are perhaps two dozen well-known boxing stories of substance, ranging from Jack
London’s A Piece of Steak, and Fifty Grand by Ernest Hemingway, to more
popular fare, such as sports writer Damon Runyan’s Bred for Battle and P.G. Wodehouse’s The Debut of Battling Billson. More recent stories by Rick Bass’ The Legend of Pig-Eye and Thom Jones’ Sonny Liston Was a Friend of Mine would
surely be included, as well. Anyone wishing to expand the list to include
novels would have some classic fare to choose from: Harold Robbins’ A Stone for Danny Fisher instantly
springs to mind, along with the excellent book, The Bruiser by actual boxer-turned-author Jim Tully. There are a
lot of boxing stories out there, along with boxing fans who are writers of one
stripe or another; from Alexandre Dumas to Arthur Conan Doyle, from Norman
Mailer to Joyce Carol Oates, it’s easy to find books waxing rhapsodic about the Sweet Science as literature, as
metaphor, or as simply a cracking good read.
yet, there is one name always missing from the Table of Contents pages of the Best Boxing Stories of Forever and All Time
(Until We Make Another Book Just Like This One) and that’s Robert E.
Howard. Most people know him, if at all, as the creator of Conan the Barbarian.
They may know that he was a Texan, who wrote a bunch of pulp fiction stories in
Cross Plains, Texas in the 1920s and 1930s for magazines like the legendary Weird Tales. If they know anything else,
it’s that he died young, at the age of 30, by his own hand.
almost never know he wrote over sixty boxing stories from 1926 to 1936,
including some poetry, which were his bread and butter during his early writing
career.Most of the stories centered on
Sailor Steve Costigan, a ham and egg
fighter sailing on the merchant marine Sea
Girl. He – and some of his other, later fictional brothers – spent their
days in the ports of call in the Asiatic Seas. They scrapped to survive, for
the honor of a beautiful girl, or for a fellow sailor in trouble. Full of
humor, incredible boxing sequences, and double and triple crosses, all told
from the point of view of Sailor Steve himself, one of the most unreliable
narrators to ever grace the page. Howard also wrote some serious boxing stories,
such as the novella The Iron Man, but
his meat and potatoes were found in these bawdy burlesque boxing stories.
was a lifelong boxing enthusiast. He read about it, he wrote about it – hell,
he nearly lived it. Himself an amateur boxer, Howard participated in a number
of both gloved and bare-knuckle matches with the local roughnecks in his home
town of Cross Plains.He wrote about
these fights, and traveled far and wide to see local and regional matches and
exhibitions. Howard even wrote a number of unfinished essays to gather his
thoughts on boxing into one place.These
thoughts, these ideas of Howard, while unfinished and unpublished in his
lifetime, ended up elsewhere, hidden deep in his fiction as a primary
first encountered Howard’s boxing stories, I knew none of this. I was just a
fan of the Texas author’s work. I’d read Conan, of course, and his other
hero-kings, Bran Mak Morn, and King Kull. I was familiar with some of his other
heroic writings, but I’d never seen any of his boxing stories before. The book
was The Incredible Adventures of Dennis
Dorgan. On the cover was a stereotypical evil oriental – a Fu Manchu villain straight from Central Casting.
This was modern-day fare by way of the 1920’s. Intrigued, I bought the book and
took it home.
first story I read wasn’t the first story in the book. Instead, I skipped right
over to The Destiny Gorilla, a title
I maintain to this day is technically perfect for so many reasons. As soon as I
started reading the story, I knew I was in uncharted waters. Gone was the
florid, compact language of Howard’s dark fantasy stories. This was light,
wide-open, riddled with dialect and malapropisms, and really funny dialogue. I
started laughing, and I laughed all the way through the story.
