Stuff: Jeffries and Sharkey at Coney Island
By Mike Casey
Some years ago Tom Wolfe wrote a wonderful book called The Right
Stuff, in which he celebrated the special qualities of the pioneering aviators
of the space age.
Men such as Chuck Yaeger, who refused to allow a busted rib to
prevent him from strapping himself into an aeronautical bucking bronco and
breaking the sound barrier.
Men such as the first astronauts, who sat atop the equivalent of
a giant Roman candle while a bunch of eggheads back at mission control blasted
them into space and pretty much hoped for the best thereafter.
The Right Stuff. It is a beautifully apt phrase. Three simple
words for having what it takes, going the extra mile, being a man apart.
One could spend a lifetime trying to define what it is that
drives such remarkable individuals to spit in the face of awesome danger and
keep pushing the barriers forward. In the end, however simple or Freudian the
conclusions, we just know that we are damn glad to have them.
I would argue that our grand old game of boxing, during its
considerable evolution through the centuries, has stood taller than most other
fields of sporting endeavour in producing those few special men who risk their
very lives on breaching unchartered territory and setting new milestones in
bravery and endurance. Eternal glory in the prize ring demands a punishing tax
that the body and spirit is ill-equipped to pay.
It is the fighter’s equivalent of seeing how far the rocket can
go, and the difference between reaching space and crashing in no man’s land is
Courage is a refreshingly constant quality, which isn’t devalued
by time. Only the circumstances and conditions change, which boxers of
successive generations adapt to and overcome. However, in embracing all that is
still good and inspiring about the noble art, we should never cease to
appreciate that today’s game is played out in a far more forgiving and
Travelling back a hundred years or so, we find that everything
was of a more simplistic and brutal nature. Boxers had to fight a greater number
of rounds, training themselves for distance fights that now boggle our minds in
the time they lasted and in the ferocious punishment that was taken and given.
Gloves were lighter and far less resilient, causing frequent facial injuries and
much pain. The rules of the ring were considerably more relaxed and referees
were often incidental and corrupt. Most significantly, perhaps, the limit of a
man’s endurance was perceived as being frighteningly high.
We look at the faded old pictures and see the graphic marks of
war: The blood-smeared faces of Abe Attell and Harlem Tommy Murphy during their
vicious war of attrition at Daly City. The lumps and bruises and damaged ear of
Battling Nelson in his titanic struggle with Ad Wolgast at Point Richmond.
Cauliflower ears, broken bones and smashed hands were commonplace
in those days of physically tougher men and less sophisticated surgery. Take a
wander down cauliflower alley and you will see some real beauties. But perhaps
the most celebrated and noticeable was the left ear of Sailor Tom Sharkey. Much
to Tom’s discomfort, it became one of his trademarks and continued to mushroom
in size with every clout and clump from his opponents.
Writers in Sailor Tom’s day could often hit as hard as fighters.
One scribe compared the deformed appendage to “… a gas lantern on the flank of a
Sharkey fended off the jibes with self-effacing humour, but his
embarrassment was evident. After a knockout win over Fred Russell in Denver in
1901, Tom told a reporter, “If it keeps on this way, I’ll have to button it
Sailor Tom Sharkey was one of the toughest heavyweights of all
time who co-existed with some equally rugged company. He acquired his
cauliflower ear from another great bruiser of the age in Gus Ruhlin, who knocked
out Tom in the fifteenth round of their brawl at the Seaside Athletic Club on
Coney Island in the summer of 1900.
Tom’s ear swelled horribly after that fight and turned blue. The
swelling eventually went down and the ear’s natural colour returned, but it was
permanently misshapen. The story goes that Sharkey offered five thousand dollars
to anyone who could repair the ear and that nearly forty doctors and would-be
doctors offered their services.
By the time of the Ruhlin fight, Sailor Tom was nearing the end
of a punishing career in the ring, which had been full of tough and gruelling
battles. But probably his toughest duel, and certainly his most memorable, was
his classic championship bout with the great Jim Jeffries in the searing heat of
the Coney Island Athletic Club on the night of November 3, 1899.
It was a fight for the ages, which proved in time to be so much
more. It was a long, brutal confrontation that showcased outstanding talent and
unrelenting courage. It forged a deep mutual respect between two of the hardiest
men in the boxing universe and ultimately led to a trusting and enduring
Many years after that memorable struggle for supremacy, Tom
Sharkey walked into Jim Jeffries’ café in Los Angeles. Tom was drifting from job
to job, having lost all the money he made in the ring. Big Jeff gave him a
position and paid him a good salary. The two men quickly became friends. When
the café eventually closed, Sharkey moved on and worked for promoter James
Coffroth at the Tijuana racetrack. But Jeffries didn’t forget Sailor Tom.
