"I feel like a part of me is gone," Jack Dempsey said yesterday upon learning of the death of his old ring antagonist and longtime friend, Gene Tunney.
"Because I was three years older than Gene, I always thought I would be the one to go first. As long as Gene was alive, I felt that we shared a link with that wonderful period of the past.
"Now I feel alone,"
Tunney, who beat Dempsey in two memorable heavyweight fights a half-century ago, died Tuesday night in a hospital in Greenwich, Conn. He was 80. Dempsey lives in Manhattan.
The two fighters were remnants of the "Golden Age of Sports" in the 1920s that produced such athletes as baseball's Babe Ruth, football's Jim Thorpe, tennis' Bill Tilden, golf's Bobby Jones and jockey Earl Sande.
Dempsey's wife, Deanna, said the phone started ringing in the Dempsey household shortly after midnight and continued until the early hours of the morning.
"Jack was shocked," Mrs. Dempsey said. "At first, he thought it might be a hoax. We recently had had some crank calls. When the calls continued coming, Jack realized then it was true.
"I can't describe his remorse. He really was broken up."
Jack answered the first few calls himself, his wife said, but then became so upset he had to be given a sedative to sleep.
"Despite all that has been written about bitterness between the two, Jack really loved the man," she added. "Great mutual respect and admiration had developed between the two. Although recently they hadn't seen as much of each other as they would have liked, they communicated.
"When Jack first heard that Gene had been taken to the hospital a couple of weeks ago, he placed a call. They had a wonderful chat. Jack was so encouraged. He said Gene talked as if he felt fine."
Tunney and Dempsey had similarly modest beginnings - Gene a New York longshoreman's son and Jack the son of a Manassa, Colo, farmer - but their postfight careers followed sharply diverging routes.
Dempsey, the beetle-browed, rough-and-tumble "Manassa Mauler," remained close to the ring and sports world as owner of a popular Broadway restaurant. Tunney, christened "Gentleman Gene," married the socially prominent Polly Lauder, became a successful businessman and divided his time between homes in Connecticut and Arizona. One of his sons, John, became a U.S. Senator.