Jack Sharkey: “The Boston Gob”

By Norman Marcus on June 27, 2012
Jack Sharkey: “The Boston Gob”
It wasn’t long before Sharkey got out of the navy and his career really began to take off

“Who hit me hardest? Dempsey hit me the hardest because Dempsey hit me $211,000 worth while Louis only hit me $36,000 worth…”

“Every time Louis hit me, he said, ‘Sorry.’ Every time Jack Dempsey hit me, he said, ‘How come you’re not dead yet?’”—Jack Sharkey

Joseph Paul Zukauskas enlisted in the U.S. Navy in June of 1920. He was just eighteen years old. Joe became a special person aboard his ship because he could fight and won many of the fleet boxing competitions. He continued to box for the next four years while in the service and won thirty-eight straight fights with the Caribbean Fleet. His only loss was a decision for the Heavyweight Championship of the Navy, just before his enlistment was up.

Jack Sharkey—Was there ever a better name for a fighter? Joe didn’t think so. The young sailor just took the first name of Jack Dempsey and the last name of Tom Sharkey and he came up with a new ring name for himself: JACK SHARKEY. These two great heavyweight fighters were his heroes, ever since his early days in Boston. Sharkey tried to mimic Dempsey’s style, while Tom Sharkey was a sailor like himself, who had fought the great champion Jim Jefferies. Tom even had a big sailing ship tattooed on his chest and a cauliflower ear! Our boy knew even then that he wanted to be a professional boxer and that his real name had to go.

In Boston, the “new” Jack Sharkey hooked up with a promoter that gave him his first pro fight, a preliminary four-rounder for $100. He later told the press, “I would have fought the whole navy for a hundred dollars.” Sharkey knocked Billy Muldoon out in the first round that night and so began the pro boxing career of Jack Sharkey. His next fight earned him $300, then one for $500, and finally he had a pay envelope with $1000 in it for just one fight. That was big money for Jack in those days. Most people in the 1920s might make that in a whole year.

It wasn’t long before Sharkey got out of the navy and his career really began to take off. He fought Floyd Johnson, a heavyweight contender at the time. Johnson fought Sharkey as a tune-up, in his pursuit of Dempsey and the title. They met on June 23, 1924 in Boston. Jack knocked Floyd down in the first round and proceeded to give him a real drubbing. It was a UD for Sharkey in ten rounds. Sharkey had beaten this leading contender in just his fifth pro fight. He was a name fighter now and the promoters wanted him to leave Boston and fight out of New York City. The real money was in New York but Jack liked Boston. It was his hometown, so he hesitated moving from there to New York. In the next two years Sharkey fought twenty-three times, winning eighteen of them.

Finally on October 12, 1926, Sharkey was lured to Ebbets Field in Brooklyn to fight the great Harry Wills. The legendary black heavyweight had been waiting for years to meet Dempsey for a shot at the title. But the white promoters of the day feared that Wills could beat Dempsey and they would be stuck with another black champion like Jack Johnson. It wasn’t just racist. It was also not good for business. Johnson had given boxing a bad name with their white customers. His string of white wives and a conviction under The Mann Act (a Federal law that prohibited bringing a woman across state lines for immoral purposes) made Jack a target for hate mongers. Johnson had done too much and gone too far in their opinion.  So Wills would never get his coveted shot at the crown. Besides, Harry was getting a little long in the tooth by then and there was a good chance that the young Sharkey could beat him. The promoter’s hunch later proved correct.

In fact, during the fight Jack was doing fine and in the 13th round he got Wills up against the ropes. Harry was out on his feet and referee Patsy Haley should have stopped it on a TKO. Instead he stepped in and called it a win for Sharkey on a DQ. Haley claimed that Wills fouled Jack with an illegal backhand punch. Harry was later suspended for twenty days by the boxing commission. A foul meant all bets were off. The bookmakers were not happy with Haley that night.

Jack Sharkey was on a roll now, stopping Homer Smith in seven rounds at the Arena in Syracuse, New York on February 15, 1926. He beat former Light Heavyweight Champ Mike McTigue at Madison Square Garden on March 3, 1927 in 12 rounds and Jim Maloney was also stopped in five at Yankee Stadium on May 20 that same year. Sharkey beat all three men by TKO.

