The Time Tunnel: When Dempsey Kayoed Sharkey and Whipped Father Time

29.06.05 - By Mike Dunn: It shouldn't have ended the way it did. Not at that juncture of their careers.

In July of 1927, aspiring heavyweight contender Jack Sharkey should have had his way with former champ Jack Dempsey. He should have either knocked out the aging former champ or at least beat him by decision. He didn't do either. And because of Sharkey's failure, the rematch between Dempsey and Gene Tunney took place that September at Chicago's Solder Field stadium. The bout between Dempsey and Tunney produced what was to be for many, many years the greatest live gate ever to witness a boxing match, and produced one of the sport's signature moments, the famed Long Count.

But that's getting ahead of the story..

In September of 1926, Dempsey put his title on the line against Tunney in a rain-drenched 10-round bout in Philadelphia. Dempsey, who had held the title since 1919, was beaten soundly before 120,000 mostly unbelieving spectators at Sesquicentennial Stadium in the south part of the city. Dempsey, 31, didn't win a single round. He was cut and bruised and landed only punch of real consequence in the entire fight, a left to the adams apple of Tunney in the sixth round.

Tunney, the former Marine, was masterful if not colorful as he wrested the crown from the head of the famed champ. He did what was necessary to lay claim to sport's richest crown, using stiff one-two combinations and excellent footwork to parlay Dempsey's attacks and defuse the champ's attempted volleys. It was a workmanlike performance from a serious person with a workmanlike personality.

Dempsey came into the Philadelphia ring with the reputation. He wasn't loved by the masses, but he was certainly revered. Dempsey's name was a proverb for destructiveness. He was the deadly puncher who had separated Luis Firpo, the wild man from Argentina, from his senses and had left Jess Willard a pitiable mess after three rounds of vicious, two-fisted assault. Did it seem possible that Dempsey would ever lose?

What people didn't know was that Dempsey's reflexes and skills had deteriorated during his six years as champ, and especially during the three long years of inactivity prior to the Tunney fight. Dempsey trained hard for Tunney, as he did for every fight. He just couldn't overcome in weeks of training what Father Time had taken from him through years of high living. It's an old story in the ring and one with amazingly similar results.

After the fact, Tunney was champ and Dempsey was dethroned. And it appeared that Dempsey was finished as a fighter. Or was he?

Matchmaker Tex Rickard quickly instituted an elimination tournament to find a worthy challenger for the new champ. Sharkey, considered the best of the contenders, made a strong case for himself when he beat Harry Wills convincingly in 13 rounds at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn just a few weeks after Tunney defeated Dempsey. The longsuffering Wills, who was long past his prime, was disqualified in the 13th round for a backhand punch.

Sharkey, a former sailor known as the Boston Gob, went on to knock out Homer Smith, Mike McTigue and Jim Maloney in successive fights to put himself next in line for a shot at Tunney's crown. On the strength of those victories, Sharkey was definitely the No. 1 man. Sharkey wasn't a marquee name, however, and neither was Tunney, for that matter, even though he was now the titleholder.

Rickard was shrewd enough to realize that a Tunney vs. Sharkey fight for the crown would be a hard sell. The promotion would do OK, but Rickard was accustomed to the million-dollar gates that Dempsey had generated with regularity during his reign. Rickard knew that he needed Dempsey and Dempsey, as it turned out, was willing to listen. The ex-champ wasn't quite ready to hang up the gloves.

And so, Dempsey was matched against Sharkey in a bout to be held at Yankee Stadium on July 21, 1927. The winner would face Tunney in September.

Sharkey came into the ring with 26 wins in 32 encounters. He had won 17 of his last 18 bouts and had beaten almost everyone of note in the heavyweight rankings. He was 25 years old and nearing the peak of his strength and abilities. Dempsey, meanwhile, had compiled a 63-6-10 mark in a career characterized in its early stages by years of hunger, desperation and savagery. He was 32, but it was an old 32. Before becoming champ, he had lived a hard scrabble existence. After becoming champ, he had tasted deeply of the sweet life and had partaken of its debilitating allures. The Dempsey of 1927 would never again be the Dempsey of popular myth.

The referee that night was Jack O'Sullivan. He was fated to play a role in the outcome.

