The crowd stretched away...so far that sitting in the heat and
glare of the cone lights just under the ring you couldn't see
the last rows of customers. You could only sense that they were
there from the combers of sound that came booming down the slope
of the stadium out of the darkness.
Chicago Daily Tribune, Sept. 23, 1927
The sudden and furious sequence of punches grew out of nowhere,
without warning, in the center of the ring. It began when the
heavyweight champion of the world, Gene Tunney, threw a long
left jab at Jack Dempsey's two-day stubble. Aged and finished as
a fighter though Dempsey was, he saw it coming, canted his head
slightly to the left, slipping the punch, and countered with a
looping right that struck Tunney on the left side of his face.
Dempsey's right forced Tunney back. The challenger did not
hesitate. He moved forward, looking as though he'd picked up an
old, familiar scent from his days as a saloon fighter, a kind of
psychic blood trail leading to a kill, and as he closed on
Tunney, he suddenly planted his right foot and, in a single
rolling motion of his shoulders, lowered himself into a crouch
and then sprang out of it, throwing a left hook as he rose. The
blow caught the champion going back, driving him even farther
toward the ropes, and at once Dempsey was all over him. He
cocked Iron Mike, the name to which his right hand answered, and
Nine rows back, a 20-year-old racehorse trainer named H.A.
(Jimmy) Jones, later famed for training Triple Crown winner
Citation, leaped to his feet when he saw Dempsey wading in to
strike. "Dempsey was like a cat--just like a cat!--the way he
pounced," Jones, 90, recalls. "After chasing Tunney all night,
Dempsey finally got a whack at him. And he whacked him good!"
September 21, 1997
Up at ringside, in the press rows, the newly appointed sports
editor of The Washington Post, 22-year-old Shirley Povich, had
never seen or heard a crowd like this. "Most thought Dempsey was
in for the kill," says Povich, 92. "They had been waiting for it
from the start. It was a Dempsey crowd, and everything he did
brought a roar."
More than 145,000 souls had collected that night in Chicago's
Soldier Field, the largest crowd ever to witness a prizefight,
and for nearly 30 minutes the show had been a monotonous parody
of the first Dempsey-Tunney fight, a year earlier at
Philadelphia's Sesquicentennial Stadium, where the quicker,
fitter Tunney, 28 years old and boxing masterfully, won all 10
rounds against an aging, awkward champion who, at 31, appeared
to have nothing left after three years of ring idleness. It was
the first time in history that the heavyweight title had changed
hands on a decision, and the public resented Tunney for
dethroning the revered Dempsey in such unworthy fashion. "A
lousy 10-round decision," says Povich. Now here they were again,
and after 61/2 rounds of Tunney's sticking and moving, beating
Dempsey to the punch, Dempsey whacked him with the hook and,
uncorking Iron Mike, smashed him back against the ropes.
Tunney flailed weakly with a right, exposing his head, and for
the first time in almost 17 rounds of fighting--in what had been
for Dempsey, who had more one-round knockouts than any other
heavyweight in history, the maddening pursuit of a
ghost--Dempsey finally had the target before him, stunned and
stationary. So he stepped inside and ripped a short, jolting
left to the side of Tunney's jaw. It was a nearly perfect hook;
had it been another inch or two forward, on the point of the
chin, Tunney's cornermen would have been reaching for the
smelling salts to wake their fighter up. His knees buckling, the
champion began to sink along the ropes. In a rush to finish him,
Dempsey grazed Tunney's face with a poorly thrown right, then
lashed another hook to his head. Tunney was pitching
backward--his right leg, bent awkwardly, was caught under
him--when Dempsey, looming like a thunderhead, drove him down
into the deck with a hard right to the face.
Tunney landed with a thud that no one heard. Pandemonium had
descended on the place.
"Dempsey was hitting him as he went down," recalls Jones. "Bang!
Bang! Bang! Bang! I'll never forget it. I could see the glaze in
Tunney's eyes as he got hit. A right and a left and a right!
Four or five times, real quick. Hard, hard punches! His mouth
opened up, and then he went down on his back."
From the press rows Paul Gallico of the New York Daily News was
heard yelling in a high-pitched voice into a phone to his
editors, "Tunney is down from a series of blows!" Nearby,
sitting right behind Damon Runyon, Povich could hear voices
around him screaming at the fighter still standing in the ring,
"Come on, Jack!"
