Sixty years ago today, two men climbed into a 20-foot ring in Chicago and for 40 minutes made the world stand still.
Dempsey-Tunney II. The Long Count fight. In 1927, they called it the fight of the century. It might well have been.
Radio was in its infancy, yet NBC estimated that on the night of Sept. 22, 1927, about 50 million people around the world heard Gene Tunney successfully defend his championship against Jack Dempsey.
Listeners heard from ringside, against the steady roar of a Soldier Field crowd estimated all the way up to 150,000, the excited voice of Graham McNamee.
They heard him at sheep stations in Australia’s outback. Every member of a United States Marine Corps regiment in Shanghai heard it. A two-man University of Michigan scientific team on a Greenland iceberg heard it. Patrons in Paris and Rio de Janeiro cafes heard it.
McNamee’s voice filled hushed New York and Chicago night clubs. In Puerto Rico, listeners marveled at reception so clear that they could clearly hear not only McNamee’s voice, but the boxers’ feet shuffling as well.
And in every little town in the United States and Canada, families huddled near their radios, sharing the excitement in McNamee’s voice, particularly when he shrieked during the fight’s epic seventh round:
“Some of the blows that Dempsey hit make this ring tremble! Tunney is down! From a barrage! . . . They are counting!”
America, 60 years ago, was an exciting place, certainly an appropriate stage for possibly the most anticipated sports event in history. Four months before the fight, Charles Lindbergh took off from Roosevelt Field on Long Island, bound for Paris.
Babe Ruth, the linchpin of maybe baseball’s greatest team, the ’27 Yankees, and his young teammate, Lou Gehrig, were annihilating American League pitching. On the night of the Long Count Fight, Ruth hit his 56th home run at Yankee Stadium. In eight more days he would hit his 60th.
The Roaring Twenties. Flappers, Al Capone, hip flasks, George Gershwin, coonskin coats, jazz and the golden age of sports.
September, 1927. A new Pierce-Arrow cost $2,495. A Chrysler “52" sedan went for $725. In Los Angeles, the NYK cruise line was offering a first-class cruise to Hawaii, Japan, China and Australia for $790. AT&T; announced that telephone service would be available soon between New York and London at $75 for three minutes, $25 for each additional minute.
Tunney’s purse for beating Dempsey in Chicago was staggering--$990,000. Dempsey’s check was for $437,500.
Midwest train travel in September, 1927, was booming. The Pullman Company announced the day before Dempsey-Tunney II that for the first time in its history, every rail car it owned was rolling from somewhere to Chicago. Fifteen cars had been added to the 20th Century Limited alone, 10 to the Broadway Limited and 5 to the Baltimore & Ohio Line’s Capitol Limited.
A trainload of boxing fans arrived on fight day from Los Angeles, aboard the “Johnnie Wilson De Luxe Fight Special.” For $197.92 each, 300 Southern Californians got ringside seats--the house was scaled from $40 to $5--round trip rail transportation, meals and two nights at Chicago’s Morrison Hotel.
On fight day, 30,000 Chicago hotel rooms were filled.
Every day for a month, sports sections of America’s major newspapers ran training-camp stories and pictures of both fighters, Dempsey at Lincoln Fields Race Track, Tunney at Lake Villa, Ill. Tunney was a 4-1 underdog when he won the championship from Dempsey in Philadelphia a day short of a year earlier.
This time, in the second of their two 10-round battles, it was an even-money fight when the boxers left their dressing rooms at 10 o’clock and headed down the long aisles to the ring. The immense throng came to its feet, row by row, roaring at the sight of Dempsey.
The 32-year-old former champion, wearing a three-day stubble of beard and his familiar old black-and-white checked robe, entered the ring first. He was darkly tanned and weighed 192 1/2. In a few minutes, to a loud but distinctly less thunderous ovation, Tunney arrived. The champion, 29, 189 1/2, wore a blue and scarlet robe, with the U.S. Marine Corps emblem on the back. Tunney seemed all pink and white, compared to Dempsey.
At 10:07 p.m., referee Dave Barry summoned the fighters to center-ring. In the days that followed, the Tunney camp maintained that Barry said the following:
“The rabbit and kidney blows are barred, of course. Now I want to get this point clear. In the event of a knockdown, the man scoring the knockdown will go to the farthest neutral corner. Is that clear, Jack? Is that clear, Champ?”
Years later, Tunney often commented that he was struck by Barry’s addressing him as Champ, the first person ever to do so. After eight years of a near-obsessive pursuit of the scowling man standing before him, and having once beaten him, Gene Tunney must at that moment have never been more certain of his destiny, that somehow he could not lose.