I was still
laughing when my roommate and fellow Howard fan came home. He put up with me
for about fifteen minutes, and then demanded to know what I was doing. I gave
him the book, and within two pages, he was laughing, too. We spent the rest of
the evening wondering out loud why we’d never seen any of this before now.That night, we both became lifelong fans of
Howard’s boxing stories. And we weren’t even reading the best of his boxing
later, when I starting looking seriously at studying and writing about Robert
E. Howard, I joined what was then ground zero for such folks, REHUPA – an
amateur press association that stands for the Robert E. Howard United Press
joined, I expected to be the only person interested in the boxing stories. I
was wrong. There were two others: Leo Grin and Chris Gruber. Both had come to
the boxing material, just as I had, and come to the same conclusion as me – why
didn’t more people know about this? In fact, we all joined with the idea of
cracking open the boxing stories and showing these other Howard fans what was
banded together, and right from the start, we began elevating each other’s
work. There were conversations, revelations, shared information...it was heady
stuff. We were the outcasts among the outcasts, writing with something to
prove. We knew this stuff was great. We just had to show other people.
the areas of interest we shared was in sifting through Howard’s work to find
his influences. His unpublished essays and stories were invaluable in this
area. Chris Gruber’s essay, Atavists,
All?, was a lightning rod pointing to Howard’s utilization of the kind of
throw-back boxer he admired, first mentioned in the unpublished essay Men of Iron, was the model for every
single Howard character in his heroic fiction canon.
pouring through the names of boxers in Men
of Iron, Leo wrote a huge essay about Joe Grimm, who was prominently
mentioned in essay. I became enamored with another real-life golden age boxer
listed alongside of Grimm – Sailor Tom
Sharkey.I don’t know what it was
about the name, or maybe it was the story Howard included in the essay about
Sharkey being knocked out of the ring on his head, and getting up to finish the
fight, that intrigued me, but something took hold, and I began to research Tom
Sharkey in earnest.
was very little online about Sharkey, the most substantial piece being a
biographical sketch by boxing expert Tracey Callis, alongside of his ring
record. I had some boxing reference books in my personal library already,
including a great encyclopedia from The
Ring, the Bible of boxing, and a magazine Howard read regularly in his day.
Inside was an amazing picture of Tom Sharkey, after a fight, standing straight
and tall, like he was having a mug shot taken. He was battered, crunched, and
bruised, but everything I could see in his curiously shaped head and face and
thick-as-a-bull neck made me proclaim, “Tom Sharkey, hell, that’s Sailor Steve
began my quest. I chased down every scrap of information I could find about
Sharkey. He was one of the most feared and respected boxers in the Golden Age
of the sport – just after the reign of John L. Sullivan.
trod the squared circle with the
likes of Gentleman Jim Corbett, Bob Fitzsimmons, and – perhaps his greatest
nemesis – Jim Jeffries. These were some of the biggest, hardest hitting
fighters of all time. And they all said Sailor Tom Sharkey gave them their
only 5’8” or 5’9” depending on who you ask, Sharkey had a 46” chest and thick,
muscled arms he honed from his years at sea in the merchant marine, and later,
the U.S. Navy. Born in Dundalk, Ireland, in 1874, he ran away at the age of 12,
and managed to make it all the way to America as a sailor by the time he was
17. He traded briefly as a blacksmith before signing on to a hitch in the Navy.
When he arrived in San Francisco, two years later, he was ready to begin his
fighting career in earnest.
of his size, and his Irish accent, no one took him very seriously at first. Even
then, there was a frequently debunked myth that all sailors were decent
brawlers, but against an actual student of boxing, stood little chance. Sharkey
wasn’t the best public speaker, and he looked like a dub – his chest, for
example, was festooned with a tattoo of a four-masted schooner and the motto, Never Give Up the Ship. He was Popeye
twenty years before E.C. Segar created Thimble
initial matches were literally intended to be good sport for better boxers and
nothing else. But Sharkey surprised them all when he charged the local
champions and kept them on the run for eight straight rounds. He could absorb
massive amounts of punishment, and his punch was devastating. Early opponents
learned this the hard way after waking up on the canvas, wondering what hit
them. Sharkey quickly rose through the ranks to become a contender in San
Francisco. He had his eye set on the heavyweight championship.
professional career was as controversial as it was colorful and storied.