By 1926, Jeff was having money troubles of his own and began a
vaudeville tour in an attempt to recoup some of his losses. He invited Sharkey
to join him.
Jeff’s often stern demeanour belied the kind and generous man he
was. Honest to the core in his dealings with people, his great failing in
business matters was to assume that others followed a similar moral code. Many
of Jeff’s investments went awry through his trust of dishonest or deluded
Jeffries was a happy and contented man for the most part, farming
his ranch in the San Fernando Valley, but he clearly had a greater love and
understanding for the simpler business and simpler principles of the boxing
ring. Perhaps that was why he got along so well with Tom Sharkey, for Tom was
even more of a fish out of water after the final punches had been thrown and the
cheers of the crowds had died away.
Big Jeff would always talk of Sharkey with great fondness. The
Sailor could fight and he never stopped coming at you. This was the man whom the
clever and hard-hitting Joe Choynski had so sorely underrated in an incredible,
topsy-turvy tussle in San Francisco. Twice Choynski knocked the rampaging
Sharkey out of the ring. On each occasion, Tom landed on his head, only to
bounce up and clamber back into the ring. He won the fight and the result was
regarded as a sensation.
James J Corbett was no less befuddled and ruffled by Sailor Tom’s
tenacious onslaughts. Corbett, so often a picture of serenity, was chased and
hustled for four furious rounds before police stepped in and stopped the
Jeffries was frequently unstinting in his praise of Sharkey’s
talent and toughness. Robert Edgren, that fine reporter from long ago, got some
interesting insights on big Jeff’s character and general thoughts during a visit
to the former champion’s ranch in the early twenties. Edgren discovered that
Jeffries had kept his weight down to around 230lbs since his ill-fated comeback
fight against Jack Johnson. Big Jeff hadn’t lost any of his formidable strength
either. He was irrigating an alfalfa patch and motioning to three of his men to
move a big, iron irrigating pipe to another point. Despite being fine physical
specimens in their own right, the men failed shift the pipe with their combined
strength. Jeff gave a little smile and proceeded to move it himself.
Robert Edgren told this story to illustrate the perfectly true
point that Jeffries quite genuinely feared his own strength and his power of
punch in his fighting days. It was his preference to win his bouts by decision
when possible, such was his concern that his full effort might literally kill an
Not that getting beaten on points by Jeffries was a bowl of
cherries. Speaking of Tom Sharkey’s condition in the aftermath of the Coney
Island battle, Edgren wrote, “Sharkey was wrecked in that fight. He had three
ribs broken and never was able to take much punching afterward.”
Sailor Tom, however, always gave plenty back. Jeffries told
Edgren that Tom was the hardest man to fight because he was quick and no amount
of punishment could halt his repeated charges.
Two men get to know each other well over 45 rounds of brutal
fighting. Before Jeffries and Sharkey renewed hostilities at Coney Island, Jeff
had decisioned Tom in another taxing battle at the Mechanics Pavilion in San
Francisco in May 1898. Such fights and memories linger in a man’s mind until he
takes his final breath.
When big Jeff hooked up with his old pal Nat Fleischer in 1950,
the two men turned the clock back half a century and recalled the Irish terror
with the cauliflower ear. “They come no greater,” said Jeffries of Sailor Tom.
“If ever there was a game and desperate fighter, Sharkey was the man. I split
his eye open with one blow in our second battle and his ear started to swell
until it was almost as big as my fist. When I landed on that ear, it was like
hitting a big wet sponge. Yet he wouldn’t think of quitting.
“He was as game a fighter as I’d ever seen and I hated to have
that bout continued, but it did. He kept coming at me like the Irish Terror he
was, boring in all the time. I broke two of his ribs, yet he kept going after
There is a strong case for saying that Jim Jeffries was the most
single-minded and self-disciplined of all the heavyweight champions. His
dedication to his fitness and nutrition was total, as was his commitment to
studying other fighters and improving his technique.
The bright lights and all their many distractions were alien to
Jeff. He was a quiet, outdoors man who genuinely enjoyed physical pursuits and
simple pleasures. He loved hunting, farming and gardening. The fuss he would
make over his beloved roses would often shock those who expected to encounter
the stereotype, macho bruiser.
