The King Of Cool
By Mike Casey
surprise some of our readers to know that this Jack Dempsey supporter has never
harboured a degree of resentment against Gene Tunney. Not that one has to be a
Dempsey acolyte to bristle at the sound of Gene’s name.
Tunney was a man
apart in more ways than one, and that was his unfortunate problem. He wasn’t a
fighter’s fighter to some and he wasn’t a fan’s fighter to most. As a general
rule, he was acknowledged for his exceptional talent through gritted teeth and
with awkward shrugs of reservation. Your average fight fan in your average bar
might sum it up thus: “Yes, he was great, but there was just something about the
Gene Tunney just didn’t fit most people’s perception of a fighting man, and for
the usual trite and unfair reasons. The major gripe was that he was aloof and
regarded himself as being above his somewhat primitive profession. The guys in
the bar could poke gentle fun at him because it was a pretty safe bet that Gene
wouldn’t be there to quaff beer and show off his muscles. He would more likely
be at a high society dinner party, rambling at some length about the meaning of
life. I do not entirely exaggerate. Tunney did have a grating tendency to
pontificate, inducing the average Joe to emit a quiet sigh and glance at his
Throw in Gene’s
clean-cut handsomeness and that classic shock of hair that a hurricane couldn’t
disturb, and he might have been bullied very frequently if he had been a timid
librarian instead of a deceptively tough and iron-willed boxer. To cap it all,
the New York smoothie went and beat Jack Dempsey twice, which really was a quite
horrendous crime to the blinkered and the prejudiced. If ever a man deceived us
by his appearance, it was Gene the Fighting Marine. He was indeed an intelligent
and analytical soul, even if he tried a little too hard to prove it. But along
with the brains and the scientific mastery of boxing came tremendous courage,
resilience and determination. It is a great pity that he continues to be so
Many moons ago,
Paul Gallico wrote of Tunney: “Anyone checking his rise from humble beginning to
wealth and fame would find a man of duty, self-confidence, initiative, burning
ambition, indomitable courage and complete and utter fearlessness.
“Added to this, by intelligence, study and practice, he made himself
into one of the best exponents of the so-called manly art of self-defence who
ever laced on the red leather gloves. He was the absolute ’ne plus ultra’ of
what a boxer ought to be.
“Theoretically, the perfect boxer would emerge from every test
unscathed, even untouched by any blow, while leaving the opponent bleeding and
unconscious on the canvas. Again, in every theory, with speed of foot, hand and
eye, it is possible to avoid every hook, cross or uppercut by blocking them with
gloves or arm, or slipping, ducking, pulling out of range, making the hitter
miss. No one was ever that good at the game, but among the heavyweights, Gene
Tunney probably came closest to it.
“When we should have been cheering him to the echo for the perfection
of his profession, we hated him instead for practicing his deceitful arts upon
that hero image of ourselves, caveman Dempsey.”
Why does this writer continue to admire Gene Tunney? For all the good
reasons that Paul Gallico gave us. I love thinking fighters who dedicate their
lives to educating their minds and honing their bodies in pursuit of that most
elusive and impossible of all human qualities: perfection. It was often written
of Tunney that he regarded boxing as a means to an end, which is quite true. But
rare indeed is the man like Gene who gives a lesser love his total commitment
and dedication. When the heart isn’t in it, it is very easy to jump off the bus
when it starts thundering down a slope. Tunney never wavered when the going got
tough, not even after receiving a brutal lacing from the great Pittsburgh
Windmill, Harry Greb. Gene might just as well have been tossed into a threshing
machine on that torrid New York night in the spring of 1922, the only time he
was officially beaten in his 87 recorded battles against excellent opposition.
It would be no exaggeration to describe Tunney’s defeat as a pulping,
for he was horribly cut and mauled as he reeled as much from the combined
effects of adrenaline and alcohol poisoning in his stomach as from Greb’s
As Gene would recall in later years, the problems started in the run-up
to the fight. “Whilst training for the Greb match, which took place just four
months after the Battling Levinsky match, I had the worst possible kind of luck.
