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Boxing Historian

"Sailor" Tom Sharkey

a battle of unbeatens

By Christopher James Shelton
Historian for The Boxing Amusement Park


  Bob Fitzsimmons (challenger) vs. Peter Maher (champion)

Date: February 21, 1896

Location: Mexico, near the Texas border


Crowd: 200 wealthy patrons who pay $20 apiece. It will cost them more money for transportation and lodging in this obscure location. The boxers are protected by a 30 man Texas military unit while 200 Mexican troops guard their border. 

Tale of the tape: Both fighters stand 5’11.  Maher, the 27-year-old champion, weighs 180 pounds.  The 33-year-old challenger, Fitzsimmons, weighs 165 pounds.


Round 1

The champion tries to ignore the referee and attack, but the ref intercepts Maher and pulls him back. He warns the champ of disqualification if he hits after a clinch again. Maher nods that he understands and the ref steps out of the way. The two boxers approach each other for a brief, furious exchange. Both land blows and stand toe to toe. Fitzsimmons lands short right to jaw, dropping Maher to the ground. "1,2,3,4..." Maher is groggy and disoriented. "...5,6,7,8,9,10." The referee waves his hands. The bout over. KNOCKOUT!


Post bout

Bob Fitzsimmons is the new heavyweight champion. James Corbett, furious that his hated rival possesses title, telegrams that he is ready to battle. He slyly hints that maybe he didn’t retire earlier and that Fitz better fight him. A disgusted Fitzsimmons responds, "I shall use about the same argument once employed by Charlie Mitchell – tell Corbett to get a reputation. Let him go and whip Peter Maher and Joe Choynski before he gets his head to me. This much I shall insist upon. He must first win from Maher and Choynski before he gets into a ring with me."



  James J. Corbett


     Tom Sharkey's manager, Dan Lynch, did the talking while the others with him were to shut up beyond courtesies. Lynch approached undefeated former champion James Corbett with the proposition: Corbett could have a simple four-round "tune up" with his undefeated man, Sharkey, before his inevitable showdown with current heavyweight champ Bob Fitzsimmons.


What was the deal? With Dan Lynch, who knew? This would be a plot worthy of "The Sting" – everybody backstabbing everyone. By the time I finish with these characters, 110 years later, I am glancing behind me in search of conspiracy.

     Dan Lynch has a tendency to believe that he is the smartest guy in any room, but even he is impressed by the ragtag team of former manager Tim McGrath and feisty Irish pugilist Tom Sharkey. They have placed themselves reasonably close to a championship bout – and they are wise enough to recognize the Lynch pitch that he could make Tom Sharkey the heavyweight champion of the world.


     Tim McGrath is the genius who insisted Sharkey not bother to learn a proper uppercut or other "fancy" boxing techniques. Instead, he coached Sharkey to throw buckets buckets of water against a gym wall. Supposedly, this was to teach "The Sailor," as Sharkey was called, that experienced professional pugilists were not that different than the Navy guys he had brawled before. What Sharkey had learned from those encounters was that all guys talk as if they can fight, but most back down the moment they are intimidated or absorb their first hard punch.

For all his hardened theories that boxing was truly not a sport but a brawl, McGrath had the wisdom to place Sharkey in the ring against boxers of a certain quality to improve the "raw" edge of his talent.


     Tom Sharkey had learned his fighting trade, of all unlikely places, in Honolulu, Hawaii. At the Navy port paradise, he built an official record of 10-0-0 against English and American Navy brawlers. His 11th "official" bout was against a black boxing instructor named George Washington. The first round was a lesson for Sharkey: Washington was someone who could sidestep his punches, easily land jabs, easily dominate him. For the second round, Sharkey charged and grabbed.  "The Sailor" held the instructor aggressively within a clinch until he threw his more-experienced foe against the wall. As Washington bounced off the wall, Sharkey held the instructor with his left arm, while illegally landing a hard punch to the chest with a knockout right. This "officially" moved his record at 11-0-0, but this was no bout. It was an older guy attempting to teach the younger Sharkey a boxing lesson while assisting the Irishman with technique. Stubborn pride and foolishness triggered the hot tempered brawler into ruthless stupidity.