Povich sees it yet today: "Tunney is going down, and my memory
is sharp of Dempsey pummeling him on the head as he sags. And I
can still see Tunney's hand, a vivid memory, reaching for the
[middle] rope and finally grabbing it."
Beyond Soldier Field, 50 million people gathered by their home
radios as announcer Graham McNamee, speaking to more people at
one time than any man ever had, blurted out the news in his
cracked, quavering voice: "And then Dempsey comes back, and
Tunney is down! Tunney is down from a barrage of lefts and
rights to the face!" Nine people died of heart attacks listening
to that broadcast, three of them during McNamee's blow-by-blow
of the seventh round.
Eleven-year-old Dan Satenstein was at home in Chicago sharing
the earphones of a crystal set with his 20-year-old brother,
Charlie, when Dempsey pounced. "I started to scream, 'Tunney is
down! He knocked him down!'" Dan, 81, recalls. "My [two]
brothers started screaming and jumping up and down. But then
there was such bedlam and noise at Soldier Field that we lost
the audio. 'I can't hear,' I kept saying. 'Everything is drowned
The voice of McNamee was lost in those great combers of sound
that boomed out of the Chicago night. In Hell's Kitchen, on
Manhattan's tough West Side, another 11-year-old boy had been
leaning far out the window of his tenement flat and listening,
across a 10-foot gangway, to a neighbor's radio describing the
fight. "I'd never seen or heard anything like it before," says
81-year-old Harold Robbins, author of The Carpetbaggers and
other popular novels. "I was hanging there, from my waist out. I
could hear the voice, but then there was all the excitement and
noise, and I couldn't tell who was down or what was going on."
It was precisely 10:34 p.m. on Sept. 22, 1927, 70 years ago this
week, and what was going on in the middle of Soldier Field was
the most dramatic, memorable sporting event of its era, the
so-called Golden Age of Sports. Even today, seen in the silvery
flicker of old films, the aftermath of the knockdown bedevils
the eye and haunts the memory of that night.
The knockdown rule decreed by the Illinois State Athletic
Commission was plain enough: When a knockdown occurs the
timekeeper shall immediately arise and announce the seconds
audibly as they elapse. The referee shall first see that the
opponent retires to the farthest corner and then, turning to the
timekeeper, shall pick up the count in unison with the
timekeeper, announcing the seconds to the boxer on the floor.
Should the boxer on his feet fail to stay in the corner, the
referee and timekeeper shall cease counting until he has so
A dazed Tunney is sitting on the floor, and Dempsey skips around
him, heading toward his own corner, directly behind Tunney,
while timekeeper Paul Beeler, at ringside, counts....
Now Dave Barry, the referee, is touching Dempsey's chest and
pointing to a neutral corner to his left, ordering Dempsey
there, but the fighter ignores him and steps into his own
corner, about five feet behind Tunney, who has just uncrooked
his twisted right leg....
Barry follows Dempsey, standing between him and the fallen
fighter, and he again points to the neutral corner, yelling at
Dempsey to leave....
Only now does Dempsey move, sliding his hand along the top rope
as he lumbers away from his corner....
Here Barry finally turns toward Beeler and hears the count....
But instead of picking up that count in unison with his
timekeeper, Barry calls out, "One!"
The Long Count, the name by which this fight forever will be
known, has begun.
Of all the major sports figures of the 1920s--from Red Grange in
football to Bill Tilden in tennis, Bobby Jones in golf and Man
o' War in racing--none cut a swath as wide as the two largest
figures of all: Jack Dempsey and Babe Ruth. Born less than five
months apart in 1895, they arrived at the dawning of the Golden
Age of Sports as rising folk heroes: Dempsey as the new
heavyweight champion of the world, Ruth as the emerging home run
Just hours before the Long Count, with a man on base in the
bottom of the ninth inning and the New York Yankees losing to
the Detroit Tigers 7-6, Ruth struck a towering two-run,
game-winning homer that landed five rows from the top of Yankee
Stadium's rightfield stands. He carried the bat in his hand
around the bases. The home run was his 56th of the season. Eight
days later, on Sept. 30, he would hit number 60. The Yankees
would never again be quite the team they were that year--perhaps
the greatest baseball team that ever played--and Ruth would
never have a season like that again. Indeed, between Soldier
Field and Yankee Stadium, those closing days of September 1927
would be the zenith of that era in sports.
