Maybe it would have been different if he had remained just plain old James Joseph. Even then, heavyweight boxing had an illustrious history of past champions with double names or second degree initials. John L. Sullivan, James J. Corbett, James J. Jeffries; all heroic figures. Surely James Joseph Tunney should have no problem continuing that legacy? But he was destined to be a different, different man. When, as a boy, younger siblings tried to call him Jim, it sounded like Gene and the modification stuck. Gene Tunney, “Fighting Marine”, was born in 1897; one of the great heavyweight champions, but to this day he is still different from himself.
Despite notable victories over the likes of Tommy Gibbons, Georges Carpentier and Tommy Loughran, Gene Tunney’s legacy will forever be inextricably linked to two legends of the sport: Jack Dempsey and Harry Greb. Due in large part to the controversial nature of the clashes with these two beloved characters, Tunney’s greatness is often overlooked.
Tunney and Greb fought five times between May 1922 and March 1925. There seems to be a growing army of Greb’s followers who claim that the “Pittsburgh Windmill” was the greatest fighter that ever lived. One argument in favor of this is his performances against naturally larger men, Tunney being the best example.
Greb inflicted the first loss of Gene’s professional career on their first meeting. Tunney was defending his US light heavyweight title, which he had won just four months earlier from Battling Levinsky. If some of the fights between Tunney and Greb were controversial, there was no doubt who won in their first matchup at Madison Square Garden. Greb abused Tunney for the full 15 rounds. Tunney was already considered a stylish boxer, but he proved with his first loss that he had the character necessary to dig deep in the heat of a fight. Greb, despite being blind in one eye and weighing 13 pounds, was fierce and his famous swarm attack was too much of a strain for Tunney. By the last bell, Gene’s face was a bloody mess. He later recalled, “I’ve never bled so much before and never since.”
Two days after the defeat, Tunney visited the offices of the boxing commission in an attempt to secure a rematch.
They returned to the Garden on February 23, 1923, and again covered the distance of 15 rounds. Tunney received a unanimous decision from the judges, but the decision was controversial as most ringside reporters scored the fight for Greb.
Their third meeting took place in December of that year, again at Madison Square Garden. For the first time, in the eyes of both the judges and most of the ringsiders, Gene was able to consolidate his dominance and made a decision within 15 sessions.
Harry Greb was never one to go quietly, and when the pair met again for the fourth time in September 1924, the referee could not divide them into a draw, but it was officially a “no decision” over 10 rounds.
Their fifth and final meeting, held on March 27, 1925 in St. Paul, Minnesota, ended with a final points victory for Tunney. The Associated Press reported that “Tunney gave Greb a thorough beating like never before.”
At the conclusion of the competition, Greb stated that he was done with Tunney: “This is the last time I will fight this guy. It’s getting too big and too strong for me to handle. At one point I could lick it, but not anymore. Tunney is doing really well.”
There is no doubt that Harry Greb was a phenomenal fighter, and the physical flaws he took to the ring against Tunney make his performances even more remarkable. They also met at different stages of their careers; their last fight was Greb’s 270th all-time.
However, that shouldn’t detract from Gene Tunney’s accomplishments in their five fights. As Gavin Evans writes in his book: Kings of the Ring: The History of Heavyweight BoxingHarry Greb was “the man who turned Tunney from a good boxer into a great one.”
But let’s go back a few years and to a place that has been etched in the memory of boxing fans: Boyles Thirty Acres, Jersey City. It was here, in July 1921, that Jack Dempsey defended his world heavyweight title against Frenchman Georges Carpentier in a battle billed as “The Fight of the Century” (although these seem to happen more than once in a hundred years). The fight was also remembered as the first to exceed $1 million in gate receipts. The twenties were raging.
Among the 90,000 pairs of eyes fixed on the ring that day, one pair was more riveted than any other, watching the master. Gene Tunney, who had stopped Soldier Jones in one of the preliminary fights, was crouched by the ring. He didn’t know how long it would take him to photograph The Manassa Mauler, but he wasn’t going to miss the chance to get a closer look. Dempsey was already in Tunney’s sights.
When they met in the ring, it was September 1926. Dempsey has only had two bouts in the five years since the Carpentier fight and has been inactive for three years. Gene, meanwhile, had become a highly skilled technician, although those around Jack regarded the challenger as nothing more than a good light heavyweight. Despite being considered a significant loser (in a poll of fifty experts, none chose Tunney as the winner), a record crowd of over 120,000 people gathered at Philadelphia’s Sesquicentennial Stadium to watch the fight.
