Long Count Legacy Lingers
MORE THAN 70 years since the Jack Dempsey vs. Gene Tunney rematch, the famous "Long Count" fight remains one of the most memorable moments in sports history.
The first meeting between Dempsey and Tunney was among the greatest events in sports. A record crowd of more than 120,000 jammed Philadelphia's Sesquicentennial Stadium on September 26, 1926, and paid a record gate of $1.8 million to see Dempsey defend his title for the first time in three years.
The name, Dempsey, was a magnet for publicity as well as money. Newspaper sales increased dramatically in the weeks leading up to and in the days following his title defenses. He was excellent copy whether acting in plays or films, appearing in vaudeville, divorcing, marrying or standing trial for draft evasion.
DEMPSEY WAS a mauling, brawling former hobo who got his start fighting in the saloons of mining towns of the West. He was derided as a slacker for avoiding military service in WWI. Whether people loved or hated him, they were interested in his every move.
Tunney was a superb ring tactician who read the classics, was comfortable in literary circles and was known as "The Fighting Marine." Promoter Tex Rickard had himself a classic matchup.
Tunney, the crowd favorite, won nearly every one of the 10 rounds and left the ring as champion. He out-boxed the Manassa Mauler at every turn.
Dempsey gained public sentiment in defeat. He showed dignity and class and praised his conqueror. He also uttered one of sports history's famous quotes when he explained the defeat to his wife, "Honey, I forgot to duck."
Although their first encounter was as competitive as most Super Bowls, the public demanded a rematch. And what transpired in that bout provided enough drama for the ages. After a brief retirement, Dempsey returned to the ring and knocked out future champion Jack Sharkey to set up a return bout with Tunney for September 25, 1927.
MORE THAN 104,000 attended Dempsey vs. Tunney II at Soldier Field in Chicago and produced a gate of $2.65 million, a record that stood for 50 years. Dempsey was paid a record $711,000 for the first fight, $450,000 for the second. Tunney got $200,000 and $990,000, respectively. Keep in mind that at that time, Babe Ruth earned his top salary of $80,000.
All of Dempsey's fights were "happenings" that attracted many of the most influential and powerful people of the era. Promoter Rickard remarked to a reporter before the fight, "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 (sic) nothing like it."
A better-prepared Dempsey charged from his corner at the opening bell and attacked Tunney. Although the former champion scored more often than in their first encounter, Tunney still proved to be his master, like a skilled matador taming an angry bull.
As the fight progressed it was evident that better trained or not, the 32-year-old Dempsey was far removed from the ruthless attacker who had brutally knocked out Jess Willard to win the title seven years earlier.
BUT 50 seconds into Round 7 Dempsey connected with a long right then followed that with a left hook to the chin. Another straight right drove the champion backward and as he careened off the ropes Dempsey landed another hook to the chin.
As Tunney began to fall the challenger connected with a four-punch combination to his head. The champion hit the canvas with a thud that no one heard. The hundred thousand fans who were on their feet screaming also drowned out the radio announcer's voice, preventing the estimated 60-million people listening on radio from hearing his account.
Dempsey reacted the way he always had, remaining as close to the former champion as possible. But the Illinois State Athletic Commission rules stated that in the event of a knockdown, the opponent must go to the farthest neutral corner before the referee begins his count
When referee Dave Barry motioned Dempsey toward the neutral corner, he replied, "I'll stay here." Barry then walked over to Dempsey and half pushed him in the proper direction. Meanwhile, Tunney sat on the canvas. Instead of picking up the timekeeper's count at six, the referee shouted "One." At the count of three Tunney lifted his head and looked at Barry, but didn't get to his feet until the referee reached nine.
The "Long Count" controversy had begun. Tunney cleverly backpedaled and parried the bull rushes of the ever-determined Dempsey, who at one point dropped his gloves in frustration and beckoned the champion to stand and fight. But the disciplined Tunney, who avoided fighting "Dempsey's Fight" through 16 rounds, ignored the goading and survived the round.
HAVING REGAINED his wits between rounds, Tunney reassumed control of the fight and boxed his way to another 10-round unanimous decision. After the fight the champion admitted he was badly shaken and didn't recall Barry's argument with Dempsey. Nevertheless, Tunney insisted that he could have easily beaten the count had Barry picked up the timekeeper's cadence. When pressed why he didn't go to a neutral corner, Dempsey replied, "I couldn't move. I just couldn't. I wanted Tunney to get up. I wanted to kill the S.O.B."
The Dempsey vs. Tunney rematch was the closing chapter in one of boxing's greatest stories. Before the 20s there had never been a million-dollar gate. Dempsey was the star attraction in the first five, all of which were promoted by Rickard. There were only four more between 1930 and 1960. Rickard, who had built Madison Square Garden into the major sports arena in the world, died in early 1929.
Tunney fought just once more, defeating Tom Heeney in 1928, and became the first heavyweight champion -- Rocky Marciano is the other -- to leave the ring as champion and remain retired. He married a wealthy socialite and was a successful businessman. He died in 1978.
Dempsey never fought again after Chicago, but his dignity and grace in the losses to Tunney improved his standing with the public. He lost a fortune in the stock market crash of 1929, but erased the slacker label by enlisting in the Coast Guard in WWII. Just weeks before his 50th birthday he was a part of the invasion force at the Battle of Okinawa, one of the bloodiest battles of the Pacific Theater.
After the war he opened a restaurant on Broadway in New York City that was a popular landmark for 30 years. By the time Dempsey died in 1983 he was acknowledged as one of the greatest sports heroes in history.