In the first four rounds, the 77,000 who had eagerly piled into Yankee Stadium (creating another million-dollar gate for Rickard) watched Dempsey take a similar kind of pounding as the one he had taken against Tunney. Dempsey couldn't seem to get out of the way of Sharkey's left. In the first round, Dempsey's nose was bleeding. In the fourth round, he was cut over the right eye. In the fifth round, he was cut under the left eye and his mouth was bleeding as well.

The cocky Sharkey, who had seemed oddly intimidated by Dempsey prior to the bout, shouted to the crowd, "Here's your cheese champion" during the fourth round battering.

Dempsey would later say that Sharkey was one of the best boxer/punchers he had ever been in against. Sharkey moved well, landed consistently with his left. For good measure, he brought over hard rights whenever the opening presented itself. For his part, Dempsey was content to crowd Sharkey and beat the ex-sailor's body with two-handed volleys. He knew no other way. The aggressive, bobbing-and-weaving style had brought him success through the years, but it was a style that invited interaction. As such, it was a dangerous way for a fading fighter to engage a younger fighter in the ring.

In the fifth round, the same pattern continued, though Sharkey was not as dominant. Dempsey's body attack was beginning to pay dividends.

Between the fifth and sixth rounds, Dempsey told manager Leo Flynn that Sharkey was getting tired. Dempsey, who had cuts around both eyes and was likewise bleeding from nose and mouth, was still looking for ways to win. Perhaps that is the difference between Dempsey and another recent former champion who was taking a beating against a younger foe and opted to quit between the fifth and sixth rounds.

Dempsey would never have been Dempsey if there was an ounce of quit in him. In the ring, he was a warrior with a killer's instinct. In the sixth round, Dempsey's body was aching and his face was bleeding, but he stepped up the attack nonetheless. Sharkey began to complain to referee O'Sullivan when some of the blows strayed low. O'Sullivan warned Dempsey to keep them up.

In the seventh, Dempsey was again pressing the action and Sharkey didn't appear to have the same fire as in the early rounds. Partway through, Sharkey complained about low blows and O'Sullivan warned Dempsey again. A short time later, Dempsey threw a right that landed low, striking Sharkey on the left leg. Dempsey then followed with a series of hooks to the body. Some spectators who had a clear view said the hooks were also low; some said they weren't. In any case, Sharkey turned again to complain to the ref. And then everything went black.

Dempsey would later say that the punch he knocked out Sharkey with was the best he landed late in his career. It was left hook that landed flush on the chin, causing Sharkey to go down hard. O'Sullivan paused for a second, then warned the fallen fighter to get to his feet because he was starting the count. It didn't matter. Sharkey barely moved as the fatal 10 was tolled over him.

The crowd was pleased with the outcome, regardless of the way the knockout happened. Dempsey was much more popular as an ex-champion than he had ever been when he held the crown. The public was with him; they wanted him to have another crack at Tunney.

Dempsey had done what he shouldn't have been able to do. He had beaten the top contender for the title and he had beaten Father Time. It hadn't come easily, though. Dempsey was clearly shaken and wearied after the fight, and he would need some weeks for his face and body to heal. Age had robbed Dempsey of some of his skills; age couldn't rob Dempsey of his warrior's heart, however. When he faced the prospect of quitting or paying the price that victory would require, there was no hesitation on his part. He was willing to pay the price. The rematch between Dempsey and Tunney would take place, and the sport would be rewarded with The Long Count, a seminal moment that is still talked about nearly 80 years after the fact.

Sharkey was knocked out by Dempsey in 1927, but he wasn't out of the heavyweight picture. Four years later, he would earn a narrow split decision over Max Schmeling to win the title. On that July night in 1927 when he lost to Dempsey, Sharkey realized that he had blown it. He was ahead in the scoring and was having things his own way. A momentary lapse in judgment had cost him his shot at Tunney.

If Sharkey was bitter about the way he lost, he didn't let it affect the way he handled it with the press. After the fight, when some of his seconds started complaining to reporters about what had happened, Sharkey told them to be quiet. "It's all in the game," he said.

Mike Dunn is a boxing historian and writer living in Lake City, Mich.

Article posted on 29.06.2005

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