Boxing's Most Mercurial Heavyweight Champ and What Could Have Been

The story of Jack Sharkey is one of wasted, undeniable talent.

by Jack Slack
Jul 25 2018, 9:12pm

Photo via Wikimedia Commons/El Grafico

When challenged to name the men who have owned fighting’s most prestigious title, the world heavyweight championship, most fans will be able to manage a few names. There are the easy ones: Ali, Tyson, Louis. A few will know the old timers: Sullivan, Corbett, Johnson. Jack Dempsey is a gimme: he practically built Madison Square Garden with his five individual million dollar gates, he is the inspiration for Ippo Makinouchi’s fighting style in the popular anime series Hajime no Ippo, and his Broadway restaurant was a fixture of New York City for forty years. From Jack Dempsey the next logical step is Gene Tunney—the men are inseparable from each other and that is something of a feat as Tunney beat almost no other heavyweights worth naming. Yet even the most devout boxing historian will have to dig deep to recall the man against whom Dempsey made his penultimate payday. Nobody remembers Jack Sharkey.

Watching footage of Sharkey it seems an injustice that he is largely unknown. For a heavyweight he moved well and was cunning. He was in equal parts a ring tactician and a banger. He was a decent size for a heavyweight at the time, had good handspeed, and could perform tricks in the ring that even the great Tunney didn’t show. In between Tunney’s two performances of evasive ringcraft against Dempsey, Sharkey stood toe-to-toe with Dempsey and hammered him from pillar to post.

The Dempsey-Sharkey fight was to determine a number one contender for Gene Tunney’s title after Tunney had bested Dempsey the first time and (entirely because Dempsey was involved) it was the first non-title fight to draw a million dollars at the gate. The world wanted Dempsey to get his revenge against Tunney and Sharkey was a stepping stone towards that. It was Jack Sharkey’s chance to steal the show but he made sure that for the next few years his name would be used more often as a punchline.

From the moment that the fight began, Dempsey came out looking to get to the inside with Sharkey and maul him. Rather than run as Georges Carpentier and Tunney had, Sharkey met him in the middle of the ring for a fire fight. Dempsey’s crouch was by now legendary: he hunched forward at the waist, making a tightened shell out of his midsection and looking up at his opponent through his eyebrows. Snarling and swinging, Dempsey would pursue opponents like this, moving his head, but any blow that landed on Dempsey’s dome bounced off the top of his skull. Tunney himself remarked that in 20 rounds with Dempsey he didn’t think he had found the Manassa Mauler’s chin even once. Sharkey immediately capitalized on this by trying to jack Dempsey’s head back with the uppercut. After attempting a couple of more conventional, right handed uppercuts, Sharkey laid a trap for a lead handed uppercut and had Dempsey reeling as no one else had before.

In Dempsey’s own work on boxing—the masterpiece Championship Fighting—the aged champ describes the lead hand uppercut as very much a situational punch, best used from very close range and when the hips are square and the feet almost level. Traditionally that is true, but this sums up perfectly why Sharkey was able to completely surprise Dempsey. Stepping back as if to begin running from Dempsey after a referee’s break, Sharkey kicked his right foot back behind him and dropped heavy onto his front leg. He was up on the ball of his back foot with his hips square in a sprinter’s stance as Felix Trinidad used throughout his career. As Dempsey continued pursuing his target, head down and chin tucked, he was cracked through the blind angle from below by Sharkey’s low lead hand. Decades later Roy Jones would use this same retreat and sudden stop to set up his left uppercut, which knocked down many of his opponents.

After beating Jack Dempsey like a piñata through six and a half rounds, Sharkey was thrown off his game. The old street fighter kept hitting him low. When Dempsey checked his cup for the umpteenth time, Sharkey indignantly turned to the referee to say “are you ever going to do anything about this?” and Dempsey cleaned his clock with a left hook. Dempsey scored his knockout, the old champion was back in business, and the Tunney vs. Dempsey rematch was confirmed—everyone got what they wanted except Jack Sharkey.