And so, in the end, there was a sense of symmetry in what was
happening in those frantic days surrounding the Long Count, with
Ruth circling the bases as Dempsey ascended as a martyr into myth.
Never in the history of American sports had there been a scene
like the one at Soldier Field. For hours through the early
evening, as American flags fluttered on the rim of the stadium
and a light rain came and went, thousands of people swarmed
across Michigan Avenue and filed through the gates. "Along the
upper sweeps of the stadium, 500 and 600 feet away, it looked
like a flow of army ants through the dim, hazy light," wrote
Grantland Rice in the New York Herald Tribune.
The day before, as the gate swelled toward a record
$2,658,660--about $22 million in today's dollars and thus the
largest gate, by far, in the history of boxing--the promoter of
the fight, Tex Rickard, called the event "the crowning
achievement of my life." Rickard has been called the greatest
boxing promoter of all time, and he was certainly among the most
flamboyant showmen of his era. He was born in a dusty roadside
hovel in Missouri, and on his way to Soldier Field he prospected
for gold in the Yukon, was a faro dealer in the Klondike, ran
saloon gambling halls in gold-rush towns in Alaska and Nevada,
served as the marshal of Henrietta, Texas, owned a cattle ranch
in Paraguay and was a soldier of fortune in South Africa.
Along that path, he began promoting fights. In 1906, in
Goldfield, Nev., Rickard put up $30,000 in cash as the
guaranteed purse for the lightweight championship bout between
Joe Gans and Battling Nelson. It was twice the largest purse
ever before offered for a lightweight fight, and Rickard caused
a local sensation by putting the money on display, in stacks of
gleaming, newly minted $20 gold pieces, at a Goldfield bank.
Rickard thus launched himself as a seller of fights. By 1927 he
was at the apex of his powers. He had first promoted Dempsey in
1919, when the fighter took the heavyweight title from Jess
Willard, and together they had grown rich beyond any
contemporary measure in sports. There were five million-dollar
gates during the '20s, and Dempsey and Rickard figured in all of
them. Indeed, with Rickard at the till, Dempsey became sports'
fattest cash cow. In the first four of those million-dollar
gates, he attracted customers who paid nearly $6 million, and
the Long Count would bring that sum to nearly $9 million.
"Who can tie that for five appearances?" wrote Rice. "Who can
come within $5,000,000 of [Dempsey's] mark?...He is the greatest
drawing card in sport."
And Chicago, to be sure, was Rickard's piece de resistance.
Sitting at ringside, he presided over the richest, gaudiest
assembly of people that any sporting event had ever drawn. For
days, trains pulling private and Pullman cars had converged on
Chicago from every point of the compass--The Broadway Limited
from New York, the Illinois Central from the South, the Santa Fe
from out West--in what one railroad worker described as "the
greatest troop movement since the war." When a train chartered
by James J. Corbett, the former heavyweight champion, arrived at
the LaSalle Street Station, half the talent of Broadway stepped
off, including George M. Cohan and Irving Berlin.
Rickard had the audacity to offer 42,000 ringside seats, at $40
apiece. Some of those seats were 137 rows back from the ring,
but Rickard sold them all--to Hollywood entertainers such as Al
Jolson and Charlie Chaplin; to European royalty, including
Princess Xenia of Greece; to all those Eastern swells, the
Astors and the Harrimans and the Whitneys, who had arrived by
private railroad cars; and to thousands of bankers, mobsters,
industrialists, lawyers and politicians. "Plutocrats rubbed
elbows with pickpockets," the Herald Tribune reported. They had
occupied the swankiest hotel rooms in town, and now they hovered
like moths around the brightly lit ring--Rickard's personal
signature on the night, with its gilded posts and the gilded
water buckets hanging from them.
"Everybody was there," recalls Povich, one of 1,200 newsmen at
the fight. "If you were a celebrity, you had to be there. It was
the place to be. It was being whispered that some ringside seats
were selling for a hundred dollars. My, my!"
Pridefully beholding his grandest creation, Rickard turned to
the man sitting next to him, Hype Igoe of the New York World,
and said, "Kid, if the earth came up and the sky came down and
wiped out my first 10 rows, it would be the end of everything.
