“It’s easy for a guy like me to live violently, as if there were no tomorrow.”
ALTHOUGH nearly every historical overview of the 1920s has Jack Dempsey listed in its index, it was, boxing-wise, at least, Mickey Walker, “The Toy Bulldog,” who truly embodied the madcap Roaring Twenties. While Dempsey, the ex-hobo now heavyweight champion and permanent newspaper headline, was hobnobbing with Hollywood luminaries in Beverley Hills mansions, Walker was pure hell-bent-for-leather among the hoi polloi in settings as diverse as armories, dancehalls, and weather-beaten arenas; where Dempsey was largely a teetotaler, Walker guzzled Scotch by the barrel; where Dempsey spent most of his time with high society and made a conscientious effort to learn table manners, Walker caroused speakeasies overflowing with riffraff and scuffled on the streets and in hotel rooms.
More important, perhaps, Walker had a nearly insatiable craving for fisticuffs. “The Magnificent Mick was one of the last of a wild breed who loved to brawl for the hell of it,” wrote John McCallum in The Encyclopedia of Champions, “drunk or sober, regardless of the time, place, or circumstance.” And Dempsey, by contrast, hardly stepped into a ring during the 1920s. In 1924 alone, Walker, then welterweight champion of the world, fought eight times, equaling the total number of fights Dempsey had for the duration of The Jazz Age.
If not for the looming shadow of Dempsey, who dominated nascent mass media in America with a backstory that resembled a folk tale, Walker would have been the most popular fighter of his era and the personification of its riotous ethos. In 1922, Walker won the welterweight title from aging Jack Britton and spent the next decade painting the town red. In his case, the town was nearly 3.8 million square miles, from Newark, New Jersey, to San Francisco, California, and dozens of raucous points in between. (His one title defence outside of the U.S. was a kayo of talented Scotsman Tommy Milligan, at the Olympia, in London.)
By 1927, Walker was the middleweight champion of the world, bringing his unique combination of kayos and chaos across the country. Everywhere, it seemed, but New York City, the epicenter of boxing since 1920. In an era when The Big Apple, then mirroring the ambition of the entire country by erecting skyscraper after skyscraper, was the driving economic force in boxing, Walker was cut out of the Broadway ballyhoo because of his manager, the nefarious Jack Kearns. Indeed, Kearns was so loathed by the New York State Athletic Commission that he had been barred from attending the middleweight championship bout between Walker and Harry Greb in 1925. This unofficial blacklist meant Walker — and by extension, Kearns — had an artificial cap on his earnings.
But for the carefree Kearns, worse was still to come. “There was nothing laughable, however, about the financial crash of October 1929, which shook the whole nation,” he wrote in his autobiography The Million-Dollar Gate. “My first thought was to get back to New York to see what I might be able to salvage out of my considerable investments. I had plunged rather heavily and, as it eventually developed, lost about a quarter of a million dollars.”
It was probably around then that Kearns began to imagine Walker as a heavyweight. Kearns, more than anyone, knew how much the heavyweight title was worth. Until a few years earlier, he had generated millions of dollars guiding Jack Dempsey as a part-time champion and a full-time celebrity. But Kearns was as crooked as a corkscrew that had been run over by a Studebaker, and Dempsey eventually fired his longtime partner, leaving him with only Walker for a meal-ticket. Because Walker was fearless, he hardly needed convincing to swap punches with the dreadnoughts who towered above him, a roughneck of five feet, seven inches, who began his career as a lightweight. His daring whimsicality made such a dangerous proposition just another frolic.
As far back as 1925, Walker had challenged Mike McTigue for the light-heavyweight title, earning a newspaper decision over the reigning champion despite weighing only 149 pounds. After winning the middleweight championship from Tiger Flowers in 1926, Walker regularly fought non-title bouts against bigger opponents, and in 1929 he challenged once more for the light-heavyweight crown, this time losing on points to Philadelphia maestro Tommy Loughran. Now, he was gambling that his paralyzing left hook and his indomitable fighting spirit would be enough to defeat the oversized bruisers of a rough-and-tumble era.
A year after the crash of 1929, Walker made his official debut as a heavyweight —while still middleweight champion of the world — grinding out a points win against veteran Johnny “Rubber Man” Risko. Walker, who weighed a shade over 165 pounds, gave up nearly 30 pounds to Risko. From there, Walker went on a winning streak that lead him, seemingly as a gangplank leads a mutineer to a watery death, to his first world-class big man: future heavyweight champion Jack Sharkey.