In Gene Tunney’s memoir, A Man Must Fight, praise is heaped upon all of Tunney’s opponents and yet he finds only a couple of sentences to say about his successor, a man whom he narrowly avoided fighting:

"Dempsey outgamed Sharkey. Broken in morale by what he claimed was partiality on the part of the referee, Sharkey heard himself counted out. This was a most unusual way for a championship contender to sulk. Had the positions been reversed, I am sure Dempsey would have got up and fought both the referee and his opponent. That is the difference between a great fighter and a good fighter.”

There was little controversy over the knockout, Sharkey had made the error while in with a wounded old tiger. Dempsey himself, when asked about hitting Sharkey as he spoke to the referee, quipped “what did he expect me to do, write him a letter?”

The decision to start a dialogue with the referee while standing in front of boxing’s most ferocious knockout artist haunted Sharkey to the end of his days. He was consistently doubted and scoffed at as something of an also-ran when Tunney retired without meeting him. When asked late in his life who hit him harder, Dempsey or Joe Louis, Sharkey stated: “Dempsey hit me the hardest because Dempsey hit me $211,000 worth while Louis only hit me $36,000 worth…” While the Dempsey fight was a payday few fighters could have hoped for, the opportunity cost was significant. If Sharkey had continued to beat Dempsey as savagely as he had up until he lost his cool, he could have packed a stadium to fight Tunney for the title and started to make his own demands on the purse split.

Returning to the familiar part of the story: Tunney boxed Dempsey up in their rematch. Tunney took one more fight against Tom Heeney—who had just drawn with Sharkey—to bank another payday and then retired to marry Polly Lauder who was a descendant of Andrew Carnegie and heiress to a significant part of his United States Steel fortune. Tunney’s ending as a Connecticut blue blood, raising three sons (one of whom would go on to become a senator for California) alongside his wife until he died at the age of 81 is one of the few fairytale endings in boxing. No one seemed to care that the Sharkey question went unanswered, no one except Sharkey.

Another Sailor

Joseph Zukauskas was born to Lithuanian immigrants in New York and when he was still young his family moved to Boston. The rebellious young Zukauskas ran away from home as a teenager, making his way back to New York and finding unstable work as a manual laborer. There he desperately attempted to enlist in the U.S. Navy during the First World War. Turned away multiple times as obviously underage, Zukauskas later successfully enlisted once the war was over with, in his own words, “five cents in my pocket.” With plenty of time to be bored and not always enough to do, Zukauskas tried his hand at boxing. When signing up for his first naval tournament, Zukauskas told the registrar his name and was told “You can do better than that.” In that instant the ultra-American Jack Sharkey was born—from the incumbent champion, Jack Dempsey and the legendary sailor-brawler, Tom Sharkey.

Sharkey turned professional in 1924 and fought a dozen fights in his first year. His early days read as a blur of unknown names and "newspaper decisions" wherein some papers sided with Sharkey and others with his opponent, but by 1926 Sharkey was coming into his own. At six foot even and one 190 lbs he wouldn't raise too many eyebrows next to today’s giants but he was a powerfully built competitor in the heavyweight division of the 1920s. Moreover, he was quickly learning and he seemed to have a genuine love for boxing, spending considerable time studying and practicing the finer points that many big men would overlook.

By 1926, Sharkey had fought in any venue Boston had for a fight and the wins were beginning to come far more frequently than the losses and draws. In February, he fought his second bout in New York, this time at the esteemed Madison Square Garden—a big step for any Beantown fighter. In September he met George Godfrey and two weeks later he fought Harry Wills. Godfrey was a respected black heavyweight, and Wills was already considered the best black fighter of the moment, owning the World Colored Heavyweight title. In fact, between 1914 and 1922, Wills fought the legendary Sam Langford a stunning 17 times while waiting for a chance at the world title, tasting defeat only twice. Though Langford fought much of his later career almost blind, he was a force in the heavyweight division for decades.

Harry Wills was so good that, in spite of the bad taste that Jack Johnson’s reign had left in the mouths of many Americans, there were many attempts to get Wills into the ring with the world champion, Dempsey. In fact, Dempsey’s team had negotiated with Wills’s to the point that Wills was able to file a lawsuit for breach of contract when the Tunney fight was announced. In A Man Must Fight, Tunney recounts Wills being present for much of the build up and that Dempsey, upon Wills leaving the room, confided to Tunney that he would never give Wills a shot at his belt.

