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Boxers Of Yesteryear - Gene Tunney

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Gene Tunney “The Fighting Marine” is certainly one of the most underrated boxers of all times.  In his era he was considered as strange and mocked as a stuff shirt. In today’s world he would be respected and admired for his intellect in and out of the ring but in those days (20's era) when boxers were admired largely on the bases of their ability to deliver a punch and receive punishment he was ignored or given less prominence by the press and as a result did not achieve the popular support he deserved.

Jack Cavanaugh, author of - Tunney: Boxing’s Brainiest Champ and His Upset of the Great Jack Dempsey, describes the situation most aptly“Everybody remembers Dempsey, but not the guy who beat him,” wrote Cavanaugh.

Gene Tunney was born James Joseph Tunney (May 25, 1897 – November 7, 1978) to a working class Irish Catholic family in New York City. His father worked as a longshoreman, loading and unloading freighter cargo at New York harbor, and was a fan of boxing. An amateur boxer, Tunney's father fought in matches at Owney Geaghan's boxing clubon the Bowery. The young Tunney got into fights in the streets of his Greenwich Village neighborhood as a boy, and his father gave him a pair of boxing gloves for his tenth birthday in the hopes that he would learn to properly defend himself.



At fifteen years of age, Tunney dropped out of school and got a job as an office boy at the Ocean Steamship Company, earning five dollars a week. He moved up to mail clerk, more than doubling his pay to eleven dollars a week, and from there was promoted to freight classifier, bringing in seventeen dollars a week. During breaks, Tunney sparred with any of his office mates who were willing, shoving desks and filing cabinets aside to form a makeshift ring. In the evenings, Tunney further honed his boxing skills at the Greenwich Village Athletic Club.

In 1915, fresh out of his teens, Tunney became a professional boxer. This was when he fought his first professional match, against an accomplished young boxer named Bobby Dawson. Tunney's seven-round knockout of Dawson earned him eighteen dollars—more than his weekly pay at the steamship company, and it left him with a taste for more.


Although Tunney dropped out of school he was a voracious reader – According to biographer Jack Cavanaugh - In April, 1928, while Tunney was heavyweight champion, he was invited to Yale University to talk about William Shakespeare to an English lit class. He arrived expecting an audience of about 40 students, but the crowd was 10 times that. He spoke knowledgeably about Shakespeare for an hour - The next day the New York Times ran a 1000-word piece about the event on its front page.


Tunney was a thinking fighter who preferred to make a boxing match into a game of chess which was not popular during the times when such sluggers as Jack Dempsey, Harry Greb and Mickey Walker were commanding center stage. Tunney's style was influenced by other noted boxing thinkers such as James J. Corbett and Benny Leonard.

No other fighter ever studied his opponents as thoroughly and intensely as did Tunney, according to Cavanaugh. Nobody gave him a chance against Dempsey in their September 23, 1926 title fight, but Tunney had watched Dempsey in person and on film, and “early on he saw that Dempsey was vulnerable to a quick right to the jaw.” When the bell rang at Sesquicentennial Stadium, Tunney went right out and hit him with one. “Tunney was always convinced that that won the fight for him,” said Cavanaugh.



After the United States entered World War I in 1917, Tunney joined the Marines and was stationed in France. While there, he fought in the American Expeditionary Force light heavyweight championship and won. He continued his civilian boxing career on his return from Europe, moving up the ranks to defeat successively more powerful opponents. Finally, in 1922, Tunney defeated Battling Levinsky in twelve rounds to take the title of light heavyweight boxing champion of North America.




altTunney's success was short lived. Only months later, he was forced to defend his title against Harry Greb "The Pittsburgh Windmill" a highly aggressive boxer who was known for intimidating his opponents with unusually savage attacks. Greb gave no quarter to Tunney in their match, pounding away at the champion for fifteen rounds, and using a number of tactics that were on the borderline of legality. Tunney put up a heroic defense, managing to stay on his feet with a broken nose Greb gave him by head-butting him, and with his eyes swollen almost shut, until the fight was ended with Greb the winner by decision.

Tunney vs. Greb II was a Different Story - In the 2nd fight, Tunney punished Greb with a constant body attack, while finishing up the flurries with 1, 2 combinations to the head. When Greb would charge and swarm, Tunney would utilize fancy footwork to elude Greb and then jab his face when he "came in". Tunney backed Greb into the ropes repeatedly and pounded his body. At one point, Tunney fired a shot to Greb's solar plexis, nearly bringing the champ to his knees. In other words, Tunney "busted Greb up".

Tunney and Greb were to clash 3 more times in the ring and Tunney won two and one fight was declared as no contest.






Nobody gave Tunney a chance against Dempsey in their September 23, 1926 title fight, but Tunney had watched Dempsey in person and on film, and “early on he saw that Dempsey was vulnerable to a quick right to the jaw.” When the bell rang at Sesquicentennial Stadium, Tunney went right out and hit him with one. The fight went the distance and Tunney defeated Dempsey by UD over ten rounds.