My left eyebrow was opened and both hands were sorely injured. I had a partial
reappearance of the old left elbow trouble, which prevented my using a left jab.
Dr Robert J Shea, a close friend who took care of me during my training, thought
that a hypodermic injection of adrenaline chloride over the left eye would
prevent bleeding when the cut was re-opened by Greb. At my request he injected a
hypodermic solution of novocaine into the knuckles of both hands as well. We
locked the dressing room door during this performance.
“George Engle, Greb’s manager, wanting to watch the bandages being put
on, came over to my dressing room and found the door bolted. He shouted and
banged. We could not allow him in until the doctor had finished his work.
Getting in finally, he insisted that I remove all the bandages so that he could
see whether I had any unlawful substance under them. I refused. He made an awful
squawk, ranting in and out of the room. I became angry. Eventually I realised
Engle was only trying to protect his fighter, and if I let it get my goat that
was my hard luck. Moreover, his not being allowed into the dressing room made
the situation look suspicious. I unwound the bandages from my hands and
satisfied George that all was well.”
All was not well, however. Tunney’s problems had just begun and the
doctor’s injections only served to endanger Gene even more when the perpetual
motion machine that was Harry Greb started firing. Tunney quickly stumbled into
a nightmare, as he would recall in typically clinical detail: “In the first
exchange in the first round, I sustained a double fracture of the nose, which
bled continually until the finish. Toward the end of the first round, my left
eyebrow was laid open four inches. I am convinced that the adrenaline solution
that had been injected so softened the tissue that the first blow or butt I
received cut the flesh right to the bone.
“In the third round another cut over the right eye left me looking
through a red film. For the best part of twelve rounds, I saw this red
phantom-like form dancing before me. I had provided myself with a fifty per cent
mixture of brandy and orange juice to take between rounds in the event I became
weak from loss of blood. I had never taken anything during a fight up to that
time. Nor did I ever again.
“It is impossible to describe the bloodiness of this fight. My seconds
were unable to stop either the bleeding from the cut over my left eye, which
involved a severed artery, or the bleeding consequent to the nose fractures. Doc
Bagley, who was my chief second, made futile attempts to congeal the nose
bleeding by pouring adrenaline into his hand and having me snuff it up my nose.
This I did round after round. The adrenaline, instead of coming out through the
nose again, ran down my throat with the blood and into my stomach.
“At the end of the twelfth round, I believed it was a good time to take
a swallow of this brandy and orange juice. It had hardly gotten to my stomach
when the ring started whirling around. The bell rang for the thirteenth round;
the seconds pushed me from my chair. I actually saw two red opponents. How I
ever survived the thirteenth, fourteenth and fifteenth rounds is still a mystery
to me. At any rate, the only consciousness I had was to keep trying. I knew if I
ever relaxed, I would either collapse or the referee would stop the brutality.”
The punishing loss to Greb produced what was probably the greatest
example of Gene’s single-mindedness. Taking to his sick bed, he plotted a way to
beat Harry with all the attention to detail of a pernickety draughtsman. There
was no room for self-pity in Tunney’s game plan for climbing life’s ladder. One
wonders if Gene even understood that emotion. “Well, Harry you were the better
man tonight,” he told Greb after their classic first encounter. Tunney’s use of
the word ‘tonight’ was quite intentional. As he later admitted with quiet
coldness, “I meant that literally.” The two titans of the ring would clash four
more times, and while it is something of a myth to say that Gene mastered Harry,
Tunney was certainly the overall victor. Greb would later say, “I have boxed
Dempsey and Tunney. You never know how good Tunney is until you box him.”
After the Greb mauling, Gene’s chief second and manager, Doc Bagley,
made a decision that must surely rank with Gene Klein’s famous refusal to take a
slice of the Beatles cake. Mr Klein, some will recall, felt that the Fab Four
were nothing more than a fleeting fad. Doc Bagley was of the opinion that Tunney
would never be the same again after being cut to pieces by the whirring blades
of the Pittsburgh Windmill. One wonders if the Doc ever sat down and engaged in
the masochistic exercise of estimating his lost fortune.
