Tunney, James Joseph ("Gene")

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TUNNEY, James Joseph ("Gene")

(b. 25 May 1897 in New York City; d. 7 November 1978 in Greenwich, Connecticut), one of the most skilled and intelligent boxers ever, usually ranked among the all-time top ten best heavyweight boxers by boxing historians, famed for defeating Jack Dempsey twice in championship matches.

Tunney was the son of John Joseph Tunney, a longshoreman, and Mary Lydon, a homemaker. He was born into a working-class Irish Catholic family in Greenwich Village, then a dismal place. Tunney acquired an early passion for boxing by looking at cartoons of boxers in the newspaper; he developed an early interest in reading because he wanted to read the stories that went with the pictures. When he was ten years old, his father gave him a pair of boxing gloves, which he wore out sparring with his brothers and friends.

Tunney attended St. Veronica's Parochial School. He loved to fight and did not pass up chances to brawl with youngsters in the street. In his mid-teens he started working out in a local gym, where he had the chance to spar with a local professional boxer. He was so beaten up after four rounds that he vowed never to box a professional again, but he had a passion for boxing that drew him back to spar again, and he focused on learning from the professional. Tunney attended La Salle Academy, graduating in 1915.

In 1918 Tunney joined the U.S. Marines and was sent to France during World War I. It was there that at Tunney's request a clerk taught him how to read Shakespeare's Winter's Tale, which gave him a thirst for more Shakespeare, and from Shakespeare, for more works of literature. But Tunney boxed when he could, eventually becoming Light Heavyweight Champion of the American Expeditionary Force. In 1919 he was released from duty and set about becoming a professional world champion.

Tunney's is a remarkable story. Even while he boxed, moving up the ladder of light heavyweight contenders, he educated himself; books were always with him, earning him a reputation as a "sissy" and a "snob," neither of which was even remotely true. On the other hand, he was sometimes aloof. He took to studying boxing as if he were studying military tactics, and he was forever reassessing his own skills as they developed and matching them against the skills he saw in others. Further, he studied opponents, planning ahead how he would take advantage of the weaknesses of each. Tunney, while unpopular, had a modern boxing strategy.

He eventually had his chance to fight for the World Light Heavyweight championship and won a points victory over Battling Levinsky (born Barney Lebrowitz) on 13 Jan 1922 to earn the title. Then on 23 May 1922 Tunney fought Harry Greb, a great middleweight boxer who fought above his usual weight class, and Greb pounded Tunney. It was the only loss of Tunney's career. Tunney could have died, so savage was the beating, and he was hospitalized thereafter, but even in the hospital he planned a rematch with Greb, remarking that he had fought Greb all wrong. Tunney had lasted the full fourteen rounds of the fight without going down, proving that he had plenty of endurance. In their next match, a fast, furious match of great boxing skill, Tunney defeated Greb, regaining his world title. They met three more times, with Tunney winning once and the others ending in draws.

Tex Rickard, the boxing promoter who had shepherded heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey through a series of million-dollar fights, saw gold in a match-up between the fiery Dempsey and the cool Tunney, and brought them together in Philadelphia on 23 September 1926, with over 120,000 fans in attendance. Tunney was given little chance to win except by a few journalists, who were ridiculed for their views. Dempsey was expected to easily crush the book-reading sissy. Tunney had a very clear view of how he should fight; his skills were directed at avoiding being hit. He hoped that an overconfident Dempsey would begin to overswing after missing some punches. This Dempsey did, and in the first round Tunney stepped inside a wide left and hit Dempsey with a straight right, stunning him. Thereafter, Tunney dismantled Dempsey with slashing lefts and straight rights that left Dempsey with a swollen face and a closed eye. Tunney won the decision in the ten-round fight and became World Heavyweight Champion. He was touched by Dempsey's graciousness in defeat.

The two met again at Soldier Field in Chicago on 22 September 1927. Dempsey was in better condition than in their first fight, and a big crowd came to watch Dempsey beat the unpopular "snob" Tunney. Yet, from the start, Tunney dominated. He had observed that Dempsey's once fast footwork had slowed, and therefore he made Dempsey chase him. He would dart sharp lefts in Dempsey's face and dodge away. On the other hand, Dempsey was a very intelligent fighter, and he knew his opponent. In the seventh round he out-thought Tunney, worked him into a spot against the ropes, feinted right, let Tunney dodge back into the ropes and then come forward into a left hook. Tunney said that he never saw the punch. It almost leveled him, and Dempsey followed with seven more savage blows, sending Tunney senseless to the canvas.

Tunney recalled that he actually blacked out for a few seconds, hearing the referee calling out "two" while counting over him. He learned about the infamous long count later. Dempsey had failed to retreat to a neutral corner as he was supposed to, and the referee only started counting after Dempsey had retreated, adding five seconds to the time Tunney could stay down before getting up. Tunney always insisted that if the count had begun the moment he fell, he would still have gotten up on the count of "nine," as prizefighters are taught to do, and he would have done what he did, which was run away from Dempsey for the rest of the round. At the start of the next round, Tunney knocked Dempsey down, and Tunney eventually won the decision.

Tunney defended his title only one more time before yielding to his wife's urging that he retire; he was the first heavyweight champion to retire undefeated. He was a rich man from boxing and prospered all the rest of his life, becoming an executive of banks, manufacturing companies, insurance firms, and a newspaper, the Toronto Globe and Mail. He had married a rich woman, Josephine "Polly" Lauder, heiress to the Carnegie estate, on 3 October 1928. They had four children, one of whom, John V. Tunney, was a U.S. Senator from California from 1971–1977. During World War II, Tunney became a successful sports writer. He joined the U.S. Navy, became a commander, and supervised sports for the navy during the war years. By the 1950s, he had become a beloved national figure, along with the man who became one of his closest friends, Jack Dempsey. Tunney died at age eighty-one and is buried in Long Ridge Cemetery, near Stamford, Connecticut.

Perhaps the best book about Tunney is by Tunney himself: A Man Must Fight (1932) is a good read, full of colorful characters. Tunney, Boxing and Training (1928), offers insights into his strategic method of boxing. Bruce J. Eversen, When Dempsey Fought Tunney: Heroes, Hokum, and Storytelling in the Jazz Age (1996), reads a bit like an academic treatise, but places Tunney in the middle of the fascinating sports world of the 1920s. Mel Heimer, The Long Count (1969), is a sprightly account of the match between Tunney and Dempsey.

Kirk H. Beetzm