From time to time a particularly rough heavyweight fight puts the stigma of brutality on the sport of boxing. But to those of us who watched Harry Greb of Pittsburgh beat a youngster named Gene Tunney for the light-heavyweight championship of the U.S. back in 1922, no heavyweight fight since has seemed much more than a schoolyard spat. The fight in the old Madison Square Garden that night in the '20s was so sanguinary that the ring floor and the ring ropes actually were drenched in blood. Referee Kid McPartland and the reporters at ringside were liberally spattered. It was certainly the bloodiest fight of my time (and I go back to 1912) and maybe the bloodiest since the Romans fought with cestus.
In the first 10 seconds of the first round Greb broke Gene's nose in two places. Seconds later he opened a long, ugly gash over Gene's left eye, and from then on until the bell ended it in the 15th round Tunney's face was an inch-thick mask of blood. Doctors estimated he may have lost two quarts. "By the third round," wrote Grantland Rice, "Gene was literally wading in his own blood." The gore was so thick on Greb's gloves that he had to step back and hold them out so the referee could wipe them off with a towel.
Through it all Gene fought back, always with tenacity, often with verve. He wavered now and then, but he didn't flounder. Greb would rain a fusillade of blows against Tunney's face, down which blood cascaded, then push him away and ask the referee, "Wanna stop it?" McPartland would ask Gene, "How about it?" And Gene would shake his head. Every now and then when it looked as though McPartland might succumb to common sense and stop the slaughter, Gene would plead with him: "For God's sake, don't stop it."
Round after round Greb slammed Tunney into the ropes and smashed him with knife-sharp blows to head and body. It was awful to watch. McPartland used up half a dozen towels wiping the blood off Greb's gloves. After each cleansing, McPartland would move away from the fighters and Greb would leap to the attack again. His fists would thud against Gene's face, the blood would gush and McPartland would duck to avoid further splashing.
March 27, 1967
As the fight wore on Tunney began to grow weak from the killing, relentless pace. Time after time he would use his forearms to wipe away the blood that was blinding him, but he wouldn't quit. He would momentarily support himself against the ropes and paw at his tormentor with arms that were weary, aching, leaden things. He smiled in three of the toughest rounds (13th, 14th and 15th), as he had smiled in earlier rounds when it was touch and go as to whether McPartland would stop it. They were tired half smiles, but disdainful, and they said with fierce resolve, "I'm the champion and if you want my title you'll have to fight me until I am incapable of defending it—and that is not yet."
If a title had not rested on his decision, McPartland almost surely would have stopped the fight. But a referee of integrity will think hard before deciding against a champion who is taking a beating without flinching and pleading to be allowed to go on. All Greb could do was continue to pummel Gene. At the end of 15 brutal, terrifying rounds he gave Gene over to his handlers and loped off with his new title. Battered as he was, Tunney crossed the ring to Greb's corner, shook his hand and congratulated him. Then he said, "Harry, you were the better man—tonight."
"Won the championship!" shouted an exuberant Greb as one of his handlers kissed him on his unmarked face while several others half carried, half dragged him from the ring. But Gene, his body bruised, his face a pulpy mask, stumbled toward his dressing room, rivulets of blood from both cheeks meeting at the point of his chin and dropping onto his chest. He collapsed before he got there, and his handlers carried him the rest of the way. The moment supporting hands left him he fell, the back of his head striking the rubbing table.
After the fight, still looking comparatively fresh, Greb threw on his clothes, then hustled uptown to his pet speakeasy, paid the orchestra to play his and his friends' favorite tunes and danced until the musicians fell asleep. Happy Albacker, a Greb sidekick, had given me and some other Pittsburgh newspapermen the wrong name of Greb's hideout by mistake, and by the time we found him some of us had searched too long and too hard in too many speakeasies, an experience we itemized under the heading of research on our swindle sheets. The new champion was fidgety and looked wan. I asked him what was wrong.
