By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
By Alleen Brown
By Maggie LaMaack
By CP Staff
By Jesse Marx
Growing up in south Minneapolis, Eddie Shyman (he didn't become Sharkey until he began his pro career) was a big wrestling fan. His father, Tom Shyman, was a first-generation immigrant from Poland who worked in the liquor-display business. On weekends in the late Forties the elder Shyman often took young Eddie to the old Minneapolis Auditorium for the regular shows. A wide-eyed Sharkey soaked it up. "There was a lot of great wrestlers in those days. Sometimes I just hung around outside the auditorium and hoped that somebody would let me in." At the time Sharkey harbored no desire to wrestle. But he always knew he wanted to be a tough guy. Undersized, he took to weightlifting. He also took to the streets, dropping out of Hopkins High School in the tenth grade. Much to the disappointment of his parents, Sharkey's taste for street brawling led to two stints at the boys' reformatory in Red Wing. Sharkey looks back on the experience fondly: "That was my education. I made lifelong friends there with kids and staff. I don't have any feelings for Hopkins High. But I've got emotions for Red Wing. I learned everything I needed to know there: hit hard, talk fast, and never forget what honor means."
By the time he was 17, Sharkey was full of wanderlust. Even then he didn't care for the cold, so he spent his winters in Hollywood, where he got by working a succession of menial jobs: washing dishes, painting cars, moving furniture, even hawking watches on the sidewalk. When he wasn't punching the clock, he sought out adventure in whatever form he could find it. He worked as a bouncer at a strip bar and, for a spell, lived with one of the dancers. "That was back when stripping was an honorable profession," he cracks. He also got an eyeful of the Hollywood street life. He remembers being awed at the sight of the legendary gangster Mickey Cohen, a diamond-flashing dandy, stepping from nightclub to limo. "I wish I had gone up and talked to him," he says wistfully. "That would have been something." In the summers Sharkey always returned to Minneapolis, where he rubbed elbows with a colorful cadre of con artists and muscle men who hung around the downtown bars, restaurants, and gyms. "It was wonderful," he says. "Nobody worked. We had the boosters. We had the shoplifters. We had 'em all. And everyone was a character. There was no weak guys. There was just the tough and the tougher."
Reform school had not cured Sharkey of his street-fighting ways, and, deciding it was time to put his fist and chin to work, he took up boxing. Planning to go straight to the pros, he trained at the now-defunct Mill City Gym in Minneapolis, where he got some valuable experience working as sparring partner with the great middleweight Del Flanagan. But as it turned out, Sharkey's efforts to make a name for himself came just as the Twin Cities boxing scene took one of its periodic and catastrophic downturns. After the only active promoter in the Twin Cities died, Sharkey started casting about for an alternative. He didn't know what he wanted to do. But he was sure about one thing: He didn't want to work a straight job.
Carnival wrestling seemed a natural fit. By the late Fifties the carnival era was drawing to a close, but Sharkey managed to hook up with a few of the remaining outfits, including one called Chief Little Wolf's Athletic Show. Wrestling as many as 12 times a day, he barnstormed across the state, mostly working county fairs. Sometimes he served as a jobber; the guy who would come out of the stands to take on and lose to a champion. Other times he would grapple with authentic challengers from the audience. ("Usually it was just some guy who drank too much, and he'd wind up throwing up all over the place. But sometimes they'd have pretty good amateur wrestlers come up.") He also wrestled in a pure novelty act. His adversary? A baboon known as Congo the Ape. "That ugly little son of a gun was real fast, and he had sharp fingernails," Sharkey laughs. "He scratched me a couple of times. But I smartened up. I would just bend down and let him play with my hair for a minute. I had to be careful. The promoter would always say to me, 'Don't lay on the ape!' He didn't give a shit about me--he just didn't want me to hurt the baboon. It would actually be kind of boring, but you know what they say: There's a sucker born every minute."
While the money was decent ($30 to $40 bucks on a good day), the carnival hardly provided steady work. Sharkey began to wonder if there might be a better way to make a living. At the time, professional wrestling in the U.S. was split into some 20 territories, which regional promoters operated like personal fiefdoms. Minnesota was one of the hottest territories in the land. In 1960 Verne Gagne--once a golden-boy halfback at the University of Minnesota and a standout amateur wrestler--broke from the National Wrestling Alliance, which then held the Minnesota territory. In partnership with the late Wally Karbo, Gagne formed the American Wrestling Association, which televised its regular cards from a studio in the Calhoun Beach Club. Soon Gagne (who was also the AWA's longtime champ) was routinely packing auditoriums throughout the state. Minnesota became a national wrestling mecca.