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Men of Iron: Tom Sharkey

Posted on 04/15/2008

By L.L. Roberts

Tom Sharkey was born and raised in Ireland of the 1880’s. Already a hard lad, a stint in the U.S. Navy toughened him still further, and prepared him for the prize ring, an even more brutal career in 1893 than now. Managed by Dan Lynch, and equipped with a strong left and battleship-steel chin. Sharkey started out in Hawaii knocking over whatever competition presented itself. In 1894 he invaded California with a record of fourteen straight KO’s against mostly mediocre opponents and inside two years added five more, one over the tough veteran, Australian Billy Smith.

In ’98, after a tuneup fight with Sailor Brown, he was matched with 28-year-old Joe Choynski, a clever boxer who had not suffered a loss since 1891. It proved to be a terrible mismatch as Choynski dominated the action from the opening bell, attacking the stocky sailor without mercy. But try as he might, the battle-wise San Franciscan could not stop Tom Sharkey. At one point he managed to drive him through the ropes with a flurry of blows, but the Irishman merely clenched his teeth and climbed back in. When he could bore in close to the taller man, Sharkey would flail away at his lean mid-section with savage lefts and rights, but Choynski would push away and smash him at long range. Joe hit him with every ounce of strength he possessed, and it was considerable, but Sharkey would not yield. Blows which had finished other iron men like Jack Fallon and Mike Boden failed him now. Finally, the bell sounded and the bout was awarded to the bloody ex-seaman as per contract.

There followed a draw with the boxing master, Jim Corbett, and a three-round show with old John L. Sullivan that ended in a no-decision. Then came the match with top contender Bob Fitzsimmons, in which Tom was given a hard lesson. For seven rounds he strove mightily to plow through Fitzsimmons’ defense, once he managed to hurt the Cornishman, but as usual the punishment was one-sided and in the eighth Sharkey went down from a terrific blow to the lower midsection. Many claimed the blow to have been below the belt, and the referee, Wyatt Earp, awarded the bout to Tom on a foul, though he was unaware of it at the time.

A draw with fellow Irisher Peter Maher, in New York, four quick knockouts in Britain and a six-round stoppage of the Barrier champion, Joe Goddard, put him near the top of the heap and set up a rematch with Joe Choynski, who had been aching for a chance to remove a blot from his reputation. The match proved nothing, ending in a draw. Again the hard-punching Californian had been unable to administer a finishing stroke, and this time he had taken as much as he had dished out. It was Sharkey’s 34th bout without a loss, and only one man stood in his way – Jim Jeffries!

The twenty rounds in San Francisco with Jim Jeffries firmly established Tom Sharkey’s reputation as an iron man. Outweighed by moe than twenty pounds, he took the fight to the Boilermaker in the early going and even managed to bull Jeff around the ring. For sixty minutes, broken at intervals of three minutes, Tom Sharkey and Jim Jeffries fought toe-to-toe at ring center. It was a battle of attrition; two great iron-clad warships hurling explosive shells at each other without thought of surrender. Through the last few rounds the tide turned in Jeff’s favor as he landed again and again with murderous left hooks and right uppercuts to the smaller man’s rock-like head. The remaining seconds expired with both men in a state of complete physical and mental exhaustion. When the referee called the two battlers to his side, it was big Jeff’s thick right arm that was raised in victory amidst cries of protest from Sharkey’s supporters.

Tom was more determined than ever to win the heavyweight title, especially when he saw Jeffries go on to win the crown from his old foe, Bob Fitzsimmons. So he set about establishing himself as the number one contender, stopping big Gus Ruhlin in one round, winning against Jim Corbett, and knocking out wily Kid McCoy and Jack McCormick. But all of his efforts were to prove futile. Jeff still stood in his way.

Jeffries always considered his second battle with Tom Sharkey the hardest fight of his entire career. It went a full twenty-five rounds in near unbearable heat, melted fifteen pounds or more off each of them, and ended once again with Jeff’s arm raised. Sharkey, his entire face covered with blood, his jaw broken and several ribs shattered, was helped into a waiting ambulance and rushed to the hospital.

Although he survived the beating, Tom was just about through as a fighter. He managed to KO Joe Goddard again and finally won clearly against Choynski via KO in two, but ended the year in disaster with losses to Ruhlin and Fitz.

For all intents and purposes his career came to a halt on June 25, 1902 when Gus Ruhlin, on the comeback trail since losing to Jeffries the previous year, performed a workmanlike demolition job on him in a London ring, knocking him out in the initial seconds of the eleventh round. he retired for good in 1904, after a six-round draw with Canada’s Jack Munroe.

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