"What's wrong?" he said irritably. "You've heard what all these people are saying about what an easy fight it was for me. They're crazy. It wasn't an easy fight, it was my hardest. I was so arm-weary and leg-tired from trying to knock Gene out I was in almost as bad shape as he was, but because he lost so much blood and I didn't lose any these boobs tell me I had a soft touch. Would you call an opponent a soft touch if you had hit him as hard as you could for 15 rounds and seldom made him stagger? Why, I couldn't even come close to dropping him. I was in there with a guy tonight who has an iron jaw and an iron will, and I don't look forward to our next meeting."
Someone said, "But you'll fight him again, won't you?"
"Sure. Fighting is my trade and I'll fight him any time, but it's gonna be a different story the next time."
The late Harry Keck, dean of Pittsburgh sports editors, was the first of only three well-known reporters to pick Gene to beat Dempsey for the heavyweight title in Philadelphia in 1926 and then to pick him to retain it in a rematch in Chicago the next year. Keck asked Greb that night if Tunney had hurt him at any time during the fight.
"Hell, yes," said Greb. "He hurt me in damn nearly every round—and him bleeding the way he was. Don't let anyone tell you he's just a counterpunching boxer who can't hurt you. He's the most punishing and most accurate hitter I ever fought. If you don't take the fight to him he'll take it to you, and any move you make is usually the wrong one. You end up catching a left in the puss and a stinging straight right to the body. I couldn't keep away from that right."
Greb excused himself for a moment. When he returned to the bar he admitted that on two trips to the toilet since leaving the Garden, he had passed blood in his urine. "That's the first time that ever happened to me," the fighter said, "and I've been belted in the body by the hardest punchers in the business. Also you may notice I'm not ordering no steak tonight. That's because my face stopped so many left hooks, left jabs and right crosses it feels like somebody's been hitting it with a sledge hammer. I'll bet I never really hurt Gene at all. I just bloodied him, and the loss of all that blood weakened him."
As more and more speakeasy customers came up to congratulate him on his easy victory, Greb began to get really cranky. Finally he told one of them, "You're congratulating the wrong man. I'm not Harry Greb. This is Greb sitting next to me." He touched my arm. "Get up, Harry, and show this gentleman that series of punches you hit Gene with in the first round. Don't be shy. Get up and show him, champ." Unable to find my arms and not sure where my legs were (this was not an abnormal condition for anyone who had researched as many speakeasies as I had), I got up—and fell across Greb's lap.
"That's the way it happened, mister, a beautiful reenactment," Greb told the customer, who stood there blinking in wonderment until one of his friends led him away.
Tunney himself, interviewed after the fight, had a less dramatic but perhaps more informative explanation of what had happened. He gave at least some of the credit to Abe Attell, the old (1904-1912) featherweight champion who was a ringside spectator. "Abe was sitting near my corner," said Gene, "and when he saw the sorry condition I was in he ducked out to the nearest druggist and bought his entire supply of adrenalin chloride, a coagulant. He slipped the bottle to Doc Bagley, my manager. Between rounds Doc's fingers flew. He is a superb cut man. He managed to stop the bleeding, but he couldn't keep Greb from busting my face apart after that."
As a boxing writer, I must have covered more than 10,000 fights. I never in all my life saw anyone take a more sustained beating or lose more blood than Tunney did that night. And yet as he lay on the rubbing table, in complete control of his mental faculties but too weak to sit up, he recalled every round of the fight from opening to closing bell, and discussed them like an impartial expert.
"I discovered early that it was possible for me to whip Greb," he said. "As each round went by, this discovery became a positive certainty."
The discovery bore fruit in four successive fights against Greb—two 15-rounders in the old Garden, a 10-rounder each in Cleveland and St. Paul. Never again would Tunney be beaten by Greb or by anyone else. He lost just that once in 77 fights. Six months after losing the 175-pound title back to Tunney (in February, 1923), Greb lifted the middleweight title from Johnny Wilson in a roughhouser during which Referee Jack O'Sullivan stepped between these rugged practitioners and, glowering at Greb, asked him what he thought he was doing. "Gouging Johnny in the eye, can't you see?" Greb said haughtily. Satisfied with this explanation, O'Sullivan moved away, and the fighters returned to work. Greb was the world middleweight, Tunney the American light-heavyweight champion in their last three fights. Weight was no problem to Greb, who could fight at 158 pounds one week, 170-175 the next with no loss of speed, endurance or sharpness. He lost his 160-pound title to Tiger Flowers in February of 1926 and failed to regain it in a rematch the following August, when he retired. He died two months later, on October 22. Gene Tunney had been heavyweight champion one day short of a month. He dropped everything and went to Pittsburgh to serve as honorary pallbearer to the man of whom he had seen so much inside the ring and so little outside it.
