The CBZ Newswire

Jack Sharkey: Read him and weep

by on May.06, 2009, under Guest Columnists

jacksharkeyBy Mike Casey

It was October 12, 1931, at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn and the real Jack Sharkey was standing up. Curbing his often volcanic temperament as best he could, Jack was confidently firing punches through the chill air and showing 30,000 shivering spectators his enviable talent as he set about exploding the myth that a 262lb giant called Primo Carnera was invincible. Then Sharkey almost blew it.

The turning point came in a dramatic fourth round that was loaded with excitement and farce. It was also a round that reminded us how quickly the forces of darkness could take hold of Sharkey’s soul and prevent his great talent from reaching full bloom. Carnera was boxing quite well and keeping Jack at bay when Sharkey unleashed a left hook that dumped Primo in a neutral corner. Those in the know had long cottoned on to the fact that strange things began to happen whenever Carnera was found out and hurled into choppy waters. This time it was a long count that put Dempsey and Tunney in the shade. Visibly hurt and bewildered, Carnera looked to his corner for advice as he hauled himself on to one knee and grabbed the top rope. Up on unsteady feet at the count of ‘six’, he noticed his second gesturing at him madly to go back down.

Primo duly obliged, to the amazement of Sharkey and the crowd. A fine old mess was taking shape, with referee and former heavyweight contender Gunboat Smith right in the middle of it. Sharkey, with much justification, erupted in very Sharkey-like fashion as he tore across the ring to remonstrate with Smith and point out the rule infraction “He went down without being hit,” Jack yelled above the commotion. “He’s disqualified – count him out!”

Gunboat did no such thing as he waved Sharkey away and then waved at Carnera. Gunboat seemed to do a fair bit of waving in those hectic moments, much like a lost man on a busy beach. He waited for Carnera to complete his leisurely ascent, which some writers timed at 19 seconds. Sharkey pleaded again to the Gunboat, who would hear none of Jack’s bitter protests. Now Jack’s famous temper boiled over as he hit the self-destruct button and performed a passable imitation of a human rocket. In an incredible fit of pique, he ran across the ring and tried to throw himself right out of it. Fortunately, his path was blocked by his portly manager, Jimmy Buckley, before Sharkey could fully escape and storm off down main street.

The fight resumed and Jack was able to control his rage as he comprehensively pasted Carnera with clever and intelligent boxing. Suddenly, Jack was the cold and fiercely determined ring mechanic who is still rated by some observers as one of the finest of all the heavyweights when he hit the right switches. He repeatedly snarled and sneered as he moved in and out and rifled Carnera with hard and accurate blows. Outweighed by nearly 60 pounds, Jack finished the fight powerfully, battering Carnera constantly in the last two rounds. The general consensus was that Primo won just one round that night.
Writer Edward J Neil was greatly impressed with the lean and mean Sharkey he had seen. “Sharkey came back to smash his way to a one-sided decision as he plastered the giant with every bit of fistic punishment one man can inflict on another. He floored the Italian for an uproarious count of from nine to 19 in the fourth round and left him wobbly, starry-eyed, a huge robot with arms frozen in the position of defence at the final bell. Sharkey again was the grim, merciless warrior of the days when his name was the most feared of all the heavyweights.”

Flawed
It is a cruel and somewhat unfair fact of life that flawed fighters of an erratic nature and unfulfilled talent frequently fire the imagination of writers and broadcasters far more than the dedicated professionals who do everything right. Ask a character actor whether he would rather play a perfect hero or a tortured soul and he won’t need too long to give you an answer.