     Sharkey’s record as he left Hawaii, with his Navy ship leaving port, stood at 14-0-0. Sharkey’s military assignment relocated to Northern California, where his boastful swagger quickly encouraged enemies. They matched him against an actual pro middleweight boxer, Australian Billy Smith. All sat back to watch Sharkey’s defeat and humiliation. His small-time backer suggested Sharkey not fight, but pride overwhelmed common sense and "The Sailor" insisted the bout was on. Sharkey trained by running daily on a Naval docked ship. Naval officers encouraged their man and let him off regular duty. Sharkey entered the bout a heavy underdog. "The Sailor" learned what it meant to fight a professional, but prevailed with a 7th round knockout. My guess, since it would be a Sharkey pattern, was that Smith easily dominated until Sharkey became hyper aggressive with illegal tactics to gain a desired result. After the Smith fight, Sharkey held an undeserved sparkling record of 18-0-0.


     This is when Tim McGrath entered so that Sharkey would advance to "the next level." In a maneuver worthy of future infamous promoter Don King, McGrath began the fight as the manager of Sharkey’s 19th victim, and exited the bout as the manager of Sharkey. What impressed McGrath with Sharkey over his man was that John Miller was a nice-guy boxer, while Sharkey was a cocky son-of-a-bitch brawler. McGrath came to the conclusion, much like Sharkey, that boxing was a ruthless trade with fearlessness as essential, and could not be taught.


     Was Sharkey fearless? I have a strong dislike for the man, and yet I understand him. Sharkey feared failure. Sharkey feared being a "nothing" in a cruel, judgmental world. There was something comforting in the notion that whatever stood in the path of success was of material flesh and blood. If life were going to defeat Tom Sharkey, it would have to literally stand in front of him face-to-face and knock him out.

     Tim McGrath set Sharkey up against Greg Greggains, a defensive boxer with a light punch. Sharkey learned that he was in a better talent-pool league as the contest ended with a prearranged eight round draw. A gun was produced by the manager of Greggains at some point while McGrath’s message to Sharkey sunk in: “Welcome to professional boxing.” After knocking out another Navy chump, McGrath set his man up against a "name" with fame:


Jewish Joe Choynski


 Jewish Joe Choynski vs. Sailor Tom Sharkey, non-title bout

Date: April 16, 1896

Location: San Francisco, California


     It was not entirely an "on the level" bout. Choynski was not paid to take a "dive" -- and he didn’t -- but he also wasn’t paid to win. He was paid by McGrath to provide Sharkey a boxing lesson. To say Sharkey was unimpressed by his first glance at his 27-year-old opponent was an understatement. At 5-foot-10 and 170 pounds, Choynski was a rail-thin, shaggy-haired pugilist with a reputation. This lasted until the first round when a Choynski left jab sailed past the head of Sharkey, who had never "felt" a missed punch before.

     The bout was a prearranged 10-round "no-contest" draw. Sharkey had never seen a left-curved jab such as Choynski's – it stung, and stung often – and it was difficult to see or defend against. Sharkey eventually became aggressive, then began intentionally fouling until Choynski’s trainer, Eddie Graney, called a halt after eight rounds.

     How can a 10-round, "no-contest" draw go into the record books as an “eight-round point decision” victory for Sharkey? There had been a side bet  whether Choynski would knock out the Irishman. Having failed to do that, along with the newspapers praising Sharkey’s performance, an arbitrary decision was made by future "official" historians to credit Sharkey the win. If nothing else, it was certainly a victory for Tim McGrath – a publicized bout. Tom Sharkey was now a "name" of minor standing, though Choynski remained the No. 1 contender for the heavyweight championship. 


New York City and San Francisco vied for a profitable Fitzsimmons-Choynski title bout.  All that remained for Choynski as an obstacle was the former champion, Peter Maher. Tom Sharkey barely registered as a blip on the sporting scene's consciousness.


