When the Boston Gob shut his Trap

By Ted Spoon: The best heavyweight between Gene Tunney and Joe Louis was Jack Sharkey. How does that sound? It probably doesn't sit very well. Surely Max Schmeling with his triumph over Louis gets the nod? If not then it must be Max Baer who scrambled Schmeling and Primo Carnera? Truth be told Sharkey was more inconsistent than the lot of 'em. The problem is there were times when he looked supernatural.

And this talent was not based on fairy tales from the gym. A third round blasting of Tommy Loughran and fifteen round spanking of Carnera were chief examples of Sharkey's all round ability. The resolute Loughran was taken out in exceedingly rare fashion, and Carnera, before his revenge and unfortunate meeting with Baer, was consummately bludgeoned.

During a prosperous 1930 the muscular boxer was famously disqualified against Schmeling for going excruciatingly low. The German came away with the title but he had been looking decidedly second best.

It's difficult to say what happens to a fighter's mentality as they go through the mill. Some may become disillusioned with their vocation; others lose faith in their abilities. What happened to Sharkey is up for debate but that magic vanished never to return the night he had his rematch with Schmeling; officially he won but Joe Jacobs call of “we wuz robbed” summed up the unofficial opinion of the contest.

Following a year of championship squandering Sharkey had his rematch with Carnera and spectacularly lost. King Levinsky out pointed him less than three months later and Loughran concluded a terrible 1933, marking his third consecutive loss with a split decision victory.

When it came to blowing hot and cold, Jack was king. The championship seemed to bring with it an icy gale, sapping his strength, but before this mysterious occurrence he was a well-oiled, punishing fighter.

At six feet and 200lbs Sharkey was ideally proportioned. He certainly wasn't small (that torso was leapt out at you) but he wasn't slow either, able to gently scoot around his opponent with neat footwork. A busy jab made the most out of a 72” reach; fired from a loose guard to blur its release. Many of the top operators shared these esoteric tricks (Mike McTigue and Loughran to name a couple) but what they didn't have was Sharkey's unprejudiced whim to ditch the pistol for the heavy artillery.

Suddenly Sharkey would swoop out of his composed nest with a rolling hook. Overhand rights usually married his left and he was not a happy customer in the clinch. Once this aggressive streak was satisfied he would go back playing cutie, trying to draw you onto a sly uppercut.

Jack's least known trait (his elusiveness) was a delight to behold. The 'lean-back', mastered by James Corbett and Jack Johnson, was deftly executed, but if pressed Sharkey could go into the kind of excessive gyrating we'd associate with Pernell Whitaker.

This blend of fire and smarts got the best of George Godfrey, Harry Wills, Mike McTigue and Jim Maloney. Though his body was winding down it is important to note that Sharkey was the first to legitimately beat the fabled 'Black Panther' since Sam Langford had knocked him out a decade earlier.

The win over Maloney delivered Sharkey an elimination fight against Jack Dempsey which perfectly encapsulated his strengths and defects.

The younger man had no problem fighting up close with the Mauler, generally thought of as a bad idea. After an ugly waltz Sharkey found some space and hammered Dempsey's unprotected head with both hands. The brawl continued through to round six with Sharkey's greater zip having done the more eye-catching work, though the ex-champion was making a fight out of it.

In the seventh Sharkey decided to squawk about the right hands which Dempsey was sending a little south of the boarder; clearly forgetful about his unprovoked clip at the end of the last round. Dempsey didn't need prompting and planted his opponents exposed jaw with a hook. In losing Sharkey had lived up to his alias.

The victor thought the Boston boxer “lacked courage”.

A different trail had been set. First there were difficulties, but once Sharkey was through with drawing against Tom Heeney and narrowly losing to Johnny Risko he put in the smoothest work of his jagged career.

Perennial contender and former champ Young Stribling didn't lose very much; amazing when you consider how often he touched gloves. At the time of signing for Sharkey he had won over fifty fights. The last defeat was a decision loss against Loughran who continued as Tunney's scientific successor when the latter retired.

Keeping that busy jab in Striblings face, Sharkey forced the action and edged the lighter man in a close encounter. Schmeling would later dissect 'Strib' in a brilliant title defence, but the lowered expectation set the stage for Sharkey's destruction of Loughran.

