Gene Tunney – Odd Man Out

By Jim Galiano.

In a time when America’s Boxing hero’s were hard drinking, hard living, warriors of the ring, Gene Tunney was definitely cut from a different mold.  He suffered the same misfortune as Larry Holmes would suffer many years later.  He followed in the footsteps of an iconic figure in Jack Dempsey.  Dempsey’s popularity transcended the boxing ring.  Being Dempsey’s polar opposite, Tunney would never earn the acceptance of “the fight crowd,” nor the adoration of the American public as Dempsey had.

James Joseph Eugene Tunney was a clean living, educated man.  His baby sister called him “Gene” because she had difficulty pronouncing his name and the name stuck.

It may seem odd to us today in the 21st century, but it was actually Tunney’s education that estranged him with the boxing establishment and fans.  It’s been said that Tunney could write as well as the best known authors of his day.  He also enjoyed reading and writing poetry.

The American public just did not “take” to Gene Tunney’s intellectual personality anymore than it did his scientific style of fighting.

Gene Tunney was born in 1897 and grew up in Greenwich Village, New York.  Gene took up boxing as a boy to defend himself against local bullies.  As the years passed, Tunney became increasingly interested in health and fitness.  By the age of 16, Gene was already sparring with professional fighters.  During one particular sparring session, Gene took a beating from a professional fighter named Willie Green.  What stood out, the beating aside, was the fact that he just wouldn’t quit!  Tunney stood on his feet and refused to fold – right to the bitter end.

By the age of 18, Gene was well on his way to developing his “scientific style” and had already won a few professional fights.

During World War I, Tunney served in the Marines and was stationed in France.  His guarded airplane hangers which gave him plenty of time to exercise and keep in top physical condition.  He was also a member of the Marine’s boxing team.  After he was discharged from service, Tunney continued his career and became known as “The Fighting Marine.”  Gene, however, was not too thrilled with the nickname and said that although he was proud to have served his country, he preferred leaving that period in his life in the past.

Tunney’s career continued after World War I and in 1922, Tex Rickard matched him up tough veteran – Battling Levinsky, for the “American Light Heavyweight Championship.”

Levinsky was a crafty veteran who’d already faced the likes of Billy Miske, Gunboat Smith, Jack Dillon, Harry Greb, Georges Carpentier and even the great Jack Dempsey.

Although Tunney was only 24 years old, it was Levinsky who looked the part of an inexperienced fighter who was in over his head.  Tunney won a one-sided decision.

With the Levinsky win under his belt and the American Light Heavyweight title secured, Tunney reeled off four more wins before approached Tex Rickard personally to set up fight with the legendary Harry Greb.

Greb was one of the toughest, most physical fighters to ever step into the ring.  He was called the “Human Windmill” because of his non-stop punching and pressuring style.  Rickard advised against it –telling Tunney that fighting Greb was like fighting a man, “with ten hands.”

Nevertheless, the match was made and they finally met on May 23, 1922 at Madison Square Garden in New York.  For the first ten rounds, Tunney fought well.  But from the eleventh round on, it was all Greb.  Tunney made the mistake of standing toe-to-toe with Greb and paid for it.  Boxing writer Damon Runyon said of Tunney, “He had no business being around for the full 15 rounds, but he was and you have to take you hat off to this boy.  He was the type of courage of which great champions are made.”

Some of Gene’s friends advised him to retire after the loss to Greb.  To everyone’s amazement, though, all he could talk about was getting another match with Greb!  Nine months and nine fights later, Tunney got his wish.  On February 23, 1923, they met once again in the famed Madison Square Garden.  This time, however, Tunney adhered to the game plan and counterpunched his way to a 15 round decision victory.

Tunney and Greb were to meet three more times over the next several year with Tunney having an edge in each bout.  The final bout was a clear one-sided victory for Tunney.  When questioned about his fights with Gene Tunney, Greb (never one to praise anyone) said, “Tunney had a lot of class, but he don’t stand still.  He was behind me most of the time!”

In a time when sluggers and pressure fighters received the adoration of the boxing public, Tunney’s skills finally began receiving the attention of the boxing press and its writers.

Tunney careered continued to accelerate with impressive wins over Georges Carpentier and Tommy Gibbons.  His knockout of Gibbons was especially impressive when you consider the fact that Jack Dempsey only managed a close decision win against him.

Out of the ring, the perception of Tunney was miles away from the typical hard-punching, hard working, blue collar type.  Tunney kept company with such individuals as renown author – George Bernard Shaw.  Tunney was considered to be a “snob” by some who judged him critically by the company he kept.

