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  • Steve Hunt

Big Jack and little Mickey

I have no idea why anyone would want to skin a cat, but according to the saying, there is more than one way to go about it. The same applies to overcoming a bigger and stronger opponent in a boxing ring. It just doesn’t happen very often.

If a smaller fighter is to overcome a taller, heavier fighter, conventional wisdom is that the result will likely have to be achieved through speed and movement. For examples, see Oleksandr Usyk befuddling Anthony Joshua and Roy Jones making John Ruiz look like he was fighting in treacle. Of course, conventional wisdom is so called because there will be occasions where convention is torn up in favour of the unconventional. The greatest example to illustrate this point would be Jack Dempsey ripping the title from the much larger Jess Willard. Speed was certainly a factor in his bloody victory, but not in the fashion of a Roy Jones. Dempsey went straight at Willard, combining aggression, speed, and power to produce a demonstration that we can still marvel at in flickering black and white images from the distance of more than a century.

When a fighter with the nickname of the “Toy Bulldog” is faced with such a challenge, which approach do you think he would favour?

On 22 July 1931, that “Toy Bulldog”, Mickey Walker, faced heavyweight Jack Sharkey at Ebbets Field, Brooklyn over 15 rounds. Walker, of Elizabeth, NJ, was the former welterweight and middleweight champion of the world. It had been nearly a decade since he had won his first world title and he had already amassed a professional record of 109-17-4. He was 30 years old with a reputation for not exactly living the life of an athlete. Glenn Hoddle would not have approved of his “refuelling habits”. Despite this, Walker wanted to take on heavyweights. There were economic and sporting reasons. This was the era of the Great Depression. Times were tough and the heavyweight division was where the money was. But money was very much, easy come, easy go for Walker. He thought he could beat the larger opponents.

“It was my idea to fight the big guys. The big guys are slower.”

Jack Sharkey, of Lithuanian descent and fighting out of Boston, MA., was born Joseph Paul Zukauskas. He’d been mixing in very good company in the heavyweight division for several years, beating the likes of Johnny Risko, Jim Maloney, George Godfrey, Young Stribling, Tommy Loughran, and even Harry Wills. Back in 1927, he’d given Jack Dempsey all the trouble he could handle before being knocked out in the seventh round. Sharkey claimed Dempsey had struck him low and as he turned to protest to the referee, Jack hit him with a left to the chin that ended the fight. Protect yourself at all times.

Low blows became a theme of Sharkey’s career. In June 1930, he faced Max Schmeling at Yankee Stadium for the World Heavyweight Championship, which had been vacant since Gene Tunney retired in July 1928. Sharkey won the first three rounds but was disqualified after he landed a low blow late in the fourth round. Schmeling became the first boxer to win the World Heavyweight Championship on a foul.

At the time of their fight, The Ring had rated Sharkey as the number one heavyweight contender and Schmeling was rated in second place. The New York State Athletic Commission (NYSAC) soon stripped Schmeling of their version of the title for failing to commit to a rematch against Sharkey. The NYSAC then decided simply to name Sharkey as their champion. It was a move that demonstrates today’s bumbling and shameless sanctioning bodies are only continuing a very longstanding tradition of stupid decision making by the administrators of the sport.

The rest of the world recognised Schmeling as champion, but for many Sharkey was the uncrowned king. It didn’t seem right to win the richest prize in sport by disqualification. There was unfinished business.

While he waited to secure a rematch with the German, Sharkey needed to get back in the ring. By the time the Walker fight came around, Sharkey had been inactive for over a year. He was favoured by most to beat Walker easily, but it was the type of contest where other than the payday, he would have little to gain but an awful lot to lose. A heavyweight shouldn’t lose to a middleweight.

Sharkey, with a record of 34-9-1, appeared to have no doubts about victory. He even saw Walker’s ethnicity as being to his advantage.

“Yes, I am positive I can lick any living Irishman. If I never trained for a day, I know I could beat any fellow with a taint of Irish blood in him. I have a soft place in my heart for the Irish and a hard fist for their chins. Their fighters are so punk, I adopted an Irish name to make it appear that they had one good one anyway. Of the fourteen knockouts I scored, five of my victims were Irishmen. Walker will be the sixth.”

The generally good-natured Walker left most of his talking to his manager, Jack “Doc” Kearns. This worked well as Kearns had more than enough to say for them both. He expressed total confidence in his fighter but was keen to remind everyone watching, including the officials, of Sharkey’s misdemeanour against Schmeling.

“Mickey will knock out Sharkey and then he’ll go through Schmeling. Sharkey is not the gamest fighter while Mickey, everyone will agree, has proven his soldiery under fire. We don’t want to win the Sharkey fight on a foul, but I want to repeat if Jack fouls deliberately, the referee must disqualify him. He is a notorious foul fighter. You’ll remember he had the Schmeling thing all sewed up when he committed the unpardonable foul. Mickey has never won or lost on a foul.”

A public display of confidence in his fighter was to be expected from Kearns, but few shared his outlook. Heavyweight champion Schmeling had praise for Walker as a fighter but doubted that he could overcome the physical disadvantages.

“He has everything but the size. A champion at his own weight, but not a match for front rank heavies.”

Writing in the New York Daily News, Jack Farrell felt that Walker, “doesn’t belong in the same ring as Sharkey.” If Walker was to have any chance, he would have to secure an early win as Farrell opined that too many “long evenings in the joy palaces have robbed him of the strength and stamina that he possessed before he strayed from the straight and narrow.”