The two men, who would on one September night in 1927 bring the world to a halt, entered it a world apart. Dempsey was born on June 24, 1895, to dirt-poor, vagabond Mormon parents in Manassa, Colo. He was the 9th of 13 children who lived in a tiny, two-bedroom house.
Tunney came into the world in slightly better circumstances. He was born May 25, 1898, in a flat over a grocery store at 111 Bank St., in New York’s Greenwich Village.
Dempsey, after his father moved his family on a decade-long odyssey through Colorado and Utah mining camp towns, learned to fight in Saturday night saloon bouts. His first purses were literally nickels and dimes contributed when miners passed the hat for winners. He fought in such places as Price, Leadville, Montrose, Salt Lake City, Goldfield, Ely, Tonopah, Durango and Cripple Creek.
He fought savagely, like a wild man fighting for his life. He was not a man of strategy, or art. His was an attack so savage it inspired fear and retreat.
Tunney was the opposite. He learned to box in New York gymnasiums from expert teachers. He learned early, for example, that boxing’s most effective punch is a left jab--which even 60 years later, some world-class boxers have difficulty grasping--and that the greatest virtue of all is to avoid getting hit.
Tunney developed into a superb amateur boxer in New York. Then, as a 166-pound Marine in 1919, he won the Allied Expeditionary Force light-heavyweight championship in Europe during the Armistice.
When he turned pro, he was everything Dempsey was not--smooth and polished, inside and outside the ring. He was not a college man but he sounded like a professor. He was a contemplative man with movie star looks. He read Chaucer and Plato, and moved easily in Eastern social circles. Dempsey, the Western hobo, was self-conscious, gruff, unsmiling and uncomfortable with strangers.
In Mel Heimer’s 1969 book, “The Long Count,” Dempsey indicated that he felt incomplete, even after he won the heavyweight championship from Jess Willard, in 1919: “I was still a bum with a knife and fork, and I dressed like a guy an honest cop would arrest at a carnival.”
Tunney, three years after winning the service title, became the pro U.S. light-heavyweight champion. He promptly lost that title to Harry Greb, who cut him to ribbons over 15 gory rounds in 1922. It was the only fight Tunney ever lost. He beat Greb in a return, then beat him three more times.
In 1921, Tunney beat Soldier Jones on the undercard of the Dempsey-Georges Carpentier fight, boxing’s first million-dollar attraction, at Jersey City, N.J. Studying the fabled champion in the main event, he became convinced that he could beat Dempsey. It was the beginning of an obsession.
“Dad told us all his life that it was simply a question of style, that he knew from the beginning his style would be devastating to Dempsey, if he ever had the opportunity to fight him,” said John Tunney, a Los Angeles lawyer and former U.S. senator from California.
“Dad said that Dempsey had terrible problems with stand-up boxers, like Tommy Gibbons,” Tunney said recently. “Guys who stood up to him, tried to punch it out with him . . . Dempsey ate those guys alive.”
Tunney went through the 1920s obsessed with arranging a fight with Dempsey. It seemed as if he’d never get the chance. After beating Willard in 1919, Carpentier in 1921 and Luis Angel Firpo in 1923, Dempsey went into virtual retirement in Los Angeles, appearing only in exhibitions in 1924 and not boxing at all in 1925.
Sportswriter Grantland Rice, in his 1954 book “The Tumult and the Shouting,” recalled a golf game in the mid-1920s with Tunney and his close friend, golfer Tommy Armour. According to Rice, after each drive, Tunney would toss aside his driver, then run down the fairway throwing punches, muttering “Dempsey, Dempsey . . . “
“ ‘He’s obsessed. His brain knows nothing but Dempsey,’ ” Armour told Rice. “ ‘I believe Jack could hit him with an ax and Gene wouldn’t feel it. I don’t know if Dempsey has slipped, but I’ll have a good chunk down on Tunney when that fight arrives.’ ”
Promoter Tex Rickard finally brought them together in Philadelphia, on Sept. 23, 1926. Dempsey, who spent the previous three years in Los Angeles with his actress wife, Estelle Taylor, was suspect. No more, many believed, was Dempsey the hungry, rail-riding hobo, the unchecked saloon brawler.
By 1926, he had gotten a nose job. And he had appeared in movies. The fight mob sneered, figuring that Dempsey’s best fights were behind him. But no one was excited about Tunney’s chances, either. Dempsey was a 4-1 favorite at Philadelphia.
