World Heavyweight Champion: 1926-1928
Few people gave Gene Tunney much of a chance when he came up against the Manassa Mauler in Philadelphia on 23 September 1926. It was widely expected that Dempsey would reproduce his usual devastating form and see off a challenger who was a natural light-heavyweight. The supremely confident Tunney had other ideas.
James Joseph Tunney was born on 25 May 1898, in Greenwich Village, New York. The son of poor Irish-Catholic parents, Tunney worked as a clerk for the Ocean Steamship Company after leaving school. It was during this period that he began boxing. In 1917, the year the United States entered the First World War, Tunney joined the Marines and went to Europe with the American Expeditionary Force. He continued to box, and in Paris in 1919 he won the AEF championship. Demobbed and back in New York, he notched up a string of victories which eventually made him light-heavyweight champion of America. He took that title from Battling Levinsky in January 1922.
In May of the same year, Tunney suffered his only defeat, and the loss of his cruiser title. His victor was Harry Greb, a formidable fighter – and a dirty one. Tunney took a terrible 15-round beating, then promptly vowed to avenge the defeat and regain his title from the same man. He studied Greb’s unseemly tactics, learned how to counter them and made good his promise in 1923. The following year he knocked out Georges Carpentier and set his sights on going one better than the Frenchman: relieving Dempsey of the heavyweight crown.
Dempsey, at 31, wasn’t in peak condition for what was his sixth title defence. He was also preoccupied by legal and business concerns. Even so, the boxing world was unprepared for what transpired. Tunney astonished everyone by deftly sidestepping and riding whatever Dempsey threw at him, while he himself gave a virtuoso display of incisive counterpunching. By the 10th and final round, one of Dempsey’s eyes was closed, he was bleeding profusely and virtually out on his feet. Tunney was picking him off at will. An emphatic points victory brought Dempsey’s seven-year reign to an end.
Dempsey congratulates victor
At the end of the fight, Dempsey’s sight was so badly impaired that he asked one of his seconds to point him in Tunney’s direction so that he could shake the new champion’s hand. It wasn’t a popular victory. The fans loved Dempsey’s all-action style. Tunney’s chief passion was for the arts. He read Shakespeare and counted George
Bernard Shaw among his friends. His cultured ways didn’t endear him overmuch to the fight fans of the day. It was a fitter Dempsey who entered the ring in Chicago, on 22 September 1927, for the rematch. The first few rounds began in the same vein as the previous encounter, Tunney weaving and counterpunching to good effect. By the seventh round, he was comfortably ahead on points, when Dempsey finally caught him with a devastating flurry of combination punches. Tunney hit the canvas and the referee ordered Dempsey to a neutral corner, as agreed before the fight.
The ‘Long Count’
A vital few seconds elapsed before Dempsey consented and the referee began the count. Tunney rose at nine. He repaid the compliment by putting Dempsey down in the following round, and went on to record another comfortable points victory. The Long Count has gone down in boxing history as one of the great imponderables. Some maintain that those extra seconds saved Tunney. Dempsey himself graciously accepted the champion’s version of events: that he could have risen earlier, but sensibly made the most of the time available to him.
Tunney defended his title only once more, against New Zealander Tom Heeney. Heeney was strong and brave, but no match for the immaculate Tunney, who toyed with him for 11 rounds. Heeney was bleeding so badly from one eye that Tunney dropped his hands and pleaded with the referee to end the contest. The referee refused and the fight continued, but Tunney didn’t lay a serious glove on his man until the referee finally did call a halt to proceedings. Gentlemen Gene later said he wasn’t prepared to risk a blow which might have cost an opponent his sight.
Tunney retired from the ring after the Heeney fight. He married Josephine Lauder, heiress to the Carnegie Steel fortune, and became a successful businessman in his own right. His decision to walk away from the sport after making in the region of $1.75 million from his three title fights once again didn’t play well with the fans. He may not have ranked high in the popularity stakes, but his superb ringcraft had twice got the better of one of the most feared fighters in boxing history.