It would be hard to argue against the case laid out by Edward J. Neil in the Morning Call. Not only would Sharkey have close to a 30lb weight advantage over the former middleweight king, but “he is a head taller, has a longer reach, and more strength, skill and socking power on his side.”

Some press reports had been critical of how both men had looked during their training camps, with one report describing both fighters as looking like “terrible tramps” during their public workouts.

However, in the closing days of Sharkey’s training camp at Pompton Lakes, Edward J. Neil was impressed with what he saw. After watching Sharkey spar eight rounds, Neil reported that the Boston heavyweight “looked as keen, as powerful, as great a fighter as he was in the days of his conquests of Jimmy Maloney and Harry Wills.”

He went on to write that Sharkey looked to have “added weight to his already powerful shoulders, but the increased poundage seems all muscle and has increased his hitting powers. His waist is still trim, his body lean. He seems to have lost none of his speed and his boxing today was as sharp and clever as that of a fast middleweight.”

Walker weighed in at 169.5lbs, compared to 198.5lbs for the 28-year-old Sharkey. Neil was referencing the politics of the time when he wrote that the fight was for “the left-wing heavyweight crown, as opposed to the right-wing which Max Schmeling rules.”

Total paid attendance in the stadium on fight night was reported as 30,588, resulting gate receipts of $223,356. Sharkey was on a 30% share meaning his take was $63,628, while Walker was on a 20% cut, leaving him with $42,418. Both men earned their money. At the end of 15 hard fought rounds, the officials couldn’t split them, resulting in a draw. But it was Mickey Walker who came out with the most credit. A good big man should beat a good little man, but the “Toy Bulldog” was an exceptional little man.

Despite being floored in the fifth round by a right uppercut, Walker took the fight to Sharkey over the first two thirds of the fight, and outfought Sharkey for much of that time. The Boston heavyweight was warned for low blows in the fifth, eighth and final round. He was also warned for butting in the fifth. Sharkey rallied over the last third of the fight to secure the draw in the eyes of the scoring officials. Walker sustained three separate cuts to his left eye which worsened significantly towards the end of the contest. Sharkey had his best round in the final three minutes as blood from the cuts affected Walker’s vision.

Referee Arthur Donovan scored for Walker. Judge George Kelly gave it to Sharkey and his colleague Charles F. Mathison called it a draw. The Associated Press gave each man seven rounds with one even in what Alan Gould described as an “old-fashioned, rough and tumble brawl.”

Paul Gallico, of the New York Daily News, expressed the view of many who were not impressed by Sharkey. He had Walker winning 9-5-1 in rounds.

“Sharkey fought one of his poorest fights. Walker boxed a marvellous aggressive battle. Sharkey is a greatly discredited heavyweight. He might as well have lost the decision.”

No one was going to convince Gallico that the pre-fight favourite had deserved the draw.

“Walker was the aggressor and landed the most and the cleanest punches. He outboxed, outhit, out-everythinged Jack Sharkey.”

Compared to Walker, Jack Sharkey’s face was relatively unmarked. He claimed that he injured his left hand in the first round, and that his long layoff had hindered his performance. He did give credit to Walker, however, and was keen on a rematch.

“I was a better fighter four or five years ago, when I was fighting 14 times a year, than I am now. I laid off too long and it hurt me. But I’m not going to try and take any credit away from Mickey. He’s a great little fighter and don’t let anyone tell you he can’t hurt. I thought I won, but it will go down in the record books as a draw for Walker and that’s what counts. More credit to him. I’m not through by any means. These 15 rounds did me a lot of good tonight, but I don’t suppose I’ll get another chance at Walker. Win, lose, or draw, they rarely want any more of Sharkey.”

While Walker’s manager, Doc Kearns, claimed that the result was, “was the biggest robbery since Jesse James used to rifle through mail sacks,” Mickey was more accepting of the outcome. He thought that his facial damage might not have been a good look for the judges, but he felt good enough to go another 15 rounds right there and then.

“Yes, I thought I won. But, what the hell. I thought I put up a swell fight and that’s all that matters. No, he didn’t hurt me. If I hadn’t had the lousy luck to get a badly cut eye, I think I might have stopped him when I had him hurt in the eleventh round.”

The draw was still a stunning result, leading to Nat Fleischer declaring the fight the upset of the year. Mickey Walker had proven that size does not always matter in what writer and historian, Springs Toledo called “one of history’s great performances.”

Mickey Walker lived what you might call a full life, winning and losing a financial fortune and marrying six times. In later life he exchanged the ring canvas for canvases of another kind as he discovered art. He was successful enough that in 1955, his paintings were displayed in a one man show in a gallery. But he will always be remembered for his accomplishments in the ring, which was a time of his life that he treasured.

“I had a wonderful time fighting. I loved every minute of it. I loved the glory and I loved the applause of the crowds. I often think, if I had my days to live over again, I wouldn’t change a single thing and I’d love every minute of it again.”

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Luke Napier
Luke Napier
May 06

Great piece, Steve. Loved the Glenn Hoddle reference!

May 06
Replying to

Thanks! Not sure why my brain went in that direction, but it seemed appropriate.


Caroline Smithers
Caroline Smithers
May 03

Always love an underdog story! What an interesting character!

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