Jack Sharkey (born Joseph Paul Zukauskas, Lithuanian: Juozas Povilas Žukauskas, October 26, 1902 – August 17, 1994) was a Lithuanian-American world heavyweight boxing champion.
Sharkey was born the son of Lithuanian immigrants, in Binghamton, New York (his birth surname is sometimes given as Cukoschay), but moved to Boston, Massachusetts during his youth. Sources report little of his early life until, at the outset of World War I, 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.
It was during his tenure in the Navy that he first showed interest in boxing. Tall and husky for a man of his generation, Joseph was encouraged by his friends in the service to box. He quickly established notoriety as the best boxer aboard any vessel on which he served. 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 local Massachusetts papers.
He took his ring name from his two idols, heavyweight contender Tom Sharkey and heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey as well as to gain acceptance in the Irish-dominated boxing world of Boston. He won an important fight in 1926 over black heavyweight contender Harry Wills, but his first big year was 1927, when he defeated former light heavyweight champ Mike McTigue in twelve rounds and Boston rival Jim Maloney in five. That put him in the ring on July 21, 1927, with his idol, Dempsey, the winner to meet heavyweight champion Gene Tunney for the title. For six rounds Sharkey out-boxed Dempsey, who probed low with his punches. In the seventh round Sharkey turned his head to complain to the referee about Dempsey’s low punches and Dempsey landed a classic left hook that knocked Sharkey out.
In 1928 Sharkey defeated heavyweight contender Tom Heeney and former light-heavyweight champion Jack Delaney. Early in 1929, signed in a Tex Rickard promotion to fight Young Stribling in Miami, Sharkey and all involved suffered a scare when Rickard died unexpectedly. All preparations ceased, as Rickard was laid to rest in New York. Unhappy with the uncertainty of it all, Jack complained to sportswriter Dan Parker, “That man isn’t in his grave yet, and already they’re trying to break my contract.” In fact Bill Carey, president of Madison Square Garden saved the day by appointing Jack Dempsey himself to the task. Dempsey, a close personal friend of Rickard, had never handled a promotion, before, but did so now with what might be called “large and largesse”. Between leasing the Carl Fisher mansion on Miami Beach, as well as the George Washington Hotel, the latter of which was equipped for the press with a 24-hour bar, the Sharkey-Stribling fight at the old Flamingo Park, drew 40,000 fans, including 423 writers, and did $405,000 at the box office, an amount unsurpassed in the South, until television receipts for Clay vs. Liston in 1964, managed a richer gate.
A fight held in Yankee Stadium later that year, gave Sharkey the United States heavyweight title, when he knocked out former light-heavyweight champion Tommy Loughran. This victory earned him the opportunity to fight for the vacant world title against the German contender, Max Schmeling on June 12, 1930. Sharkey was disqualified in the fourth round after delivering a punch that landed below Schmeling’s belt. This was the first time in boxing history when the heavyweight championship was won on a foul since Joe Goss in 1876.
In October 1931, Sharkey defeated Italian heavyweight, Primo Carnera, and was then given another chance to fight for the title. On June 21, 1932, at the Madison Square Garden Bowl in Long Island City, New York, Sharkey defeated Schmeling in a controversial split decision to win the championship. Sharkey lost the title on June 29, 1933, in his second fight with Primo Carnera. This meant that Sharkey was the first heavyweight champion in history to both win and lose the championship against a European fighter. Floyd Patterson repeated this feat when regaining the title against Ingemar Johansson, having lost it to the Swede in their first fight. Oliver McCall then became the third such Heavyweight champion when beating Lennox Lewis for the WBC title in 1994, before losing it to Lewis’ countryman, Frank Bruno, the following year.
In recent years, with the proliferation of European-born World Heavyweight champions, fighters such as Chris Byrd and Hasim Rahman have also won and lost their championships against European opposition. Sharkey’s distinction is noteworthy, however, as Schmeling and Carnera were, respectively, only the third and fourth Europeans to win the World Heavyweight championship.
Later in life, Sharkey would allege both of his second fights with Schmeling and Carnera were fixed. He took a year off, fought four mediocre fights, and then fought Joe Louis on August 18, 1936, losing by knockout in the third round. This made him the only man to fight both Dempsey and Louis.
Sharkey then retired with a record of 38-14-3 with 13 knockouts. As the Cyber Boxing Zone website describes him, “Sharkey had good skills, could hit with power, box well and take punishment when he set his mind to fight; But, he was an erratic, ‘up-and-down’ boxer who never seemed to put all his skills together consistently; when he was good, he was very good but when he was bad, he was awful.”