Gene Tunney should have been the living portrait of the certified American hero. He was the young handsome stalwart fighting Marine of World War I, square-jawed and fearless. He reached for the heavyweight championship of the world and won it, from Jack Dempsey.
He also beat the big odds that said this New York Irish kid, this high school dropout of 15 would never master Sheakespeare and be asked to lecture at Yale. He made a million dollars in one fight, and poor no more, married the heiress of his dreams, Andrew Carnegie's niece.
He was all of those things, but complete admiration escaped Tunney. The flaws were two. He was the man who beat a popular idol when he twice destroyed Dempsey. And there was a personality defect. Unlike hi-ya-guy Dempsey, he lacked the common touch, choosing to hang out with scholars.
In his pursuit of culture, Tunney took a walking tour of Europe, cultivated Yale professor William Lyons Phelps, and went swimming with George Bernard Shaw. To the genius fight fan this added up to uppity.
These are some of the recollections prompted by Tunney's death this week at age 80. I was at ringside that Sept. 19, 51 years ago in Soldier Field, Chicago, when the battle of the long count saved Tunney's title and gave America one of its most enduring debates. There also is a vivid memory of Dempsey fans screaming, "Come on, Jack," after he floored Tunney in round seven, more cheers for Dempsey in that one round than for Tunney in the eight he won in the 10-round fight.
At Chicago there was a carry-over resentment of Tunney among many Americans. When he outpointed Dempsey the year before in Philadelphia, it was the first time that the heavyweight title had been won by a decision.
There was a wide, if mistaken belief, that this wasn't right. The heavyweight title should be won by a knockout. What happened to macho? As an onpoints heapyweight champ, Tunney was diminished in the minds of many.
This, it must be remembered, was the mid-20s, the so-called golden age of sports, and Dempsey-Tunney was part of it. This was the era of Babe Ruth and Bobby Jones and Bill Tilden and Red Grange and Helen Wills. Only a week before the long count in Chicago, Babe Ruth hit his 60th home run in Yankee Stadium against the Senators' Tom Zachary.
Sport's idols were fewer but they were giants. The irreverent Westbrook Pegler called it the Era of Wonderful Nonsense.
In the same methodical manner that he hung out in libraries to soak up knowledge, Tunney set his sights on Dempsey's title after turning pro following the war. He was ring-wise when he met Dempsey, having fought 77 bouts and losing only to Harry Greb, whom he twice licked in return bouts.
For all the luster of his won-lost record, Tunney was a "made" fighter. He lacked the natural moves of a Dempsey and others. He was his own creation, a stand-up counter-puncher who made a science of his style, took no fear into the ring with him, and in his training camps practiced at great length the backward moves that ultimately helped him keep his title in round seven at Chicago.
There was a discomforting irony for Tunney with both his fights with Dempsey. Here he was the World War marine who had seen combat action and was decorated. Dempsey, in contrast, was under slacker charges in 1918 when he was caught posing as a shipyard worker, but in patent-leather shoes. Yet, less than a decade later, it was Dempsey the people's choice and Tunney the hooted one.
The now-popular art of psyching an opponent may first have been practiced by Tunney. For his first Dempsey fight, he brazenly flew by small plane from his Stroudsburg, Pa., training camp to Philadelphia in a driving rain, a bravura stunt in 1926. If Dempsey wasn't wholly impressed with Tunney's gutsiness, promoter Tex Rickard was. With a $2 million stake in the promotion riding in Tunney's plane, Rickard was reported air sick despite never leaving the ground.
It was a proper beating Tunney gave Dempsey at Philadelphia in 10 rounds, fending off Dempsey's rushes and handling him in the clinches. He targeted Dempsey's face with straight rights and left it a bloody mess. The unanimous decision was unquestioned.
Because Dempsey was fighting after a long layoff, the cry for a rematch was instant. Rickard put it in Soldier Field, and pegged the price at an unheard of $40 top for ringside. Dempsey trained at a race track. Tunney hied himself to a Chicago surburb and indicated he didn't want fight writers around by giving out false workout times, working in as much privacy as he could get.
In Solider Field, 104,943 saw the fight, some from such distances in the stadiu*m they claimed they were in Evansville. They paid a then-record gate of $4,658,600. Tunney was to get an almost tax-free check for $999,000.
It was the first ever broadcast by a commercial broadcaster.
Eight of the 10 rounds were won by Tunney, yet ultimately he won on luck. In the seventh round when Dempsey suddenly came to life and relived it up with a flurry of the same murderous punches that floored Jess Willard and Luis Firpo, Tunney was caught off guard and clobbered. The first two Dempsey punches on either side of the head caused Tunney to sag. The descending Tunney then was clubbed on top of the head by a dozen Dempsey blows and was on his pants, hurt and groggy with one arm groping for the lower strand of the ropes.
Demspey, who should have known better, hovered over him. The instructions to retire to the farthest corner in case of a knockdown had been spelled out for both fighters by referee Dave Barry in the prefight instructions. Ironically, Dempsey himself had inspired the rule by his actions in the Firpo Fight when he stood over the fallen Argentinan in readiness to swat him again as his foe tried to rise in their Jersey City fight. Yet, Dempsey didn't remember the rule until Barry almost physically directed him to the farthest corner.
By that time, the count against Tunney had reached five, and now reverted to one with Tunney getting the benefit of it. I was positive then, as now, that Tunney would not have been up at a proper count of 10, but those precious seconds were heaven-sent for him, and at nine he made a gutsy rise to his feet.
The retreats he had practiced in training now paid off for Tunney, who backpedaled out of danger for the rest of the round. At the round's end, it was Dempsey who was spent from his exertions, and he was reduced to beckoning in vain for the canny Tunney to "come in and fight."
Tunney ran away to fight another round and another and another and at the end of 10 was the clear winner over an exhausted Dempsey.
In later years, Tunney could live with the disputed count graciously, but sometimes he would say, "Everybody forgets that I floored Dempsey with my first punch in round eight."
Tunney made one more fight before he retired, picking plodding Tom Heeney in New York and knocking him out in round 11. This was another Tex Rickard promotion, with Rickard learning that Tunney, without Dempsey, was no box-office. Rickard lost $132,000 on the fight.
Following that fight, Tunney married Polly Lauder in Rome and retired to a new world of dinner jackets and, later, corporate board meetings. He had refused a $100,000 endorsement from a cigarette company and wrote a "don't smoke" article for Reader's Digest.
On one trip to Europe, he told assembled news photographers, "If my picture is taken again, it will be without my consent. In England, if a person announces he is retiring, to private life they respect him."
In 1945 Tunney wrote the segment on boxing for the Encyclopedia Britannica but otherwise retired to his Connecticut country home in what appeared to be a search for oblivion.