked when he began fighting, he says, "At 12."

Mike Quarry, now living in Diamond Bar, Calif., is more lucid than his big brother. A light-heavyweight contender who won 35 fights in a row, he says no one pushed him into the game. He says he became a boxer "because I looked up to Jerry."

Back in Jerry's fighting days, that was easy to do. Quarry, as SPORTS ILLUSTRATED noted in 1969, was "a man bred for the ring." He had a 17½-inch neck, muscles like knotted rope, coordination and ferocity. Quarry beat ex-heavyweight champ Floyd Patterson and in 1973 KO'd contender Earnie Shavers. But he lost his only title shot—to Jimmy Ellis in 1968.

Then came Ali and Frazier. Quarry earned his biggest purse, $338,000, against Ali in 1970, and it was after that fight that Jack reportedly told him to quit and buy a gas station. But Ali sliced Jerry up again in 1972. Fighting on the same card, Mike took a terrible beating from light-heavyweight champion Bob Foster. "I told his managers there was something wrong with Michael," says Arwanda, "and that he should get out of boxing. They thought I was just a mother out to protect her child, which I was."

Jerry and Mike both kept on fighting. In 1974, Frazier tore Jerry up so badly that Jerry promised to retire, but he came back nine months later to absorb more punishment from Ken Norton. In 1975, Mike was hurt so badly that Jerry—though incapable of recognizing his own plight—begged his brother to quit. But Mike fought five more years. Jerry, too, refused to hang up the gloves, even after a 1983 CAT scan showed signs of dementia. "Unfortunately," says Arwanda, "none of us believed it. Jerry was so normal. He always had a photographic mind. He never wrote down a phone number."

It was in 1987 that Arwanda first started to worry as Jerry's short-term memory began to go. But the decisive blow came in 1992, when he was talked into making a comeback in Aurora, Colo. For $1,050, Quarry, 47, was battered for six rounds by a no-name pug who knocked out two of his teeth. "When he came home from the fight in Colorado," says Jimmy, "he couldn't remember the night before."

Bobby Quarry, 32, never more than a journeyman fighter and currently in jail in San Luis Obispo, Calif., where he has been charged with receiving stolen property, appears to be in the early stages of dementia. About four years ago, says Arwanda, the California Athletic Commission tested Bobby and deemed him mentally fit but found that he had diminished reflexes in his left arm. A year later, Bobby got kayoed by heavyweight Tommy Morrison. Recently he was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease, the illness that afflicts Ali. But, insists Arwanda, "none of Bobby's brainpower is gone."

Mike's brain still works pretty well, too, despite a fling with cocaine during the '80s. Mike lives in Diamond Bar, Calif., with his wife, Ellen, a marriage and family counselor. By his count, he has had 20 jobs in the last dozen years, ranging from athletic trainer to landscapes "I've never missed a day," he says. "But I've been subject to forgetting what I was told to do."

Mike also loses his balance sometimes, and he occasionally wakes up screaming, punching holes in the wall. Mike admits that he "took too many punches." But then he says, "Life is lived forward, learned backwards."

Jerry, meanwhile, is just where he wants to be. He basks in the attention of his mother and sisters. Leaning back in a chair beside the stereo one afternoon, Jerry looks older than his 50 years. Then his sister Brenda Martino thrusts a microphone into his paw, and his blue eyes become electric. Jerry stands up and unleashes a deep rich baritone: "Treat me like a fool/ Treat me mean and cruel...." Brenda says she knew that Jerry was out from the spell of the prescription drugs when he began singing again.

His mother and sisters—Brenda, 46, manages a grocery, and Dianna a restaurant—tend to Jerry in shifts. They take him on walks and help him carry out the trash. They also help him entertain his kids (Jerry Lyn, Keri, 25, and Jonathan, 9) when they visit and join him in songfests at a social club for Alzheimer's patients.

But the news from Dr. Russell is not good. Recent MRI scans indicate that the damage in Jerry's frontal lobe is increasing. Jerry's brain, says Russell, looks like the inside of a grapefruit that has been dropped dozens of times.

Occasionally even Jerry seems able to recognize the damage. At one point his mother and sisters tease him about the "girls" flirting with him down at the Alzheimer's club. "I can't have a girlfriend at this given time," Jerry suddenly says. "My situation has been very bad, and you know that."

Then the fog rolls in, and he is back in his own world. Until the family moves into the parlor and Brenda hands him the mike and he bursts into song: "Treat me like a fool/ Treat me mean and cruel/ But love me...."

"Jerry was always good to his mom," says Arwanda when he finishes. "Now I'm taking care of him."

There is no quit in a Quarry.

WILLIAM PLUMMER
JEFF SCHNAUFER in Los Angeles

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