One of the most controversial fighters of his era, Sharkey had a nervous system liable to go haywire at any moment, and his crabby eloquence made him a back-page mainstay for years. So, too, did his inconsistent results. Strange things occurred when Sharkey entered the ring. Some of them were due to his mercurial personality, some of them occurred because of the inherent vagaries of boxing, and some of them transpired because of underworld influences. Despite his erratic performances — or, perhaps, because of them — Sharkey was one of the biggest gate attractions in boxing during the late 1920s, just before the Stock Market crash bottomed out the sport the same way it had bottomed out the country. His legendary brawl against Jack Dempsey — in which Sharkey was poleaxed while remonstrating to the referee — drew a crowd of 75,000 to Yankee Stadium in New York City to become only the fourth million-dollar gate in boxing history. “The guys who ride me foot the bills,” Sharkey told the Boston Globe about his negative appeal. “I know they come to see me get my block knocked off. What do I care for them? I hate them as much as they hate me. I like to keep on fighting and winning only because I like to see them leave the ringside disappointed that I wasn’t busted around and cut up and left bleeding and helpless on the floor!”
As mercurial as Sharkey was, he was still more than capable of handling a puffed-up middleweight whose idea of roadwork was a string of midnight bar crawls. “They say nobody living can keep Walker on the floor,” Sharkey sneered before the fight. “This time he will be spread for keeps.”
Sharkey and Walker met on July 22, 1931, at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn, New York. For his first outing in New York since 1926 (although he did fight in Brooklyn, Ohio, in 1928), Walker scaled 169 ½ pounds. By contrast, Sharkey weighed 198 ½, a vast differential that no commission would allow today. A crowd of more than 30,000 paid a remarkable $233,356 to watch this incongruous pairing scrap.
From the opening bell, Walker bored in, looking to bullyrag Sharkey at close quarters and crash his left hook to the body. In response, Sharkey flicked out the occasional blow, but his strategy revolved around clinching at every opportunity. Even for Sharkey, a 3/1 favorite, such a lacklustre performance was unusual. In the fifth round, Sharkey landed a right uppercut that dropped Walker for a flash knockdown, but his clutch-and-grab tactics remained in effect until the last third of the fight, when he accelerated until the final bell, leaving Walker bloody and bruised. After 15 desultory rounds, the fight was ruled a draw. “When the fight was over, I was fresher by far than he was,” Walker would say later. “He looked disgusted, as if he thought he had lost. I was sure I had won.” There may have been another reason for Sharkey looking disgusted. Over the years, the circumstances surrounding Sharkey-Walker would gradually reveal themselves.
Before the fight, Sharkey had raised eyebrows by having Matty Capone (brother of the infamous “Scarface”) visit him in training camp, but years later Boston Record columnist Dave Egan openly stated that the underworld had been behind the result: “He was forced by the late and unlamented Al Capone to carry Mickey Walker 15 rounds and then was lucky to escape with a draw.”
Johnny Buckley managed Jack Sharkey from the beginning of his career. When he died, in 1963, sportswriter John M. Flynn recalled a conversation he once had with the shifty manager. “Buckley had promised somebody interested in Walker that Mickey would be on his feet at the finish,” Flynn wrote in the Berkshire Evening Record. “The crowd was strongly in favour of Walker and Sharkey feared he would lose the decision because after he hit Mickey he would grab him to keep him from falling. As the fight progressed, Sharkey told Buckley he would have to cut loose, or he would drop the verdict. Buckley told him to go ahead but be sure that Walker was on his feet at the finish.”
But the biggest revelation came from Jack Kearns, whose relationship with Capone had long been a matter of public record. In The Million Dollar Gate, Kearns confessed to meeting with Capone before the fight and requesting a little “insurance.” And Kearns was a man whose entire worldview was based on always having an edge. “I have never been involved in a fixed fight; fixed, that is, where I lost a fight,” he wrote. “But I will admit this: I’m a winner, not a loser. I’d do anything to win, but I won’t lose. And you can draw your own conclusions from that.”
