"While I am not an authoriy on Shakespeare, I do not think there is anyone who had more appreciation of him than I. I worship at his shrine."
GENE TUNNEY, lecturing before Dr. William Lyon Phelps' class at Yale
Gentleman Gene Tunney, country squire and dabbler in Shakespeare, looked back on it all with a show of disdain. "The laugh of the Twenties," he wrote, "was my insistence that I would defeat Jack Dempsey for the heavyweight championship of the world. To the boxing public, this
optimistic belief was the funniest of jokes. To me, it was a reasonable statement of calculated probability, an opinion based on prize-ring logic." And so it was. Tunney held to the theory, controversial but enduring, that the boxer could beat the slugger. Brain vs. Brawn, Cunning vs. Brute Strength, Craftsman vs. Killer. In historical terms, Corbett vs. Sullivan (New Orleans, 1892, twenty-one rounds). Simple.
The ex-Marine with the lust for culture demonstrated his theory on two memorable occasionsone to win the title from Jack Dempsey and another to keep it. The first fight, in the pouring rain at
Philadelphia on September 23, 1926, drew 120,557 fans and a record gate of $1,895,733. The brash, determined Tunney came out at the start and hit Dempsey a right to the jaw. "No one ever did that to me before," the champion told the challenger, forgetting Luis Firpo. Dempsey evidently felt that Tunney, the light-heavyweight titleholder, hit harder than his advance notices had indicated. As it happened, the stories out of the challenger's training camp had dwelt less on his punching power, if any, than on the fact that he was finishing Samuel Butler's The Way of All Flesh and dipping into the scribblings of Mr. Shakespeare as often as his strenuous physical exercises allowed. But Tunney didn't mean to win with sledgehammer blows. He didn't have any in his arsenal. He meant to win with jabs and hooks, and he jabbed the champ silly. He danced around on the wet canvas as though it were a newly, waxed ballroom floor. He made Dempsey look old (he was thirty-one), slow and clumsy. He cut him up and won easily.
Back in his hotel, face smashed, left eye closed, Dempsey wept. He was richer by $990,000 but there was no more miserable man in the United States. "What happened, Ginsburg?" Estelle Taylor asked, using her pet name for him. "Honey, I forgot to duck," the fallen champion told his wife. Despite his three soft years since the Firpo fight, he had gone into the ring a four-to-one favorite over the underrated twenty-seven-year old Leatherneck from New York's Greenwich Village. He came out badly tarnished but immensely popular for a change. The fans weren't buying Tunney's Brains vs. Brawn propaganda.
Dempsey came back. In Chicago a year later, on September 22, he almost pulled off something no heavyweight had ever done up to that time. He almost won back his crown, but that was the Battle of the Long Count. Remember that seventh round? Losing all the way, Dempsey floored Tunney with a long left hook. Tunney landed on his backside in a daze. The timekeeper started the count but Referee Dave Barry held back until Dempsey, standing menacingly over his fallen
opponent, went to a neutral corner. There were four seconds lost that wayenough for Tunney to keep the title. He got off the canvas at "nine" and held Dempsey off. When his punches missed the weaving champion, Dempsey taunted him with words. "Come on out and fight," he said. But Tunney had other ideas. He had piled up enough points in the early rounds to win if he could stand up through the tenth. He did better. He was jabbing and hooking Dempsey at will toward the end. He was still the champion, but the title had no real luster: boxing fans would never forget that he was on the floor for thirteen seconds in that memorable seventh round.
The "Manassa Mauler" appealed the outcome of the fight but it was rejected by the Illinois Athletic Commission.
Dempsey announced his retirement.
Tunney didn't brood too much about the evident unwillingness of the masses to sweep him shoulder-borne into the glorious future. He had proved his point and had acquired a fortune in the process.
The Chicago fight drew 104,942 fans and a gate of $2,658,600, then the highest in boxing's history. Tunney's share of this haul,coupled with the usual endorsements and stage and movie money, earned him $1,101,939.92 in 1927. He wouldn't hang around the Street of Broken Noses very long. He had a taste for the quieter, more rewarding pleasures of the mind. He defended his title with an eleven-round KO of Tom Heeney, the Australian Hard Rock, at the Polo Grounds in 1928, and then hung up his sweaty gloves. He married a Connecticut society girl, Polly Lauder, and drank in Europe's cultural high spots, not forgetting to stop and say hello to George Bernard Shaw, another fan of Shakespeare's. But don't take Gene Tunney lightly for running with the longhairs or for lugging his portable Shakespeare to the training camps when he was working at his trade. Gene Tunney was a very good prize fighter, brains and all.