Jack Sharkey: He Fought The Hardest Game And Won

Jack Sharkey: He Fought The Hardest Game And Won

By Garry White

The little boy encouraged by the broad-shouldered man in front of him takes a shy swing. “Oh you can hit harder than that, Jackie,” says the man, playfully. The little boy tries again, his face beaming, and this time the man, his father, tumbles to the ground holding his jaw in mock agony.

A short time later the father is surrounded by the same boy and two slightly older girls. In hats and heavy coats, he promises them a trip to the circus if they are good at school. They look nervously at the camera and nod eagerly. The man gives each of them a gentle pat on the head before he sends them skipping on their way. The picture follows them until they blur into the distance and their father’s smile leaves his face.

The film jerks forward and an interviewer asks him whether he is going to win. “Well, that’s a damn foolish question,” he responds, in mild indignation.

They do a second take and try unconvincingly to make it look spontaneous. The fighter discussing his camp and how he feels in optimal condition. Suddenly the camera cuts and leaves them all there, hidden untouchable somewhere in the 30s: the boxer, the interviewer, his children, and even his young pal and protégé Ernie Schaaf, whom he joshes with in another segment in a gym.

“I’m certainly tickled to death that it’s materialised at last,” says a young, sweet-faced Schaaf in respect of his upcoming fight with Jim Maloney. Both men face the camera: Schaaf elegant in a double-breasted suit and tie whilst the other mans –future world heavyweight champion Jack Sharkey- arms bulge like hambones from his training vest.

In stilted language scripted for the camera, both fighters struggle not to crack-up as they discuss Sharkey’s forthcoming fight with Primo Carnera. 

“I’ll need a stepladder to fight him” grins the older man, who already has one unsuccessful tilt at a world title behind him – Sharkey would go on to beat Carnera later that year but inexplicably lose the one that really mattered against the giant Italian. 

Schaaf though he can never know it will have his own date with Primo Carnera where his destiny is to lose the fight and ultimately his life. It is a story straight from boxing history’s kindergarten syllabus. The time so shockingly fleeting between Ernie being “tickled to death” on ancient film to breathing his last in a New York hospital on Valentine’s Day 1933. 

The whole set of clips is little more than a pre-war attempt at a promotional video. But there is a hidden warmth to so much of it. Maybe it’s the lack of slickness, the jerky frames; the ordinariness of it all compared to the hyped and sterile pre-packed fare we are so used to now. Perhaps, it is in part, an aching for a lost world and people obliterated by the remorseless jackhammer of time.

But it is impossible to watch it almost 90 years later and not feel some kinship for the man at its centre, Jack Sharkey.

But warmth is not something that we are conditioned by history to feel for the Boston native. We are meant to recall him as a cheese champion. A foot-note between the Dempsey/Tunney era and the peerless reign of Joe Louis. A man that won the world title on a contentious decision. One that was considered sufficiently outrageous to have his opponents trainer, Joe Jacobs, spitting “We wuz robbed. We shoulda stood in bed,” before losing on his first defence to Primo Carnera. Himself a sad figure endlessly caricatured and derided as possibly the worst undisputed heavyweight champion of all-time. When it comes to the great champions Sharkey is typically left forgotten in the basement.

Beyond the ropes, Sharkey was mercilessly mocked for his short temper and emotional incontinence. The press christened him the ‘Boston Gob’ not out of respect for his articulate way with words or adept pre-fight braggadocio, but instead for his perceived complaining and whining when events didn’t go his way.

Even Sharkey was forced to admit when recalling his ring career that “I was a hot-headed guy. You could never tell what I’d do. Half the time I didn’t know what the hell I was doing anyway. If I got a bad decision, I’d go into a tantrum. It looked like I was crying.”

This unpredictable mindset was not surprisingly mirrored by equally unpredictable displays in the ring, leaving nobody ever quite sure which version would show up on fight night. 

Like a lot of East Coast fighters of the era, one could take a look at Sharkey’s name and assume that he was Irish-American. This is not the case as he was actually born Joseph Zukauskas in 1902. He adopted his ring-name from two of his idols. The “Jack” was in honour of the great “Manassa Mauler” Jack Dempsey and the “Sharkey” referred to the old-time Irish brawler, Tom Sharkey. 

The Zukauskas family hailed from Lithuania and when Sharkey was asked in later life why he took up boxing, he would joke that in his rough neighbourhood there were plenty of street gangs. If you were Irish, Italian, or even Russian, you were well catered for, but as a Lithuanian, he was completely out on his own. That sense of isolation, individuality, and not belonging could in many ways sum up his ring career. 

However, for all the talk of street gangs, Sharkey didn’t start boxing until joining the US Navy as a teenager. There, his officers quickly zeroed in on the 6”0 and strongly built recruit and ensured his participation at a representative level. He quickly gained a reputation for being able to knock out any man on any vessel on which he served. When back in Boston, he would intersperse these amateur forays with low-level professional outings.   

Sharkey’s early career brought mixed and relatively unimpressive results. He lost six of his first 20 contests, including one by knockout. However, in the 20s, there was little concept of bringing a fighter on gradually and building a record. From early on, Sharkey was routinely turning out against opponents with 40 or 50 fights under their belt and dominant win records. 