Shrewd and immensely hard working, Jeffries was always looking to
learn and move up the ladder in his younger days. He took an active interest in
boxing while working for the Southern California Packing Company. The work was
long, heavy and strenuous, but it helped to develop Jeff’s celebrated physique.
In the busy season, he would labour for up to twenty hours a day. “Nothing could
hurt me,” Jeff told Nat Fleischer. “I was so strong, and by way of recreation I
engaged in wrestling and boxing.
“We had about forty fellows in our gang and we rented a hall in
East Los Angeles, where we had a small gym. We called our organization the East
Side A.C. and there I learned my boxing.
“We had something on every night. We had a lot of fun and the
physical exercise built me into a massive hulk. I often dreamed of becoming a
John L Sullivan, and with that aim in mind, I did as much boxing as I could. I
also had an idol in Jim Corbett, whom I often watched, and I never outlived my
admiration for him, even after I beat him.
“It was after I fought my second battle, with big Jim Barber, a
boilermaker who worked at the same plant with me, that I definitely decided to
toss my lot with the pro fighters.
“I was twenty-one years old at the time. My brothers urged me to
become a fighter, and though mother and dad opposed it, my choice was made.
That’s why my record shows the start of my career with the two-round knockout of
Dan Long on July 2, 1896. In reality, however, I’d already had two fights prior
to the Long battle.”
Training and Technique
Big Jeff’s thoughts on training and technique were interesting
and insightful. When preparing for a fight, he attached great importance to
eating and drinking only the required amounts. In fact one wonders how this
bear-like champion got by on what little he did. “A man can dissipate more and
hurt himself more by eating than by drinking,” he insisted.
Jeffries gave himself five months to train for his championship
winning match against Bob Fitzsimmons and did so meticulously. Jeff’s physical
and nutritional preparations for that historic battle were a telling reflection
of his precise and organised mind.
“I trained two months on the road in the ordinary way,” he
explained. “Then I put in three months of the hardest kind of work, running,
boxing and above all, dieting for the fight. I weighed 247 pounds stripped when
I began the real work of conditioning, and that was my normal weight – not fat.
“For three months, I ate hardly anything. You’d be amazed to know
how little a big man really needs to eat and how much stronger a man becomes if
he doesn’t eat too much. It’s no joke that people dig their graves with their
“I would eat two small lamb chops for my dinner, with all the fat
trimmed off. That made about two small bites to each chop. I had a little fruit
and toast. I had dry toast for months – very little. All through that hard
training, I ate as little as I could and drank nothing at all but a little cool
water with lemon juice in it.”
Jeffries was equally driven in his quest to learn more about the
many subtleties and disciplines of boxing. He knew he could punch – and how he
could punch – but he enhanced his natural power by learning to hit correctly. An
educated left hand, he believed was of the essence. “With it a smart man can
whip practically all right hand punchers. If you add to that left the knack of
stepping into a blow instead of backing away, a smart man can whip practically
Jeff maintained that the true power punches, the devastating
short hooks to body and jaw, came from the snap. The way in which the opponent
fell would most often be the barometer of the blow’s correctness and timing.
“All the force of the blow is snapped into a few inches, and it
doesn’t push a man back,” Jeffries said. “A short blow can be snapped, but a
long blow is never anything but a big push. I always tried to snap my punches. I
got the idea seeing Fitzsimmons fight Corbett with those little short punches at
Carson City, the time we were together up there. I had it knocked into me by the
way Fitzsimmons’ punches jarred me when I beat him for the championship.
Fitzsimmons was the greatest short punch hitter I ever saw.
“When I knocked Fitzsimmons out with a right on the jaw at Coney
Island, he fell forward. When I knocked Corbett out with a left hook on the jaw,
he fell on his face. I knocked Gus Ruhlin out in the fifth round with one punch
in the body, and he doubled up and fell forward.
“I only remember two fellows who went backward when I hit them.
One was Joe Goddard. That was before I learned how to hit. The other was Tom
Sharkey. Tom was the toughest bird I ever fought and he gave me a lot of
“I never could get him just right. He was short and he rushed so
fast, he made a bad target. At Coney Island, I hit Tom and knocked him halfway
across the ring into a corner, and he bounced right up and ran back at me. After
that I kept snapping my right hand into Tom’s body as he rushed, and broke three
of his ribs, but somehow I couldn’t stop him.”
