Gene Tunney vs. Ernest Hemingway—Perfectly Charming

By Clarence George on February 2, 2013
Gene Tunney vs. Ernest Hemingway—Perfectly Charming
“I thought to myself,” recalled Gene Tunney, “what Ernest needs is a good little liver punch.”

The champ had little formal education, having had to quit school to help support his family. But that didn’t stop him from speaking like Noel Coward…

He got the name Gene because his younger sister had trouble pronouncing his actual given name, James. No, not Hackman, Tunney—James Joseph Tunney, among the greatest heavyweights of all time.

Often dismissed, diminished, or disdained by those boxing enthusiasts whose knowledge of the Sweet Science begins and ends with George Foreman’s grill, true cognoscenti know full well the honored place Tunney holds. That late and lamented ambulatory encyclopedia of boxing, Bert Sugar, ranked “The Fighting Marine” fifth upon his hallowed list of all-time greatest heavies. And no wonder. In Tunney’s day, being Heavyweight Champion of the World was the ultimate sport accolade. And from whom did Tunney wrest that golden and bejeweled crown? Why, from the legendary Jack Dempsey, against whom he also successfully defended his hard-won title. He tasted defeat only once, at the fists of the great Harry Greb, whom he bested in their subsequent matches.

Supremely intelligent in and out of the ring, Tunney knew when to get while the getting was good. Following his defeat of game but hopelessly outgunned Tom Heeney in 1928, Tunney bid a fond and permanent adieu to the house that Sullivan built.

In going through Tunney’s list of opponents, you’ll find the names Battling Levinsky, Tommy Loughran, Georges Carpentier, and Tommy Gibbons, as well as those of Dempsey and Greb. But as the woman who did for Ebenezer Scrooge said to Old Joe:  “Ah! You may look through that shirt till your eyes ache; but you won’t find a hole in it, nor a threadbare place.” Search “till your eyes ache” for Tunney opponent Ernest Hemingway, and you’ll find nary a sign. Fight they did, nonetheless. 

Author of two great American novels, The Sun Also Rises and A Farewell to Arms, Hemingway also penned a host of outstanding short stories, including several dealing with the Sweet Science: “Fifty Grand”, “The Battler”, and “The Killers”. The boxer in the latter story, published in 1927, is Ole Andreson. Worth noting, given that Tunney fought Ole “The Terrible Swede” Anderson in 1920, which Hemingway surely knew. Anderson lived up to his moniker, by the way, given his record of 14 wins and 18 losses.

One of the many fascinating aspects of the complex Hemingway persona is the combination of intellectualism and physicality. No sand-kicked-in-the-face 97-pound weakling in desperate need of Charles Atlas’ mercies and ministrations, “Papa” was immensely strong, his linen shirt bulging with muscle from hours of deep-sea fishing. He also knew the first thing about boxing. How much more he knew about boxing is open to debate.

Hemingway liked to box, as no shortage of his more diminutive friends discovered to their dismay. Dempsey refused to take him on, sufficiently haunted by what he had already done to an overly exuberant Al Jolson. Tunney, too, was reluctant. But one day, in 1946, the former champ found it impossible to resist the importuning of a somewhat over-martinied Hemingway. Ah, the martini. In Hemingway’s case, not quite “the elixir of quietude,” as E.B. White once memorably described the beverage.

Take a look at old film footage of Babe Ruth running the bases, and you’ll be surprised to note that “The Sultan of Swat,” well, minced!  Reminiscent of Tunney’s unexpected diction. The champ had little formal education, having had to quit school to help support his family. But that didn’t stop him from speaking like Noel Coward, as his description of his set-to with Hemingway makes abundantly clear:

All of a sudden Ernest came at me and started swinging. He came and cut me across the lips, and there was blood, and then he jabbed me in my left elbow. I said to Ernest, “Do stop it please, Ernest,” but he kept right on punching…  I thought to myself: What Ernest needs is a good little liver punch. There’s a little liver punch, and it has to be timed exactly, and when I saw the moment I let him have it. I was a little alarmed, if I do say so! His knees buckled, his face went gray, and I thought he was going to go down. But he didn’t, and for the next few hours Ernest was perfectly charming.

Tunney was among the first class inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame, in 1990, while Hemingway won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954. And thus were the stars set right in their courses.

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  1. Clarence George 10:08am, 02/03/2013

    Glad you liked it, Irish.

    Ironic, given Tunney’s movie-star good looks.  But I guess he didn’t want it.  And he sure didn’t need it—he had a wealthy wife and was a very savvy businessman.

  2. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo (aka) Gimpel 07:19am, 02/03/2013

    Clarence-This article was fun! BTW take a good look at Dempsey’s and Tunney’s mugs….then guess which one got a nose job and went Hollywood. Only in America….no….always in America!

  3. Clarence George 04:44am, 02/03/2013

    Thanks abundantly for the very kind words, Norm.  And for the historical tips.  I won’t neglect Risko again, I promise.  Yes, I knew of Dempsey working Heeney’s corner.  You’re right—the man had the memory of an elephant!

  4. norm marcus 04:31am, 02/03/2013

    Good story Clarence, beautifully written. Love these trips back in time. I like reading about the tough guys of the 1920s. But you forgot to mention Johnny Risko.  Did you know that when Tunney beat Johnny in 1925 in a 12-round decision he said, “He’s the toughest man I ever fought.” Let’s give the “Rubber Man” his due!
    By the way, Jack Dempsey worked Tommy Heeney’s corner for Gene’s last fight. You think that was just a coincidence? Dempsey had a long memory.

  5. Clarence George 05:56pm, 02/02/2013

    Glad you enjoyed it, Mike and David.

    Completely agree, Eric.  A professional boxer should never use his fists outside the ring, except in self-defense—insults from the drunk and the dickless just don’t cut it.

  6. David 01:37pm, 02/02/2013

    Nicely done, Mr. George.  That was fascinating.  I suppose there was no need for Mr. Tunney to say or write more, but I still wish he had. Ha!

  7. Eric 01:17pm, 02/02/2013

    I’ve read stories of how Jack Dempsey and Rocky Marciano would go out of their way to avoid clobbering drunks and wannabe tough guys. Much respect to men like Tunney, Dempsey, and Marciano, who must have had remarkable restraint not to give a lot of these idiots one on the chin.

  8. Mike Casey 11:30am, 02/02/2013

    Very nicely done, Clarence. Gene had a quite incomparable way of showing off whilst sounding awfully modest!

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