"Few human beings have fought each other more savagely or more often than Harry Greb and I," Tunney wrote in his autobiography, Arms for Living, published by Wilfred Funk in 1941. "We punched and cut and bruised each other in a series of bouts, five of them. The first of the five is for me an enduring memory, a memory still terrifying.
"I was in bad shape for the bout. This was in the time when my hands were chronically ailing with imperfectly mended fractures, sore and swollen.... Before going into the ring Novocain was shot into them to deaden the pain that would ensue upon striking blows. Moreover, I had above my left eye a half-healed cut sustained in training. Adrenalin chloride was injected into the eyebrow to prevent the cut from bleeding too much if reopened by Greb's punches. Then the bout started, and the nightmare began. In the first exchange of the fight I sustained a double fracture of the nose which bled continually.... Toward the end of the first round my left eyebrow was laid open four inches. In the third another cut over the right eye left me looking through a red film. For the better part of 12 rounds I saw a red phantom-like form dancing before me. It is impossible to describe the bloodiness of this fight.... How I ever survived the 13th, 14th and 15th rounds is still a mystery to me.
"All five of our fights were of that order of savagery. My showing became better from one to another—and in the last one I beat Harry about as badly as he had beaten me in the first. The ferocity of the hammering Greb took is indicated by a remark he made toward the end. In a clinch, he said, 'Gene, don't knock me out.' That from Harry Greb was monumental. No one was gamer. Pain and punches meant nothing to him—the cruel mauling, the bruising punishment. But Harry, hopelessly beaten, didn't want the folks back home to read that he had been knocked out. I was never paid a higher tribute. Here was one of the greatest fighters of all time laying down his shield, admitting defeat and knowing I would not expose him.... Greb was curiously secretive in pride, oddly vain. He was concerned about his looks.... When tough Harry Greb went to one of the roughhouse, slugging brawls for which he was famous, he took with him not merely his pugilistic equipment, trunks, bathrobe, ring shoes. Invariably he carried along a comb and brush, mirror, and—marvel at it—a powder puff! Going into the ferocious fracas, he always had his hair plastered down with stickum. This was one of the strangest eccentricities I ever observed in the realm where fists thud into the human visage.... Harry Greb's vanity about his looks cost him his life. Retiring from the ring with a substantial and hard-earned fortune, his first concern was his nose, flat and shapeless from countless punches and repeated fractures. Like an aging society beauty, he resorted to plastic surgery. He died on the operating table while his nose was being made shapely.... He and I remained the best of friends, with never the slightest bit of anger or ill will."
A week or 10 days following his last Tunney fight, Greb was having a drink with friends in the Times Square area.
"I'm through fighting Gene," he said quietly. "He's too tough, hits too hard and knows what moves I'm gonna make before I do." He glanced around the speakeasy to be sure no outsiders were listening. "He was killing me in St. Paul," he confided. "I knew I couldn't stay the 10-round distance, and I didn't want to be knocked out or have the referee stop it, so I asked him in a clinch to take it easy. 'Sure, Harry,' he said. 'Stay in close and grab and hold, and I won't hurt you.' I knew I could trust him, and he knew I wasn't playing possum."
Greb thanked Gene right after the fight for a courtesy he had never before and would never again ask an opponent to grant him. Gene patted him on the back. "You're a good boy, Harry," he said. "We're friends, aren't we?"
Before leaving the speakeasy, Greb said to Packey O'Gattey, "There's something I want cleared up. Is it true, as the newspapers say, that Gene reads books?"
"Sure, it's true," Packey assured him. "I seen him read books lotsa times in training camps."