In September of 1926, Sharkey bested Godfrey and in October, he was on his way to stopping the brilliant Wills in something of an upset. Wills had suffered just one loss in the past six years. Yet as Sharkey cornered Wills and opened up with punches the referee stepped in—not to call a TKO, but to deliver a DQ for a backhanded blow from Wills. It did not go down well with the fans, the press, and especially the gamblers.

Following this run through the best black contenders, Sharkey got his title eliminator against the no-longer-champion Dempsey. After blowing his big shot, Sharkey went to a draw with Tom Heeney and then lost a split decision to the awkward journeyman, Johnny Risko. It all seemed to be unravelling but then Sharkey put on one of the better streaks of his career.

Sharkey starched former light heavyweight champion (but also barely functioning alcoholic) Jack Delaney in one round. After a few more fights against journeymen, Sharkey was matched against Young Stribling in February 1929. Stribling is one of those wacky boxing characters you can only wish there was more information and film on. From his match with Sharkey, we can see that Stribling was a masterful boxer, but also undersized as a heavyweight. He looked like a savvy old timer despite being only a young man, which makes sense because he had over two hundred fights on his record and he was only twenty-four years old.

After besting Stribling in front of 40,000 fans, Sharkey took half a year before getting back in the ring against the great Tommy Loughran. Loughran was the world light heavyweight champion from 1927–1929 and was now pursuing boxing’s biggest prize. He was a little on the small side for a heavyweight but he was a masterful ring general and had one of the finest jabs in the game. In 1929, he put together a set of victories which won him Ring magazine’s Fighter of the Year award besting among others the great middleweight Mickey Walker, the heavyweight Ernie Schaff, and defending his light heavyweight title against future world heavyweight champion Jim Braddock in a complete shut out. Loughran was well on his way to a shot at the world heavyweight title while holding the light heavyweight one.

Loughran fought almost completely side-on in what looks like a traditional martial arts style horse stance. His right hand was almost completely defensive as his lead hand performed the magic. Jabs and feints were his stock and trade and when opponents attempted to rush in on him, he would side step and wheel around the ring to evade them. Despite conceding height and reach to many heavyweights, he still beat them to the jab. The most extreme example of this is his 15 round decision loss to Primo Carnera. The gigantic Italian had half a foot and 70 lbs. on Loughran but was still reduced to rough-housing in the clinch to desperately avoid the lacing Tommy’s jab was giving him.

As good a boxer as Sharkey was, Loughran stuck it to him through the first two rounds. Sharkey had the power and the wider arsenal of blows, but he couldn’t get around that needling jab. When Sharkey tucked his chin and tried to rush through, he would attempt to land body blows on the inside but Loughran would simply tie him up.

Sharkey had noticed something though: Loughran’s wonderful jab came almost from his thigh. That initial stance could be exploited if Sharkey wasn’t focused on getting straight to Loughran. At the end of the second round, Sharkey tried his luck: pinning Loughran’s lead hand with his own before stepping in with a right straight beneath the heart and a left hook as Loughran hit the ropes.

As the third round began, Sharkey—now confident in this tactic—pinned Loughran’s hand to his hip again and this time almost decapitated Tommy with the right hand. Loughran hit the mat and was unable to rise to beat the count.

As far as knockouts go, you won’t see many in boxing like this one. A combination of Loughran’s strange style and Sharkey’s cunning opportunism.

Sharkey’s redemption tour then took to the seas as he travelled to England to meet the British heavyweight champion, Phil Scott. Scott had twice beaten Heeney and seemed a good name to have on Sharkey’s record. Sharkey showed the tall Briton a jab which had Scott wincing. Then Sharkey came in behind the jab and hooked off it with the same hand, sending Scott to the floor for the first of four times in a performance that saw the press dub him “Fainting Phil.”

With Tunney in retirement since 1928, it was finally decided that a new heavyweight title should be awarded in 1930. Jack Sharkey, the best American contender, was matched against Germany’s Max Schmeling. Schmeling was an anomaly: boxing had only recently enjoyed a spurt of popularity in Weimar Germany but the young fighter had come to prominence on serviceable boxing and an explosive right hand. In 1929, Schmeling had fought Johnny Risko—still riding that Sharkey victory—and sent him to the floor in four different rounds en route to stopping him in the ninth. This won Ring magazine’s Fight of the Year and after Schmeling ground his way through Paulino Uzcudun, he seemed like a logical contender for the belt.

