The Warrior’s Bond: Jack Sharkey & Ernie Schaaf

By The Fight Film Collector on January 24, 2014
The Warrior’s Bond: Jack Sharkey & Ernie Schaaf
Jack Sharkey, admiring Schaaf’s determination in the ring, began mentoring the teenager.

Dual fighter/manager partnerships are not uncommon, but Sharkey and Schaaf were unique, remaining friends while ascending the ranks…

Jack Sharkey & Ernie Schaaf
Newsreel Interview 1931
Primo Carnera vs. Ernie Schaaf 1933
16mm print Transfer

Newsreels contain a wealth of hidden historical treasures. There are hundreds of thousands of hours of film now being curated in archives around the world. But due to the amount of material and limited resources, the archives often provide limited information for each entry, with some material going undocumented. Recently I was scanning through an index of boxing newsreels made during the 1930s, looking for alternate footage not used in the officially released versions. At the bottom of one listing, I spotted the word Schaaf. When I obtained and finally viewed the film, I saw that it was a promotional reel featuring heavyweight Jack Sharkey training in May 1931 to fight Primo Carnera. Included in the footage, as I had hoped, was rare film of Sharkey’s friend and protégé, Ernie Schaaf.

Rich Man Poor Man

Sharkey and Schaaf exemplified the warrior’s bond. Sharkey, who was six years older than Schaaf, was already an established boxer when they met as Navy seamen on board the battleship Denver. The two boxed, and Sharkey, admiring Schaaf’s determination in the ring, began mentoring the teenager. After the Navy, the two remained friends as they climbed the professional ranks during the 1920s. Both experienced mixed luck with their careers. Sharkey fast-tracked during the mid-1920s, before losing to Jack Dempsey and later to Max Schmeling. But on the rise again, he defeated Primo Carnera in 1931, and then won the Heavyweight Championship in a disputed decision from Max Schmeling the following year. 

Meanwhile, Schaaf’s record was spotty. So in 1930, Sharkey acted on both faith and loyalty to Schaaf when he and his manager, John Buckley, bought Schaaf’s contract. The two boxers became official stable mates and Schaaf began to prosper—with victories over a youthful Tony Galento, Paulino Uzcudun, Jim Braddock, Tommy Loughran, Max Baer and Young Stribling. There were also losses, including a rematch with future champion Max Baer, where Schaaf was battered unconscious just seconds before the final bell, suffering, many believe, permanent brain damage. By 1933, however, Schaaf was a top-ranked heavyweight, right behind his friend and champion Jack Sharkey.

Dual fighter/manager partnerships are not uncommon, but Sharkey and Schaaf were unique, remaining friends while ascending the ranks to within one fight of facing each other. There was talk of Ernie hiring a new manager in the event that he would challenge Sharkey for the title. After Schaaf’s victory over Young Stribling, The Reading Eagle reported, “The victory may have moved Schaaf into the somewhat embarrassing position of crowding his co-manager, who was in his corner, for a place in the heavyweight sun.” In The Gettysburg Times, the two reportedly joked about the prospect, with Sharkey suggesting a way “to devise some painless means of passing the crown along to him” when Sharkey tired of the title.

The Last Fight

Instead, events soon played out like a Greek tragedy. On February 10, 1933, at Madison Square Garden, it was Schaaf’s turn to fight Primo Carnera, a boxer that neither Schaaf nor Sharkey should have lost to. Ernie appeared to be having an off night during the battle, and in the 13th round, Carnera hit Schaaf with a stiff left jab. Even today, the sequence that followed is chilling to watch on the film; the sight of Schaaf tumbling to the canvas, struggling with sudden paralysis, and then collapsing. As the ring fills with Primo’s well-wishers, Sharkey drags the unconscious Schaaf back to his corner. Unable to wake him, Schaaf’s limp body is lifted out of the ring and carried off. All this under the roar of 20,000 boos raining down from the crowd calling out “FAKE.” Even the best Hollywood boxing movies would have trouble matching a scene like this.

At the hospital, belief was that Schaaf might recover. He eventually came to and was speaking. Sharkey reportedly stayed with Ernie through the night. The following morning, the doctors expressed hope regarding Schaaf’s condition. Only then did Sharkey leave town on a trip with his family. Schaaf died after emergency surgery on Valentine’s Day 1933 and Sharkey never saw his friend alive again. Carnera, it was reported, was crushed by the news of Ernie’s death, and cried for hours. For a detailed story on the circumstances of Schaaf’s death, please read the excellent article by Norman Marcus, “The Strange Death of Ernie Schaaf.”