Gene Tunney’s managers of record were Billy Gibson and Billy Jacobs.  From the beginning, though, it was Tunney who managed his career, saw to the details and called all the shots.  Tunney chose Gibson and Jacobs as figureheads because the boxing commission required managers to be listed for the record.  It was yet another example of Tunney marching to the beat of a totally different drummer.

Tunney meticulously planned every aspect of his career, in the ring and out.  In terms of a thinking fighter who could adjust to any opponent and any situation that may occur within a fight, perhaps only the great Benny Leonard would be considered his equal.

It was after Tunney stopped Tommy Gibbons, however, that people started debating in bars, around the dinner table and on the streets – who would win if Tunney’s science were matched against Dempsey’s ferocity.

As time passed, more and more people began asking this question.  Tex Rickard was more than happy to set the stage that would provide the answers.  It was the biggest gate in history with 120,757 people paying just under $1,896,000.00 to watch history unfold on September 23, 1926.

Against Tunney, Dempsey got old overnight.  Whether it was the three years out of the ring before the Tunney fight, or just a bad matchup of styles, Tunney clearly out-boxed Dempsey.  At the end of the scheduled 10 rounds, Gene Tunney was the new Heavyweight Champion of the Word.

Although Gene was the champion on paper, Dempsey was still the champion in the hearts of the people.  If anything, Jack Dempsey was more popular than ever.

People from all walks of life told Dempsey, “Don’t worry Jack, you’ll get him next time!”

The “next time” took place one day short of a year later.  This time, they met in Chicago and drew the biggest gate in the history of the sport.  The box office totaled $2,658,660 in receipts!  It’s a record that stands to this day.  The live crowd was slightly smaller.  This was thanks to Tex Rickard raising the ticket prices.

The fight itself would go down in history as “The Battle of the Long Count.”  A brutal left hook from Dempsey dropped Tunney along the ropes in the 7th round.  Referee Dave Barry counted to “two” and then stopped when he realized Dempsey had not gone to the neutral corner.  After some confusion, Dempsey went to the neutral corner and Barry picked the count back up.

Tunney was on his feet at the count of 9 and the fight resumed.  Tunney had recovered from the punch and boxed the rest of the way to another clear-cut decision victory over Dempsey.  Dempsey was spent after trying to get Tunney out of there in the 7th and was fortunate in many ways to have not visited the canvas himself.

Films of the long count show Tunney making eye contact with the referee in time to rise to his feet – even if the count had not been “long” due to the neutral corner issue.  Tunney waited before rising to his feet, using the count to recover as much as possible from the punch.

Dempsey and Tunney went on to become great friends afterwards.  When asked if he could have risen by the count of ten under normal circumstances, Dempsey insisted that Tunney could have.  In several interviews I personally heard throughout the years, Tunney’s answers have varied from – “I think so,” “It’s doubtful,” and “Yes.”  From having watched the replays and followed Tunney’s line of vision, it appears that he could have risen in time.

The real problem of course was the fact that Dempsey did not (or could not) put him down again.  Or, more appropriately, down and out!

Gene was set from the money he earned in the Dempsey fights.  On July 26, 1928, Tunney stepped into the ring to defend his title against Tom Heeney of New Zealand.  It was the first “post Dempsey” title defense.  Tex Rickard had guaranteed Gene just over a half-million dollars.  Keep in mind, the year was 1928!

Tunney slowly dismantled Heeney and the fight was finally stopped in the 11th round.  Against a fighter like Tunney, every time you made a mistake or left an opening, you got punched.  Poor Tom made mistakes all night long!

It’s been said that Tunney had planned his retirement right after the Heeney fight and kept with the plan.  The truth is; it didn’t exactly happen that way.  Weeks after the Heeney victory, Gene was back in training and feeling better than ever.  He could have easily defended the title a few more times against modest opposition.  About two after the Heeney fight, Tunney was hit with a punch during a casual sparring session that sent a clear message.  It was time to say goodbye.

The session was immediately stopped and Tunney said it felt as like, “Someone had drilled a hole through the top of his skull and was pouring hot water down inside his head.”

This sensation lasted for three days as Tunney walked around as though he were in a fog of sorts.  Finally, later in the week, he was back to normal again.  It was this experience that actually led to Tunney’s decision to hang up his gloves for good.  With plenty of money in the bank, it didn’t make sense to risk his health by stepping into the ring again.

Gene Tunney left the game at just the right time.  He announced his retirement at the age of thirty.  The only mark he had on his face from years of fighting was a small scar over his left eye – compliments of Harry Greb.  He was married later that same year to Polly Lauder.  Polly was the grandniece of the late billionaire Andrew Carnegie.

Gene and his wife bought a mansion in Greenwich, Connecticut.  He lived there until his death at the age of 81 in 1978.

The Boxing Magazine – November 2009

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