Perhaps it is the ‘what if?’ factor that so fascinates us about the man who has everything apart from that one ragged scar in his mental make-up. Boxing, for perfectly obvious reasons, has always been a rich and fertile ground for such emotionally wayward characters. What if Jimmy Slattery, that glorious Philadelphia maestro of yesteryear, had really stepped on the gas and given it all he had? Even at half throttle, Jimmy was still pretty great. He was dangling his arms by his sides and daring opponents to hit him forty years before Cassius Clay was doing likewise. What if Max Baer had played it serious and really let rip with that awesome physique and wrecking ball of a right hand? What if the precociously talented Wilfred Benitez had not been so mentally fragile?
Jack Sharkey, arguably, was the biggest conundrum of them all, a veritable melting pot of simmering emotions and personal demons. Everyone had a favourite nickname for Jack, who was born Joseph Paul Zukauskas to Lithuanian parents in Binghamton, New York, but adopted Boston as his hometown. He became most famously known as the ‘Boston Gob’, but perhaps the ‘Weeping Lithuanian’ was the most appropriate indicator of his volatile temperament. Tears would often flow from Sharkey’s eyes in times of rage and frustration. A Navy man, Sharkey changed his birth name after a Boston fight club manager asked him how on earth he got a name like Joseph Zukauskas. Jack idolised Jack Dempsey and great admired another famous sailor in Tom Sharkey, so a new and more appealing name didn’t require much thought.

It wasn’t very long before Jack Sharkey was being highlighted as a man to watch. Like so many of his generation, it seemed he was fighting tough opponents almost from the start. Indeed, one of the constant themes running through his career is the exceptional quality of his opposition. While this might sound a little trite in a ferocious era where nobody had it easy, Jack rates very highly among the dreadnoughts in this category.
Consider the number of fights – to the best of our knowledge – that Sharkey’s opponents had registered at the time of meeting him: Harry Wills (89), Mike McTigue (138), Jack Dempsey (81), Jack Delaney (85), Young Stribling (240), Tommy Loughran (104), Phil Scott (80), Mickey Walker (105) and Tony Shucco (86).

In his sixth fight, at the Mechanics Building in Boston in 1924, Sharkey was outpointing the worldly Floyd Johnson, who had mixed with the likes of Willie Meehan, Jess Willard, Fred Fulton and Bill Brennan. Two months later, at the same venue, a titanic battle with Chilean Quintin Romero Rojas ended with Sharkey being knocked out in the ninth round. But Jack was not wrapped in cotton wool. In his next bout he battled to a 12-rounds no decision against the vastly more experienced Charley Weinert, who had clocked up more than 80 fights. Weinert twice got the better of Sharkey, but Jack was getting the level of priceless education to which the young prospects of today simply don’t have access.

The Gob suddenly began to win consistently, beating good men in Jim Maloney, Johnny Risko and the hulking George Godfrey, who had a 33-pound weight advantage over Sharkey. Note well that Jack, an average 195-pounder, made hay against the goliaths of the division throughout his career with his speed, skill, expert counter punching and greater athleticism.

Sharkey was steadily gaining a reputation as a graceful and accomplished fighter of deft skills and a commanding punch. His left hand in particular was consistently accurate and damaging. He was also fast on his feet and a master of many manoeuvres. Harry Keek, a respected boxing observer of the era from the Pittsburgh Gazette Times, said of Jack, “Sharkey is one of the fastest big men in the ring. He is much faster than Gene Tunney on his feet. And he is almost as graceful in his manoeuvres as Jack Delaney, who is just about poetry in motion. In addition, Sharkey possesses rare fighting generalship.

“Also, Sharkey has one of the best left hands in the business – a sticking, stabbing, cutting, slashing instrument.”

Jack showed the withering effects of that left in his fourth and final fight with Jim Maloney at Yankee Stadium in May, 1927. Maloney was so tortured by the repetitive blow that he was forced to turn his head away and expose himself to the fast rights that decked him three times before the fifth round finish.

Today’s historians and film collectors are no less flattering in their appraisal of Jack Sharkey, although an odd little theme recurs here. It is that of Sharkey being somewhat forgotten and only rediscovered as a dust-covered jewel when somebody drops his name. As we shall see, Jack played no small part in tarnishing his own legacy, but it is quite wrong that he should so often be the invisible man among the true heavyweight champions.

Sports writer and film collector Mike Silver, author of the excellent The Arc of Boxing, says of Sharkey, “I think you have to look at fighters in the context of their time. Sharkey came up in the 1920s when pure boxing skills were emphasised, taught, understood and appreciated. That decade produced a cornucopia of skilled boxers in every weight division. Sharkey was trained, as so many others were at that time, to incorporate the ‘sweet science’ into his ring work and not merely rely on strength and power to overcome an opponent. How good a boxer did Sharkey become? The answer to that is that I really am not sure who would win if – at their best – Tunney had fought Sharkey in 1927.