     James Corbett had retired undefeated in November of 1895 after guaranteeing an Irish-descent heavyweight champion as his successor.  "Gentleman Jim" arbitrarily eliminated 34-year-old Peter Jackson, 37-year-old John L Sullivan, Choynski and Fitzsimmons from consideration due to personal dislike and/or ethnic background.  The two contenders that he allowed to fight for his vacant title were Steve O’Donnell, his preferred victor, and Maher.  A dominant first-ound knockout by Maher was followed by an exuberant Corbett exclaimation from inside the ring:  “On this spot, I give you the championship, because I know you can protect it.  I shall never fight again.” 


Corbett and Peter Jackson were now earning their income through stage acting.  Corbett had become the first paid movie actor (along with Peter Courtney) in 1894.  Corbett sued director, Thomas Edison, who settled out of court, so that he also became the first actor to receive residuals from movie profits.  Jackson’s manager, Parson Davies, was now promoting a 22-year-old who stood 6-foot-3 and weighed 195 pounds, Chicago based fighter Bob Armstrong, as the current black heavyweight champion. Their goal was a "color-unified" title bout.


    Sailor Tom Sharkey’s next opponent, in April 1896, would be undefeated Jim Williams in San Francisco.  Both Dan Lynch and former champion Corbett, were in attendance.  Sharkey scored a couple of knockdowns, and the bout became so aggressive that police considered intervention until the Williams corner men called it quits at the end of the sixth round. Corbett was boisterous throughout the entertaining spectacle, and McGrath had overheard the undefeated pugilist bragging that he could knock out either of these undisciplined chumps with a couple punches.


McGrath approached the former champion and bet that Corbett could not knock out Sharkey within four rounds. Corbett’s camp laughed and listened, but shrugged off any deal. This is when Dan Lynch stepped into the Sharkey camp. He was sincerely impressed that these novices were in negotiation with Corbett at all. The “science boxer turned actor” had only fought 10 minutes and less than three rounds since his knockout victory over the undefeated legend, Sullivan, in 1892.


     Sharkey suggested to Lynch that they promise thousands of dollars they didn’t have, then back out of payment after the bout. Lynch smiled and told his eager pugilist to let him do the negotiating. By the time Lynch was through, Corbett had agreed to fight Sharkey in a four-round "point" decision as a practice bout before his hopeful confrontation with the champion, Bob Fitzsimmons.


Bob Fitzsimmons



As Corbett’s camp thought it over, their man backed out. Sharkey’s camp was crushed. Hopes for the "big time" seemed gone as they angrily cursed Corbett and plotted how they could get him to change his mind. Sharkey suggested assaulting Corbett openly on the street. Someone else within Sharkey’s camp suggested Corbett might reconsider if the bout was "fixed" – a prearranged four-round contest with Corbett as the guaranteed victor. Lynch smiled and listened. They could pay off Corbett, pay off the ref ... anything to get Corbett inside the ring. Sharkey, McGrath and Spider Kelly were all on the same page. “Once I have Corbett in the ring,” suggests Sharkey (as I paraphrase), “we doublecross him and I will knock him out.” Corbett and the referee could not admit they were involved in a "fix" without destroying themselves. With a knockout, Sharkey could lay claim as the "real" champion and force a showdown with Fitzsimmons.

     Lynch smiled but did not speak – these amateur fools were talking too much already.



Gentleman Jim Corbett vs. Sailor Tom Sharkey, non-title bout

Date: June 24, 1896 

Location: San Francisco, California. 

Crowd: 10,000 guys and 1 woman.

Tale of the Tape: Corbett: 29 years old, 6-foot-1, 178 pounds.  Sharkey: 23 yearsold, 5-foot-8, 180 pounds.


Chicago Daily Tribune: “Instead of being a contest in which science and cleverness, backed by great physical strength, were the main features, it was like a fight between wild beasts, and for the sake of humanity as well as for the life of at least one of the principals, it is well that an officer of the law was on hand. The band discoursed music preceding the bouts and during the intermission. On one side of the arena, just under the ropes, there was the flutter of bonnet feathers and a lone woman’s face.  Only this one woman was present and she was a newspaper representative.”


