Dempsey-Tunney 1927: The Long Count…
It could have been a gangster movie from Warner Brothers. You just needed Bogart, Cagney, and Robinson…
“There’s nothing wrong with boxing that another Jack Dempsey couldn’t cure.”—Gene Tunney
Dempsey opened a restaurant in New York City’s Time Square. Jack Dempsey’s Broadway Restaurant opened in 1935 at 50th Street and 8th Avenue. It was a landmark for 38 years. Everyone knew Dempsey. It became standard procedure for the NYPD to hold up traffic so he could cross the street. Not just when he was champ but for the rest of his life. You could always find Jack, sitting in the back of his restaurant by a window. Always ready for a handshake, autograph, or just a “Hi Pal” for the customer.
This writer met Dempsey on a trip to New York City in 1960. I still remember that “bear” of a handshake.
One night Jack was closing up the restaurant at about 1:00 am. This was in the late ‘60s when Times Square was rundown and seedy. A druggie who didn’t follow boxing and never heard of the Manassa Mauler came up to Jack and demanded his wallet. The guy had a knife, and Dempsey got that old look in his eyes. He was in his mid-60s at the time. He hit the guy with a short right to the face. Dempsey was always the best short puncher in the business. The mugger hit the ground—out cold! Just then a police cruiser came around the corner, no siren, but lights flashing. When the boys in blue saw that it was Dempsey, they began to smile. The champ still had it! They took the punk to jail, charged with armed robbery. Dempsey and his wallet went home together.
Gene Tunney took a different path. He retired from boxing and married Polly Lauder of Connecticut, a member of the fabulously rich Carnegie family. He went to work on Wall Street and served on many corporate boards. Commuters would often see Tunney seated on the morning train going into New York. Most of them were unaware that the older man with the steel gray crew cut reading his newspaper was a real American hero. His son John Tunney Jr. later became a U.S. Senator from California.
Dempsey and Tunney, two real tough guys from the Roaring Twenties.
Why were these two men so famous? What had they done earlier in life that made each of them an American icon? It all began around 80 years ago.
It was September 23, 1926. William Harrison Dempsey, also known as Kid Blackie, Young Dempsey, and Jack Dempsey, had just lost the Heavyweight Championship of the World to Gene Tunney. Dempsey had come a long way since growing up in a Mormon home with 10 brothers and sisters. He had been a card shark, pimp, hobo, and accused draft dodger in his early years. He finally took the ring name Jack Dempsey. The first Jack Dempsey was a middleweight champion in the 1880s and an old favorite of the young fighter.
Gene Tunney, the man that beat him on that rainy night in Philly was his polar opposite. Dempsey’s nemesis was The Fighting Marine, a decorated war hero who had won the Light Heavyweight Championship of the AEF (American Expeditionary Force) in Paris in 1918. Tunney was a true gentleman who boxed scientifically and spent his free time reading Will Shakespeare and Walt Whitman. Never had two men been so different in character. Yet both fighters had the same goal, to be the best in the square ring.
Dempsey faced Tunney that night way out of shape. Three years had passed since his wins against Tommy Gibbons in Shelby, Montana and Luis Angel Firpo at the Polo Grounds in Brooklyn, New York. Jack Dempsey was a shell of his former self. Too many years of easy living were part of the problem, while father time was the other part. A few sportswriters knew of Dempsey’s shocking condition. Some picked Tunney to win but they were laughed at. Jack was riding on his name and reputation that counted for a lot, but that would not help him when the bell rang for the first round.
Gene Tunney had been secretly practicing his straight right for three years. Ever since he saw France’s Georges Carpentier stagger the champ with the same punch in Jersey City in 1921. He wanted to get all his weight behind that haymaker. This straight right was his plan for victory.
In their first fight Tunney, as planned, threw the right but it missed the mark. It was supposed to hit Dempsey on the jaw like Carpentier’s punch, but landed high on his temple. It seemed to take some steam out of the champ. Dempsey was not the same fighter for the rest of the bout. Perhaps it was a concussion? Tunney won a 10-round decision. No knockout, just the judges counting up the rounds that each man won.
Jack’s wife, actress Estelle Taylor, was in shock. She asked him, “Ginsberg, look at your beautiful face! What happened to your nose?” Dempsey had just had a nose job for an upcoming movie role. Ginsberg was her pet name for Jack since he had a Jewish grandmother named Rachel Solomon. Estelle had a weird sense of humor. Dempsey just shook his head and said, “Honey, I forgot to duck.”
Dempsey wanted a rematch with the new champ and so did boxing fans all over the world. Boxing promoter Tex Rickard knew he had another million-dollar gate here, the fifth for Dempsey and himself.
Tunney on the other hand thought he had Dempsey’s number and was more than willing to meet him and put all doubts to rest. Tunney told the sportswriters, “I’d rather beat Dempsey than have all the money in the world.”
