Referee Dave Barry motioned the men to the center of the ring at 10:07 p.m., Sept. 22, 1927. The 104,943 fans packing Soldier Field in Chicago that night didn't seem to mind the steady drizzle. They paid $2,658,600 for the privilege of being there, the richest gate in boxing history (it would remain so until television revised the economy of the sport).
"Now I want to get this one point clear," Barry instructed. "In the event of a knockdown, the man scoring the knockdown will go to the farthest neutral corner. Is that clear, Jack?"
Jack Dempsey nodded.
"Is that clear, Champ?"
Gene Tunney nodded. Tunney had taken the heavyweight title from Dempsey one year earlier, but couldn't remember ever being called Champ. The Champ had always been Dempsey, or at least it seemed that way. Dempsey had clobbered Jess Willard for three merciless rounds to gain the title in 1919. Over the next seven years, the Manassa Mauler successfully defended his crown five times, four by knockout: Billy Miske (3 rounds); Bill Brennan (12); Georges Carpentier (4); and Luis Firpo (2). Only Tommy Gibbons went the distance when he lost to Dempsey in 1923. In between title bouts Dempsey flattened a long list of opponents in exhibitions that further enhanced his fierce reputation.
Dempsey had been a 4-to-1 favorite in '26, the first time he met Tunney, but he also had spent three soft years since stopping Firpo: trips to Europe, movie contracts, vaudeville tours. In the same period Tunney won 18 fights, including a 12-round knockout of Gibbons. "During the first minute of sparring, I feinted Dempsey a couple of times," Tunney recalled of that fight in Philadelphia, "and then I lashed out with the righthand punch, the hardest blow I ever deliberately struck."
Dempsey didn't fall but later confessed, "I never got over that punch...that blow won the fight." Tunney out-boxed Dempsey for 10 rounds to become the 10th heavyweight champion of the world.
As the bell started the rematch in Soldier Field, Dempsey charged out, determined to become the first heavyweight to regain the title. He was stronger than before and sharpened by an elimination KO of Jack Sharkey in seven tough rounds. Though the odds were even, Dempsey was the sentimental favorite, partly because of his explanation to his wife, Estelle, for losing the title: "Honey, I just forgot to duck."
Dempsey's first looping left missed. Tunney clinched, danced Dempsey backward and then pushed off, stabbing, making the former champ blink with a right to the head. Tunney refused to be intimidated, and he won Rounds 1 and 2. Dempsey took the third by chasing Tunney and scoring inside with body shots that sometimes strayed low. Barry warned Dempsey, but he continued attacking in his weaving, scowling, ferocious style.
At ringside, movie stars, the governors of nine states, the presidents of Bethlehem Steel and General Electric and the New York World editor Herbert Bayard Swope, who bet $20,000 on Tunney, jostled the sons and daughters of various Vanderbilts, Talbotts, Whitneys and Biddies for a better view of the 20-foot ring. Up in the $5 seats, vendors hawked field glasses for "only a dime."
Tunney kept working the right, trying to bring Dempsey out of his trademark crouch. Blood drained from a gash over Dempsey's right eye as he returned to his corner after losing the fourth round. Before the fight, Tunney had hopes of finishing Dempsey off in the fifth, but Dempsey came out bombing the body, pressing forward, still dangerous. Near the end of Round 5, however, Tunney again staggered Dempsey with two stiff rights to the head. After the bell, a Chicago cop named Bill Smith climbed to the ring apron and shouted at referee Barry to stop Dempsey's rabbit-punching or "...be carried out of here dead!"
Tunney's corner wanted to file an official protest, but Tunney said no. Although sportswriters considered him a highbrow, Tunney's ring peers knew him more for his guts and ring ability. Nobody had ever knocked him down, and his single loss, to Harry Greb in 1922 (he later fought Greb four more times without losing again), was suffered gallantly. "By the third round," Grantland Rice reported, "Gene was literally wading in his own blood," yet he endured the 15-round shellacking like the Marine he was. Tunney had won the American Expeditionary Force light heavyweight championship, in Paris, the same year Dempsey won his crown.