Strangely enough looking at the film, Sharkey fought as you would expect a European fighter to: upright, on the ball of his back foot, looking to jab and drop away to set up the right hand counters. Schmeling fought from the crouch and a shoulder roll, looking to score with his Sunday punch. Sharkey seemed to be taking control of the fight with his double jabs and crisp counters as Schmeling came forwards. Double jabs and double one-twos seemed to work well against Schmeling as he could be convinced to lean back and get stuck in a purely defensive position.

By round three, Sharkey had begun to land hard right hands and Schmeling was having no luck on his own. As Schmeling made another rush to get in on the light-footed American, he was met with what might have been intended to be a counter left hook to the body, but which strayed low and became a brutal left uppercut squarely between Schmeling’s legs. No one can know if this was an accident or another of Sharkey’s strange moods, but the arena was thrown into chaos as the referee began counting but a second official came in to announce that the blow had been low. The fight to decide the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world concluded with Schmeling being awarded Gene Tunney’s old title, while clutching his crotch and retching on the canvas. It was the only time that the heavyweight title was won on a disqualification and it further associated Jack Sharkey with a most disappointing kind of in-ring madness.

Pity the Poor Giant

Sharkey was 30 years old and 45 fights deep into his career but he wasn’t quite done as a contender yet. Sharkey took a match with the squat middleweight-turned-heavyweight, Mickey Walker and went to a draw, before fighting Primo Carnera in October of 1931. Carnera was a curiosity who drew in fans but was reviled by the sports writers of the time. Not so much because of his personality, in fact most writers liked him in person, but due to his handlers who matched him against patsies or paid old fighters to take dives against him. Time magazine’s assessment of the murderers’ row that Carnera fought ahead of the Sharkey fight was that they “were known to be incompetent but their feeble opposition to Carnera suggested that they had been bribed to lose.”

Carnera’s appeal to the public came in his gigantic frame. Standing at six feet and six inches, he was a smidgen shorter than big Jess Willard who had won the heavyweight title from Jack Johnson a couple of decades earlier, but he was considerably heavier than Willard and carried a tremendous amount of muscle on his frame. For all his height and reach, Carnera never really learned to box and instead mauled opponents in the clinch. When Carnera later fought Tommy Loughran, Loughran would claim that he could have won the fight if Carnera hadn’t kept standing on his feet in the clinch.

Through fifteen rounds, Sharkey gave Carnera a boxing lesson. Picking at the giant with single shots, Sharkey set up his blows to the head with three or four body jabs and strolled around the ring freely. In the fourth round he caught the giant reaching and sent him to the mat with a left hook. Carnera went the distance but it showed that the numbers on his record meant nothing if he just couldn’t box.

Schmeling, meanwhile, had avoided Sharkey following the disqualification victory and the New York State Athletic Commission announced it would not recognize Schmeling as the champion if he didn’t correct the record in a rematch. Schmeling’s manager, Joe Jacobs, instead booked Schmeling into a match with Young Stribling in 1931. This turned into something of a barnburner with Schmeling stopping the smaller Stribling in the 15th round, but Stribling wasn’t Sharkey and the questions kept swirling. Finally in 1932 Schmeling and Sharkey met for a rematch and it wasn’t at all like the first. Schmeling had developed a jab and a lead hook, he wasn’t simply looking for the counter right hand, and in meeting Sharkey with multiple weapons he found more opportunities to land his right. When the decision was announced for Sharkey, Joe Jacobs famously declared “We was robbed!”

Sharkey was finally the heavyweight champion and took the rest of the year off, as is the heavyweight champion’s way. For his big summer fight of 1933 he booked Madison Square Garden opposite Primo Carnera. Since the last Sharkey fight, Carnera had fought twenty-nine times knocking over various softies but with a couple of wins over the journeyman, King Levinsky thrown in. In February, Carnera had fought the respected Ernie Schaaf and knocked him out in the 13th round, Schaaf never awoke from the knockout and the cumbersome giant was a "man-killer."

