Following a career that began as a lowly cabin boy and took in a stint in the U.S. Navy, the recent announcement that Sharkey has been included in this year’s class being inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in Canastota, N.Y., recognizes yet another of those epic Irish immigrant sporting lives. Fifty years after his death at the age of 80 in San Francisco, Sharkey’s inducting alongside George Foreman in a ceremony to be held in June sums up his standing in the sport.
“The bigger they were, the better I liked it,” said Sharkey once, in a neat summation of his all-action approach to every contest. “I knew I could cut them down to my size. I made them all back away from me. I had to carry the fight to them, including Jim Jeffries.”
Regarded by boxing historians as one of the finest fighters never to hold the world title, and most often compared in style and build to Rocky Marciano, one of the rare extant photographs of Sharkey in his prime bears eloquent testimony to the passions of his existence. A crude tattoo of a masted galleon stretches across his ample chest, his left ear is bent into the shape of a cauliflower by so many concussive blows, and his nose is the typically crooked construct of the weather-beaten pugilist. Having begun his professional career with 20 consecutive knockouts, it was his misfortune to be around during one of the more competitive eras in the division.
“Tom Sharkey was a crude brawler from the ‘Old School,’ ” wrote Tracey Callis in Cyber Boxing Journal. “At the sound of the opening bell, he attacked, throwing bombs until the end. He was a rough and durable violator of rules. To him, the rules were simply restrictions that kept a real fight from taking place. He grabbed the elusive Jim Corbett, wrestled him to the floor and began to pummel him. He pinned Jim Jeffries’s left arm under his own, causing Jeff’s glove to come off and when the referee stepped in to put it back on, Sharkey took a murderous swipe at big Jim. He frequently pushed referees aside and occasionally hit at them. He head-butted, hit on breaks, held and hit, hit after the bell and got away with it.”
There was one instance when thanks to the intervention of no less a person than Wyatt Earp, the fabled marshal of the Old West, Sharkey could make some claim to holding the title. In a Dec. 2, 1896 fight in San Francisco, Bob Fitzsimmons knocked the Irishman out with a ferocious and fair blow that Earp, refereeing the bout, somehow deemed below the belt. In attempting to award the victory to Sharkey on the grounds of this spurious disqualification, a feat for which the marshal reputedly received a payoff that paid for the building of a new house, Earp only succeeding in putting another stain on a CV that, though lacking in belts and frequently besmirched by controversy, contains some classic entries. The most notable of these was a 25-round world title fight with Jim Jeffries at Coney Island in Brooklyn in 1899 that is generally acknowledged as one of the most brutal clashes of the early days of gloved fighting.
“Before the gong sounded for the last round, it was obvious only a knockout could win for Sailor Tom, but he was still full of fight despite two broken ribs and severe lacerations brought on by Jeffries’s cutting, stinging blows,” wrote Nat Fleischer in “A Pictorial History of Boxing.” “Jeffries charged from his corner and overwhelmed his opponent with a fusillade of lefts and rights that forced Tom to retreat. At the bell ending the fight, Sharkey was in a sorry state. Referee Siler held up the hand of Jeffries, the victor. Sharkey had to be removed to a hospital.”
This encounter’s place in the lore of the fight game was accentuated by the fact it was the first boxing match in which motion pictures were taken under artificial lighting. Indeed, so hot were the arc lights over the ring that both combatants had to be treated for burns to the tops of their heads afterward, and when it emerged that an equipment failure meant half of the final round action hadn’t been recorded, the pair agreed to replicate some of the action for the cameraman at a later date. Although he boxed on for another five years, Sharkey’s noble defeat by Jeffries was in many respects the high point of his career, and more than 20 years later, they did a vaudeville tour of the U.S. together in which they boxed an exhibition bout each evening.
When he eventually retired from the ring in 1904, Sharkey boasted a record of 40 wins (37 K0s), six defeats, and three no decisions. Apart from two memorable duels with Jeffries, he had also mixed it with Kid McCoy, John L. Sullivan, Peter Maher and James J. Corbett, some of the most evocative names in the history of the sport. In the summer of 1897, he’d even made it back to Ireland to record three victories in three weeks, including one in his hometown of Dundalk.
In a sop to his first job, “Never give up the ship” was the motto of this remarkable competitor who was one of several fighters to turn to the wrestling mat for extra income when boxing was outlawed in New York in 1900. He had a couple of memorable jousts with Tom Jenkins, one of the foremost grapplers of the period. Having comprehensively lost their first meeting, Sharkey set up a private, winner-take-all, no-holds-barred rematch. With the lack of rules an obvious advantage to him, he knocked his opponent out cold. Never give up the ship indeed.