As the Pittsburgh Press put it, “Men who are supposed to know what this fight game is all about went for him (Loughran) hook, line and rent money.” Consistency, opponents beat, recent form; there was just about every reason to pick the fencer from Philadelphia. Two rounds and twenty seven seconds later the favourite was insensible. In front of 45,000 Sharkey was in a volatile mood and let go with a single right which achieved what numerous hall of famers couldn't.

The vacant championship was near.

A 9-5 favourite to keep the title in America, Sharkey noosed himself when he hit the twenty four year old German square in the groin. He looked to be in command at the fateful time and had had a ripping third, smashing Max with uppercuts and crosses. Schmeling denounced the effectiveness of these blows but they weren't the easily digested type.

The Boston Sailor had really blown it this time, but there was one more great performance in him.

The 'Ambling Alp' had whipped himself into great shape for Sharkey, tipping the scales at 261lbs (trim by his hulking standards). A debauched management has a lot to account for Primo's reputation as a circus freak, one with little understanding about the science behind pugilism. Though no killer, it's not going overboard to state that Carnera was a fairly decent super heavyweight.

When fight time came Carnera used his size well, flicking that jab to keep Sharkey thinking, but Jack was so revved up that the big man could do little in the way of controlling him.

Always moving around, drawing leads, shuffling closer; Sharkey could get good range on a looping left that honed in on Carnera's colossal cheekbone. A predictably aggressive start culminated in a smashing fourth when one of those lefts streamed through its lofty target. The Italian went onto his back and took a couple of knees during his confused dilemma. When referee Ed Smith eventually reached nine Sharkey almost completely regressed into his grousing alter-ego, marching back to his corner, positive there had been a ten count.

Fortunately for his sake the 'man of moods' got back to business.

For the whole fifteen Carnera was game, by no means an easy man to handle. Sharkey continued to shoot a right to his gut and that sleek lateral movement caused Primo's heavy jab to befriend the air. Stung on many occasions, when the final bell tolled a closed left eye stood out on him like a badge of defeat.

It was a win credited to have “revived boxing”, but like the bipolar rhythm of his career Sharkey's next fight did its upmost to cripple boxing. There was no doubt he had earned his rematch with Schmeling, but when Sharkey's hand was raised boos and scrunched brows told the story.

Referee Ed Smith's vote of seven rounds to Sharkey, three the other way and five even compelled Joe Jacobs to make some inquiries, but it certainly wasn't the worst decision ever to be rendered.

Sharkey the quick starter took some of the early rounds. Schmeling came back well, closing his opponent's eye. Though having gained a reputation as a good puncher, papers were unimpressed that despite catching Sharkey “flush on the chin several times” he was unable to move him. The 'gob' made another stand when the fight hit double figures.

An aggressive finale would have made the verdict easier on the eyes but Jack did the ugly thing and satisfied himself with counter-punching the fresher, more determined German.

It had taken Schmeling over a year to fight Sharkey after Stribling, and it took Sharkey over a year to rematch Carnera after Schmeling. Making the dollar unfriendly stipulation that he would defend the belt only in Boston caused for an unnecessary gap in what many already considered a stagnant division.

Carnera got his hands on the championship in the big apple, landing a corker out of nowhere. Sharkey had been doing well up till then but a huge uppercut came in the sixth to drop him hard. Persistent rumours of a fix probably came, not because the punch itself looked circumspect, but because it was (and somehow still is) difficult to believe a man who was once so thoroughly dominated, and looked to be going the same route, pulled a mighty big rabbit out of the hat.

After a two year break Sharkey's unwanted return ended at the end of Joe Louis' blazing fists, making him the only man to have faced the Mauler and the Bomber.

“Louis is good; he hits hard. But I want to see what he's going to be doing when he is my age (34) instead of 22.”

Sharkey couldn't have picked a less suitable candidate for Louis was in a different universe when it came to consistency; having already taken care of Carnera and Madcap Maxie, Detroit's 'Man-Killer' would get his revenge over the last of the gold-juggling misfits in awful fashion.

Out of all those misfits, Sharkey was the most disruptive, but nobody ever disputed his latent powers. Lacking courage or not, it was also an assertion of Dempsey's that Sharkey could have pulled the upset against Tunney. Given his uneven brilliance, you wonder if the Sailor could have prevented a murky era by becoming its true successor…

At times he was undoubtedly its brightest star.

Article posted on 13.04.2012

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