I Fought Them All – book review by Glenn Wilson
In today's world of multiple world boxing titles, almost anyone with the right promoter, a modicum of skill and a bit of luck can win a world title. However, back in the 1890s when there were only a handful of weight divisions and only one recognised world champion in each weight class, the cream rose to the top leaving many talented boxers in their wake, often to be forgotten when discussing some of the great fighters of yesteryear. One of such man was the 'Fighting Sailor', Tom Sharkey. Born in Dundalk in Ireland in 1871, Sharkey, who stood around 5 feet 8 inches and weighed around 12 stone, never won the world heavyweight title. Yet he fought some of the biggest names of the pioneer gloved era including former World Heavyweight Champions James J. Corbett and Bob Fitzsimmons, neither of who were able to beat the Irishman. He also held a win and a draw over Joe Choynski who famously knocked Jack Johnson out in three rounds.
Greg Lewis and Moira Sharkey were amazed to discover that a biography of the fighting sailor did not exist and therefore set about putting the record straight. The result is a fascinating story of a man who travelled the world before settling in America to become one of the top fighters of his era. I Fought Them All is easily a very readable biography about a man who made and lost a fortune while fighting some of the best pioneer heavyweight fighters. The narrative flows in a very readable manner. It is a very well researched piece of work with many anecdotal gems. Fortunately, the writers are not carried away with presenting myths as facts. Indeed, primary sources are used throughout to either dispel or vindicate any myth about Sharkey, who often liked to exaggerate some of his exploits when recounting his experiences to journalists and friends. Sharkey was involved in probably one of the most controversial decisions in heavyweight boxing history when he fought Bob Fitzsimmons in San Francisco in 1896. The referee for the bout was famous lawman and gunfighter Wyatt Earp who disqualified the English born Fitzsimmons in the eighth round. The authors re-examine the evidence of the bout to form their own conclusions about the controversial decision and the subsequent sequence of events following the bout.
Sharkey fought once for the world heavyweight tile – a bruising encounter with the big Ohioan James J. Jeffries. Some argue this was the most gruelling and bruising fight ever fought for the title. Over twenty-five rounds, the men fought each other hard under blazing electric lights, which were required in order for the fight to be filmed. The experimental lighting system suspended over the ring just a few inches above the boxers' heads was so hot they scorched the hair and blistered the shoulders of the two protagonists. Over twenty rounds, the Irishman looked like he was on the verge of becoming the World Heavyweight Champion. However, Jeffries, who had a six inch advantage in height and over 30lbs in weight, was able to draw on his reserves to give the sailor what was described as a terrible beating. The fight ended rather oddly when Sharkey accidentally pulled off Jeffries's glove. While the referee George Siler was trying to put the glove back on Sharkey threw punches at Jeffries who then started to fight back. The bell sounded to end the fight at that moment and Siler raised the glove of the champion who retained the title on points. In a previous encounter, the two men had fought for twenty rounds prior to Jeffries winning the world title. Sharkey lost that decision too, but not before taking severe punishment from the bigger foe. In later years, we are told that the two men became good friends, even touring together to rekindle their fighting days in a series of exhibition bouts.
I Fought Them All is a tale of one man who travelled from his homeland and ended up in America to swap blows with arguably the toughest pugilists to have ever fought in the ring. Along the way we are introduced to 'injuns', gun-slingers, shipwrecks, tragic love stories, gambling, acts of heroism and, of course, gruelling fights. I thoroughly recommend this book.