Tex Rickard didn’t share Tunney’s feelings. First, Rickard set up an elimination match with Jack Sharkey, also known as the Boston Gob, in Yankee Stadium on July 21, 1927. It would be another million-dollar gate for Jack and Tex. If he beat the new contender Sharkey, the rematch with Tunney was a go.
Sharkey came with his ‘A’ game the night he fought Dempsey. For six rounds Sharkey pounded Dempsey at will. In the seventh round Dempsey hit Sharkey a bit below the beltline. Sharkey went into his act. Wreathing in supposed pain, he turned to the referee to protest the blow. Sharkey forgot the most basic rule of boxing: “Defend yourself at all times.” While he had his profile turned toward Dempsey the former champ threw a right hook to his chin and the Boston Gob was sunk. It was a big payday for the Dempsey camp. When asked later by the press why he hit Sharkey with something of a cheap shot, Dempsey replied, “What did you want me to do, write him a letter?”
So the rematch with Tunney was set for Soldier Field in Chicago, September 22, 1927. This time Jack took Tunney more seriously. No booze, no smokes and no women. Women weaken the legs. Dempsey had a plan for the fight, at least his manager Doc Kearns did. Tunney, a great ring mechanic, was younger and faster than Jack. Dempsey needed practice and experience against this new type of fighter. So Kearns turned to Tommy Loughran, the Light Heavyweight champion at the time. Tommy was known as the Philly Phantom. His mantra was, “If they can’t hit me, they can’t hurt me.” Not only was Loughran fast like Tunney, but he had a strong right hand like him too. He would be Jack’s sparring partner. Tommy would box like Tunney for the next three months of training camp. (Ironically, Loughran later knocked out Jimmy Braddock to retain his Light Heavyweight title in 1929.)
The rematch, the Controversy of the Long Count, as with many overhyped fights, started as a repeat of the first. Both men were cautious as they circled each other for the first six rounds. It was a 20-foot ring that night which favored the faster Tunney. Dempsey was a knockout artist who liked something smaller, so his opponent couldn’t run on him. One hundred thousand people showed up to see this battle. There was a lot of money riding on this fight. Al Capone, who had bet a wad on Dempsey, reportedly offered to fix the fight for Jack but the ex-champ refused.
In the seventh round Dempsey decided to make his move. Tunney never saw it coming. Dempsey stepped in and landed a tremendous left hook right on the button. Bang! Tunney began to fall to the canvas as Dempsey continued to hit him with lefts and rights to the head.
As soon as Tunney hit the canvas, the timekeeper, Paul Beeler, started his stopwatch. Referee Dave Barry, however, was trying to get Dempsey away from Tunney and to a neutral corner. Barry was a saloon owner who was brought in at the last minute. Officials felt Capone may have gotten to the original referee Dave Miller. Barry was a veteran referee but was also hooked up with a rival Chicago mob! There was a new knockdown rule in effect and both fighters were aware of it. But Dempsey continued to hover over Tunney for 4.5 seconds before Barry could get him to that neutral corner. The referee then returned to start his count! Barry began counting “One, two,” and the timekeeper picked up Barry’s count, forgetting the 4.5 seconds already on his watch. Barry for some reason also slowed his count from five through nine until Tunney got up to continue the round. Was there different mob money on Tunney? Was the slow count insurance that Tunney would get up in a knockdown situation? Why was Miller replaced with Barry who had a shady background himself?
So the actual time on the canvas for Tunney was 17 seconds. The press however just added 4.5 seconds to the 9 seconds counted by Barry and came up with a 14-second count. So was it 14 seconds or 17 seconds that Tunney was down? It doesn’t really matter. Without the confusion of the new “neutral corner” rule, Tunney would have been counted out either way. Of course, Gene said he was awake and could have gotten up anytime; he was just following the count. But the way Tunney’s eyes rolled back into his head when Jack caught him with the left hook says otherwise. At the start of round eight Tunney dropped Dempsey with a right. Jack took a knee for a one count. Referee Barry immediately started the count over Dempsey without looking to see if Tunney was in a neutral corner! After that, the champ managed to stay away from Dempsey for the last two rounds. At the end of 10 rounds they went to the scorecards. Gene Tunney was again declared the winner by decision.
The Battle of the Long Count continues to this day. Was it just the fog of war or did some Chicago boys have a ringer there named Dave Barry, the same Dave Barry that was at war with rival boss Alphonse Capone of Cicero, Illinois? This Barry character certainly slowed down the pace of the count and Tunney was able to recover. Yet he was eager in round eight to hurry the count over Dempsey, unconcerned with Tunney’s whereabouts in the ring at that moment.
It could have been a gangster movie from Warner Brothers. You just needed Bogart, Cagney, and Robinson. Of course Dempsey, who starred in many Hollywood films, would have to play himself. After all there was only one Jack Dempsey.