Regardless of the skullduggery surrounding the draw, Walker was now considered a legitimate heavyweight threat, and the sporting masses adored the David vs. Goliath saga he recreated, at scale, from fight to fight. Not even a decision loss to Johnny Risko on June 24, 1932, could dampen public enthusiasm. In retrospect, the misstep against Risko should have acted as a warning sign. Walker was 31 years old, with more than 130 recorded fights, several jumbo scars crosshatching his face, and a dissolute lifestyle that he was powerless to control. The last thing he needed was to square off against a near-peak Max Schmeling.
By September 1932, Schmeling, 26, was the ex-heavyweight champion of the world after losing a dubious decision to Sharkey a few months earlier. But he was still a few years away from his shocking upset of Joe Louis, and his slashing right cross, along with his calculating style, made him one of the most dangerous heavyweights in the world. With Al Capone was now serving a lengthy sentence in Alcatraz, there would be no gangster angels to watch over Walker this time.
The Madison Square Garden Bowl, in Long Island City, Queens, was the site for the gruesome mismatch that finally ended the heavyweight run of Mickey Walker. More than 40,000 spectators gathered on September 26, 1932, to see how far Walker could push his reckless audacity.
Almost immediately the violent end was prefigured; Schmeling floored Walker heavily with a right hand late in the first round. From that point on, Schmeling seemed to coast, allowing Walker to chug forward, throwing hooks to the body, while Schmeling counterpunched judiciously. In the eighth round, Schmeling finally decided to open fire, bloodying Walker, shutting his eyes, dropping him twice, and imploring the referee to stop the fight. “Schmeling opened up then and gave me a terrific shellacking. It was the worst beating I ever took in my life. One punch knocked my mouthpiece to the canvas. Another dropped me for a five-count. I got up, but was floundering around helplessly,” Walker recalled.
Somehow, Walker made it to the bell, and when he stumbled to his corner, he got an unusual response from the ice-cold Kearns: empathy. “He stayed in there and gave it everything he had while Schmeling smashed him to the canvas like a rubber ball,” Kearns wrote. “By the eighth round, while Mickey might have been able to take it a little longer, I couldn’t. I told them to stop the fight.”
Although Kearns put an end to the carnage, Walker, face covered in gore, remained defiant to the bitter end. “You threw in the sponge, Doc,” he spluttered through bloody lips, “not me.” It was a glorious defeat — he would be lauded for his courage throughout the country — but Walker, driven as he was by desire and a certain sporting insolence, had finally overreached.
After losing to Schmeling, a battered Walker bypassed a desperately needed sabbatical and returned to the small wars in a little over two months. He fought regularly until 1935, with mixed results, and for smaller purses. In November 1933 Walker even landed another title shot, against light-heavyweight champion “Slapsie Maxie” Rosenbloom, who outpointed Walker in Madison Square Garden. When he retired, a few years later, Walker nosedived into the life of a celebrity lush. A liquid diet had always been his preference, but now, without the counterbalancing effects of a training schedule, Walker was little more than a sot. He sobered up enough to become a goodwill ambassador for President Roosevelt during World War II and to make appearances as a nightclub entertainer and a radio personality, but his life had taken on an unfulfilling, haphazard quality.
A restless Walker finally found his second calling — as a painter. His primitive canvases were slathered with thick impasto mirroring the patchwork ruts of scars lining his brow. Art brut, indeed. His paintings were good enough to hang at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia. Walker remained in the news for a few years because of dabs and daubs (not jabs), but eventually, the star-crossed hellraiser second only to Dempsey in fame during the fabled 1920s succumbed to the hazards of his profession.
In May 1974, he was discovered unconscious in a Brooklyn gutter, and the police who found him assumed he was a derelict who had collapsed after a bender. Walker could not even recall his own name. He had been living, alone, in a boarding room in Elizabeth, New Jersey, barely surviving on Social Security checks and handouts from old friends. A month later, at Perth Amboy General Hospital, he was given last rites, but Walker, as headstrong as ever, survived. Walker was suffering from Parkinson’s Disease and cerebral arterial sclerosis and was finally committed to Marlboro State Psychiatric Hospital, where he died on April 28, 1981. Possibly the last public words Walker spoke, during a brief interview in 1976, when his recall was sporadic and halting, were almost fitting, for a man whose competitive spirit was undeniable: “Fighting is in a fighter. He has to fight.”