It was Dempsey who displayed tremendous courage in Round 6. His right eye bloodied, his left eye badly swollen, he tore into Tunney, first pounding the midsection, then shifting his target upward to win the round.
The day before the fight, Frank Hague, the mayor of Jersey City and Tunney's friend, had asked the champion about a rumor that he'd agreed to take a dive in the seventh. "If I am knocked out in the seventh round," replied Tunney, "it will be because Dempsey knocked me out. There will be no feigning on my part."
Few fighters would have used the word "feigning." Coming from Tunney it sounded natural. Growing up on the West Side of Manhattan, Tunney acquired a prodigious vocabulary by memorizing the dictionary. The press had also made much of the world champion's love of Shakespeare. Tunney's Shakespearian education began while he was on a troopship sailing to France. A fellow Marine, who happened to be packing Julius Caesar and A Winter's Tale, became seasick and vomited on Tunnney's military tunic. Rather than keep the tunic, Tunney reported it missing and was given extra duty. The shipmate, grateful that Tunney hadn't ratted on him, offered him A Winter's Tale, then coached him through it. "After training on A Winter's Tale," Tunney said later, "I read such works as Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello with ease."
Before their first fight Dempsey had acknowledged Tunney's scholarly reputation in a manner that his fans appreciated. "I'll knock the big bookworm out inside of eight rounds," he said.
Tunney opened the seventh round of the rematch boxing masterfully. But halfway through it Dempsey timed a right over Tunney's left lead, then pursued the woozy champion to the ropes and connected with a left, a right and several more of the short, brutal punches that typified his style.
"There were seven crashing blows," Tunney recalled. "Dempsey battering me with lefts and rights as I fell against the ropes, collapsing to a sitting position on the canvas."
Forgetting referee Barry's neutral-corner instructions, Dempsey reacted as he always had: He hovered over his fallen opponent, ready to pounce. "I couldn't move," Dempsey told Dan Daniel, cofounder of The Ring magazine. "I just couldn't. I wanted him to get up. I wanted to kill the sonofabitch."
Timekeeper Paul Beeler began counting. Seeing Barry's struggle to haul Dempsey away, he stopped. Four seconds elapsed before Dempsey moved toward a neutral corner. Beeler then shouted "five," expecting Barry to pick up the count at that point. But Barry began at "one," in strict accordance with Illinois boxing commission rules, as he would later contend.
When Tunney's head began to clear, Barry had reached the count of two. "What a surprise," Tunney recalled. "I had seven seconds in which to get up...I'd take the full count, of course. Nobody but a fool fails to do that."
Each sweep of referee Barry's arm seemed to take an eternity. "...six, seven, eight, nine, and Tunney is up!...backing away," screamed Graham McNamee, whose account of the fight was being broadcast to an audience estimated at 40 million. After 14 seconds on the canvas—by the most conservative estimates—Tunney came up retreating. He danced, blocked, circled. Dempsey beckoned him in to slug it out, but Tunney would have none of it. By round's end, he had recuperated sufficiently to jolt Dempsey with a right under the heart. "I thought I was going to die," Dempsey recalled. "I could not get my breath."
Tunney downed Dempsey momentarily in the eighth, then went on to "hit him with the encyclopedia of boxing," by his own account, to win the last three rounds and retain his championship.
Tunney was often asked if he could have survived the seventh without the aid of a long count. "I'm quite sure that I could have. When I regained consciousness after the brief period of blackout, I felt that I could have jumped up immediately and matched my legs against Jack's, just as I did."
Tunney died in 1978; Dempsey lived until 1983. It's doubtful either one of them spent a day in public when the subject of the long count did not come up. "All I know is that it was a great thing for both of us," Dempsey once replied to the inevitable long-count question. "Half the folks thought Gene won, and half thought I won. They still talk about it, and it has kept our names alive all these years."
Jack E. Steele is a former amateur boxer who has given up the ring for running.