Somebody else thought differently. Canny old boxing stalwart Billy
Roche sidled up to British reporter Jimmy Butler one day in Paris and said to
him, “This youngster Tunney has got brains, Jimmy. Mark my words, he’s going to
be a crackerjack – and one of these days he’s going to lick Dempsey!”
Boxing has spawned some great thinkers through the years, and I speak
here of the special men who considered every aspect of the game and studied its
every intricacy. Bob Fitzsimmons was probably the greatest of all at being able
to successfully marry scientific theory to action. He learned to punch with
deadly precision and dexterity and conserved his energy by studying the
behaviour of animals. Joe Gans and Kid McCoy were similarly gifted and similarly
blessed with naturally inquisitive minds. Tunney, in my opinion, ranks very high
in that company in his ability to assimilate and analyse data and effectively
act upon it. If Gene were with us today, I would wager a fair few pennies that
he would be making his millions from the computer industry.
My fellow historian, Tracy Callis, says of Tunney: “He was one of the
most intelligent fighters in boxing history. He fought primarily as a light
heavyweight but tangled regularly with bigger men. He was patient, light on his
feet, carried a beautiful left jab and a stinging right hand punch. He usually
moved away from an attacker but was known to tie up his foe in a clinch if the
adversary got too close. Gene rarely engaged in toe-to-toe exchanges.
“He studied his opponents in depth and knew their every move before he
entered the ring. He worked up a plan for each fight and followed it to the
“Fighting in an era of lighter heavyweights, who tended to be quicker
and slicker than those seen today, Tunney bested some of the greatest all-round
boxers ever in Battling Levinsky, Harry Greb, Tommy Loughran, Jack Delaney, Jeff
Smith, Tommy Gibbons and Jack Dempsey.”
Hawaiian historian Curt Narimatsu, an excellent analyst of boxing
styles and technique, says, “Gene Tunney, to his credit, always praised Jack
Dempsey. Gene said that if Dempsey got inside Joe Louis, Jack wins. If Louis
keeps Dempsey outside, Joe wins. By implication, Gene accedes to the superhuman
strengths of Dempsey and Louis over his own legacy.
“Gene’s greatest strength was his defence. Legendary fight trainer Ray
Arcel worshipped Gene and talked tons about Tunney’s mental strength and acumen.
As with any contact sport, defence is what triggers offence. Naturally, Gene
stands among the greatest ever counter punchers. The best mirror image of Tunney
is Benny Leonard, whose vaunted defence actuated his great offence and counter
punching. It’s no surprise that Gene, Benny and Ray Arcel were bosom buddies,
synergetic triplets born from the same advent.”
Some time ago, I was eager to probe the lively and knowledgeable mind
of sports writer and fellow IBRO member, Mike Silver, on how Tunney would have
fared against Larry Holmes. Mike didn’t need long to think about it. “Tunney was
smarter than Holmes and would have outpointed him. I mean, who is smarter than
Tunney? The guy thought out every single move. Anybody that can figure out how
to beat Harry Greb is tops in my book. Nobody is outsmarting Tunney. He was a
methodical, brilliant tactician who would have studied Holmes in one fight and
figured him out.
“I’m taking nothing away from Holmes, who had one of the best left jabs
in heavyweight history. But he benefited from an extremely weak division. Holmes
was not as consistent as Tunney, nor was he as well rounded a boxer. Other than
Norton and Cooney, all of Holmes’ fights were against second and third rate
opposition. I can see Holmes in the top twenty, but not in the first ten. Too
much consistent talent there.”
My good friend, Mike Hunnicut, who has studied countless hours of film
of the great fighters, is no less generous in his assessment of Tunney’s ability
and mettle. Mike is convinced that Jack Dempsey remains the heavyweight for all
seasons, but rates Tunney very close behind.
Here is Mike’s reasoning on Jack, Gene and a few others: “If the fate
of the world depended on a 15-round fight against some alien pugilist, the road
leads to Dempsey as the man you would want to do the job. Jeffries would be a
bit too slow and a catcher. Johnson would be too defensive. Max Baer wouldn’t be
serious enough. Marciano would have problems with his short arms and lack of
height. Liston would be too slow and might quit. Ali would be too open to the
left hook and too light a puncher. Holmes would have too limited a repertoire
and not the greatest of chins. Tyson might simply quit and was never the body
puncher he should have been.