“The old time greats influenced their contemporaries. Dempsey, I believe, popularised the bob and weave technique. Benny Leonard popularised sophisticated boxing skills that involved creating openings to set up special punches. Feinting and footwork were integral to his cerebral approach to the game. Fighters and trainers took notice. It was important in those days for a fighter to learn how to think in the ring. And Sharkey was one of the best.

“He took to his profession like a fish to water – a natural whose repertoire of punches was built around his outstanding left jab. Sharkey, who was extremely fast for a heavyweight, incorporated all the skills that master boxers of his day utilised. The Sharkey of 1927 to 1932 ranks, in my opinion, as one of the best heavyweight boxers of the 20th century.
“If you shrunk Sharkey down to middleweight or lightweight, he would have the all round boxing skills to compete in those talent laden divisions of the 1920s. What confidence and ego the man displayed in his prime! How sure he was of his skills! Look at the disdain he had for Dempsey when they fought. True, the old Mauler was past his prime, but he was still a feared puncher. Sharkey was not intimidated at all and correctly predicted that he would easily outbox the old champ – as he did until he looked the wrong way.

“How would the 195-pound Sharkey do against the giant heavies of today? Check out his first fight with Carnera to see the answer to that question. He would totally befuddle them with his speed and boxing skills.

“Almost 30 years ago, I met Sharkey at a boxing writers’ dinner. It was the same Sharkey I had read about, although he was bigger and taller than I had expected. He’d had a few drinks and was holding court, joking around and appearing to be somewhat loud and unpredictable. You could see he liked being the centre of attention. And I couldn’t take my eyes off him. Here was a piece of living boxing history right in front of me. Then – and I don’t remember why – he started throwing left jabs. The man was in his mid-seventies. I’d seen many fighters shadow box and throw left jabs, but to this day I can tell you I still remember how that big fist and long left hand moved – with power and straight from the shoulder. It was a thing of beauty. That was Jack Sharkey on his game.”

Fast
Sharkey had entered his prime years as a fighter after his impressive stoppage of Jim Maloney. Over the span of nine months, Jack had also scalped George Godfrey, the jaded Harry Wills, Homer Smith and former light heavyweight champ Mike McTigue. Sharkey was fast closing on a shot at Gene Tunney’s heavyweight championship. All he had to do – to coin an age-old phrase of frequent understatement – was beat Jack Dempsey. Sharkey was heavily favoured to do so. Eight years to the month after his epic charge to the championship at Toledo, Manassa Jack was a reluctant and rusty warrior with marital troubles and a love of the easy life he had never known in the brutal days of his youth. Even the chance of gaining revenge over Gene Tunney barely lit a flame in Jack’s soul. It took canny Tex Rickard to do that by way of constant goading and teasing.

Sharkey, typically ebullient, had no doubts and certainly no fears about the fight. Dempsey had long been his inspiration, but this was old-fashioned boxing business. There were only two ways it could go and the Gob had both bases covered in the sweetly uncomplicated haven of his own mind. “If Dempsey rushes me from the start trying to break through quickly, he is doomed to disappointment. I will be waiting for him with more punches than he ever saw before.

“Dempsey said once he saw a dozen Firpos (Luis Angel Firpo) after taking the South American’s first punch. Well, he will be trying to pick out a dozen Sharkeys after he has sampled my wallop. If Dempsey doesn’t open up at the start but lays back looking for an opening, I’ll left hand him to pieces and knock him out anyway.”

The much celebrated fight came to pass at Yankee Stadium on July 21st, 1927, and its pattern for the first six rounds suggested that Sharkey was a clairvoyant who could predict the future with unerring accuracy. He was indeed Dempsey’s master as the old champion chased and hustled and visibly bristled with frustration at his inability to trap his prey.

Then came that unforgettable seventh round, when both men shared a shattering moment that defined each of them perfectly. Sharkey showed his major weakness and Dempsey showed his major strength. Tired of the resourceful Dempsey digging a few meaty shots south of the border, Sharkey turned his head to complain to the referee – an act of carelessness akin to a matador waving to a friend in the crowd when the bull is feeling particularly aggrieved at being poked about. The left hook that Dempsey crashed into Sharkey’s jaw sent the Gob airborne before his body righted itself and collapsed to the canvas.

