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Jerry Quarry: Dementia from Head Injuries

Jerry Quarry was one of the toughest fighters who ever lived. He was never world champion, but:
• He fought main bouts from 1965 through 1975, a time when there were arguably more good heavyweights than at any other time period.
• He was never knocked out in his 66 fights even though, at only 6 feet and weighing less than 200 pounds, he was almost always smaller than his opponents.
• He fought the world's best, including world champions Floyd Patterson, Jimmy Ellis, Joe Frazier, Muhammad Ali and Ken Norton.
• He beat Floyd Patterson, Buster Mathis, Thad Spencer, Ron Lyle and Ernie Shavers.
• He lost fights that he was winning because he would cut and bleed easily.

In his prime, he could solve New York Times crossword puzzles as fast as he knocked out opponents. He had a huge vocabulary and a seemingly photographic memory. However, by 1995 at age 49, he had severe brain damage from multiple hits on his head. He was irritable and confused, with uncontrollable mood swings. His former friendliness was replaced by a fear of strangers. He earned millions of dollars in the ring but had lost it all by the time he was 45 and was already suffering from dementia. He filed for Social Security disability but was turned down. He needed money desperately so he arranged to fight 31-year-old Ron Cramner. He was beaten so badly that he never again had full use of his mind and was unable to feed or dress himself. He died at age 53 of dementia caused by his many head injuries.

A Boxing Family
Jerry Quarry was born in 1945 in Bakersfield, CA, into a family of boxers. His father and two of his three brothers were ranked professional boxers. He started boxing at age three, began serious training for a career in boxing at age five and won his first trophy at age eight. At 13 he developed a kidney disease called nephritis, and was told that he had only a 50/50 chance for survival and would be an invalid for the rest of his life. He spent nine months in the hospital and eighteen months convalescing at home. Fortunately, one day he suddenly developed severe belly pain that was diagnosed as a life-threatening appendicitis. His appendix was removed and he was given massive doses of antibiotics that cured his kidney disease by getting rid of the infection, probably beta strep, that had caused it.

By the time he was sixteen, he had fought 105 amateur bouts. He tried baseball and a baseball hit him and broke his arm. Later he slid into second base and broke his ankle. After disputing a call, he slugged an umpire and broke a knuckle. He then broke his fist three more times in street fights. He dove into a pool and hit the side of the pool and broke his back.

In 1965 at age 19, he won the 1965 National Golden Gloves championship in Kansas City.
At 183 pounds, he was the lightest heavyweight fighter contestant, but he knocked out all five opponents. Nobody has done that since then.

His Professional Boxing Career
After winning the U.S. Golden Gloves Championship, Quarry was besieged with offers from people who wanted to manage him. In May, 1965, he turned professional and won a decision against Gene Hamilton in Los Angeles, California. He won 14 bouts in 1965 and remained undefeated until July, 1966 in his 21st bout when former contender Eddie Machen beat him.

In mid-1967, the World Boxing Association removed the world champion title from Muhammad Ali for refusing to serve in the United States Army, and Quarry was one of the contenders. In his first bout in the tournament, he beat former world champion Floyd Patterson in a split decision. In his second bout he knocked out Thad Spencer. Then Jimmy Ellis, who was coached by Ali for the bout, beat him in a split decision. After the bout, the newspapers reported that Quarry had fought with a fractured vertebral bone.

He was a great athlete. In 1973 at age 28, he won the ABC Superstars boxing television competition among some of the best boxers in the world. In the finals, he won the home run and bowling competitions and came in fourth overall to three National Football League players.

His Last Big-time Fight
He continued to fight the best fighters in the world. In 1975, at age 30, he desperately wanted to fight Ken Norton, but was told that he was only third in line after Oscar Bonavena and Jimmy Young. He was told that he could fight Norton just 18 days before the fight, since both of the fighters ahead of him were injured. Norton had been training for this fight for 5 months. Quarry could train for only 18 days. In the third round, Quarry suffered a huge cut on his face and knew that the referee would stop the fight if the bleeding continued. He had lost several previous fights from his inability to stop bleeding. The fight was stopped in the fifth round because of his profuse bleeding. This loss ended forever his contention for the heavyweight crown.

He Kept on Fighting When He Should Have Quit
In 1977, at age 32, he came out of retirement to fight a ranked heavyweight, Lorenzo Zanon, and knocked him out in the ninth round. He then retired again for six years. By 1983, he had lost most of the millions of dollars he won in the ring though incredibly bad investments. He lost even more money from being married and divorced twice. A Sports Illustrated reporter wrote that Quarry had problems with his memory. A scan at that time showed atrophy of his brain. He couldn't find a job on television, so he decided to resume fighting. Remarkably, he won his first two fights and retired again.

In 1990, at age 45, he ran out of money and filed for Social Security but was turned down. In 1992 at age 47, he was desperate for money, so he arranged a fight with 31-year-old Ron Cramner. He was beaten badly and after that, his mind was gone. He progressively lost his ability to feed or dress himself and required full-time care. In 1998 at age 53, he was hospitalized for pneumonia and died.

Dementia Pugilistica
Repeated blows to the head in any sport markedly increase a person's chances for suffering dementia in later life. It is called dementia pugilistica (boxer's dementia) and occurs commonly in boxers (Journal of the American Medical Association, 1928;91(15):1103–1107). However, any activity that involves getting hit on the head increases a person's chances of suffering dementia. Football and soccer players are at increased risk. Frank Gifford, NFL Hall of Famer and "Monday Night Football" broadcaster, died in August 2015 at age 84. His family agreed to have his brain examined as part of ongoing research on head injuries in athletes. The pathologists found that he did have Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy or CTE, another name for dementia pugilistica, which can be confirmed only after death. He had retired from playing football in 1961.

A person can develop this syndrome even if he has never been knocked unconscious and cannot remember hitting his head. Chances for suffering dementia increase with:
• increasing number of hits on the head,
• loss of consciousness after hitting the head,
• more knockout losses,
• longer fighting career, and
• older age of retirement (Clinics in Sports Medicine, 2009;28(4):561-78).
Having a genetic link to high cholesterol, APOE, markedly increases a fighter's chances of suffering dementia (Journal of the American Medical Association, 1997;278(2):136-140).

Repeated head trauma can cause every known abnormality of brain function:
• shaking in Parkinson's disease,
• loss of memory and ability to recognize family and friends,
• loss of thought processes and schizophrenic behavior,
• mood disorders such as depression, agitation and mania, and
• nerve damage causing loss of feeling and terrible pain.
There is no effective treatment for dementia pugilistica.

Jerry Quarry
May 15, 1945 January 3, 1999 (aged 53)

November 29th, 2015
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About the Author: Gabe Mirkin, MD

Sports medicine doctor, fitness guru and long-time radio host Gabe Mirkin, M.D., brings you news and tips for your healthful lifestyle. A practicing physician for more than 50 years and a radio talk show host for 25 years, Dr. Mirkin is a graduate of Harvard University and Baylor University College of Medicine. He is board-certified in four specialties: Sports Medicine, Allergy and Immunology, Pediatrics and Pediatric Immunology. The Dr. Mirkin Show, his call-in show on fitness and health, was syndicated in more than 120 cities. Read More
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