“Dempsey had maniacal determination, hit hard, had a great chin and
fought to the death. That’s the guy I want in there if the fate of the world
depended on it.
“Gene Tunney, though, scores very highly for me. He was an upright
boxer and his defence could be porous. But he was probably the greatest
technical boxer the heavyweights ever saw. Aside from his skills and ring
intelligence, he was one of the toughest ever in body and mind. For me, he was
the greatest light heavyweight ever bar none and the third greatest heavyweight
ever. By the second Dempsey fight, when Gene was finally filling out, he would
have defeated more of the top 500 heavyweight fighters in history over the
15-round limit than anyone – with the possible exceptions of Dempsey and Louis.
“A must buy for any historian is the complete film of Tunney’s last
fight against Tom Heeney. From any boxing standpoint, Gene did as much as could
possibly be done in that battle. For cleverness and all round ability, he was
above even Tommy Loughran or anyone else among the light heavies or heavies.
Gene’s conditioning was fantastic and he was always in shape from the many
fights he’d had. His speed over the long stretch and his ability to recover from
adversity were admirable. The glowing testaments of so many fighters and
trainers also attest to Gene’s stature as a great boxer and fighter.”
Mike Hunnicut’s reference to Tunney’s excellent recuperative powers
brings an eternally fascinating old chestnut back into play. The perennial
question concerning that memorable Battle of the Long Count at Soldier Field is
whether Tunney couldn’t have beaten the traditional toll of ten seconds after
taking that rapid fire blitz of punches from Dempsey in the seventh round. I
have never believed so and I simply point to the film of the fight as the
evidence. Gene was glassy-eyed and shattered and I strongly dispute the claim
that he knew exactly where he was and what he was doing from the time he hit the
Tunney needed that extra time and Jack obliged him by blowing a golden
chance of unexpected glory. Gene got the big break that all champions get at
some point in their careers and calmed his racing brain to take full advantage
of the precious extra seconds. Let us not accuse him of being a lucky so-and-so.
Dempsey, ever the instinctive lion, needed to get back into his agreed cage of
the neutral corner and was too consumed by the smell of fresh meat to do so.
What Gene showed in that memorable encounter was his mental and
physical toughness. He wasn’t fragile of chin, jaw, fighting spirit or anything
else. He proved that repeatedly and emphatically during his thirteen years in
the professional ring. Had he carried the definitive knockout wallop, he might
just have been the perfect heavyweight, the all-time ace. Not that Tunney’s
punching power should be dismissed. He could still clout with jarring authority
when his tail was up. He knocked out or stopped 48 of his opponents during a
near perfect career in which he defeated the very cream of the light heavyweight
division and then set about conquering the heavyweights with equal efficiency.
The final victory over Tom Heeney was a classic example of Gene at his
very best. When the brakes were off and the punches were truly flowing, there
was a machine-like and quite frightening precision to his work. New Zealander
Heeney, the so-called Hard Rock from Down Under, was a tough and extraordinarily
brave man faced with the task of trying to trap a ghost carrying two hammers.
Avoiding Tom’s rushes with speedy and elegant grace, Tunney darted in and out
and ripped his challenger with ramrod jabs and thudding straight rights.
Hardened observers winced as Heeney’s head was repeatedly snapped back on his
shoulders. Only in the far more tolerant days of 1928 would that battle have
been allowed to go into the eleventh round. In 22 more fights before his
retirement, Tom was able to notch only five wins.
My interest in Gene Tunney began in earnest many years ago after
programming my tape machine to record a documentary on Jake LaMotta in the early
hours of the morning. To my delight, the channel slipped in a following bonus
hour of Tunney’s fights against Georges Carpentier and Tommy Gibbons. It was
akin to stumbling into an Aladdin’s Cave. I had read much about Gene, but now I
was actually seeing his sublime skills, his precise punching and his fleetness
of foot. At the time, Muhammad Ali was being described as a ‘unique’ heavyweight
for his speed of hand and foot. Had everyone missed Tunney? Had they simply
forgotten about him? Gene was as fast as Muhammad, if not faster, and he was
certainly more skilful and scientific.