The next fellow standing in his way to the title was his hero, Jack Dempsey.

It was an elimination bout to see which of them would get a shot at the new champion Gene Tunney. Dempsey wanted that rematch with Gene real bad. “Father Time” was breathing down Dempsey’s neck. The two men met at Yankee Stadium on July 21, 1927. The unpredictable Jack Sharkey was absent that night and Dempsey faced a Sharkey that meant business. Sharkey staggered Dempsey in the first round and kept the pressure on in the next five rounds. Dempsey knew he had to knock Sharkey out to win. No way the Manassa Mauler could win the fifteen-round decision. Dempsey began to push the action. In round seven Sharkey felt he was hit low to the midsection and turned to referee Jack O’Sullivan to protest the foul. Never do that. “Protect yourself at all times” is the rule all boxers are taught from day one. Well, Dempsey saw that beautiful profile of Sharkey and landed a left hook right on Sharkey’s kisser. Jack Sharkey went down for the count. When asked by the press after the fight if he thought the knockout was a cheap shot, Dempsey famously asked, “What did you want me to do, write him a letter?” So Dempsey went on to meet Tunney for the title and the notorious “long count.” Jack Sharkey went into the hospital to recover from all those body shots he took from Dempsey. It took the Boston Gob a week to stop pissing blood.

After Dempsey later lost the rematch with Gene Tunney, the champion retired. The New York Boxing Commission held an elimination bout to see who would fight for the vacant heavyweight title. It turned out to be Schmeling and Sharkey. Jack lost to the German that night on a foul in the fourth round. Nobody really saw the punch land south of the border but the way Schmeling was writhing and grabbing himself, he got the belt that night. But Jack Sharkey went home with $177,000, so it softened the blow so to speak.

Schmeling ducked a rematch with Jack, so Sharkey took on the “Toy Bulldog,” Middleweight Champion Mickey Walker on July 23, 1931. The two men fought to a fifteen-round draw at Ebbets Field. The press ridiculed Sharkey because Walker was just a blown-up middleweight and Jack didn’t beat him. It was just another big payday for Jack. The money just kept rolling in. Sharkey next fought Primo Carnera, again at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn. He won a fifteen-round UD.

Sharkey fought Schmeling again in 1932 at the Madison Square Garden Bowl, in Queens, New York. The New York Boxing Commission threatened to pull Schmeling’s license if he ducked another rematch with Sharkey. Max’s manager Joe Jacobs was forced to agree to the meeting. It went fifteen rounds to a SD for Jack.  Referee Gunboat Smith cast the deciding vote that finally gave the title to Sharkey. Just to be sure no low blows were called against him again, Jack had been very careful that night. He aimed at Schmeling’s head and neck, throwing very few body shots. Jack Sharkey was finally the new Heavyweight Champion of the World.

On May 29, 1933, Sharkey lost the title to Primo Carnera, the mob controlled patsy that Sharkey had beaten the year before. An erratic Jack Sharkey showed up that night at the Bowl in Queens. He claims he saw a vision of his old friend Ernie Schaaf in the ring—the same Ernie Schaaf that Carnera had fatally knocked out in a fight months before. The stunned Sharkey now just stood there frozen, staring at his friend’s ghost. “The Pream” wasted no time, just popped him one in the sixth round, and Jack Sharkey was counted out. How did Carnera knock out Sharkey? Carnera’s best punch couldn’t bust an egg. Primo was known to be all mobbed up but there is no proof the fight wasn’t on the square.

On his way out of the fight game now, Jack Sharkey fought Kingfish Levinsky on September 18, 1933 at Comiskey Park in Chicago. Jack lost the UD in ten rounds. He then fought Tommy Loughran nine days later at Shibe Park in Philly. He lost this one in a SD in fifteen rounds. Jack then fought four journeymen boxers in Massachusetts with mixed results. His last fight was in 1936 at Yankee Stadium, against Joe Louis in an attempt to get another crack at the title. The Brown Bomber knocked Jack out in the third round. Years later Sharkey was asked who hit harder, Dempsey or Louis? Sharkey was the only man to fight both men. “Dempsey hit me the hardest because Dempsey hit me $211,000 worth while Louis only hit me $36,000 worth.”

