The Most Controversial Sporting Event In History: Gene Tunney vs. Jack Dempsey
Some contemporary boxers go month after month without a fight. Heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey went years. That’s years. How this was acceptable is a question we modern fans can chew on, but Dempsey’s extended layoff appears to have been at least somewhat accepted in his time. Perhaps the biggest sports celebrity of the 1920s (and let’s keep in mind this was the era of Babe Ruth). Dempsey looks to have been free to literally “go Hollywood” for three years without much backlash from the public. He stared in movies for Universal studios, boxed in exhibitions and married movie star Estelle Taylor. The heavyweight champion of the world was indeed living life in the fast lane.
Yet at the same time, a son of an Irish laborer from New York City had Dempsey much on his mind. For Gene Tunney wanted Dempsey in the ring, so much so that it was said the man was thoroughly obsessed with the current champ. A former marine, Tunney worked his way up the hard way, accumulating a terrific record along the way. Although today the guy is known as a technical boxer (which Tunney certainly was), the New Yorker also accumulated a very large share of knockouts.
The most telling thing about Tunney, however, was the man’s heart. Tunney fought a total of nineteen times while Dempsey was on hiatus. That’s one short of twenty. In three years. What’s more, Tunney had beaten some of the best fighters out there within that time frame. Dempsey’s former foe Georges Carpentier was one of Tunney’s victims, as was the famous brawler, Harry Greb. Funny thing about Greb, he’s said to have made Tunney the fighter Tunney eventually became. For, after taking a ferocious beating by Greb in his only loss, Tunney came back a more complete, more effective boxer. To be sure, Tunney returned to best Greb four times, three of those times while Dempsey was on his hiatus.
Still, many didn’t give the Irish American much of a chance when he was finally set to face Dempsey in Philadelphia on the 23d of September, 1926. Tunney had come up from the light heavyweight division, which perhaps meant he wasn’t a “true” heavyweight in the eyes of many. Furthermore, this was Jack Dempsey Tunney was facing. Jack Dempsey. The celebrity. The legend. The movie star. The man who went through opponents like a hot scoop through ice cream. To think the guy could be taken out by the likes of Tunney, a man who had ambitions to rise up the social ladder, probably seemed a bit silly.
Maybe people should have given Tunney a closer look before writing him off. Sure, he wanted to use boxing to get ahead in life, but he was also a former marine whose immigrant father had worked as a longshoreman and who himself had worked as a lumberjack. There was also the matter of having come back from a horrible beating at the gloves of Greb. Tunney was no wimp. He was a smart fighter, though. One who was prepared to use a sharp game plan to take down the heavyweight king.
And so, during the ten round bout with Dempsey, Tunney proved to be the smarter, hungrier and perhaps even stronger fighter. To the surprise of many, Tunney put on a performance of defensive wizardry, making an art form out of hitting and not getting hit. After the judges’ scorecards had been read, the world had a new heavyweight champion on its hands. The great Jack Dempsey had been defeated. No great story ends simply, however, and there was to be an historic second act to the Dempsey-Tunney saga. After besting Jack Sharkey in controversial fashion, Dempsey was set to have a second shot at the man who had dethroned him.
The rematch was to occur on the 22nd of September, 1927 – just a day shy of the one year anniversary of the first Dempsey-Tunney match. Well over one hundred thousand people crammed into Solider’s Field in Chicago while the Chicago Tribune claims around fifteen million people were able to listen to the fight live over the radio. To say the match was quite the big deal would be, of course, an understatement. How many matches today cram over one hundred thousand people into a single stadium? How many sporting events of any kind can do as much? Sadly for the fans, though, the second fight looked like a replay of the first one, with the skillful Tunney holding off his man effectively.
Then, however, came the seventh round. That was when Dempsey finally caught Tunney and stunned him. Not one to let an opportunity pass, the former champion whaled away at his former conqueror, sending the helpless Tunney to the mat. That’s when things went from thrilling to downright odd. There was a new rule that fighters had to go to a neutral corner after dropping an opponent. In the heat of the moment, Dempsey understandably forgot that rule and hovered over his fallen prey, ready to pounce. Referee Dave Barry then took it upon himself to direct Dempsey to a neutral corner.
The problem was that, instead of picking up the time keepers’ count – as he should have – Barry started counting on his own, which allowed Tunney to be up at the count of nine. In reality, however, Tunney had been down for well over ten seconds – around fourteen, in fact. To make matters worse for Dempsey, Tunney went on to win the fight, even scoring a flash knockdown himself later on in the evening. By the time all was said and done, both fighters had made it to the final bell and Tunney was once again awarded a decision win.
The one thing Tunney wasn’t awarded, however, was a general sense of acceptance that he had won the second fight. What’s more, even now, with both Dempsey and Tunney having long since passed, the Long Count remains the most controversial sporting event in history.