Archive for jack sharkey

The fly fisherman and the boxer…

Posted in Uncategorized, Writing with tags , , , , , on July 28, 2017 by stflyfisher

It’s odd how disparate interests sometimes fire randomly like so many synapses in our brains and connect in new and interesting ways.  Consider, for example, my interest in fly fishing and the sweet science: boxing.  If you’ve read my “about” page, you already know that I’m the lone fisherman in my genetic line, save the possibility of some great uncles on my mother’s side who headed out to Montana in the early 1900’s.  Whether they ever wet a line on the great rivers is unknown, but the thought consoles me in my fly fishing addiction.

Boxing is another story, one that’s a little more understandable in that my maternal grandfather, who passed long before I came into this world, was apparently quite the fan (being Irish descent didn’t hurt either).  My mother told me of his interest only when I revealed my own love for the sport. She recounted his sitting by the radio, listening to the great bouts of Dempsey, Braddock, Louis, Baer, and undoubtedly, Jack Sharkey, the only man to have fought both Jack Dempsey and Joe Louis.

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Joe Louis is sent to a neutral corner after dropping Jack Sharkey. Louis would prevail after knocking Sharkey down 4 times. It was Sharkey’s last fight in the ring – August 18, 1936.

Jack Sharkey was born Joseph Paul Cukoschay on October 26, 1902, in Binghamton New York.  The son of Lithuanian immigrants, Sharkey left the family home in New York when he was a teenager, ending up in Boston. Sources report little of his early life until, at the outset of the First World War, teenaged Joseph repeatedly tried to enlist in the Navy. Turned down because of his age, he was not able to enlist until after the end of the war.

“Every time Louis hit me, he said, ‘Sorry.’ Every time Jack Dempsey hit me, he said, ‘How come you’re not dead yet?’”—Jack Sharkey

Sharkey wasn’t much of a fighter growing up – it wasn’t until he served in the U.S. Navy that Sharkey first stepped into a boxing ring, and that was only because a midshipman told him to substitute in the next fight at a Navy smoker or he wouldn’t get shore leave. Tall and husky, Jack quickly established a reputation as the best boxer aboard any vessel on which he served. Sharkey stood 6′ and had a notable 76″ reach. During his brief returns home to Boston he took part in his first fights for pay, the first on January 24, 1924, against Billy Muldoon, whom he knocked out in the first round. By the time of his honorable discharge just short of a month later, he had won a second fight and was already earning write-ups in the Boston papers.

Interestingly, a promoter declared his Lithuanian name unusable and so Joseph Paul Cukoschay became Jack Sharkey – “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.

“Who hit me hardest? Dempsey hit me the hardest because Dempsey hit me $211,000 worth while Louis only hit me $36,000 worth…”

Sharkey’s career statistics show an admirable record of 37 wins, 13 defeats, and 3 draws. One of his most noteworthy fights was against his “namesake”, Jack Dempsey, on July 21, 1927 in Yankee Stadium. Despite out-boxing the “Manassas Mauler” for 5 rounds, Sharkey lost the bout in the 6th round.  “I turned to the referee to complain I was getting hit low, and I got hit with a haymaker,” he once recalled. “That was that. I was out on the canvas.” “I came home and I went in the hospital,” Sharkey recounted 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.”

When asked why he had hit a man who wasn’t looking, Dempsey replied, “What was I supposed to do, mail him a letter?”

Sharkey is remembered less for his title victory over Max Schmeling than for the controversial manner of his defeat to the ‘Ambling Alp’, Primo Carnera, in his first defense in 1933. Carnera, whose enormous size had been caused by a boyhood glandular disorder, was controlled by racketeers and had been built up through fixed fights. Carnera was thought to be an easy mark for Sharkey. But in the sixth round Sharkey went down from a punch which many ringsiders claimed they did not see. For the rest of his life Sharkey would face claims that his loss was rigged.

His final fight was against the up and coming Joe Louis. But this was 1936 and Jack Sharkey didn’t have the same legs, and Louis was a different kind of destroyer entirely. From the start of the fight, Sharkey foolishly waded into Louis’ punching range and found himself on the canvas three times before a combination put him down for the count in round three. Sharkey said to W.A. Hamilton after the fight, “Louis convinced me that I have no business in trying to continue, and now I am relegated with the others before me who tried to cheat time and nature only to be revealed in their true light.” After being knocked out by Joe Louis in the third round Aug. 18, 1936, Sharkey retired from the ring to open a restaurant in Boston and pursue his love of fishing.

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A beaten Jack Sharkey decides to hang up his gloves after losing to Joe Louis.

Sharkey was and has been largely considered second best, however unfair that may be. He was, after all, a fisherman who found himself lacing up a pair of boxing gloves by accident, not a desperate pug who had nowhere else to go. That he made it into the big leagues of boxing is considered by many, incredible.

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Boxer, fly fisherman, family man…

“I started out as a fisherman,” Sharkey told The Ring in 1979. “When I was a kid I used to catch bass with my bare hands and sell them. Old-timers still remember me walking down the street carrying eels on my back.”

Sharkey acquired further fame in retirement from his exploits as a fisherman who could land a fly on a dime. Jack Gartside, noted fly-tier and author of many angling books, said he lived a dry-fly cast away from Fenway Park in the 1950s when Williams and Sharkey were demonstrating fly casting at a sportsman’s show in Boston. “When I was 8 years old, I was at a sportsmen’s show at the old Mechanics Hall in Boston. Ted Williams and Jack Sharkey, the boxer, were conducting fly casting demonstrations,” Gartside said. “After the casting, they both went to a booth to tie flies.”

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Sharkey, pictured left, sits with Jimmie Foxx (center) and Ted Williams (right) at a fly fishing exhibition.

One New Hampshire angler who replied to my request for information on the boxer / fly fisher said Sharkey was a hell of a fly fisherman. This man’s father fished with Jack on occasion and staked out his own spot on the bridge at Alton Bay, but woe betide the flatlander who took Jack’s spot! Sharkey was known to be irascible and cantankerous, particularly in later life.

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Sharkey could tie – no small feat for a guy whose hands went through a lot of abuse in the ring!

Sharkey was Ted Williams’ fishing partner for many years. When asked which he liked better, boxing or fishing, Sharkey replied, “Fishing, it doesn’t pay as much but then the fish don’t hit back.”

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Jack Sharkey had his last “boxing” contest with Max Schmeling decades after leaving the ring. Jack held the record as the oldest living former heavyweight champion, living to the ripe old age of ninety-one, only to be beaten by Schmeling, years later, who lived to be ninety-nine.

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Boxing and fly fishing may seem odd bedfellows, and many might question my sanity as a follower of both sports, but after reading about Jack Sharkey, I’m feeling a bit better about fist and fly. In a sense, Jack Sharkey, our own Southern Tier hometown hero, battled for a living but lived for fly fishing. And isn’t that what most of us do in a figurative sense in our own lives? Sharkey, in my opinion, was a hero for the everyday sportsman – the guy who slogged it out in the trenches, just to marry, raise a family, and maybe, just maybe, eke out a little time with the long rod on a pretty river. Rest in peace, Jack…