Woman Sportswriter: “I have just seen my first prize fight and probably my last. I have seen one man lose in sixteen minutes a reputation that was years in the making.  Some 10,000 men, who, the master of ceremonies assured me were all gentlemen intensely interested in the welfare of the children’s hospital, gathered in the Pavilion last night to witness an "athletic exhibition." Men chewed gum and smoked and drank "soft" drinks out of bottles. There was a band. At first music there seemed as appropriate as a Rubens or a Titian on the wall would have been, but later I recollected that it was probably there to soothe the savage beast, and I was satisfied.”


     (Describes Tom Sharkey): “I liked the Samsonesque build of him, his clear eyes and hard muscle.”

     (Describes James Corbett): “I watched the cappers of his dancing feet, saw his magnificent technique. The sporting men told me to notice Corbett’s reach and his science, and I don’t know what else. I looked, hesitated, and was lost.”

     (Describes Joe Choynski – referee of both preliminary bouts):  “Good looking.”


Round 1

Feints and sparring before a smiling Corbett lands a hard left to jaw, snapping Sharkey's head back.  The Irishman aggressively charges forward. Corbett lands a left jab to jaw, and Sharkey charges again and clinches. They wrestle until Corbett illegally lands a right uppercut to the chin within their clinch. Referee Carr moves in and separates the pugilists.


Boston Daily Globe: “Corbett reached Sharkey under the right eye and raised a lump as the gong ended.”


Woman Sportswriter:  “Jim was smiling, but not so Sharkey. In his face there was but one expression – determination. Corbett battered like a ram, but it was hitting a stone wall. There was no blood in this fight. It was all sinew and muscle. Sharkey was nimbler than his critics had expected, and at the end of the round, puffing like a steam engine, he glowered while he was being rubbed.”


Round 2

Pugilists repeatedly clinch and wrestle.  Corbett lands a short, illegal punches within clinches. Both wrestle away from center. Corbett pins his foe into the ropes, but Sharkey wiggles free and lands hard right to the face. The crowd roars and Sharkey follows with a right that lands to Corbett's chest. Corbett attempts to hold and punch, but misses as blows sail over the Irishman’s bobbing head. Sharkey wiggles and lands a right to Corbett's neck. The crowd stands and cheers, and Corbett no longer smiles.


Chicago Daily Tribune:  “The sailor appears groggy; Corbett lands his left heavily on the sailor.  Sharkey lands heavily on Corbett’s breast as the round closes.  Sharkey made a very game fight, but the round closes in Corbett’s favor.”


Boston Daily Globe:  “It was now a wrestling match. Sharkey, to avoid punishment, threw his arms around Corbett repeatedly. The sailor was very tired at the conclusion of the round.”


Round 3

Corbett lands a hard right to body, then follows with a left uppercut that lands to jaw. Sharkey looks confused. Corbett feints and feints in search of an opening and lands right to body. Sharkey charges and clinches. They fiercely wrestle as Referee Carr attempts to separate them. Sharkey breaks, throws a right to head, misses.  Corbett counters with a left uppercut that lands to mouth.  A dazed Sharkey rushes and clinches. Corbett lands a short left uppercut to face. They clinch and wrestle again as the crowd boos.  Sharkey grabs Corbett around neck and throws him to the ground. No knockdown.  The crowd roars with delight over this illegal tactic and chants “Sharkey ... Sharkey ... Sharkey.”


Boston Daily Globe: “Just as the gong sounded the men were at it, hammer and tongs.”


Chicago Daily Tribune: “Sharkey lands hot body blows and Corbett lands on the face.”


Round 4

Corbett is fighting a fourth-round for the first time in four years.  Both wrestle fiercely until an enraged Sharkey pushes Corbett to the ground. No knockdown.  The crowd wildly cheers and boos. Corbett warily rises while a hyper-aggressive Sharkey charges into another clinch. Corbett is exhausted and merely holds on. Sharkey wildly attempts to land blind punches. Corbett holds tight around the Irishman’s head and simultaneously nods for the police captain to intervene. Captain Wittman enters the ring. Referee Carr attempts to separate the clinched pugilists. Captain Wittman grabs Sharkey around the neck. Referee Carr pulls on Corbett. Sharkey attempts to punch and bull forward. All sway in a staggered semi circle. Referee Carr pulls Corbett free as the two fall onto the ground. Sharkey breaks Captain Wittman’s choke hold and attempts to land punches on both Referee Carr and Corbett. Two other members of San Francisco law enforcement enter the ring. Captain Wittman overpowers Sharkey as he pulls him toward his corner.  The captain waves his hands while announcing the bout officially over due to police intervention. Referee Carr raises neither pugilist arm and declares the bout an official "draw." All gambling bets are cancelled.