"Battle Of The Long Count."

Battle of the long count

A year later, almost to the day, on September 22, 1927, Tunney and Dempsey met in a rematch. This time the venue was Soldier Field in Chicago, Illinois. Once again, more than 100,000 fans mobbed the grounds, paying a record $2.6 million to see the match (some sources say the box office take was more than $4.6 million). This fight was also the first to be covered by a professional radio announcer. Tunney and Dempsey slugged it out for the first six rounds, with neither boxer gaining a serious advantage, although Tunney managed to stay ahead in points.

Then, in the seventh round, Dempsey dealt Tunney a staggering right to the temple and quickly pressed the attack with a fury of blows. Tunney went down. Dempsey, caught up in the heat of the moment, failed to promptly retire to his corner of the ring so that the count could start. The referee pleaded with Dempsey to stop hovering over Tunney so that he could start the count, and finally Dempsey yielded.

Getting Dempsey to move took all of four or five seconds, but those extra few moments were all Tunney needed to recover. As one of the spectators, sports writer Shirley Povich wrote fifty-one years later in the Washington Post, "I was positive then, as now, that Tunney would not have been up at a proper count of ten, but those precious seconds were heaven-sent for him, and at nine he made a gutsy rise to his feet." The fight was allowed to continue. Tunney managed to avoid Dempsey for the remainder of the round, buying himself even more time to recover. Maintaining his point lead for the remainder of the bout, Tunney won the match by decision in the 10th round.

Many fans felt that an injustice had been done, that Dempsey should have won the fight in that fateful seventh round. Povich recalled that there were "more cheers for Dempsey in that one round than for Tunney in the eight he won in the 10-round fight." The fight came to be known in boxing lore as the "battle of the long count."


Personal Life

In 1928, Tunney was married to a wealthy socialite, the former Mary "Polly" Lauder (1907- April 19, 2008). The couple lived in Stamford, Connecticut and had four children. Among them is John V. Tunney (born 1934), who was a U.S. Representative and U.S. Senator from California from 1965 until 1977. The others are Jonathan "Jay" Tunney of Stamford, Connecticut; Gene L. Tunney of Honolulu, Hawaii, and Joan Tunney Cook of Omaha in Boone County in northwestern Arkansas. Tunney's daughter Joan was committed to a mental hospital on June 6, 1970 after she murdered her husband.

Mrs. Polly Lauder Tunney's (1907 - 2008) grandfather was George Lauder, Sr., a first cousin and business partner of industrialist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, founder and head of Carnegie Steel Company of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Her father, George Lauder, Jr., was a philanthropist and yachtsman whose 136-foot (41 m) schooner once held the record for the fastest trans-Atlantic yacht passage ever made. According to the 2007 biography, Tunney promised Polly that he would quit boxing and defended his title only one more time after the second Dempsey fight, against Tom Heeney of New Zealand. Whom he defeated by TKO in round 11 of a scheduled 15 round fight at the Yankee Stadium on the 26th of July, 1928.




Tunney started a lucrative career in business. After the United States entered World War II in 1942, Tunney served in the U. S. Navy. On his return from the war, he returned to his business career, seeking to remain out of the public eye for much of the remainder of his life. In 1945, he contributed an entry on boxing for the Encyclopedia Britannica, and in the 1950s and 1960s, he joined forces with his friend Jack Dempsey to argue before congress for the creation of a national commission that would oversee boxing.

Known for his intellect and appreciation for literature, Tunney befriended noted author and sportsman Ernest Hemingway as well as renowned playwright and boxing fan George Bernard Shaw. He himself penned three books, Boxing and Training, A Man Must Fight, and Arms for Living. Tunney had four children, one of whom, John Varick Tunney, went on to become a member of the United States Senate representing California.






A close bond had developed between Tunney and his old foe Dempsey. When Tunney’s son, John, ran for Congress in California in 1964, just like his dad against Dempsey, he was the underdog. That changed when Jack Dempsey and Gene Tunney appeared together at John Tunney’s campaign rallies, speaking and showing film footage of their fights. Tunney represented California in the U.S. Senate, from 1971 to 1976.



Tunney was defeated only once in is professional boxing career, retiring with a record of seventy-six wins to his one loss. He was the first heavy-weight champion to retire without losing his title.


1919       American Expeditionary Force light heavyweight champion

1922       Light heavyweight champion of North America

1923       Light heavyweight champion of North America (regains title)

1926-28 Heavyweight champion of the world

1990      Inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame



Gene Tunney passed away on November 7, 1978   


He was buried at - Long Ridge Union Cemetery

Stamford, Fairfield County

Connecticut, USA



Normally, I could hit hard enough, as anyone who studied my fights might have known. But the impression was that I was essentially defensive, the very reverse of a killer, the prize fighter who read books, even Shakespeare.

Gene Tunney