Things started to take shape for Sharkey following a September 1925 decision victory over the explosive punching Johnny Risko. An opponent that Gene Tunney described as “The toughest man I ever fought” and a future divisional contender.

This victory was the first in an 11 fight unbeaten run over 22 months that included results over George Godfrey, Harry Wills, and Mike McTigue. The former two fighters were highly rated performers of their time, but blocked from access to the title due to the all-pervading colour bar that still infected heavyweight boxing. Capable Irishman McTigue had won the light-heavyweight championship six years earlier versus Battling Siki.

This run of success set up Sharkey for a world title eliminator against his old hero, Jack Dempsey. The Boston-man fought well and staggered the former champion in the early rounds of their fight at Yankee Stadium.

Dempsey fought back but Sharkey was still in the ascendancy as the fight degenerated into an unadulterated slug-fest. In the seventh, Sharkey turned his head to complain to the referee about a low-blow, and Dempsey poleaxed him with an undefended left hook. A shot that Dempsey later described as “one of the last good punches of my life.”

Sharkey complained but his pleas went unheralded by the referee. The old fight film captures this perfectly and it illustrates that Sharkey did perhaps have reason to feel aggrieved. However, the boxing mantra of “protect yourself at all-times” gains precedence over any complaint. 

The Boston-man had to wait a further three years before getting close to the title again. By the time he did, Dempsey and Tunney had retired and Joe Louis was still only a 15-year-old kid back home in Detroit. This was the lost period of heavyweight boxing where the title changed hands with alacrity and the stench of post-prohibition corruption was never far away. 

To manoeuvre himself into another title eliminator Sharkey successfully navigated a couple of quality light heavyweights in the form of Young Stribling and Tommy Loughran. His final obstacle saw him see off Britain’s infamous ‘Phainting’ Phil Scott, via a 3rd round stoppage at Madison Square Garden. 

Sharkey fought Max Schmeling in the summer of 1930 for the title vacated by Tunney’s retirement, He opened up strongly, with most observers giving him the first three rounds. However, in the dying seconds of the fourth, he caught Schmeling with what the referee perhaps ironically deemed to be a low-blow and forfeited his title chance on a foul. Sharkey protested his innocence but to no avail. 

Following this unsatisfactory conclusion, Sharkey got his chance of a rematch two years later. In a dull affair that most ringsiders considered the German to have won, the Boston-man was declared the winner amidst markedly inconsistent scoring on the referee and judges’ cards. As with the first fight, the spectre of sharp-practice has always lurked beneath the headlines. 

When a year later in June 1933, Sharkey defended his title for the first and only time against Carnera, the smell of a fix was now all-consuming. The challenger was owned by the mob. Old fashioned dead-eyed wise guys like Owney “The Killer” Madden and Walter “Good-time Charlie” Friedman. Poor old Primo had a destructive record built on sand and results pre-determined at the point of a gun. No-one with any knowledge of the fight game could believe that the “Ambling Alp” was capable of knocking the champion out cold. 

Sharkey had comfortably battered the Italian to an emphatic points victory only 18 months earlier, and on the night had dominated his huge but relatively light punching opponent. Yet, he walked into a right uppercut from Carnera in the 6th and didn’t rise for the count.

Sharkey always refuted any claims that he had taken a dive –even suggesting that he had been distracted by an apparition of his old friend Ernie Schaaf- but did once tellingly divulge that “even his wife had her doubts.”

There was little in the way of ring success following the incomprehensible surrender of his title. He lost more than he won before agreeing to fight the emerging Joe Louis, immediately after his surprise defeat to Schmeling. It was quick, ugly, and brutal with the ‘Brown Bomber’ dropping him three times on his way to a 3rd round victory. 

Jack Sharkey walked away from boxing shortly after. The fighter that was characterised by his hot-headedness and inability to control his emotions in the ring, was outside of it a withdrawn and beloved family man, who would deposit his purse at the nearest bank before his fights.

In retirement he lived sensibly and frugally; shunning publicity and dedicating himself to the lone pursuit of fly-fishing. He was asked once by a journalist whether the sedate hobby was similar to boxing and he replied caustically “The fish don’t bite you back.”

There is a temptation to think Sharkey could have taken more from his career. That his final record of 37 wins and three draws from 53 fights represented poor change for a fighter that on his day could be irresistible. The tragedy was that he had too many days where the focus and composure weren’t quite there and he failed to be sufficiently clinical. 

In the mid-50s, a little over 20 years after his retirement, Sharkey appeared on a television game show “I’ve Got a Secret” where a celebrity panel would try and guess the secret of a mystery guest.

Sharkey’s role was to hide the fact that he was once the owner of the richest prize in sports. It was thought by many to be a tragedy that a man that had once held the heavyweight championship of the world could now be so anonymous. 

But they would be failing to understand Sharkey’s character. He would not have been appearing without payment and much like his ring career, he was ever the pragmatist. When he felt he unfairly lost his first fight to Schmeling his reaction was “what can you do? Got a good payday, $177,000. What the hell is the sense of crying about it?’

While his more lauded contemporaries walked away from the sport with unbreakable reputations, they often faced bitter retirements of ill health and poverty. Whilst ‘The Boston Gob’ may have at times lost his dignity he bid farewell to the sport with his money and health intact. He went home to his family and lived to the comfortable and advanced age of 91. All things considered; he fought the hardest game and won.

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