Boxing in the rain, Gene started like a dream. Years later, Ed Fitzgerald wrote Ring magazine that “experts generally agreed that the world heavyweight championship had changed hands in this tumultuous first round.” Gene showed early on that Dempsey wasn’t intimidating, landing hard and often. He continued to control the fight, much to the amazement of the crowd and ringside reporters, consistently defeating Jack. At the end of 10 rounds, there was no argument that Tunney was the new champion.
Jack accepted the defeat sportingly, saying “I lost to a good man…I have no alibi.”
Nearly a century of hindsight puts Tunney’s victory over Dempsey in perspective, but in the late 1920s Ring Upset of the decade.
Jack Dempsey was an icon and still is. It was hard for people to believe and accept that he had lost. He was what a warrior should be; barely tamed animal. While Tunney seemed aloof, a technical boxer, a bookworm, and even a “puffed-up ass” as he described it Daily news from New York. This was supposed to be the image that stuck to Gene, who was in fact just an Irish kid from Greenwich Village who cherished his privacy and aspired to a better life.
If Gene needed a reminder of how things were going, he got one at Madison Square Garden on the night of October 22, just weeks after winning the title. He and Dempsey were present on the fight card and introduced to the audience. Dempsey was met with cheers and ovations while Gene received cheers and hisses.
Paul Gallico explained why Gene would forever remain in Dempsey’s shadow: “Tunney will never be the drawing card that Dempsey was because he has as much sudden death as a woolly lamb in him.”
Tunney just said, “I’m not unpopular except in the professional fighting crowd. They don’t understand me and never will.”
The comeback fight was scheduled for almost exactly one year after the first fight, on September 22, 1927. Meanwhile, Jack had one fight, stopping Jack Sharkey in seven rounds while Tunney remained inactive. Soldiers Field in Chicago was the venue for another blockbuster crowd this time, setting a goal-paying record of $2,658,660.
The fight itself will forever be known as the Battle of the Long Count, and more words have been written about it than any other fight. Tunney was again largely in control of the action, Ed Fitzgerald describing Gene’s left hand “like a bayonet that night, and he was stabbing it in Dempsey’s face again and again.”
Then came the fatal seventh round. Less than a minute into the session when Dempsey’s left hook put Tunney on the floor by the ropes. This is what Dempsey fans wanted and what they expected from a man who was already becoming a legend. Tunney was on the canvas for 14 seconds as referee Dave Barry delayed the count while Jack retreated to the neutral corner after initially standing over his fallen victim.
For a man who had never been knocked down before, in a fight of such magnitude, Tunney showed remarkable composure, taking full advantage of the referee’s count and rising to “nine”. Why not get up earlier? Tunney’s response: “Only boxers who are severely dazed, momentarily knocked out and showing off can’t take advantage of the nine seconds that are theirs.”
Tunney survived the round and then re-established his dominance for the remainder of the fight, even briefly defeating Dempsey in the eighth. Again, there was no scorecard argument at the end of the fight and Gene was the clear winner. That’s not to say after the fight and for many years there weren’t any disputes over the seventh round. How much did Tunney benefit from the extended time he was given? Would he be able to get up and survive Dempsey’s attack before counting to ten? All of that is irrelevant now, and when the dust settled, even Jack agreed that the long enumeration didn’t matter.
It may not have affected the outcome of the fight, but that doesn’t mean the long count didn’t have an effect. Jack forgot or ignored the neutral corner kick rule and the resulting 14 seconds turned what might have been a routine Tunney scoring into a fight written and discussed nearly a century later.
For fans of Jack Dempsey, those fourteen seconds only added to his legend and allowed them to always complain about the famous fist: “We were robbed!”
Gene Tunney had only one more fight; 11p-round stop of Tom Heeney at Yankee Stadium the following July. A few days later, he retired having achieved everything he set out to do in the sport. For these last three fights, Gene earned approximately $1,715,000 and boxed in front of approximately 271,000 people. He retired with only one loss at the hands of Greb and retired from the sport as the reigning World Heavyweight Champion.
He had previously served in the Marine Corps, later becoming a naval commander during World War II. He married the heiress Polly Lauder and had a very successful career in business.
But Gene Tunney always called himself a boxer first, and that’s how we remember him, almost a century after his retirement. He probably won’t be remembered as fondly as Harry Greb or Jack Dempsey. Larry Holmes will tell you how hard it is to earn love and respect; struggling for recognition in the long dark shadow of the all-time lover.
James Joseph Tunney, later known as Gene, “The Fighting Marine”, fought his way from humble beginnings in Greenwich Village to the world heavyweight championship. He may not have always been what fans or fight writers wanted, but he has established himself among the immortals in the sport.