Sharkey, Jack

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Sharkey, Jack

(b. 26 October 1902 in Binghamton, New York, d. 17 August 1994 in Beverly, Massachusetts), heavyweight boxing champion in the early 1930s.

Born Joseph Paul Zukauskas (often spelled Cukoschay), the son of Lithuanian immigrants, Sharkey attended school only through the eighth grade. His first job was shoveling coal for a box factory. From his earliest youth, his ambition was to become a sailor, and as a fourteen-year-old he made the first of several unsuccessful attempts to enlist in the U.S. Navy. In 1920 he was finally inducted into the navy and was stationed in Newport, Rhode Island.

During his stint at Newport, Zukauskas showed that he could fight. “I was pretty big for eighteen,” he later recalled. “The Navy taught me that a fellow who can’t take care of himself doesn’t belong in hard-hitting company.” He won nineteen of twenty bouts during his military boxing career, becoming known as one of the toughest men in the navy before his honorable discharge on 23 February 1924. A Boston fight manager, Johnny Buckley, then signed him to a professional contract.

In an era when the fight game was dominated by Irish American boxers, Zukauskas in 1924 took the ring name of Jack Sharkey in honor of two of his favorite fighters, Tom Sharkey and the heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey. Sharkey rose quickly in the heavyweight ranks, making his professional debut in the winter of 1924 with a one-round knockout over Billy Muldoon in Boston. His first major victory was a ten-round decision in June 1924 over veteran heavyweight Floyd Johnson. Over the next thirteen years, he compiled a record of thirty-eight victories, thirteen defeats, three draws, and one no-decision. In his boxing career, he earned more than $ 1.5 million. “Sharkey was one of the colorful men of the period,” Ring magazine’s Nat Fleischer wrote in 1949. “Brash and self-confident, he regarded all opponents as his inferiors in fighting qualities and felt that he could whip any heavyweight in the world.”

In the fall of 1926 Sharkey took on the decade’s two most prominent African American heavyweights. On 21 September he won a ten-round decision over George Godfrey in Boston. Then, on 12 October, he met the great Harry Wills at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn. Sharkey outpunched Wills and was well ahead on points when he won on a foul in the thirteenth round. Because both Dempsey and Gene Tunney were avoiding the black fighters, Sharkey’s victories over Godfrey and Wills made him an instant contender.

Sharkey’s next big fight was a 20 May 1927 heavyweight elimination bout with Jim Maloney at Yankee Stadium. A seven-to-five underdog, Sharkey stopped Maloney in the fifth round. The promoter Tex Rickard then signed Sharkey to fight Dempsey on 21 July 1927 at Yankee Stadium. Eight years younger than Dempsey, Sharkey was the two-to-one favorite. Before the fight, he vowed, “I am going in there to knock out Jack Dempsey.”

In the first round, Sharkey looked as if he might deliver on that promise. Hitting Dempsey with sharp combinations, he split and bloodied the former champion’s lower lip. And, as the round ended, Sharkey staggered Dempsey with a powerful left to the jaw. Though Dempsey fought back in the next round, his punches had little impact. Sharkey opened a cut over Dempsey’s left eye in the third round and closed the former champion’s right eye in the fourth round. “I thought I had him,” Sharkey said. “I knew it was just a matter of time.” “Sharkey gave me living hell for the first five rounds,” Dempsey wrote in his 1960 autobiography. “During this stretch he was as good a fighter as I’ve ever seen. He moved like a good middleweight.... I thought he was going to knock me out. He couldn’t miss in his left.”

In the sixth round, Dempsey rallied with body punches. When Sharkey got hit below the belt in the seventh round, he complained to the referee Jack O’Sullivan. Despite a warning from O’Sullivan, Dempsey hit Sharkey four times in the same area. As Sharkey tried to get the referee’s attention, Dempsey landed a left hook to the jaw. Sharkey fell to the canvas, and Dempsey was declared the winner by knockout. Sharkey’s manager protested the decision, wanting to file an appeal, but Sharkey accepted the verdict. “Aw, shut up,” Sharkey told his manager. “It’s all in the game.”

Ironically, Sharkey lost his first championship fight under similar circumstances. On 12 June 1930, he met Max Schmeling for the heavyweight title left vacant by Tunney’s retirement. Sharkey dominated the first three rounds at the Madison Square Garden bowl in Long Island City, New York. In the fourth round, he knocked out Schmeling with a right to the body. But the German claimed that he had been fouled and ring officials concurred. Schmeling thus became the first heavyweight to win the championship on a foul.

On 21 June 1932 Sharkey gained the world championship by a controversial split decision in his rematch with Schmeling. Though Sharkey moved into an early lead, Schmeling had him in trouble in the middle rounds and held his own in the later rounds. At the end of the fifteenth round, Sharkey was awarded a majority decision. Schmeling’s manager Joe Jacobs lamented, “We was robbed.” A majority of sportswriters agreed with that assessment.

Sharkey’s reign was brief. On 29 June 1933 he defended his title against the giant Primo Camera. It was their second meeting: Sharkey had won a lopsided decision over Carnera in 1931. “I had to fight him but I had no respect for him,” Sharkey recalled years later. “He had a head as big as a squash and I knew I could hit him any time I wanted. But when I got in the ring with him I realized he had improved.” In the sixth round, Sharkey jolted the challenger with two rights to the chin. But Camera responded with a right uppercut to the chin that dropped Sharkey for the count.

His last big fight, on 18 August 1936 at Yankee Stadium, was against Joe Louis, who knocked out Sharkey in the third round. Sharkey, who retired after the Louis bout, was inducted into the Boxing Hall of Fame in 1980 and the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1994. He was the only heavyweight to have faced both Dempsey and Louis.

Sharkey married Dorothy Pike of Epping, New Hampshire, in 1924. Their marriage produced three children and lasted until Dorothy’s death in 1992. After retiring, Sharkey lived in Epping, where he was an active outdoorsman. The baseball star Ted Williams was among his regular fishing companions.

There are profiles of Sharkey in Nat Fleischer, The Heavyweight Championship (1949), and John D. McCallum, The World Heavyweight Boxing Championship (1974). Dempsey recalls his bout with Sharkey in his autobiography Dempsey (1960). An obituary is in the New York Times (19 Aug. 1994).

Steve Neal