Though he beat Jack Dempsey decisively the two times they met in the ring, was undefeated as a heavyweight, and retired as heavyweight champion, Gene Tunney is often forgotten when today’s era of fight fans or others discuss the greatest heavyweights. Political correctness doesn’t allow us to forget black champions such as Jack Johnson, although he lost a dozen fights, six by knockout, and had seven draws. Johnson’s claim to fame was defeating the “Great White Hope,” James J. Jeffries, in 15 rounds. Yet, when he faced Johnson, Jeffries hadn’t fought in six years and was 35 years old, overweight, and short on conditioning.
James Joseph Tunney was born in 1897 to parents who had immigrated to New York City from County Mayo, Ireland. For Tunney’s tenth birthday his longshoreman father gave him boxing gloves and began training him, not because the father wanted him to become another Sullivan or Corbett, the father’s heavyweight heroes, but because his skinny son was coming home battered from fights in their rough Irish neighborhood at the western end of Greenwich Village. By this time Tunney was called Gene because that was the closest the baby of the seven Tunney children could come to pronouncing James.
At De La Salle Academy, Tunney excelled not only in every sport but in the classroom. Nonetheless, at 15 he dropped out of the tenth grade to take a job with the Ocean Steamship Company. After work he boxed, ran, and swam. He now stood nearly 6’1″ but weighed not much more than 140 pounds.
Tunney read voraciously and took correspondence courses. He also matured and put on muscle. He really had no desire to turn professional, but at 18 he was offered $25—nearly twice as much as his father earned for a week’s work—to fight veteran Bobby Dawson at the famous Sharkey Athletic Club. Before a crowd of 2,000, Tunney sent Dawson to the canvas at the end of the seventh round.
More knockouts followed. But feeling embarrassed to be earning handsome purses while American boys were dying in Europe, Tunney joined the Marines. In France, when the fighting stopped, the boxing started. Tunney became the light-heavyweight champion of the American Expeditionary Force, winning more than 20 fights, including one over the eventual AEF heavyweight champ.
Once back home, Tunney found himself called The Fighting Marine. By January 1922 he had won 24 straight fights since his return and had become the light-heavyweight champion. He won four more fights, then suffered his first and only loss, a decision to Harry Greb, “The Human Windmill.” Tunney would fight Greb four more times, winning them all. Greb lost only four other fights in his career while scoring more than 100 victories.
After regaining the light-heavyweight title, Tunney set his sights on Jack Dempsey and the heavyweight championship, but for three years he had to content himself with defeating two-dozen other fighters. His weight was now up to 190, but each muscle was still sharply defined, and his skin looked like shrink-wrap. In 1926 Tunney and Dempsey finally met in Philadelphia before 135,000 spectators, including the who’s who of Wall Street, Washington, Hollywood, and American sports. Tunney battered Dempsey, once almost knocking him out, and won every round and the title. Dempsey’s face looked like he had stepped into a meat grinder.
A year later they met again, but not before Dempsey knocked out Jack Sharkey in an elimination match. The Chicago crowd of 145,000, like Philadelphia’s, included the rich and famous from every walk of American life. Through six rounds Tunney again battered Dempsey, almost putting him on the canvas in the fourth. In the seventh Dempsey suddenly caught Tunney with a series of vicious blows that knocked him into the ropes and finally onto the canvas. The punches were as fast and as powerful as any Dempsey ever threw.
Tunney sat on the canvas looking dazed, when any other man would have been unconscious. Dempsey stood over him, having forgotten the new neutral-corner rule. The referee took four seconds directing Dempsey to the corner before beginning the count. As footage of the fight demonstrates, Tunney quickly began to focus clearly on each count and seemed fully capable of springing up at four or five. At nine he did so.
At first Tunney retreated, but by the end of the round he was again battering Dempsey. In the eighth, Tunney put Dempsey on the canvas. Dempsey survived but only to have Tunney punch him silly for another two rounds. By the end of the fight Dempsey was out on his feet.
Tunney defended his title once more, knocking out Tom Heeney, and retired a multimillionaire with both his fine mind and movie-star good looks intact. He had won more than 80 fights and had lost but one.