Sharkey, Thomas Joseph (‘Tom’; ‘Sailor’) (1873–1953), bare-knuckle heavyweight boxer, was born 26 November 1873 in Mill St., Dundalk, Co. Louth, son of James Sharkey, labourer, and Margaret Sharkey (née Kelly). Little is known of his early life except that he spent a decade at sea (hence the nickname), surviving hurricanes and typhoons, four shipwrecks, and a succession of unofficial no-holds-barred fights. Sharkey's professional boxing career began in Honolulu, Hawaii, on St Patrick's day (17 March), 1893. According to his fight record, he went on to win his first twenty professional fights by knockout over the next three years. He drew with ‘Gentleman Jim’ Corbett in a four-round contest on 24 June 1896, and in August of the same year he fought an exhibition bout of three one-minute rounds against the great John L. Sullivan. On 2 December he fought Bob Fitzsimmons in a match advertised as a heavyweight championship of the world contest for the vacant title. Fitzsimmons knocked Sharkey to the canvas with a punch that was judged by the referee of the contest, wild-west lawman Wyatt Earp, to be a foul blow. Sharkey was thus declared the winner, but his victory was the subject of some controversy as it was alleged in some quarters that Earp had been bribed, either by Sharkey's camp or by a major gambling syndicate. Sharkey's winner's purse was held up by a court order obtained by Fitzsimmons, but the judge eventually ruled in Sharkey's favour. The rumours persisted, however, and public sympathy remained strongly with Fitzsimmons. It would not be the last controversial decision of the Louth man's career.
Sharkey's ‘title’, such as it was, was forfeited when the ‘retired’ champion, Jim Corbett, decided to return to the ring. Returning to Ireland in the summer of 1897, Sharkey fought in Belfast, Warrenpoint, and his home town of Dundalk. In June of the same year he reputedly went berserk in the ring during a bout with rival Peter Maher. The police had to intervene and the contest was officially declared a draw. In May 1898 Jim Jeffries, who was to be world champion from 1899 until his retirement in 1905, became the first man to defeat Sharkey in thirty-seven professional fights, when he got the decision in a twenty-round bout, with both men taking heavy punishment. More controversy followed on 22 November, when Sharkey defeated Corbett in sensational fashion in New York as one of Corbett's seconds, Jim McVey, entered the ring during the contest. Depending on which account one cares to believe, McVey was either in the pay of Sharkey's camp or intervened to prevent an even more comprehensive victory by the Irishman. In 1899 Jeffries gave him his promised shot at the world title in a $25,000 winner-take-all bout at Coney Island, New York. Sharkey lost in twenty-five rounds in a fight that is still regarded as being one of the greatest – and toughest – title matches of all time. After his first defeat by Jeffries he had vowed to beat him or die trying. In an epic encounter he finished the fight with a broken nose, two cracked ribs, and a left ear swollen to the size of a grapefruit. The fight was also the first boxing contest to be filmed under artificial lights, and the heat of the lights reputedly burned both men bald-headed. Sharkey won six fights in a row by knockout after that defeat, but it was the beginning of the end for him as the years of heavy punishment began to take their toll. A defeat to Gus Ruhlin, and another in a rematch with Fitzsimmons, were the end of the big time. He quit the ring in June 1902 after being knocked out in the eleventh round of another fight with Ruhlin. He had fought a mere four times in the previous two years, and apart from the occasional exhibition match it was the end of his boxing career.
Sharkey was undoubtedly one of the toughest competitors ever seen in professional boxing, and is regarded by many commentators as unfortunate not to have been world champion at some stage. Thirty-seven knockouts in fifty-four bouts gave him a knockout rate of almost 70 per cent. It was his misfortune to have been around in a ‘golden era’ when many of boxing's all-time greats were also in their prime. His major rivals – Corbett, Fitzsimmons and Jeffries – were all legends and held the world title between them for thirteen years (1892–1905). He was never in any sense a stylish boxer, but his ability to take punishment was legendary, and resulted in a spectacular cauliflower ear given to him in an earlier fight with Ruhlin. Sharkey's aggression and intensity astonished many observers, and his punching was often wild and erratic, leaving himself wide open to a counterpunch. He was just 5 ft 8.5 in. (1.74 m) in height; during his career he weighed between 172 and 205 lbs (78–93 kg), and he had a large tattoo of a ship and a star on his chest. Thrifty by nature, he had accumulated a fortune of some $100,000 by the time he retired from boxing, and for a while he ran a saloon, had a fine home in Brooklyn, New York, and a stable of trotting horses. Trouble with the authorities and some bad investments meant that he fell on hard times, and in the 1920s and 1930s he and Jeffries, who became a great friend, made a living on the vaudeville circuit, reenacting their famous fight on the stage. Moving to live on Jeffries' ranch in California, Sharkey spent the last two decades of his life working as a night watchman and security guard at various race tracks in the area. He died 17 April 1953 in San Francisco, just a month after Jeffries. In 1959 Ring magazine, widely regarded as the bible of boxing, inducted him into its boxing Hall of Fame; but perhaps the greatest tribute paid to him is the fact that ‘the Boston Gob’, Jack Sharkey (real name Joseph Paul Zukauskas), who won the world heavyweight title in 1932, took his boxing name from the two boxers he most admired, Jack Dempsey and Tom Sharkey. Jeffries always regarded him as his toughest-ever opponent, and among heavyweight boxing's ‘nearly’ men he has a good claim to be considered the best – and the toughest – of them all.