Wrote Nat Fleischer, editor-publisher of Ring magazine: “Dempsey has used the heavyweight title as a medium for almost everything but defense.”
When Tunney won in a rout at Philadelphia, Fleischer was unmerciful: " . . . a champion who thought more of the movies than he did of his ring vocation, has been shorn of his crown. Before two minutes of the first round had expired, it was apparent to all within hailing distance that the fire which kindled Jack Dempsey against opponents past had flickered. . . . Tunney was the master of the situation . . . in several rounds, he made Dempsey look foolish.”
Tunney, even Dempsey admitted later, won it in Round 1. In the opening seconds, Dempsey charged Tunney, who delivered a crunching straight right to Dempsey’s jaw that rocked the champion.
“No one had ever done that to me before,” Dempsey said later.
For the first Dempsey-Tunney fight, a crowd of 120,000 paid $1.6 million to sit through a driving rain at Sesquicentennial Stadium--now John F. Kennedy Stadium.
Dempsey, in his 1940 autobiography, “Round by Round,” expressed wonderment at the sight of the crowd, seated in the rain at Philadelphia.
“For the third time in my life I saw a multitude that meant a million-dollar gate,” he wrote. “One hundred and forty-thousand people (120,000 is the generally accepted crowd count) on hand for a prize fight! A roar that seemed to make the whole stadium vibrate accompanied me as I came down the aisle to the brilliantly lit ring. As I climbed through the ropes, the noise was deafening.
“A drizzling rain had begun to fall. The canvas was wet, so were the ropes. On all sides of the vast throng, thousands and thousands of faces stretched away, into misty darkness.”
Decades after their second meeting, when old men still argued over whether or not Tunney could have beaten a 10-count, Tunney had a telling observation of his old foe in Heimer’s book, “The Long Count.”
Said Tunney: “Dempsey’s only drawback, really, was the lack of a cold brain. He was not a reasoning, thinking fighter.”
Tunney was right. Dempsey, in the seventh round, created one final opportunity to regain the heavyweight championship. But because for several critical seconds he allowed himself to be fueled by his great will and the old juices that carried him through his years of fighting in mining towns, opportunity slipped through his fingers.
Boxing beautifully, Tunney won every round going into the fateful seventh. Dempsey was the constant pursuer but, as in Philadelphia, he seemed always a step behind, a punch too short, inches too slow.
In the seventh, Tunney was retreating counter-clockwise, when he was caught high on the head by Dempsey’s long, looping right, followed by a left. Viewed on film, neither punch seems devastating but they caused Tunney to lose his balance and fall backward into the ropes.
Bouncing off the ropes, Tunney was caught by a left hook that exploded on the tip of his chin. His head snapped back again into the ropes, then he was hit again by a left and right. He fell, spread-eagled, his left hand clutching the middle rope.
At this point, as Barry started to begin a count, Dempsey, instead of retreating to a neutral corner, attempted to maneuver his way behind Barry and into the corner nearest the fallen Tunney.
Later, Barry told reporters: "(Dempsey) endeavored to circle around me into his own corner, which would have brought him immediately behind Tunney. The timekeeper’s count had started, but seeing Dempsey’s action, I thrust my left arm in front of him and ordered: ‘Jack, to a neutral corner.’
“Dempsey persisted, however, and tried to circle around me in the other direction. Then, apparently, realizing that he really was penalizing himself, he turned and walked quickly to the southeast corner. I immediately faced the timekeeper and held up the index finger of my right hand, signaling him ‘one.’
In a film of the fight, a superimposed clock shows Tunney was on the deck for 14 seconds, but rose at Barry’s count of 9. He back-pedaled out of the round, then won the last three rounds. In the eighth, in fact, he dropped Dempsey with a straight right to the ear.
Tunney finished with a flurry in the 10th, and Dempsey was barely able to keep his feet.
Afterward, the Dempsey camp raged white hot, claiming that their man had been jobbed, that Tunney had been knocked out. Films show clearly, however, that Tunney was clear-headed within seconds after going down, that he was coolly looking at Barry as the referee began the count.
“It is foolishness to say that I was in danger of being counted out,” Tunney said.
“I made up my mind to take the count of 9. All the time I was down I was in full possession of my faculties. I knew what was going on, and followed the count carefully.”
One boxing historian, Jimmy Jacobs, manager of current heavyweight champion Mike Tyson, says Tunney was typically cool.
“I’ve watched the films dozens of times, and there’s no question Tunney gets up at 9,” he said. “But what’s important to understand is that if the incident had dragged on for 25 seconds or more, Tunney would have sat right there. It was so typical of him. He was so cool under fire, so smart.