In The Heat Of The Night
How they went at each other. Jeffries and Sharkey never let up in
their Coney Island classic. The rumour had gone around that Jeff wasn’t in his
best shape. Some rumour. The champion announced his weight as 210lbs and looked
superb. Sailor Tom was some 25lbs lighter, but gloriously chiselled, gnarled and
fighting fit. Of all the toughs, Sharkey was the man you didn’t want to meet in
a back alley on a rough night in Dublin.
Jeff and Tom entered the ring at two minutes past ten in the
evening, and they were stepping into a furnace that was being stoked by the
While it had been an unusually warm day for the time of year, the
heat of the night within the Coney Island Athletic Club was coming from 400 arc
lamps suspended just fifteen feet above the canvas. For the first time, a film
of a fight was being shot in artificial light. People in the great crowd were
visibly sweating as they stood tightly packed in the aisles and perched high up
around the building. Among them were such giants of the day as John L Sullivan,
Jim Corbett, Kid McCoy, Peter Maher and George Dixon.
The two contestants didn’t disappoint the house. In the
aftermath, most of those present would be unable to recall when two heavyweights
hit each other so hard and for so long. Jeffries and Sharkey fought ferociously
from the opening gong, with Sailor Tom very much the rushing and fearless
aggressor. Jeff got an idea of the marathon struggle that was in store for him
when he dropped Sharkey to his knees in the second round with a big left hook to
the jaw. Tom got up and ploughed straight back into the attack, as if the
setback were an aberration.
The two men hammered and jolted each other in close with
tremendous blows, their durability a testament to their magnificent conditioning
and inner spirit. Sharkey was cautioned several times for holding by referee
George Siler, but the Irish Terror just kept charging and rushing, locked in his
own private war against the one man he wanted to beat above all others.
Sailor Tom was having his finest hour. He proved himself to be a
superb fighter to those who had never seen him. Big Jeff had never been so
harried and hustled, yet there was a quietly frightening inevitability about the
champion even in times of distress. He never stopped hunting, feinting and
firing those terrific, short digs to the heart, stomach and ribs.
The one thing Sailor Tom couldn’t match was Jeff’s firepower,
which became steadily more potent in the deep waters of the long haul.
From the twenty-second round, Jeffries came on like a train
picking up steam. His uncanny judgement always seemed to tell him when the time
was right for upping the stakes and going full throttle. Now he would show the
audience those qualities that made him unmatched among the heavyweights for
power and strength in a distance fight. A right and a left to Sharkey’s jaw
nearly sent him airborne and left him staggering at the bell.
Sailor Tom rallied courageously in the twenty-third round, but
Jeffries was now relentless and putting every ounce of his strength and punching
expertise into his blows, hurting the challenger with a pair of meaty uppercuts.
By the time they came up for the twenty-fifth and final round,
shaking hands good-naturedly, Sharkey looked as wondrously bashed up and mangled
as he always did, while Jeff sported splits to the eye, ear and nose. Both boys
were now tired and Sailor Tom slipped to the canvas, yanking Jeff’s left glove
off on the way down.
Jeff was driving home powerful hooks and uppercuts to the head
and chest and wobbled Sharkey with a big left hook to the jaw. At the final
gong, two of the toughest men on God’s earth were hovering close to exhaustion.
The world champion had timed his late sprint to perfection and referee Siler
raised his hand. Jeffries and Sharkey had given their all in a wonderful match
that had combined all the essential and sometimes mystical elements of the noble
and savage art.
Most believed the decision to be just, although Sharkey’s manager
Tom O’Rourke had something to say about that. “If I ever had a man win a fight,
Sharkey won tonight,” Tom insisted. He vowed that Sharkey would box Jeffries
again and beat the champion convincingly. It was fighting talk from O’Rourke,
but it didn’t produce another fight between Jeff and Sailor Tom. Their great
rivalry would remain baked and dried in the heat of the Coney Island Athletic
Jeff was quick to change back into his street clothes after the
grand battle. His facial injuries were evident as he walked briskly from the
building to join his joyous friends, but otherwise he didn’t appear any worse
for his ordeal. Sharkey, by contrast, looked beaten and pained as he limped
It was fitting that two such soldiers of war should meet up again
down the road and forge a friendship of affection and respect. For they were
indeed men apart. They had The Right Stuff, did Mr Jeffries and Mr Sharkey.
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