01/12/05 - During the mid-nineties, most boxing experts and magazines ranked three welterweights amongst the top ten fighters in the world. Two of them, Oscar De La Hoya and Felix Trinidad, went on to conquer higher divisions and cement their Hall of Fame careers. The third, Ike "Bazooka" Quartey, fell to inactivity before receding into the background quietly. This Friday, the "Bazooka" returns to the ring after a five-year layoff against usual suspect Clint McNeil (15-7) in Quartey's homeland of Accra, Ghana. Though the match-up lacks suspense, Quartey will be looking to shed some of the rust that has accumulated during his sabbatical while re-establishing himself as a major player in boxing's middle divisions.
When he squared off against undefeated, WBA welterweight champion Crisanto Espana, Ike Quartey was an undefeated contender who had racked up wins against suspect competition in his native country Ghana coming off a pedestrian decision over former junior welter Lonnie Smith. Quartey, though highly ranked, was seen as an unproven commodity, a raw talent that had yet to show the technique needed to leapfrog over the rest of the division. For ten rounds, Quartey and Espana fought neck and neck, giving as good as they got with the defending champion appearing to have a slight edge. Quartey charged out of his corner in the eleventh, stunning the champion and ending the fight with a fourteen-punch volley that signaled his arrival among the elite in the division.
With victories over Alberto Cortes, Oba Carr and one-time Kostya Tszyu conqueror Vince Phillips, Quartey established himself as one of the top ten fighters in the world. In October 1997, Ike stepped in the ring against Jose Louis Lopez, a fighter Oscar De La Hoya once declared the most dangerous man in the division. Quartey suffered two knockdowns in their tussle, a flash knockdown in the second when his glove grazed the canvas and one in the eleventh, where the champion was badly hurt. Even with the knockdowns, "Bazooka" appeared to have won at least eight rounds on this card. The scorecards declared Quartey a winner by majority decision but were later changed to a controversial draw the following week due to a scorecard counting error. The latter rounds of Quartey-Lopez highlighted Quartey's stamina issues, proving to be a haunting precursor of what was to come in his next fight.
Though Quartey had three fights scheduled in 1998, none came to fruition. A scheduled face-off against Pernell Whitaker in April fell through when Sweet Pea tested positive for drugs. Quartey then canceled a bout against mandatory challenger Andrei Pestraiev, forcing the WBA to strip him of his title. Finally, a November bout against WBC titleholder Oscar De La Hoya was rescheduled for February 1999 when De La Hoya suffered a cut in training camp.
Hence, going into the biggest fight of his career, Quartey had not fought in over thirteen months. Nevertheless, his ramrod jab, arguably the best in boxing at the time, along with his strength and power made him a live underdog against the man thought to be one of the three best fighters in the world. After five rounds of an embellished feel-out process, fireworks broke out in the sixth with both fighters tasting the canvas. De La Hoya seemed the worst for it though, as Quartey dominated the ensuing rounds in what appeared to be a brewing upset. With his title hanging in the air, De La Hoya dropped Quartey in the final round, nearly forcing a stoppage as a wobbly Quartey caught punch after punch against the ropes. Though De La Hoya walked away with a split decision, many ringside observers, as well as members of the HBO crew had Quartey pulling out a close one.
Though a rematch against De La Hoya was in order, a disappointed Quartey never received one. Instead, Ike took another leave of absence, returning to the ring in April 2000 against undefeated junior middleweight champion Fernando Vargas. Though "Bazooka" had his moments, Vargas was able to dominate for much of the fight, winning a spirited unanimous decision. Quartey gave a good account of himself but it was apparent the long layoffs in between bouts had finally caught up to him.
After losing to Vargas, Quartey returned to his native Ghana, a stranger to the ring once again. This Friday, the man once considered the darkhorse among the welterweight elite returns to the ring. With Oscar De La Hoya retreating to the welterweight division and Felix Trinidad making noise once again, the possibilities are endless. Given a few fights to shake off the rust, Ike could be every bit as dangerous as any contender in the ring, especially if he shows any semblance of his old form. Perhaps that is too much to ask of a fighter who hasn't stepped in the ring in almost five years. But in the theatre of the unexpected, anything can happen, which is exactly why the return of Ike "Bazooka" Quartey is one every boxing fan should follow with at least one eye open.