Sharkey wasn’t so much a fighter as he was a force of nature.His preferred method of boxing was to come
out swinging and not stop until his opponent was down. He didn’t mind taking a
few punches in order to get in close with those tree trunk arms and that
fireplug torso and whale away on the other guy’s ribcage – and if a couple of
kidney punches landed, too, well, no hard feelings, eh?
quite. Fouls, low blows, and other controversies dogged Sharkey and made other
opponents wary of stepping into the ring with the Irish scrapper. His
reputation notwithstanding, Sharkey tried several times to wrest the belt from
champions, only to end in bitter defeat. One of his most bizarre fights was
against lanky Bob Fitzsimmons, another blacksmith-turned-boxer whose punch was
legendary, despite his unassuming appearance.
match, refereed by none other than Wild West lawman Wyatt Earp, was awarded to
Fitzsimmons because of a low blow thrown by Sharkey that Earp observed. The
incident actually ended up on court, with Sharkey alleging Fitzsimmons faked
the injury because he knew Sharkey would beat him. The judge abided by the
decision, and Sharkey never got a rematch with Fitz.
the most storied battles of Sharkey’s career were his two brutal fights with
Jim Jeffries. The second fight, in particular, is the stuff of legend. It was
the first boxing match filmed and shown in movie theaters. The Klieg lights
used to illuminate the ring were so bright and intense that it singed both
men’s scalps. Sharkey fought Jeffries to a standstill in 25 grueling rounds
that nearly did both boxers in. Sharkey fought the last four rounds with three
broken ribs. He was certain he’d beat Jeffries, but the referee didn’t agree.
Afterwards, even on the mend, Sharkey threatened to throw the ref into the
Atlantic Ocean if he ever caught up with him.
post boxing career was just as colorful, and involved him opening clubs,
getting embroiled in Tammany Hall politics in New York City, betting large sums
of money on the horses, getting married twice, widowed once, and divorced once,
and later, in his fifties, going on the Vaudeville Circuit with former nemesis
Jim Jeffries and recounting their famous fights for the crowds.
loved to spin yarns, and some of those he told people over the years were
colorful and, um, hard to prove, such as the notion he was shipwrecked four
times in the Merchant Marine. Over the years, sports writers, reporters, and
fellow boxers had amusing Tom Sharkey stories to tell. Most are affectionate in
their good humor. Some are just downright funny.
anecdotes and snippets were all published during the time Robert E. Howard was
reading about boxing. I was certain I’d found the framework upon which he built
Sailor Steve Costigan. These findings and essays made their way into various
books, introductions, and lectures.
this time, I’d corresponded with most of the people who had written anything
about Tom Sharkey, including the author of the first real biography of the man,
I Fought Them All: the Life and Ring
Battles of Prizefighting Legend Tom Sharkey, Greg Lewis. To a person, they
were all happy to share in their research and enthusiasm for this colorful
this point, I’d been engaged in this pursuit, on and off, for five or six
years. As my file on Tom Sharkey grew ever larger, and my parallel study of
Howard’s boxing went ever deeper, I felt an urge to write some funny boxing
stories of my own start to take hold in my brain.
was folly, of course, and I’ll tell you why. It has been scientifically proven
over the years that one cannot copy the writing style of Robert E. Howard. It
just can’t be done, and we know this, because it was tried...a lot...with
terrible, terrible results.
writing style was literary lighting in a bottle. It was alchemy. Mercurial. It
can be imitated, to some degree, but it can never be duplicated. The reason for
this is simple – no one writes from the head space from which Howard wrote. His
work was very personal, and unless you have the exact same set of interests,
pressures, and irritants, you’ll never make pearls the way Howard made them.
that the fact that doing a Sailor Steve Costigan story involved writing funny,
and you’ll see the task is nigh-impossible. Writing in someone else’s humor
style is even harder than writing in someone else’s literary style, and if you
tried to do a Sailor Steve Costigan story, you’d have to do both. I’m no fool.
Whatever marginal cache I had as a Howardist would be shattered if I tried to
write something in the style of Robert E.
Howard, a practice I’d publically pooh-poohed many times.
