Gene Tunney

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Class of 1990
Old Timer Category
Hall of Fame bio:click
World Boxing Hall of Fame Inductee

Name: Gene Tunney
Alias: The Fighting Marine
Birth Name: James Joseph Tunney
Born: 1897-05-25
Birthplace: New York (Greenwich Village), New York, USA
Died: 1978-11-07 (Age:81)
Hometown: Greenwich, Connecticut, USA
Stance: Orthodox
Height: 6′ 0″   /   183cm
Reach: 76″   /   193cm
Boxing Record: click

Managers: Billy Gibson, Billy Jacobs
Gene Tunney Gallery

Career Overview

Dethroning a legendary heavyweight champion sometimes is not all it is cracked up to be. Gene Tunney, one of the most skilled of all heavyweight champions, received little more than begrudged respect from sports fans after his two signature performances against Jack Dempsey. Fast, powerful, resilient, intelligent, and virtually flawless in technique, Tunney had all the tools for greatness in the ring, but lacked the ferocious style and rugged charisma of the man from whom he wrested the championship. But even Tunney's detractors couldn't deny that he was a first class fighter, one who had risen from middleweight to heavyweight and fought a generation of quality opponents on the way. Like Dempsey, he cast his own unique shadow over the sport as an accomplished student of the sweet science and one of the greatest athletes of his generation.

The Fighting Marine

Born James Tunney, the son of an Irish immigrant longshoreman, Tunney grew up in the mean New York street as a child, where he learned to fight in the streets. He became affectionately known in his family as "Gene" because his baby sister had trouble pronouncing his given name. Forced to quit school as a teenager to go to work as a typist for a steamship company and help support his family, Tunney also gravitated toward boxing in this period, venturing nightly to the Greenwich Village Athletic Club to train, spar, and make valuable connections with people involved in the sport. It soon became his ambition that he would compete professionally and in 1915, at age 18, he made his debut as a middleweight against Bobby Dawson, who he stopped inside of six rounds.

During Tunney's career, official decisions in boxing were outlawed in New York and other states as a means to avoid coruptive influences in the sport. Fans relied upon newspaper reporters to give them accurate accounts as to who deserved to win the fights. Eighteen of Tunney's fights would therefore officially result in "no-decisions." In his first dozen fights, however, held between 1915 and 1918, Tunney managed to go undefeated before enlisting in the United States Marine Corps on May 2, 1918. Though Tunney never saw action during his tenure in the Marines, his enlistment would later serve as a source of patriotic pride for many fans and would become a successful promotional tool for his future career. During his service, he continued to box winning eight of his nine matches in France between July, 1918 and April, 1919. Also during this period he competed as a light heavyweight in an amateur tournament in France, defeating all of his twenty opponents. This led to a paid fight in Paris with Fighting Bob Martin, the reigning heavyweight champion of the U.S. Expeditionary Forces. He later defeated three men in a tournament to determine the Expeditionary Forces light heavyweight champion.

With the end of World War I in 1919, Tunney returned to civilian life. Between 1919 and 1920 he scored an impressive eleven consecutive knockouts, mostly in the New Jersey area, though most of his opposition was mediocre at best. Nonetheless, the success led to Tunney's appearance on the undercard of the highly anticipated 1921 heavyweight championship match between Jack Dempsey and Georges Carpentier in Jersey City before more than 80,000 fight fans. His opponent was Soldier Jones, an overmatched light heavyweight whom Tunney dominated for seven rounds until the referee stopped the fight. Another six consecutive wins led to a fight with Battling Levinsky, the reigning light heavyweight champion of America. The former world champion, Levinsky was a veteran of more than 200 bouts and known, like Tunney, for his defensive skills. On January 13, 1922, at Madison Square Garden in New York, Tunney won a twelve round decision over his first internationally known opponent. The light heavyweight championship of America, which Tunney had now won, was considered at the time a major title and greatly increased his stature within the boxing community.