Jack retired from the ring with all his marbles and most of his money safe in the bank. He became a referee and made personal appearances. He was Ted Williams fishing partner for many years. When asked which he liked better, boxing or fishing, Sharkey replied, “Fishing, it doesn’t pay as much but then the fish don’t hit back.” He had his last contest with Max Schmeling decades later. Jack held the record as the oldest living former heavyweight champion, living to the ripe old age of ninety-one. Schmeling finally beat Sharkey, by living to be ninety-nine!

Well, it was a great run while it lasted for Jack Sharkey. He had the fame, the fortune, and the celebrity status. Jack Sharkey, what a great name for a fighter!

Follow us on Twitter@boxing_com to continue the discussion

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  1. Jan Swart 09:27pm, 01/09/2016

    Sharkey was actually in Ernie Schaaf’s corner during the Carnera fight. He can be seen in the fight film dragging Schaaf to his corner after the fatal knockout.

  2. Henry D. 06:36am, 06/29/2012

    ‘The real money was in New York but Jack liked Boston. It was his hometown,..’ it’s neat to read an article about someone like Jack Sharkey and get a feel not only for his boxing life in general but also for Jack as Jack, a homeboy from Boston.. Well done.

  3. Don from Prov 04:51am, 06/29/2012

    Loved this piece—and the quote about Louis being so polite while Dempsey only inquired as to why Jack wasn’t dead yet is a classic.  I only wish that Sharkey had been more serious and direct about the punching power, and a lot else, about Dempsey and Louis.  I imagine Ted Williams heard some stories while sitting on those quiet Mangrove flats down in Florida.  Good stuff.

  4. norm Marcus 04:26am, 06/29/2012

    Thanks Tex, I appreciate your comment. My dad was in his 20s when these guys were in their prime. I grew up with the stories about them. I guess I’m kindda in a time warp. I personally think that Sharkey and Baer when they were in the right mood, could have cleaned house in the heavyweight division we have today.  Of course Louis and Marciano are included in that statement. They all seemed to live in such serious times back then, the depression, WWII. Today the big news seems to be about the new “crib” that the champion lives in, or the countless women that are suing them for money.
    Here at boxing.com I try to give the reader a glimpse back in time.

  5. TEX HASSLER 08:16pm, 06/28/2012

    Thanks for putting the spotlight on one of the past greats, Jack Sharkey. Shakey was the only man to fight both Dempsey and Louis as you mentioned. Most other boxing websites fail to mention folks like Shakey and the great fighters of the past.

  6. The Thresher 05:05pm, 06/28/2012

    Not sure you would find articles about Sharkey or Baer on any other boxing site.

  7. JimmyD 01:45pm, 06/28/2012

    Sharkey was often overlooked in this era with the likes of Dempsey getting more acclaim. He was a solid fighter who had a very lively career. Thanks for remembering Sharkey, Mr. Marcus.

  8. norm Marcus 01:35pm, 06/28/2012

    Your a winner Jack. I also had a bull terrier but we named him Buster, after Buster Douglas. Actually a bull terrier has a head shaped like a shark with tiny black eyes, so the name Sharkey fits.
    In old-time Dickens England bare knuckle fighters always kept a bulldog or bull terrier as a pet. The dogs used to fight in the pits and the men in the ring.
    Coincidentally Mike Vick lives here in my condo. My two bulldogs don’t like him much!

  9. Jack Lewis 08:08am, 06/28/2012

    Another great read. They don’t make them like they use to.  Funny thing is I named my dog after the man/scrappy bull terrier.

  10. The Thresher 06:07am, 06/28/2012

    Yes he is. He and Mike Casey keep us honest vis-a-vis our historical perspective. I don’t think any other site does that.

  11. zena warrior princess 02:50am, 06/28/2012

    Stumbled across this website a few months ago. I really like the stories about the old fighters. My grandfather used to tell me about them when I was a little girl. This story is like that. Mr. Marcus is a real storyteller.

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