Obituary: Jack Sharkey

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The Independent Online
Joseph Paul Zukauskas (Jack Sharkey), boxer: born Binghampton, New York 26 October 1902; World Heavyweight Champion 1932-33; married (one son, two daughters); died Beverly, Massachusetts 17 August 1994.

JACK SHARKEY was one of the most temperamental, hot-headed heavyweights in boxing history - and also one of the finest.

Sharkey was world heavyweight champion between June 1932, when he won a controversial points verdict over Max Schmeling, of Germany, and June 1933, when he lost on an equally controversial knockout against Primo Carnera, of Italy.

He was unlucky to grow up as a a fighter during the Roaring Twenties when Jack Dempsey ruled the boxing world, reaching his peak when Dempsey and his successor Gene Tunney had gone, and boxing, like the world, had entered its Depression Years. There were still huge attendances at Sharkey's fights, but life wasn't the same after the Wall Street Crash of 1929. The greatest promoter of the time, Tex Rickard, died of peritonitis as the Twenties ended, and with his demise and the retirement of Dempsey, boxing died a little too.

History does not treat Sharkey kindly, for he reigned between the Dempsey years and the advent of the equally great Joe Louis. He was the only man to have fought them both. It was in New York in 1927 that he met Dempsey, who had just lost the heavyweight crown to Tunney. Sharkey outboxed and outfought the fabled Manassa Mauler for most of the first six rounds, but then his temper let him down. Dempsey landed a left hook Sharkey felt was below the belt. In his pain and anger Sharkey turned to complain to the referee - and Dempsey promptly flattened him with a left hook to the chin.

The oldest rule in boxing says 'protect yourself at all times'. Sharkey paid in pain and hard cash for breaking it. Dempsey went on to fight Tunney again in the celebrated fight that became known as the 'Battle of the Long Count' in Soldier Field, Chicago, while Sharkey was back in the queue with a multitude of others.

'I came home and I went in the hospital,' Sharkey recalled more than 40 years later, in Peter Heller's In This Corner (1973). 'I passed blood there for a long time . . . this is never brought out in print, the after-effects of a fight. You dry out like a lightweight, you're dehydrated, pains that you have, you come home you soak in a tub full of Epsom salts, the pain and the aches. No one knows what a fighter goes through after the fight.'

Sharkey fought his way back until, on Tunney's retirement, they matched him for the vacant title against Max Schmeling, in Yankee Stadium, New York, on 12 June 1930. The fight had hardly warmed up when Sharkey hit Schmeling low, the German crumpled in a heap and was carried to his corner by his seconds. The distraught and frustrated Sharkey was disqualified - and this is still the only time since bare-knuckle days that the heavyweight championship of the world has been won and lost on a foul. The outcome of that fight resulted in the introduction of the 'No Foul' rule in American boxing (so that a match cannot be won on a foul) - and led to the mandatory use of a foul-proof cup to cover a fighter's genitals.

To his dying day, Sharkey felt the result was a product of mob interference and that his final punch was legal: 'On (Schmeling's) end there was some dubious characters. So what, what can you do? Got a good payday, dollars 177,000. What the hell is the sense of crying about it?'

Mentally, the defeat affected him for a long time, but eventually, on 21 June 1932, he was matched with Schmeling again for the title in Long Island, New York. This time it seemed as if Schmeling had won a boring fight on points, but the decision went to Sharkey. It took Sharkey a year to defend - and then it was against the mob-controlled Carnera, who had been fed a diet of fixed fights to build him into a contender. Sharkey had already beaten him once and was by far the superior fighter. Yet in the sixth round he was knocked out by a spectacular upper cut. The astonishing result led to suggestions that he had taken a dive. Sharkey's version was more macabre. He said he lost concentration when he had a vision of his former protege Ernie Schaaf, who had died after fighting Carnera four months earlier.

Very few believed his story. He admitted that even his wife 'had her doubts'. He told one boxing historian in the 1970s: 'I can convince you, but I can't convince 200 million people.'

That knocked the heart out of him and he had long faded out of contention when, at the age of 33, they offered him a fight with the rising star Joe Louis in New York in August 1936. He lost easily in three rounds. 'I just threw some kisses to the crowd, and that was my last fight, my son's eighth birthday, 1936.'

Sharkey was a loner in a tough business, although he was also a committed family man with a wife and three children through most of his boxing career. He was born Joseph Zukauskas in 1902, the son of Lithuanian immigrants. He left the family home in New York when he was a teenager and after drifting awhile, joined the navy. Eventually, while on leave in Boston, he took a fight for dollars 100 and became a professional boxer. A promoter declared his Lithuanian name unusable and so he used Jack after Jack Dempsey and Sharkey from 'Sailor' Tom Sharkey, who fought Jim Jeffries to a 25-round decision for the heavyweight title in 1899.

'I was a hot-headed guy,' he admitted. 'You could never tell what I'd do . . . Half the time I didn't know what the hell I was doing anyway. If I got bad decisions, I'd go in a tantrum, might look like I was crying. They called me cry baby, they called me 'The Lispin' Lith', 'The Garrulous Gob' . . . But it didn't bother me as long as I got the pay cheque. Always deposited it before a fight in a Boston bank and when I got home it was credited to my account.'

He kept his money and was loved by his family, though he became increasingly reclusive in very old age. He spent most of his time with his thoughts and memories. In 1983, he was softly informed as he sat in his room that Jack Dempsey had died. He barely looked up, but muttered with a grim smile: 'I finally beat the son- of-a-bitch, didn't I?'

Jack Sharkey will be remembered with affection and respect. He was a strong man who earned his money and provided for his family in one of the hardest businesses of all.

(Photograph omitted)