The Greb Fights

Tunney's next big name opponent came on May 23, when he fought future hall-of-famer Harry Greb, a rugged and relentless slugger from Pittsburgh known as the "Human Windmill" who would later win the middleweight championship of the world. The opening ten rounds of the fight between the ultimate slugger and the ultimate boxer proved closely fought, despite Greb's constant fouling. A head-butt in round one broke Tunney's nose, understandably disrupting his concentration. Later in the round, a punch from Greb opened a gash above Tunney's left eye. In the third, a cut over the right eye opened. By the middle rounds, Tunney's face was a red mask, but he continued to hold his own. As the fight entered the championship rounds, however, the effect of the punishment and blood loss on Tunney became obvious, prompting Greb to lay on even more pressure. Though Tunney never went down and lasted the entire fifteen round distance, the judge awarded Greb the fight. Tunney, losing his American championship, had also suffered his first professional defeat. After the fight, he collapsed in his dressing room.

Left to rebuild his record in order to secure a rematch with Greb, Tunney took on future Hall of Famer Tommy Loughran in Philadelphia on August 24, 1922. He put Tommy down with a right hand in the first round, but Loughran rose to fight on. A skilled fighter in his own right, Loughran rose to fight on and the fight went the twelve round scheduled distance. Though the fight was technically a no-decision, the New York Times awarded their decision to Tunney.

Tunney also made his debut at heavyweight in 1922, twice fighting contender Charley Weinert. Their first match, on August 17, ended in a no-decision that many felt Tunney deserved. In the rematch on November 29, Tunney left no doubts, with a fourth round knockout win. Then it was on to a rematch with Greb, held again at Madison Square Garden, on February 23, 1923. Before 15,000, Tunney utilized a punishing body attack to try and slow Greb down, but it remained a closely contested fight. Tunney received the fifteen round decision, though many felt that Greb deserved the verdict. A third match occurred on December 10, 1923, again at the Garden. The fight was more of the same, with Tunney going to the body and Greb brawling away. In the end, though, most recognized that Tunney had the better of the action and deserved the fifteen round decision in his favor. The pair fought twice more in the coming years, both fights ending officially as "no-decisions," with opinion differing as to who deserved to win in the first match and Tunney giving Greb "as thorough a beating as he ever received" in their final encounter.

The Road to Dempsey

By this time, Tunney was increasingly venturing into heavyweight territory. On June 26, 1924 he knocked out fringe contender Erminio Spalla at Yankee Stadium and then dropped back down to light heavyweight to face aging former champion Georges Carpentier at the Polo Grounds in New York. Carpentier was an experienced, quick, skillful, tough, and hard-hitting opponent, but past his prime. Tunney dominated the match, flooring the Frenchman three times in the tenth and once in the fourteenth. In the fifteenth round, the referee decided that Carpentier could take no more and stopped the contest. On June 5, 1925, Tunney faced Tommy Gibbons, who had never previously been knocked out. Gibbons had even gone a full fifteen rounds with the feared Dempsey just two years earlier. Though he was thought to be on the tale end of his career, he was still regarded as the first true test for Tunney in the heavyweight division. The "Fighting Marine" passed the test with flying colors, becoming the first to knock Gibbons out in twelve rounds. Wins over heavyweights Jack Martin, Bartley Madden, Dan O'Dowd, and a no-decision against Johnny Risko followed.

With Tunney now considered among the top contenders in the division, fans wanted to see him matched with African American Harry Wills, the consensus top challenger for Jack Dempsey's championship. Tunney, however, refused to participate in an interracial prizefight (a stance that detracts from his legacy in the eyes of some historians). Because Dempsey's handlers also refused to put their man in with Wills, a Dempsey-Tunney fight became the next logical match-up.

The Dempsey Fights

The first of the two Dempsey and Tunney fights took place on September 23, 1926 at Sesquicentennial Stadium in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. It was Dempsey's first professional bout in three years. In preparation, Tunney used the then rare technique of studying the film available on Dempsey to determine the champion's strengths, weaknesses, and vulnerabilities. Some 120,557 people turned out, despite a vicious rain storm, to view the much anticipated bout. They were surprised to see the underdog challenger give the highly regarded champion a boxing lesson. For ten rounds Tunney boxed a clinic, never allowing Dempsey into the fight and walking away with a deserved unanimous decision, a victory The Ring magazine later dubbed the 'Upset of the Decade,' and the richest prize in sports.