From the opening bell Carnera looked surprisingly fast. "The Ambling Alp" was catching Sharkey with counter punches that just weren’t there the first time they met. Each time Sharkey dug to his body, Carnera would lean on him in the clinch. More was written about Carnera’s diet than his punch and he maintained a weight of almost three hundred pounds, remaining the heaviest heavyweight champion in history until the seven foot tall Nikolai Valuev won the belt in 2005. Carrying Carnera’s weight took its toll on Sharkey and he drastically slowed.

In the sixth round, Sharkey was lunging after Carnera with overhands and standing still afterwards. A right uppercut from Carnera out of the clinch sent Sharkey’s head back and the champion tumbled to the floor, being counted out and losing his title without a single defense.

It was the nail in the coffin on Sharkey’s legacy. The naive loss against Dempsey, the disqualification loss against Schmeling, the questionable win in the rematch, and now the press was convinced that Carnera’s handlers had got to him. There was no way that the Sharkey who had humiliated Carnera a couple of years earlier would fall to him so easily. To the sportswriters and fans, the fix was in, and Jack Sharkey had twice made a mockery of the greatest title in sport.

Almost as if to prove that he really was shot, Sharkey continued on. Three months after Sharkey lost the title he was sent to the floor in the first round and beaten on the scorecards by Kingfish Levinsky. A week later Sharkey got in the ring with Tommy Loughran again and this time could not summon the knockout magic, losing a dull decision. Sharkey fought intermittently over the next couple of years against opposition like “Unknown Winston” and was knocked to the canvas even in his victories.

Finally in 1936, the handlers of Joe Louis approached Sharkey for a big fight. Louis was coming off his own embarrassing loss to Max Schmeling and needed to rebuild his brand. Sharkey was still a former champion and only a few fights removed from the title.

When Louis and Sharkey met, Sharkey looked passable for the opening round. He still had combinations and savvy, but when Louis caught him it was not like being caught by Loughran or Schmeling or Carnera—the punches kept coming in rapid succession. Sharkey’s own hand speed was waning and while it had been great for his time it was never close to young Louis’s. Palming Sharkey’s jabs and countering with body blows, Louis hammered in combinations—sending Sharkey down twice in the second round. In the third round, Louis sent Sharkey to his knees and over the bottom rope. The referee practically held Sharkey up as the fight restarted and a Louis right hand sent Sharkey crumbling to the mat for the final time.

There was nothing remarkable about how Sharkey’s career ended, most great fighters go out of the business on their back. But Tunney and Dempsey had been insulated from that—Dempsey retired when Tunney outran him a second time, and Tunney retired as the unbeaten heavyweight champion. Sharkey hadn’t made a Tunney or Dempsey-like fortune, he had to continue.

There is no case for Jack Sharkey being one of the greatest heavyweights of all time. He never showed the most important measure of accomplishment in fighting: consistency. What is clear is that Jack Sharkey was immensely talented and on any given night he might have beaten any of his peers. In today’s combat sports, a fighter visiting a sports psychologist and improving his overall performance as a result is nothing out of the ordinary—there are few great fighters in history who seemed to need that training on the mental side as much as Sharkey. Had Sharkey not lost his temper at the referee during his fight with Dempsey, he was well on his way to defeating the former champion. And had Sharkey got that shot at Tunney? He might not have been as ferocious as Dempsey but he was a better-rounded boxer and certainly a better fighter than any other heavyweight Tunney encountered outside of the Dempsey fights.

But that is the story of Jack Sharkey’s life in the ring: it is one of could haves and should haves. He remains a fascinating and underrated character in boxing’s canon of heroes, but he also stands as proof that skill isn’t everything in the fighting business. William Muldoon, the head of the New York State Athletic Commission and a great wrestler in his own time, gave perhaps the most fitting epitaph for Sharkey’s fighting career long before it was over. Muldoon remarked that Sharkey was undoubtedly the best fighter in the world, “from the neck down.”

Jack wrote the hit biography Notorious: The Life and Fights of Conor McGregor and hosts the Fights Gone By Podcast

This article originally appeared on VICE Sports US.