David Loses to Goliath

The epilogue to this drama came four months later when champion Sharkey faced Primo Carnera in their rematch. This was the title challenge intended for Schaaf. Now instead, Sharkey was facing Ernie’s killer. After a competitive six rounds, an uppercut/shove by Carnera dumped Sharkey on the canvas like a beached whale. He lay motionless as he was counted out. Rumors have circulated for years that the knockout was not on the level. There were mob connections, primarily involving Carnera. Sharkey denied the loss was anything but genuine, adding famously that he was distracted by the sight of Schaaf’s ghost standing in the ring. “I had no trouble, physically fit and everything and I boxed the guy (Carnera) before . . . I looked and I see a vision of Ernie Schaaf. There’s no pain . . . like in a dream. Of course when you snap out of it, that’s when the shame comes. You know you’ve lost.”

The Films

The newsreel footage is striking in several ways. Sharkey looks impressive during the training portion. Though only 6’ tall, modest height for a heavyweight, Sharkey appears strong, well-conditioned and projects great physical intensity and humor. Schaaf, though dressed in a suit and tie for the occasion, looks impressive as well. At 6’2”, he is clearly the bigger of the two men. Despite the scripting that was common for newsreel sound bites, it’s clear that the two are friends and trying not to crack up. The image of Schaaf in this film is a sharp contrast to the man who appeared dwarfed in the ring against 6’6” Primo Carnera. The newsreel also puts a face and a voice to a man, who has mostly been associated with images of his death.

I’ve also included the Official Films abridged version of the Carnera-Schaaf fight from an excellent 16mm print. With the exposure and film speed adjusted, the action suggests that Schaaf was in trouble even before the knockout. I also have a longer version of this fight, but the print quality is poor, though it does include the post-fight footage with Schaaf being attended to and taken from the ring. I have inserted that scene at the end.

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Jack Sharkey In Training w/rare footage of Ernie Schaaf, Boston May 6, 1931

Primo Carnera -vs- Ernie Schaaf, February 10, 1933 (16mm Transfer w/postfight)

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  1. NYIrish 11:39am, 01/26/2014

    Thanks FFC. Website indicates picture was shot in a New York gym in 1931. Wonder if it was Stillman’s. The wider shot on the website shows overhead ductwork that someone may recognize. Those who saw it first hand are probably no longer with us.

  2. The Fight Film Collector 10:56am, 01/26/2014

    NORM!  Thank you and yes, them early times was inneresting indeed.  Your earlier piece inspired me.  Boxing figures were much bigger in the public eye and there was a “one of us” perception in much of sports then, that seems rare now.  And the fact that these guys were set against a very interesting period makes their stories even more compelling. 

    Irish, here’s where I found the image:

  3. NYIrish 07:27am, 01/26/2014

    Great picture of Ernie Schaaf with the dapper Sharkey over his shoulder. If I had a saloon it would be great behind the bar. Been aware of Ernie Schaaf and his tragic ring death since I started reading Ring and Boxing Illustrated as a kid. Never remember a good close up. Now I know what he looked like. Do you know where that shot was taken?

  4. Norm Marcus 06:37am, 01/26/2014

    Film Collector: Don’t you find the stories about the boxers of the 20s and 30s the most fun to write about? I think their adventures outside the ring are often more interesting then what happens during their fights.
    Shaaf /Sharkey is a great piece! Oh, thanks for the plug on my Schaff story.

    Norm Marcus

  5. Eric 05:15pm, 01/25/2014

    Sharkey always claimed his knockout loss to Carnera was on the level. Sharkey also couldn’t believe how strong Carnera was and admitted his jab was decent, not only was his jab decent but it packed some sting to it. Carnera will never be thought of as power puncher but just his sheer size and strength had to present some problems for some of the modest sized heavyweights of the day. The popular theory was it was the murderous puncher Max Baer who did the real damage that caused Schaaf’s death, but as mentioned earlier, Schaaf had a pretty tough bout with Galento before Baer. Reportedly, Schaaf was roughed up pretty bad in the Galento bout and some thought that the beating Schaaf took from Galento might have caused some of the damage leading up to his fatal bout with Carnera. In a battle of giants featuring Willard vs. Carnera, I would favor Carnera over Willard. Carnera was a better athlete than Willard, could move fairly well for such a large man and was always in decent shape.

  6. The Fight Film Collector 10:49am, 01/25/2014

    Irish, agreed, my friend, Carnera was better than he’s often been portrayed.  No disrespect intended in the article.  Primo was plenty agile and unlike the contemporary giants, he worked pretty well on the inside.  I like the Klitschkos, but Wladimir does miss a lot of punches.  In fact that would be a valuable category to ad to Punch Stats - “Punches Missed”.

  7. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 09:31am, 01/25/2014

    Fight Film Collector-From what I have observed in these excellent films, Carnera might have been just a tad better fighter than he has been portrayed as in the history books. If he was indeed manhandling Ernie in this fight and landing repeated shots….that would explain a lot. The right hand that he misses with in the corner in the third round in the film above is reminiscent, at least to me, of some of the scary right hand shots that Wladimir just misses with that have KO written all over them.

  8. Eric 09:30am, 01/25/2014

    Schaaf also took a sound beating in the Tony Galento fight before his fight with Baer and Carnera. Schaaf won the 10 round fight but reportedly took a pounding from Two Ton Tony in the process.

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