Gene stayed out of the ring for nearly a year after winning the championship. An intelligent, well-spoken and well-read man, Tunney established friendships among some of the day's top literary figures, including author George Bernard Shaw. But the public yearned for the days when the less bookish and more brutal Dempsey held the crown. Thus promoter Tex Rickard arranged a rematch. On September 22, 1927, almost a year to the day after their first match, Tunney did battle with Dempsey one more time at Soldiers Field in Chicago. Again Tunney exhibited supreme technical skills and remarkable condition in continually circling his opponent, using his jab to keep Dempsey at bay, and taking an indisputable lead on the score cards. In the seventh however, the challenger charged forward with a furious flurry of left and right hooks that sent the champion sinking down to the canvas. Having suffered the first knockdown of his professional career, Tunney cleared his head remarkably quick but wisely remained seated on the canvas awaiting the count of nine to give himself more rest. Meanwhile, Dempsey, ignoring a new Illinois rule whereby a fighter scoring a knockdown must remove himself to a neutral corner of the ring, distracted the referee. After the referee finally convinced Jack to move away, he returned to Tunney and began counting with "1" even though Tunney had been down at least four seconds by that time. Taking advantage of the precious extra time, Gene finally stood up at the count of "9," fourteen seconds after the knockdown was scored. In the next round he got revenge with an excellent, short right hand that dropped Dempsey to one knee. The brave but battered challenger rose quickly and fought on, but Tunney had proven himself the better man and walked away with another unanimous decision victory.


Tunney's second defense came against Tom Heeney of New Zealand, who had shown himself to be a viable world class opponent through recent wins over Jim Maloney, Johnny Risko, and Jack Delaney, as well as a draw with leading contender Jack Sharkey. However world-class Heeney might have been, he was no match for the Fighting Marine on July 26, 1928. Even the fact that Jack Dempsey himself worked in Heeney's corner proved no help; he was outclassed from the start. In the eleventh round the referee decided that the challenger could take no more and stopped the fight.

Days after the Heeney fight the champion announced his retirement from boxing. Though they had never truly embraced Tunney, the public was nonetheless stunned; no heavyweight champion had permanently retired with the title. Undefeated as a heavyweight, with only one pro loss, Tunney cut his losses and walked away for good. Tunney was then given the first-ever Ring Magazine Fighter of the Year award, for 1928, by the magazine.

Tunney soon-after wed Mary Josephine Lauder ("Polly"), a wealthy steel heiress, and embarked upon an immensely fruitful career in business and real estate. A chairman or director of several companies and corporations, Tunney made millions after leaving the sport. He passed away an enormously wealthy man at age 81 on November 7, 1978. In 1980 he was honored as one of the inaugural inductees into the World Boxing Hall of Fame; in 1990, an inaugural inductee into the International Boxing Hall of Fame. And, in 2001, Tunney was an inductee into the United States Marine Corps Sports Hall of Fame. In March 2011, the Tunney family donated to the Smithsonian National Museum of American History many objects from his career, including the boxing gloves he had worn during the infamous "Long Count."



Fleischer, Nat. The Heavyweight Championship (1961)
Johnston, Alexander. Ten and Out (1943)
Kahn, Roger. A Flame of Pure Fire: Jack Dempsey and the Roaring '20s (1999)
Myler, Patrick. A Century of Boxing Greats (1997)
Roberts, James B. and Alexander G. Skutt. The Boxing Register (4th ed., 2006)


Preceded by:
Jack Dempsey
World Heavyweight Champion
NBA World Heavyweight Champion
NYSAC World Heavyweight Champion

1926 Sep 23 – 1928 Jul 31
Succeeded by:
Max Schmeling