Because I've got in those 10 rows all the world's wealth, all
the world's big men, all the world's brains and production
talent. Just in them 10 rows, kid. And you and me never seed
nothing like it."
The fight had everything a showman could want in a promotion. It
had the smell of money and the taste of blood, as all fights did
when Dempsey was involved; a sense of intrigue born of
persistent rumors that the fix was in for Dempsey; and a
powerful current of history and romance. (No heavyweight
champion who had lost the title had ever won it back.) Could the
old Manassa Mauler come back and reclaim his crown from this
dancing, counterpunching pretender? Most of all, in the national
psyche, the fight offered two men as contrasting in their styles
outside the ring as in. It was in this contrast that Rickard
found the promotional hook he had also used in his other most
celebrated bouts: the pitting of a hero against a villain.
Dempsey had played the villain in his day. Unfairly accused of
being a draft dodger in World War I--he was exempted on grounds
that he was the sole support of a half dozen relatives--Dempsey
was widely perceived as a slacker when he defended his title
against the French war hero Georges Carpentier on July 2, 1921.
He was cast as Lucifer to Carpentier's Archangel Gabriel. The
fight, which grossed a then staggering $1,626,580, was the first
of Rickard's million-dollar gates. By 1927 the perception of
Dempsey as unpatriotic had dissipated, and he was the fallen
warrior seeking to defy the Fates.
Of course, there was that other powerful undercurrent nourishing
Dempsey's enormous popularity: Born in Manassa, Colo., and
raised there and in Utah, he was seen as a rugged individualist
from the Wild West--the free-roaming hero that Hollywood was
celebrating in film. The ninth of 11 children of a shiftless
father who did not support his family, Jack left home mud-poor
at 16, a loner who did everything from mining coal to hauling
beets to picking fruit. Always scrounging for work, he lived in
hobo jungles and "rode the rods" between towns, lying on the two
narrow cables that ran along the bellies of railroad cars, and
he fought countless fights in saloons and mining towns under the
name Kid Blackie. Pushing his way into a bar full of lumberjacks
with noses like doorknobs, he would announce, in the manner of
John L. Sullivan, "I can lick any man in the house. For a buck."
That's how his West was won.
Dempsey had a fighter's body, with long, supple arms, sloping
shoulders and a perfect set of pins. He was a savage in the
ring, a remorseless aggressor from bell to bell. He even whaled
at sparring partners as though they were opponents. Box? Who
said anything about boxing?
When Dempsey was young and lithe and fit, he would pace
endlessly, moving back and forth across a room in his slightly
pigeon-toed walk. "He was like something wild in a cage then,"
recalled his former trainer Jimmy DeForest a few days before the
Long Count. "I said to him one night when he was walking around,
'You must have something serious in your life that makes you
this way...something on your conscience.' He only laughed: 'I
was always this way since ever I can remember.'" Dempsey was
often likened, as Jimmy Jones expressed it, to a pouncing cat.
In newspaper accounts of the Long Count, he would be described
by turns as "an infuriated animal" and "a wounded lion" and
Dempsey's professional career was a long and profitable
extension of his mining-camp brawls. He was a darkly tanned man
of 6'1" and 187 pounds when he showed up in Toledo to meet
Willard for the title in 1919. Willard was a veritable
lumberjack at 6'6 1/2" and 245, but Dempsey had chopped down men
that size before, and he attacked Willard from the first bell.
Before the round was over, Willard had been on the deck seven
times, and Dempsey had caved in the right side of his face,
shattering the cheekbone in 13 places with a single left hook.
Willard did not come out for Round 4. "He had the best left hook
in boxing history," ring historian Bert Sugar says of Dempsey.
Never was Dempsey more the wounded cat than in his 1923 title
defense against Luis Firpo of Argentina, a melee that has been
called the wildest, most thrilling heavyweight bout of all time.
It began when the 220-pound Firpo, sidestepping Dempsey's
charge, dropped the champion within seconds of the opening bell.
By the end of the first round Firpo had been down seven times,
Dempsey twice. At one point Firpo shoved and belted Dempsey
through the ropes and into the press row. It took a reporter and
a Western Union operator to push the enraged, screaming champion
back into the ring. The two fighters somehow survived the round,
but Firpo never made it through the second. A left hook dropped
him for the ninth and final time.