In later years, Sharkey said of Dempsey, “He was a perpetual motion, kept punching and punching. If there was anything open in the direction he was punching, he’d hurt you. I came home and I went in the hospital. I passed blood there for a long time.”

The defeat, however, failed to lull others into a sense of false security about Sharkey’s ability. Ironically, Jack’s stock had risen to the point where he was getting the dreaded cold shoulder from the top dogs. Dempsey wanted no further part of him and teasingly told Sharkey so. Champion Gene Tunney also dismissed the Gob as a potential challenger. Sharkey, very much an inspirational soul, seemed to lose his motivation for a while as he drew with tough New Zealander Tom Heeney and dropped a split decision to Johnny Risko. But then Jack went on the seven-fight winning run that would take him to a fight with German ace Max Schmeling for the championship vacated by Tunney. A month after the Risko reverse, Sharkey shattered the heavyweight aspirations of the brilliant light heavyweight master, Jack Delaney, by knocking out Delaney in one round at Madison Square Garden. Quality victories over Young Stribling, Tommy Loughran and Phil Scott also featured in Jack’s sprint to the top of the ladder. He needed just three rounds to beat the devilishly clever Loughran, with a right hand crack to the head that had Tommy believing he had won the fight when he came to his senses in his dressing room.

The fight that did Sharkey no favours was his win over Englishman, Phil Scott, who would forever become known as Fainting Phil after going down in the third round and claiming that he had been fouled by low blows. Well, he had indeed – to the extent of being in great discomfort for months after taking Sharkey’s smashing blows to the groin. But Scott had won several previous contests on fouls, and that kind of reputation inevitably rebounds on a fellow at the wrong time. Phil’s protests were dismissed by the Miami Boxing Commission, but Sharkey also now suffered from a stigma of sorts and one could imagine a cunning little fellow called Joe Jacobs filing away those details at the back of his clever mind.

Jacobs managed Max Schmeling and when Max squared off against Sharkey for the vacant championship at Yankee Stadium on June 12, 1930, it quickly became apparent that Jack was at the peak of his powers and very much the better man. For three rounds, he gave Schmeling a rare old boxing lesson. This was Sharkey’s hour, surely. What could possibly go wrong this time?

In the fourth round, one of the most famous in heavyweight boxing history, utter chaos ensued as Sharkey slipped Schmeling’s jab and shifted neatly to plant a crunching left hook to the stomach. According to Jack, Max raised his body at this point and a good blow became a bad one. In the mayhem, nobody was truly sure of who had done what as Schmeling went down and claimed that he had been struck by a foul punch. As if referee Jimmy Crowley wasn’t sufficiently confused, his mind was sent into a complete tailspin by the high octane histrionics of Joe Jacobs, who tore hither and yon around the ring screaming about the injustice done to his charge. The upshot was that Schmeling was awarded the fight and the world championship. “Ill fortune follows Gob” said United Press sports editor Frank Getty aptly.
Two years
It would be two years before Sharkey got his second chance at Schmeling. At least Jack finally got some luck in the rematch, winning a highly controversial and undeserved decision. Max had improved greatly in the interim period, and Sharkey, always a fair critic of his opponents’ talents, described the German as “a methodical, cruel, terrific puncher.” Jack added, with his wry humour, that he made a point of not hitting Max below the chin.

Sharkey’s coronation should have heralded the golden times at last and showcased him as the supreme and sublime boxer puncher that he was. But Jack could never cement over that big split that his temperament had inflicted on his talent. Character weaknesses always breed ill fortune which can be further aggravated by sailing too close to the wrong crowd. Sharkey was never the same after that fight and almost certainly not his own man. His first defence against Primo Carnera in 1933 should have been a repetition of their first match and another stroll in the park for the Gob. It was anything but that as Jack meekly made his exit in the sixth round, hitting the deck from a right uppercut that clearly didn’t land.
Astonished ringsiders estimated the gap between the projectile and the target to be a foot or more. As one angry sports writer reported, “Rotten fish has a bad smell but nothing could stink so much as the Primo Carnera-Jack Sharkey fight.”

