Long before Tony Bellew, even preceding Shea Neary and Andy Holligan settling a local dispute under the covers of a hired marquee in 1998, the knowledgeable boxing public of Liverpool made do with Noel Quarless. A brief nurturer of Bellew when the future cruiserweight champion was a teenage fight student, Quarless would not merely offer nuggets of wisdom regarding in-ring prowess, he tried to instill into his eager pupil the acumen required by the hurt business. This sage advice taken onboard by Bellew had never been digested by the giant of a man donating it.
Speaking with Quarless today, it’s obvious that this is a man who knows a lot. The biggest problem is that Quarless thought he knew more when he was just getting started. A product of a working-class background across South Liverpool, a region ravaged by mass unemployment throughout the 1970s and the following decade, Quarless, armed only with enthusiasm, made a hasty decision to middle-finger a promising amateur career and become a neophyte paid fighter at the tender age of nineteen.
“I thought I knew best and I wouldn’t listen,” roars Quarless, recalling the infancy of his pro career with impressive accuracy. “Money ruled my life then and I didn’t really have a trainer or manager who would go all out for me. It didn’t matter how much notice I had for a fight or how fit I was. If I was offered a fight for a sum of money then I took it. It’s how things were then. There were no jobs to be had, I had a mortgage to pay and I was with a woman back then who was on my fucking case all the time. It’s not like today with managers and sponsors. I would’ve loved someone to offer me a few protein shakes before my fights, but you didn’t even have that. The modern fighter doesn’t want for much and the ones that do need to take a look at the time I fought in.”
Mastering his craft in various North England gyms while the rest of his city fought frantically for any opportunity whatsoever, whether above-board or illegal, Quarless did just enough to stay afloat in waters every bit as challenging as the social climate strangling the area he represented. Weekends for Scousers provided a momentary escape from the dusky political backdrop of rioting and police brutality, and if locals were not hitchhiking all over England, given their precarious financial position, to watch the football teams of Liverpool and Everton achieve success, they were down at the infamous Liverpool Stadium either watching wrestling or boxing, depending on which day it was. Quarless was a frequent attraction at the “Graveyard of Champions,” but, admittedly bitter some thirty years later, he regrets not plying his trade thousands of miles from home.
“I should’ve stayed in The States when I was over there,” admits the fifty-six-year-old. “Michael Spinks had me down in New Orleans as one of his sparring partners for the [first] Larry Holmes fight [in 1985]. As soon as I got off the plane, Spinks’s people grabbed hold of my gut and said, ‘You hurt our man, and then we hurt you.’ These fellas had guns in open view when they were driving me to my accommodation, but I’d traveled that far with the intention to make a good impression and I think I did that. People there involved with Spinks asked me to stay over and told me they could look after me and get me fights, but I didn’t even entertain the offer. I came back to Liverpool and regretted it immediately.”
Performing for small wages despite being something of a regional darling, Quarless’s pursuit for national acclaim (and beyond) received only minimal diligence. In impressive victories over Anders Eklund and John L. Gardner, Quarless provided a tantalizing insight of what he was capable of when motivated. Thwarted, however, by men in suits in his relentless quest to challenge British boxing’s favorite child, Frank Bruno, Quarless’s interest waned. Prosperity vanished from his makeup, and his future began to resemble that of his city counterparts as he waited impatiently for the phone to ring again.
“They didn’t want me in with Bruno because on my day when I gave a fuck about the sport, I was a handful for anyone. Anders Eklund was a [two-time] European champion and I knocked him out in one round. Even though that was the best win of my career, it was something of a curse in the end as it made people making big decisions think twice about me. I wanted that fight so bad because I knew I had what it took to beat Bruno. I wasn’t world class and I’m not saying I should’ve won this or won that, but there was a time when I had Bruno’s number and because far too many people knew it as well, they kept me out the sport so I couldn’t be seen or heard.”
A final eliminator at the Stadium, the decrepit venue’s last hurrah before the bulldozers gave the building a makeover the rioters would have been proud of, afforded Quarless a shot at competing for the coveted British title. Opposing him was tough Midlander Horace Notice, and it appeared obvious in the bout’s early rounds that Quarless was in for a grueling evening as his opponent absorbed everything the home slugger launched at him. Exhausted by the seventh stanza, Quarless was bundled out of the ring by a vicious Notice onslaught as a dozen or so supporters tried desperately to push their hero back into the ring. Their collective effort was a disaster as Quarless’s Lonsdale Belt hopes faded under the damp, leaking roof of an iconic building that had once been so kind to him. It would be almost eighteen months before his fans would see him again.
“Twenty-three grand in solicitors’ fees to get my career up and running again, twenty-three fucking grand,” reveals Quarless, a man whose most lucrative purse was less than a fifth of the aforementioned sum. Legal wrangling to escape the clutches of promoters clearly not protecting his best interests took their toll on Quarless as frustrations with the customary politics of the sport scarred his chiseled frame with far more venom than any of the twelve beatings he suffered against the likes of Notice, Derek Williams, and Lennox Lewis.
Free to resume his career in 1987, Quarless’s first step back on the ladder was placed with every intention of reaching for domestic titles, but the drama he endured outside the ring was a consistent reminder of how poisoned his chosen craft was, and Noel could no longer dedicate himself to a sport that had done little but bring him sadness.
“I needed help, in all honesty. Not just at the end of my career, but from day one. I grew up too quick because my dad died of cancer when I was sixteen and straightaway I tried to be a big man and I thought I knew better than everyone else. I’d smoke weed before fights, but knock it on the head about three weeks before, but if I would’ve had someone there to explain to me how much of a dickhead I was being then I think I would’ve listened. I had nobody. And by the time I’d clicked on to what was needed to have a go and be a success, it was too late. I was fighting for money because I had bills to pay. I’d do anything to be fighting in this era with the help the lads have got today. There was nothing like that in my time.”
As a new season of heavyweight contenders dawned, Quarless, something of a loveable snowman throughout a glorious winter, melted into obscurity as a rising Lewis ended his career in 1990. A stint as a doorman at various Liverpool nightclubs, telling anyone who would listen about Bellew’s potential, combined with daily gym sessions encouraging the incoming generation to avoid his mistakes, kept Quarless ticking over. Today, the former heavyweight highlight reel spends time in his own gym teaching life lessons to the next wave of boxers and MMA fighters who seek refuge in his modest North Liverpool fight factory.
“I’ll help anyone because I know how hard the sport is and I don’t take a single penny from anyone even though I could do with the money. This sport has made me so bitter and I always think back to the people who were around me and how they took from me. There’s not a chance that I would do that to young lads coming through trying to make a few quid one of the hardest ways possible. It’s nothing to do with the money why I’m bitter though, it’s all about what I could’ve achieved. I was good enough to beat some of the best fighters about like Anders Eklund, John Tate, and John L. Gardner; I had American promoters showing interest in me after sparring with Michael Spinks. I must’ve been good, even great, at one point, but I do feel a little let down that I haven’t got a belt to show for it.”