Dempsey came under attack in the press for barroom
fouls--hitting on the break and striking Firpo as he climbed to
his feet--but fight fans loved him. "He was uncontrolled and
uncontrollable violence," says Randy Roberts, author of the 1979
biography Jack Dempsey: The Manassa Mauler. "He was the Mike
Tyson of his day, always portrayed as an animal, with the outlaw
image. But there was an authenticity about him. Dempsey was
exactly who he was. He was comfortable being himself. The love
for Dempsey was the love for a person who always wanted to be
himself. No airs."
Tunney was his antithesis, real as well as perceived. He
represented an altogether different set of values and
aspirations. He was born in New York City, the son of an Irish
Catholic stevedore, and raised in a Bank Street row house not
far from the Hudson River in Greenwich Village. Tunney first
learned to fight as an amateur at local clubs, but not until he
joined the Marine Corps and went to Europe with the American
Expeditionary Force in World War I did he begin to box
seriously. After winning the AEF's light heavyweight title, he
decided to turn pro and, on returning to the States, to take aim
at Dempsey's title. Unlike the onetime desperate hobo, Tunney
seemed to spring straight out of a Horatio Alger novel. He
suggested one of those young heroes who, in pursuit of
self-improvement, studies hard, lives clean, sleeps tight and
practices self-discipline. He thought of himself as a pugilist,
not a fighter, and he approached boxing as Capablanca approached
"I thought of pugilism as a fencing bout of gloved fists rather
than an act of assault and battery," Tunney wrote in Arms for
Living, his 1941 autobiography. "More intricate than fencing
because you wield two weapons, more of the chess play of blow
and counterblow....I became absorbed in the rational processes
of the jab, the hook, side step and counter, the feint, the
lead." He would do to Dempsey what Corbett, the defensive
master, had done to the brawling Sullivan in 1892, boxing him
silly and taking the title from him. "Defense was my natural
technique," Tunney wrote, "the science of sparring, the strategy
of it, thinking expressed with boxing gloves."
In fact, on his long and logical climb to Soldier Field, Tunney
did just what he had planned all along. While working his way
up, he defeated Battling Levinsky to win the light heavyweight
title in 1922 and became one of the finest boxers that division
has ever known: a crafty, clever mover and puncher who studied
his opponents, developed strategies for beating them and always
showed up trim, prepared and in control. That was how Tunney
climbed into the ring against Dempsey in Philadelphia in 1926.
For 10 rounds Dempsey hardly landed a solid blow, while Tunney
sliced and pounded him bloody and nearly blind. When the fight
was over, Dempsey's eyes were swollen into slits. He wanted to
acknowledge the new champion but could not see his way across
the ring. "Take me to him," he muttered to an aide. There,
whipped and bowed, he hugged Tunney and turned and left--more
popular in defeat than he had ever been in victory.
Just as Dempsey was a 19th-century man, a simple,
straight-talking natural from the vanishing Old West, so Tunney
was a 20th-century creation, a more complex hybrid from the
city. "In the 1920s, American society was increasingly becoming
the society of Sinclair Lewis's George Babbitt," says Richard
Davies, a professor of sports history at the University of
Nevada at Reno. "A society of business and industry, of
technology and organization, increasingly bureaucratized,
urbanized and regimented. Tunney represented this kind of life
in which Americans were being captured. Dempsey represented
those values and that way of life that Americans once had and
lost, the rugged, self-made individualist. It is one of the
reasons that he was popular."
And Tunney was not. He made the mistake of reading books and
often came across in public as an aloof, condescending snob who
had what The New York Times called "an unconcealed dislike for
the sport." Arriving in Chicago to begin training for the
rematch, he told a large gathering that he was not in town for a
fight. "I'm here to train for a boxing contest," he said. "I
don't like fighting. Never did." In camp one day, bristling over
Rickard's talk of a possible $3 million gate and Tunney's $1
million payday, the champion said, "I deprecate this insistent
talk of money....It is useless and disgusting."
