The Long Count

Good morning, it’s Friday, August 30, 2019. In yesterday’s missive, I wrote that heavyweight boxer Gene Tunney knocked out Jack Dempsey to win the title and retired undefeated. This statement was a work of art, of sorts: two historical errors in one sentence.

So let’s get this out of the way now, with a nod to astute readers Richard Freiman and Neal Lavon: In 1922, Gene Tunney lost a fight to Harry Greb, a now forgotten but utterly terrific boxer who wasn’t even a true heavyweight. (Greb was one of many fighters to be dubbed the best boxer “pound for pound” of his era.)

More importantly, Jack Dempsey wasn’t knocked out by Tunney; it was closer to the other way around.

On September 23, 1926, Gene Tunney, a former U.S. Marine who fought skillfully and defensively, claimed the heavyweight championship of the world by winning a 10-round decision over Dempsey in an outdoor fight in Philadelphia.

A year later, at Chicago’s Soldier Field, Dempsey believed for a moment — well, actually for 13 or 14 seconds — that he’d won it back.

Dempsey was being outboxed by Tunney again in Chicago. But 50 seconds into the seventh round, he caught the “Fighting Marine” with looping left hand. It dazed Tunney, and although the crowd didn’t know how much, Dempsey did. He moved in quickly, finding Tunney’s jaw with a powerful overhand right, followed by a left hook.

Tunney’s eyes went blank and he slumped toward the canvas. “Seventeen rounds,” Dempsey later said he thought, “and now I have him.” Before Tunney reached the mat, Dempsey hit him squarely four more times. Dempsey’s hands were so fast that biographer Roger Kahn had to slow down the newsreel to even see the punches.

Yet, it wouldn’t prove enough, partly because of Dempsey’s killer instincts.

In early 20th century prize fighting, a boxer would stand over a fallen opponent, the better to knock him down again when he arose. Boxing was changing, however, and Dempsey’s handlers had agreed to a new rule: A fighter must retreat to a neutral corner after his opponent goes down. But Dempsey didn’t do it.

When told by referee Dave Barry to go to the farthest corner, Dempsey hovered over the fallen Tunney instead. “I stay,” he said simply.

So Barry took Dempsey by the arm and walked him toward a neutral corner. When the ref returned to Tunney, the ring timekeeper was counting, “Five…” But Barry ignored him, and began the count over again, “One…”

At the count of “Nine!” Tunney got to his feet. He would say later that he could have arisen earlier, and the classy Dempsey never publicly questioned Tunney’s account, although he did appeal the decision — in vain.

In the eighth round, Tunney knocked Dempsey down and went on to win another 10-round decision. Tunney would fight professionally one more time, retaining his title in a July 1928 fight before retiring. Dempsey would fight only in exhibitions after that, joining the service during World War II and living in New York until he died in 1983. He was 87 years old.

Late one night in the 1960s, two muggers tried to rob the old man. They didn’t know who they were dealing with. The old champ whirled around and dropped each of them with one punch. A cabbie called the cops, who found the would-be robbers cowering on the ground, with Jack Dempsey hovering over them, as he had with Gene Tunney. They refused to get up, they explained, without police protection.

Carl M. Cannon
Washington Bureau chief, RealClearPolitics

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