from the Mike Casey Archives...
The Right 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 minimal.

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 compassionate arena.

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 coach.”

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 back.”

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 friendship.

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 schemers.

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 contest.

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 opponent.

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.


Forty-five rounds 

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 me.”

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 teeth.

“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 anybody.”

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 trouble.

“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 second.

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 Club.

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 away.

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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