While Dempsey trained at Lincoln Fields, a racetrack south of
Chicago, Tunney did his sparring at the Cedar Crest Country Club
in Lake Villa, Ill., a resort town 50 miles northwest of the
city. While Dempsey spent his leisure time playing pinochle and
wrestling with bent-nosed pugs, Tunney passed his hours with
Eddie Eagan, tediously identified in the prints as "a Yale
Rhodes scholar and amateur boxing champion," or curled up in a
library with W. Somerset Maugham's Of Human Bondage.
Tunney had been in training since late May, and he appeared even
keener and more confident than he had been the year before. He
had already won two major battles before the first bell. He had
been granted his demands for a 20-foot ring--Dempsey had wanted
a tighter 18-footer--and for strict enforcement of the knockdown
rule. Tunney's handlers did not want Dempsey hovering near a
stricken Tunney, as he had done against Willard and Firpo,
waiting to pounce before Tunney even straightened up.
Those two victories aside, Tunney should have been an
overwhelming favorite to win the rematch, but in the days
leading up to the fight, as Chicago filled with gamblers, a
surge of Dempsey money had turned him from a 7-to-5 underdog to
an even-money proposition. No doubt the enormous sentiment for
Dempsey was at work here--the wish that he would win overpowered
rational judgment--but rumors also had been intensifying that
the fight was in the bag for the former champion. Davey Miller,
who ran a pool hall with a gambling room upstairs, was the
leading referee in Chicago in those days, and he was expected to
be the third man in the ring. Word had gotten out that mob boss
Al Capone had bet $45,000 on Dempsey. When Dempsey's former
manager, Doc Kearns, arrived in town, he visited Capone and
asked him how he thought Dempsey would do.
"'I got a big bet on him that says he wins,'" Kearns would
recall Capone saying. "'Not only that, I've let the word get out
that he'd better get a fair shake. Nothing preferential,
understand. But a fair shake.'"
This did not bode well for Miller. In his 1938 book Farewell to
Sport, Gallico wrote that "Davey Miller was Capone's man, and
blatantly so." The Chicago boxing officials responsible for
picking the referee had heard not only about Capone's bet but
also about a brother of Miller's putting $50,000 on Dempsey.
Seeking to minimize the risk of scandal, the officials sat
Miller and put Barry in the ring, where now he is standing about
five feet from Tunney and still counting.
Tunney, sitting in a slouch with his left hand clutching the
middle rope, is looking at the canvas and trying to sit up....
Until now in a daze, his face vacant, Tunney suddenly raises his
eyes from the deck and looks up at Barry as he continues the
Tunney shifts his gaze away from Barry to his corner, directly
across the ring....
"Stay down!" his corner is yelling above the din, urging him to
use the full count. "Stay down!" Barry moves closer to Tunney
and is now standing almost over him as Barry raises his arm
higher and drops it farther in a more distinct toll....
Directly behind Barry, outside the ring in Dempsey's corner,
Dempsey's trainer, Leo Flynn, stands and holds up his right
hand, palm facing out toward the fighter, to warn him not to
leave the neutral corner early....
Barry tolls his right arm deeper....
Still holding the rope, Tunney pulls himself to his feet.
He had been down about 14 seconds in all, the first time he'd
ever been on the floor in his career, and he did the only thing
he knew how to do to survive. He had trained running backward
for miles, planning for all contingencies, and he was running
backward and sideways now as Dempsey chased him from post to
post and from rope to rope. This was Dempsey's golden chance.
Tunney ran and danced away. Dempsey lunged and missed with a
hook. Tunney skipped left and darted right. He was trying to
clear his head. He was in superb physical shape, which saved
him, and as the seconds wore on, Dempsey began to slow. He was
tiring of the chase. At one point he waved his left arm in a
beckoning gesture. "Come on and fight!" Dempsey said.
Tunney wanted no more of him in the seventh. "Now, wasn't that a
silly thing to say to me?" Tunney said later. "Do you really
think he believed I was going in to make that same mistake all
Tunney survived the round, of course, but Dempsey really did
not. It had exposed him for the aging, shot fighter that he was.
"He had punched himself out," Povich says. Dempsey had no legs
either, and after Tunney caught him with a straight right in the
eighth, dropping him to his knees, he had nothing left.
Dempsey was in desperate trouble, but he hung on through the
10th. "In the last round Tunney was pecking away at Dempsey's
face, and it looked like a piece of beefsteak," recalls Jones.
"If that fight had gone any longer, Tunney would have won by a
knockout. Whupped him outright!"
