Jack Sharkey aka the Fighting Fool
What makes one champ a legend (Dempsey) and the other (Sharkey) just a second tier champion in the record books?
Jack Sharkey wanted to be known as the Boston Gob. But the newspapers often called him the Fighting Fool. The problem was that Sharkey was erratic. In one bout he would appear to be a true contender. But in the next fight he looked like a confused amateur. So he often looked foolish in the ring. Hence the cruel ring name.
He learned how box in the U.S. Navy. After his discharge, he started his professional boxing career in Boston. The ring name, the Boston Gob, was considered better for the gate receipts in the heavily Irish city.
You see Sharkey, whose real name was Joseph Paul Zukauskas, was a Lithuanian. The Irish fans in Boston didn’t even know where Lithuania was. He took his first name from one of the two fighters he most admired, Jack Dempsey. His surname came from his second hero, old-time heavyweight contender, Tom Sharkey.
Now at this time, Jack Dempsey had just lost his heavyweight belt to Gene Tunney. You would think that the Manassa Mauler would rate an immediate rematch with Tunney. But promoter Tex Rickard, a slick gambler from the Klondike, smelled extra money in the air. So Tex set it up, first his pal Dempsey would have to beat Jack Sharkey, the up and coming young contender. He would then get his face-to-face with the guy who now had his heavyweight belt, the Fighting Marine Gene Tunney.
Why would Mr. Rickard make it so difficult for Dempsey to get back in the ring with Tunney? M-O-N-E-Y!!! This would be another million dollar payday for Tex and Jack. Probably the last one, if Dempsey lost to Sharkey. This extra fight turned out to be the only non-title bout ever to gross over a million dollars at the gate! How can that be? Well the gate was the only way to make a buck in those days. A million dollar gate for a fight at Yankee Stadium couldn’t happen today. You couldn’t pack that stadium today. It would be almost empty.
For example, when Yuri Foreman met Miguel Cotto in Yankee Stadium on June 10, 2010, to defend his super welterweight title, the stadium was almost empty. Just 20,272 people showed up for that superfight in the Bronx. There are too many other ways to watch a big fight today that are cheaper and more convenient. The fights today are in much smaller venues. Fans don’t have to come out to see them anymore. The fights can now gross tens of millions of dollars, but in many other ways as well.
There was no big money in radio fights in the 1920s. Also, television, HBO, Showtime, and pay-per-view didn’t exist yet. A newspaper “extra edition” could be bought for a penny on every street corner, just a few hours after a big fight. The big cash money was only at the gate.
The clock was ticking on Dempsey now. He went into this fight just after he hit his peak. One hundred and ninety-four pounds. He was pushing thirty-two years of age, an old man in the game. But he could still bob and weave. He could still bore into his opponent with savage body shots and short punches. Best of all, Jack had a killer instinct. You can’t teach that to a fella. You either are born with it or not.
Sharkey on the other hand was on his way up. He was only twenty-four years old, with fast hands and feet, one hundred and ninety-six pounds of power. Besides it didn’t hurt that he was a navy veteran. Sharkey had been the heavyweight champion of the navy’s Atlantic fleet! He could be personable and funny when he spoke to reporters.
On June 21, 1927, at Yankee Stadium, Bronx, New York, the two men faced each other in front of more than 82,000 people. The gate was $1,083,530. Most fans cheered for the ex-champ. He was the sentimental favorite. Few cheered for Sharkey. Even though he was favored at 7 to 5.
For the first five rounds Sharkey battered the hell out of Dempsey, almost knocking him out in round 1 but the old champ had hung on. In round 7 Dempsey was bloody and desperate. He began to concentrate on Sharkey’s body, throwing punches as fast as he could. Sharkey always wore his trunks high. Several punches caught him below that belt line. Sharkey turned and shouted to the referee, “He’s hitting me low,” exposing his beautiful profile to Dempsey! The Manassa Mauler couldn’t resist. He nailed Sharkey with a left hook. It was a KO7 for Dempsey!
When the press asked Dempsey about the knock out after the fight he said, “Its all in the game. What was I going to do? Write him a letter? His chin was sticking out there unprotected. I couldn’t miss.”
In Dempsey’s defense, the first thing you learn when you get into a boxing ring is “defend yourself at all times.” Dempsey knew it. Sharkey sadly forgot it that night in Yankee Stadium. Strange too that the Boston Gob clutched his groin after he was knocked to the canvas, by a blow to his jaw!
A few hours after the fight, Sharkey stood outside his hotel in downtown Manhattan. He looked up at the cloudy sky, turned to his Irish manager Johnny Buckley and asked him if it was supposed to rain that night. “Why do you want to know?” said Buckley. Sharkey replied, “I’d hate to have the fight postponed by rain.”
The shocked Buckley told the Boston Gob straight out that he had lost a day somewhere. Dempsey had knocked him out earlier that evening… He was dropped in the 7th round! Sharkey couldn’t believe it! Concussions can do that to a boxer.
Sharkey died at the age of ninety-one in a nursing home. He suffered from Alzheimer’s in later years. Was it caused by CTE, too many shots to the head? Even today, docs can’t tell without a brain autopsy at the time of death.
Dempsey went on to live a full life as a movie star, owner of a famous Times Square restaurant, and boxing referee. He died in bed with his family all around him. He was eighty-seven years old and sharp as a tack till the very end.
What makes one champ a legend (Dempsey) and the other (Sharkey) just a second tier champion in the record books? Dempsey once said, “A champion is someone who gets up when he can’t.”