Tunney was simply brilliant in his quietly ruthless dismantling of
French ace Georges Carpentier at the old Polo Grounds in New York. Reporter
Jimmy Butler wrote: “The pair put up one of the finest and most thrilling
displays ever seen in America. Tunney that day was a man of ice. A calm,
emotionless, sphinx-like fighter against whose rock-like defence the Frenchman’s
brilliance shattered into a thousand pieces.
“And as the fire flickered out of Carpentier’s attack and his speed
began to slacken, Tunney, meticulous, prim and precise, began to weaken him with
copybook punches. Gene hardly made a single mistake. His long left, rigid as a
bar of iron and just about as unpleasant to encounter, kept poking itself into
his opponent’s face, and for round after round he played on a deep cut over the
French fighter’s right eye.”
Carpentier was floored four times in the tenth round of that fight, the
end eventually coming in the fifteenth when Gene disabled the game Frenchman
with a short jolt to the solar plexus.
With typical foresight and calculated planning, Gene Tunney had been
tracking Jack Dempsey for some time. For five years in fact. When Jack knocked
out Georges Carpentier at Boyle’s Thirty Acres in July 1921, a young Tunney
watched Dempsey’s every move from ringside. Gene had fought on the undercard and
been booed for a very poor performance against the crude and free-swinging
Soldier Jones. Despite halting Jones in the seventh round, Tunney hardly shaped
up as a threat to Dempsey.
But Gene would entertain no negative thoughts, even though he knew he
would have to hurdle many more obstacles before booking what every hopeful
contender both wanted and feared – a fiery dance with the Manassa Mauler.
Patiently and methodically, Tunney set about climbing the long ladder. In his
spare time, he studied Dempsey’s fighting style in great depth and acquired
every available film of Jack’s fights. Again and again, Gene practised the
straight, crashing right that he believed to be the key to taking the steam out
of Dempsey’s attack.
There were mental barriers to overcome too, and here was where Tunney
demonstrated his incredible strength of mind. It is impossible to understand now
just how much Jack Dempsey put the fear of God into prospective opponents.
Gene’s demons came to get him, as they so often do, in the dead of night when
all his positive thoughts were suddenly smashed by Dempsey’s chilling spectre.
“One night, in a lonely cottage on Mount Pleasant, I had a nightmare. I was in
the ring with Dempsey. He was battering me frightfully. I was bloody and only
half conscious and he came at me snarling He knocked me down. I got up and he
began pummelling me again. The referee stopped the fight. I woke up. The bed was
shaking. I was practically out of it. After that, I stopped reading the
newspapers and maintained a calm approach to the fight.”
Like all great
men, Tunney found his ‘four o‘clock courage’ and executed his battle plan with
icy resolve when he challenged Dempsey at the Sequicentennial Stadium in
Philadelphia on a rainy night in September 1926.
sportswriter, Denzil Batchelor, who produced an engrossing book called Big
Fight in 1954, wrote the following of Gene’s performance: “It was typical of
Tunney that he should have won his most important fight in so cool and
calculating a manner. It was not his way to stand toe-to-toe slogging it out in
the tradition descended from Belcher and embraced by most of the latter day past
masters all the way up to Dempsey. Tunney was the Moltke of heavyweights, if not
“He was probably
inferior to several of the men he fought when it came to a hammering match at
close quarters; therefore he saw to it that his fights never came to such a
pass. He kept his men at long range with punches which, in spite of his brittle
hands, were still power-driven at the very limit of his considerable reach. He
used his feet to frisk around the maulers and man-handlers. Above all, he used
Some forty years before Steve McQueen hit his glorious peak as a steely
movie icon, Gene Tunney was the King of Cool. It just wasn’t cool to say it, and
perhaps it never will be. A man can have it all and still have something missing
through no great fault of his own.
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