Sonny Liston, for all his theatrical falling about in the fight with Muhammad Ali at Lewiston, had at least been visibly struck by a deceptively hard punch. Jack Sharkey, for the rest of his life, would have to explain how he had been pole-axed by what most regarded as a medium breeze.

Mike Silver believes the explanation to be basically simple: “Sharkey went downhill quickly after losing his title to Carnera. I don’t ascribe this to a physical breakdown. It is generally conceded correctly that Sharkey threw that fight for a huge amount of money. Was it greed? Not entirely. Sharkey was a mobbed up fighter, as was Carnera. A deal was made and Sharkey probably had no say in the matter. But I believe his throwing the fight affected Sharkey mentally. He seemed not to care whether he won or lost after that ignoble defeat.”

For all the mental baggage and other complications that he brought to the table, Jack Sharkey would still shape up pretty well against past heavyweight champions according to film historian, Mike Hunnicut. “Jack Sharkey is interesting mainly because he was so very good,” says Mike. “Whenever anyone watches films of his fights, the eyes always automatically focus in on Sharkey, no matter who he is fighting. He is simply wonderful to look at.

“He had that build of a brick yet always that fine co-ordination of everything – hands, body, feet, feints, tricks, fast hands, solid punching, different positioning and the occasional whistling right hand. He could fight out of a half crouch and be very aggressive, but mostly he was perhaps the finest technical boxer of all the heavyweights since his time. He had an expert jab, great counter punching, every smooth move possible and a keen strategic boxing brain. However, Jack just didn’t seem interested in fighting sometimes and I do not know why.

“That being said, he came up in a very tough era and might not have lasted that much longer as champion even if he hadn’t been so erratic. Along with Max Bar, Sharkey might have been the most talented heavyweight between Tunney and Louis.

“Going down the post-Sharkey list of champions, I feel that Jack would do very well in the various match-ups. I give Baer a slight edge in that he may just land that right good enough to win – maybe. Braddock loses to Sharkey by decision, Louis still wins by knockout in a prime-against-prime match-up, while a fight with Jersey Joe Walcott would be even odds. Sharkey boxed a bit better than Joe, but both had moves and feints that could knock your socks off and Walcott was the heavier hitter.
“I would pick Rocky Marciano by KO over Jack, while Ezzard Charles’ footwork would win him a close decision. I would take Liston by a split decision over Sharkey, with Sonny’s jab and infighting ability giving him the edge. Ali would win by his footwork but barely. Frazier would win by decision over Sharkey, but Foreman and Tyson would get out-boxed. Larry Holmes would lose as Sharkey would set up too many traps for him, as Jack would do to Lennox Lewis. Evander Holyfield gets bewildered but still takes a decision.

“Jack Sharkey wasn’t just good – he had it in spades. By that I mean he was genuinely gifted. Get his films and see for yourself – he is great to watch!”
Curtain

The final curtain came down for Jack Sharkey in 1936 when he made a half-hearted attempt to stop the force of nature that was Joe Louis. Jack did pretty decently too until the Bomber began to unleash the kind of adversity that truly tests an old lion’s resolve. The fight was over in three rounds as Louis took another step toward becoming a revered legend and Sharkey slipped into that grey file that we reserve for the eccentrics and the nearly men.

We all have a pretty good idea as to where Joe Louis stands in the pantheon of heavyweight greats. But what on earth do we make of the gifted enigma that was Jack Sharkey?

To his dying day, Sharkey maintained that his loss to Primo Carnera was on the level, just as Jack maintained that Dempsey was the greatest of all the heavyweights – better than Louis, Marciano, Ali, Frazier, Tyson or any of them. “Dempsey could hit you in the shoulder and dislocate it,” Sharkey observed. Did the Gob ever look at the Mauler and wonder what it was like to be able to marry a magnificent talent to a cool head and a disciplined mind?

Mike Casey is a boxing journalist and historian and Special Features Writer for the Cyber Boxing Zone. He is a member of the International Boxing Research Organization (IBRO), an auxiliary member of the Boxing Writers Association of America and founder and editor of the Grand Slam Premium Boxing Service for historians and fans (www.grandslampage.net). Mike’s stories also appear on his Boxing Old Gold blog at www.boxingoldgold.blogspot.com

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