Chicago Daily Tribune:  “Captain Wittman rushes into the ring, seizes Sharkey, who shows fight, but the big Captain forces him into his corner, holding him by the neck….  At the end of the fourth round Corbett appeared groggy and unable to land a heavy blow.  He fell down and got mixed up with the referee, Frank Carr, and fell again.  The clinches by Corbett were interpreted as being due to a desire to avoid his opponent’s effective rushes.  Sharkey adopted foul tactics and refused to break away.”


Boston Daily Globe:  “The referee declared the contest a Draw.  After the call of time it required three policemen to keep Sharkey from Corbett.  Sharkey struggled in his corner and Corbett protested to the referee.”


Corbett post bout comment:  “I do not blame him for fighting in the way he did. It was the best tactics he could follow. As a fighter, I do not think much of Sharkey, but he certainly is a good wrestler.”


Sharkey post bout comment: “Choynski is the greatest fighter I have ever yet met.”


Brooklyn Daily Eagle:  “Ten thousand people saw the sailor give and take blows with Corbett for twelve minutes, and at the end of the fight they saw an undefeated world’s champion hanging around his opponent’s neck, weak, listless, panting and leaning against the ropes to prevent himself from falling.”


Chicago Daily Tribune:  “Corbett got himself into a box by turning the championship belt over to Maher, and from now on he will be more frantic than ever in his effort to recover it.  Meanwhile, Fitzsimmons is laughing to himself and sawing wood.”


Woman Sportswriter:  “Corbett clung to his man as though fighting for time. He bullied the umpire and Sharkey. ‘Take the sailor off,’ he yelled, when all the time it was his arm that was clinging and it appeared he was trying to choke his man…. Then Corbett fell and the crowd went stark, raving mad. He was up in a second, of course. The next time the unfortunate referee pulled Corbett off, the Champion fell and the umpire on top of him. Then the hugging went on again, Sharkey swearing as only a sailor can swear, and Jim, without his bonhomie and his careless smile…. Then Corbett nodded an appeal to the gorgeous captain of police, who separated the men. Thrusting the police officer aside, Sharkey hit Corbett an uppercut and offered to fight the captain….  The crowd tumbled madly over chairs, shouted, cheered, cursed and hissed. It was bedlam broken loose. Men said it should have been Sharkey’s fight. I am not a judge, but Corbett looked sadly the worse for wear, and it seemed to me that an idol had fallen – a hero in the dust.”

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 Christopher James Shelton is a product of the American West Coast. He has lived in Los Angeles and San Ysidro, California, Tijuana , Mexico, and currently resides in Phoenix, Arizona. 

Shelton was the editor of CHEEERS Soundboard, the first solely written/produced mental health recovery center newsletter in America.  He has several credits as researcher/writer/interviewer for CyberBoxingZone including: “Scandal In San Francisco (1896).” “The Last Bareknuckle Championship Bout (1889)” and “The Art and Science of Daniel Mendoza.”

  His research discovery credits include 19th century pugilists George Godfrey, Professor Hadley, Tom Hyer, John L. Sullivan and Jake Kilrain.  Family interviews, mixed with historical research, include lightweights Jack Britton and Billy Hawkins. 

Shelton conducted the final interview with legendary Phoenix manager Al Fenn, and asked candid questions about George Foreman and H.I.V. with former heavyweight champion Tommy Morrison.  HIs favorite historical article, “124-year-old woman challenges John L. Sullivan for the title," recounts the life story of a feisty 19th-century female slave named Sylvie Dubois.

Contact Christopher Shelton


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