“If they’d fought 10 times, Tunney would have won all 10. He won 19 out of 20 rounds. It was a classic case of a great boxer embarrassing a great puncher. It’s hard to believe today how anyone gave Dempsey much of a chance in the first fight, after he’d been out of boxing for three years.
“Now, if they’d met in the early 20s, Dempsey would have murdered him. Remember, Tunney was a 173-pounder when he boxed Soldier Jones on the Dempsey-Carpentier undercard in 1921.”
Trainer Ray Arcel, at 88 boxing’s grand old man, was at ringside for the Philadelphia fight, but missed the Long Count Fight. Still, he talked about the long count incident.
“It was a fatal flaw in Dempsey’s makeup,” he said. “It wasn’t in his makeup to behave that way (go to a neutral corner). He was a rough-and-tumble kind of fighter, and here was his man, on the floor. Instinctively, he didn’t want to leave him. I’ve always felt Tunney would have gotten up.
“Tunney was a a master boxer and he had a lot of pride, let me tell you. I saw Harry Greb give him a licking over 15 rounds in New York that was the worst I ever saw. But he was in the gym the next day, demanding a rematch. He got one, fought a smarter fight by going to Greb’s body, and never lost to him again.”
The argument over whether Tunney would have been able to get off the floor without the time bought by Dempsey’s error remained on the burner for years, primarily because most Americans were denied seeing films of the fight--or of any fights, in fact--until 1940.
A 1912 federal law prohibited interstate transportation of boxing films, since film showings of black champion Jack Johnson’s 1910 knockout of white challenger Jim Jeffries were blamed for touching off race riots. The law wasn’t repealed until 1940. As more people saw the Dempsey-Tunney films, debate over the long count quickly expired.
Still, one mystery persists: the attendance. The Ring record book has always shown attendance for the Long Count fight as 104,943. Yet most news service and newspaper accounts that night called it 140,000, and a few called it 150,000.
Wrote Charles W. Dunkley for the Associated Press: “In a setting that could scarcely have been more picturesque had it been painted by a master’s brush, a crowd of 140,000 to 150,000 spectators jammed into the blackness of night, into Soldier Field . . . “
Said James R. Harrison of the New York Times: “One hundred and fifty thousand persons watched in the darkness--the greatest of all boxing crowds by about 35,000. It would fill more than two Yankee Stadiums and almost two Yale Bowls; it would pack the Polo Grounds to capacity and leave 100,000 on the outside . . . “
As the bout began, McNamee described the crowd this way: “All is darkness in the muttering mass of crowd beyond the light! It’s like the Roman Colosseum!”
The live gate, $2,658,660, set a boxing record that lasted, according to Ring record book, until 1978, when it was broken by the Muhammad Ali-Leon Spinks rematch in New Orleans, which earned $4,806,675.
Both Dempsey and Tunney faded quickly from the scene after that night in Soldier Field. Dempsey, except for exhibitions, never fought again. Tunney defeated Tom Heeney in 1928, then retired undefeated, one of only two heavyweight champions to do so, Rocky Marciano being the other.
Dempsey, in nine fights between 1919 and 1927, earned $2,712,079. He made $718,868 from the first Tunney fight. Tunney, who earned $225,000 in his entire career before his first fight with Dempsey, earned $200,000 and $990,000 for his two victories over Dempsey and $525,000 for beating Heeney.
Dempsey, for the next four decades, earned another fortune by making thousands of public appearances. For 37 years, he ran a successful restaurant in New York. In a biography, “Dempsey,” written by his daughter, he called his restaurant “a gold mine.”
Tunney invested his boxing earnings wisely, and served for much of his life as a director for many corporations. He also married an heiress. As a U.S. Marine Corps reserve major, he was assigned by President Franklin Roosevelt to develop a training program for 12,500 Navy physical training instructors in 1942.
Dempsey, who had been acquitted in a “slacker” trial after World War I--he was charged with falsifying draft papers--served as a Coast Guard officer in World War II and participated in the invasion of Tarawa.
Largely because of Dempsey’s claims that he had been cheated out of the championship at Soldier Field by the referee, Dave Barry, and Illinois boxing officials, Dempsey and Tunney sparred verbally for several years. But as the years slipped by, they became friendly.
In 1964, Tunney asked Dempsey to campaign for his son, John, in his Riverside (Calif.) campaign for Congress. The old Manassa Mauler went on the stump for his old foe’s son, and young Tunney won.
Tunney died at 80, in 1978. Dempsey was 87 when he died in 1983.