"We were devastated when Tunney won," says Studs Terkel, then a
14-year-old Chicago boy and later a prize-winning author.
"Devastated! Who was this guy Tunney? This guy who recited
Shakespeare? Dempsey was boxing in the '20s. Caruso was the
opera, Chaplin was films, Ruth was baseball and Dempsey was
boxing. We couldn't believe he had lost."
Of course, the Long Debate began swirling before the fighters
reached the showers, raising two central questions that will
forever go unanswered. Had Barry picked up the count in unison
with the timekeeper at five, instead of starting again from one,
would Tunney have been able to get up before the count of 10?
Tunney says he could have arisen at Barry's count of three, when
he first looked up at the referee. Had Barry started his count
at five, leaving Tunney four fewer seconds to recover on the
deck, would Tunney then have been able to escape Dempsey's
initial charge across the ring?
Barry did not follow the rule as written, but the Illinois
commission denied Dempsey's subsequent appeal. The Long Count
was Dempsey's last fight, and no other ending to it could have
served him half as well. Says Povich, "The loser, Dempsey,
emerged from the fight as the hero--gypped out of a legitimate
comeback for the title. This was, in a sense, the best and
luckiest thing that ever happened to him. The general impression
was that the fight was stolen from him. It served Dempsey like
nothing else could have as far as his popular image was
Dempsey and Rickard remained close friends after the Long Count.
In late 1928, in a deal sealed by a handshake, they agreed to
become partners in the fight-promoting business. In January 1929
an ailing Rickard summoned Dempsey to his hospital bed in Miami.
He had just undergone an emergency appendectomy. "I got it
licked," Rickard said. "When I want you, I'll call you." He
called a few hours later. Rickard died in Dempsey's arms.
To those in the fight game Tunney remained a remote figure the
rest of his life. He had one title defense after the Long Count,
earning $625,000 for knocking out a plodder named Tom Heeney in
July 1928, and then quit, vacating the title. Along the way he
had truly reinvented himself, like Fitzgerald's Gatsby, and his
marriage to Polly Lauder, a wealthy socialite, lifted him
further, from the streets of Greenwich Village to the blue lawns
of Greenwich, Conn. He once lectured on Shakespeare at Yale, and
he took walks in Europe with George Bernard Shaw. He became a
business executive and virtually disappeared from the fight game.
In 1965, a year after Cassius Clay took the heavyweight title
from Sonny Liston, Tunney went to Washington, D.C., to see his
son John sworn into Congress. "I don't know anything about the
heavyweights except Liston and Clay and [Floyd] Patterson," the
former champion said. "And they are so bad, I have lost interest."
Tunney died of blood poisoning on Nov. 7, 1978. His funeral was
private. He and Dempsey had stayed in touch over the years, and
Dempsey was shaken by his passing. "I feel like a part of me is
gone," he said. "As long as Gene was alive, I felt we shared a
link with that wonderful period of the past. Now I feel alone."
The thing about Dempsey, though, is that he rarely was alone. By
the time he died of heart failure on May 31, 1983, his life had
been long and full of wonders, from his time as a saloon tough
through the championship years and even beyond. Nine months
after Rickard died, Dempsey lost his fortune in the stock-market
crash. "Four million dollars in one day," says his daughter
Barbara. But he had been broke before, and he picked himself up
and fought more than 100 exhibitions, did some refereeing and
acting and, still stinging from the old slacker label, enlisted
in the U.S. Coast Guard at the outbreak of World War II. He
served in the Pacific.
Of all the things Dempsey did over those postfighting years,
though, nothing did more to establish him as an enduring
landmark of his times than his life as a Manhattan restaurateur.
He was the warmest of handshakers and the softest of touches.
First at 50th Street and Eighth Avenue and later on Broadway,
Jack Dempsey's Restaurant was a shrine for out-of-town
visitors--whom he inevitably greeted with "Hiya, pally"--and a
hangout for old boxers and a medley of sporting figures. Dempsey
sat by the window waving at passersby.
"He never forgot where he came from," says his widow, Deanna.
"He never forgot who he was." He greeted and schmoozed and told
stories. About riding the rods. About the mining towns. About
the day he beat Willard in the roaring Ohio heat. And always the
one about the Long Count, under the lights at Soldier Field, and
the night he lost but won.