The debate began almost as soon as Gene Tunney got up
Updated: March 25, 2011, 17:39
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The debate began almost as soon as Gene Tunney got up. Had Jack Dempsey been cheated out of his biggest win because the referee waited too long to start the knockdown count in their heavyweight title fight in 1927?
Dempsey fans sure thought so, and it was hard to find anyone who wasn't one in the immense throng of more than 100,000 that September night at Soldier Field in Chicago. Shirley Povich of the Washington Post would later write that they roared more in the seventh round for Dempsey than for Tunney in nearly every other round he won in the fight.
Such was the lot for Tunney, who never caught the public's fancy like the gregarious Dempsey did. Even on the greatest night of his great career, his triumph was clouded by what might have been had the referee picked up the count quicker.
It became known as the Long Count fight, a piece of boxing lore from a time when boxing meant something. Now, more than 80 years later, his son believes the debate over the count should be long over.
"He always said he could have gotten up sooner," Jay Tunney said. "He said it from the moment I can remember and I'm sure he could have."
Tunney came back from the seventh round knockdown to drop Dempsey the next round and nearly had him down again in the final round to retain the title on a 10-round decision. For years the gloves he used in the fight were displayed in a glass case in the family home in Connecticut, along with a picture of Tunney in his boxing gear.
Now they're going into the Smithsonian National Museum of American history.
"The family just thought it would be a good idea," Jay Tunney said. "It seems to me that the gloves and other memorabilia are indicative of a wonderful age which had social overtones as well as sporting overtones."
Jay Tunney will go to Washington, D.C., this week for a private presentation of the gloves to the Smithsonian. He said the museum has told him there is a good chance they will be displayed, perhaps as part of an exhibition that includes the gloves Joe Louis wore to beat Max Schmeling in a 1938 heavyweight bout that helped puncture the Nazi myth of Aryan superiority.
The fights were 11 years apart, but both were landmark bouts in an era where boxing and baseball began and ended most sports conversations in America.
Dempsey had come out of retirement a year earlier to defend the linear version of the heavyweight title he still held, only to be exposed by Tunney as an aging fighter with poor reflexes in losing a 10-round decision before 120,000 in Philadelphia. Despite the loss, there was a clamor for a rematch and the two got ready to do battle again in Chicago in a fight broadcast live around the world on radio.
While the ferocious Dempsey was the subject of flattering profiles by an adoring press in the buildup to the second fight, Tunney was portrayed quite differently. He had been exposed by Associated Press writer Brian Bell before the first fight as - gasp! - a lover of literature, and his habit of using big words didn't endear him to newspapermen who found him rather odd for a fighter.
"Dad became a rather unpopular guy in the boxing world," said Jay Tunney, who last year published a book focusing on his father's friendship with George Bernard Shaw titled "The Prizefighter and the Playwright." "He was a great boxer, polite, and a gentlemen, yet they hated him. They wanted a caveman like Dempsey."
Tunney tended to fight like a thinking man, too, which didn't win him any fans. He was a boxer-puncher with the perfect style to thwart the brawling Dempsey, winning the first fight easily and winning nearly all the rounds in the second before Dempsey caught him with a left hook and two more punches that put him on the canvas in the seventh round.
"Some of the blows that Dempsey hit make this ring tremble!" radio announcer Graham McNamee told millions on NBC. "Tunney is down! From a barrage! . . . They are counting!"
But Dempsey ignored a new rule requiring him to go to a neutral corner before the count would begin, and it took several seconds for the referee to shoo him in that direction. Tunney stayed on the canvas until the count reached nine, and the debate to this day is whether he could have gotten up if the count would have started on time.
The fight was Dempsey's last, and Tunney would fight only once more. He retired as heavyweight champion, and would later have a successful career as a businessman on Wall Street.
Tunney, who earned $990,000 for the second fight, gave promoter Tex Rickard $10,000 and asked him to write a million-dollar check. He kept a copy of it but, unlike the gloves, it was banished to the garage because his heiress wife thought it was uncouth.
"Every time he drove into the garage the headlights of the car would highlight that check," Jay Tunney said. "Dad was so proud of it."
Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg(at)ap.org
Updated March 19, 2011