I was going to do a humorous boxing story, it would have to be original. My own
thing. I knew I could write about the fights, and I was pretty sure I could
make it funny in my particular way, but I was floundering as to what this boxer
would look like, and how he’d actually be different from Sailor Steve.
inspiration came to me during a writer’s retreat in 2007. My former writing
group and publishing consortium, Clockwork Storybook, got together at Naulakha,
Rudyard Kipling's house in Dummerston, Vermont, and we spent a week in
seclusion, writing and critiquing, just like the old days.
three days before we were set to meet up, it occurred to me there was no better
unreliable narrator than Tom Sharkey himself. He went around the world, did all
of these amazing things, and like any old campaigner worth his salt, wasn’t
going to let the truth get in the way of a good story.
were a lot of “blank spaces” on Tom Sharkey’s map – periods of time no one can
account for, including the years he spent with a traveling carnival, recreating
(and sometimes rehashing, at the age of fifty, no less) his fights with Jim
the first Tom Sharkey story – what would become Sailor Tom Sharkey and the Introduction Window (the original title
was An Excerpt from the Unexpurgated
Adventures of Sailor Tom Sharkey) – right before I left for Vermont.
to read it for the guys, and get their notes. During the retreat, I wrote
another story based on a writing challenge we all set for ourselves. This one, The Final Adventure of Sailor Tom Sharkey,
has since been renamed Sailor Tom Sharkey
and the Real McCoy. It has also been edited and rewritten somewhat to strip
out most of the challenge conditions of the exercise. I kept the cow skull,
though, which worked out quite well.
read the group my first Tom Sharkey story, it was with very little preamble. I
just told them this was something I’d been working up to for a while. To my
complete surprise and pleasure, they loved it. Most of the comments were along
the lines of, “I can’t tell if this is good writing from you or not, because it
sounds just like you.” The second story, written a few days into the retreat,
met with similar notes and a caution to be careful not to have them all sound
alike. “I mean, how often can you write about a big dumb sailor who doesn’t
ever get what’s going on around him?” one of them quipped. Oh, ye of little
Tom Sharkey stories began to suggest themselves, and I dutifully noted them
down when inspiration struck. The hardest part of writing Tom Sharkey is
avoiding “Costigan Creep,” when certain key phrases and things find their way,
in quantity, into the stories. Do it once and it’s a nice little Easter egg nod
to fans in the know. Do it twice, or thrice, and then it becomes second-rate
Robert E. Howard. More than once I’ve had to pull myself back, all in service
to the story.
should also mention that over the span of several years and several stories, my
fictitious Sailor Tom Sharkey has taken on a life of his own, one that is
suggested by the real fighter, but has in the retelling become someone else altogether.
based many of these stories on real events in Sharkey’s life, but these are in
no way intended to represent real people or real events, and none of the
stories in this collection are intended to supplant the real Tom Sharkey’s
biography in any way. If you want the details of the man behind the legends,
see Greg Lewis’ book, mentioned above.
between writing other things, I’d occasionally let one fly, and when finished,
I sent each one far and wide, looking for a home. They were, not surprisingly,
hard to place. There is not, nor has there ever been, a sub-genre of the
literature section labeled “humorous historical weird boxing stories.” An
oversight, no doubt.
submissions, to editors of big and little stature, all came back rejected.
Those that added any commentary frequently told me they liked the story, but
had no idea what to do with it. I wasn’t surprised. These have been a hard
yet, every time I write a new Tom Sharkey story, and read it at conventions or
other personal appearances, I get laughs and interest. “When are you going to
collect these?” “Where can I read more?”
heaven for Fight Card. Now, at last, you can.
grateful to Paul Bishop for giving me the chance to publish this collection
under the aegis of what has become a respected line of quality fight fiction,
and ground zero for fans of this kind of literature. If you are such a fan (and
why wouldn’t you be?) and you have not read Robert E. Howard’s boxing stories,
you really need to.You’re missing out
on one of the most memorable and critically underrated achievements from one of
the world’s greatest pulp fiction writers.If you’re already one of us, then I hope you’ll enjoy these stories in
the spirit in which I wrote them.