Although he later found his way into high society, Tunney's origins were strictly working class. He grew up in New York, where his father was a longshoreman. He learned to fight in the streets, and the gift of a pair of boxing gloves when he was ten is often cited as significant to his development. Still, Tunney did not pursue boxing in earnest until his teens, when he frequented the Greenwich Village Athletic Club. He turned pro in 1915 with a TKO over Bobby Dawson, a far more experienced boxer.
When World War I erupted, Tunney joined the Marines. While stationed in France, he won the American Expeditionary Force light heavyweight championship. Back in the United States, Tunney continued his ring success. In 1921, he stopped Soldier Jones on the undercard of the Dempsey-Carpentier fight in Jersey City. The next year, Tunney decisioned Battling Levinsky to win the American light heavyweight title. Tunney's first defense came just months later against Hall of Famer Harry Greb, a fighter whose tornado-like attacks were feared by many fighters. In a brutal match, Greb used a variety of tactics-some of questionable legality. It was Tunney's only loss. In a rematch the next year, Tunney avenged the loss. He won a fifteen-round decision over Greb by slamming him with a series of body punches on the advice of master ring technician, Benny Leonard.
Tunney then turned his attention to his longtime goal, the heavyweight title held by Jack Dempsey. In 1926, Tunney signed to face Dempsey in Philadelphia at the Sesquicentennial Stadium. The match could not be held in New York because that state's athletic commission banned Dempsey for refusing to defend his title against African-American contender, Harry Wills. Tunney trained purposefully. He studied films of Dempsey, and he brought many former Dempsey opponents or sparring partners to his camp to learn as much about the champ's style as possible. In interviews, he exuded confidence (although he was belittled by the press for reading a book while in training). Thanks to the promotional genius of Tex Rickard, the fight attracted 120,757 fans who paid almost $2 million in hopes of seeing Tunney get his comeuppance. In the first round, Tunney countered a left hook with a chopping right to the cheek which staggered Dempsey. Tunney then out-boxed the Manassa Mauler for the remaining nine rounds of the fight to win the decision and the championship.
Dempsey demanded a rematch and the two met in 1927 at Soldier Field in Chicago. Over one hundred thousand fans showed up, and the $2.6 million gate set a record. Through the first six rounds, Tunney was leading the fight, although neither fighter had seriously damaged the other. In the seventh, Dempsey stunned Tunney with a right cross to the temple, then followed it up with six more strong blows, knocking Tunney down. Under Illinois boxing rules, Dempsey had to go to a neutral corner before the count could begin. Instead, Dempsey went to Tunney's corner, an action that would have been legal in New York. By the time referee Dave Barry got Dempsey to the neutral corner, Tunney had been down for at least four seconds. Tunney rose at the delayed ten count and continued the battle. Tunney won the decision, although the "long count" tainted the fight in the minds of many fans. Tunney fought one more time, scoring an eleventh-round TKO over Tom Heeney, before retiring. He married a steel heiress and, interrupted by a stint in the Navy in World War II, had a very successful business career. An object of interest to literary sportsmen, Tunney counted Ernest Hemingway and George Bernard Shaw among his friends. One of his four children, John, became a United States Senator.
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Excerpted with permission from 'The Boxing Register' by James B. Roberts and Alexander G. Skutt, copyright © 1999 by McBooks Press. All rights reserved.