Name: Gene Tunney
Alias: The Fighting Marine
Birth Name: James Joseph Tunney
Hometown: Greenwich, Connecticut, USA
Birthplace: New York (Greenwich Village), New York, USA
Died: 1978-11-07 (Age:81)
Pro Boxer: Record
- Trainers: Lou Fink, Dan Florio
- Managers: Billy Jacobs (1915-1918), Billy Roche and Sammy Kelly (1919-1920), Frank (Doc) Bagley (1920-1922) and Billy Gibson (1923-1928)
- Gene Tunney Gallery
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 Joseph Tunney, the son of an Irish immigrant longshoreman, Tunney grew up on the mean streets of New York City, where he learned to fight. He became affectionately known in his family as "Gene" because his baby sister had trouble pronouncing his given name. Tunney quit school when he was 15 years old and went to work as a typist for a steamship company to help support his family. It was during this period that he gravitated toward boxing, 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 to compete professionally, and he made his pro debut in July 1915 as a middleweight against Bobby Dawson, whom he stopped in eight rounds.
During Tunney's career, official decisions in boxing were outlawed in numerous states, including New York, as a means to avoid corrupt influences in the sport. Fans relied upon newspaper reporters to give them accurate accounts as to who deserved to win the fights. According to the International Boxing Hall of Fame, 19 of Tunney's fights officially resulted in a no-decision.
On April 6, 1917, the United States declared war on the German Empire and entered World War I. Tunney enlisted in the United States Marine Corps on May 2, 1918, 23 days before his 21st birthday. Though he 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.
Tunney continued to box while he was stationed in France during the war. He won a four-round decision against Fighting Bob Martin, the heavyweight champion of the American Expeditionary Forces, and defeated 20 opponents in an elimination series to win the American Expeditionary Forces light heavyweight title.
With the end of World War I in 1919, Tunney returned to civilian life. Between December 1919 and October 1920, he scored eleven consecutive knockout victories. Ten of bouts were in New Jersey and one was in New York. Although Tunney's opposition was mediocre at best, the success led to his appearance on the undercard of the highly anticipated fight between World Heavyweight Champion Jack Dempsey and World Light Heavyweight Champion Georges Carpentier at Boyle's Thirty Acres in Jersey City, New Jersey, on July 2, 1921. The fight, which attracted a crowd of more than 80,000, was boxing's first $1 million gate. Tunney's 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 former World Light Heavyweight Champion Battling Levinsky—Tunney's first internationally known opponent—at Madison Square Garden in New York City on January 13, 1922. Levinsky, who entered the fight as the American Light Heavyweight Champion, was a veteran of more than 200 bouts and, like Tunney, was known for his defensive skills. Tunney won by a twelve-round decision to win the American Light Heavyweight Championship, which was considered a major title at the time and greatly increased his stature within the boxing community.
The Greb Fights
Tunney's next fight against a big-name opponent was at Madison Square Garden on May 23, 1922, against future Hall of Fame inductee Harry Greb, a rugged and relentless slugger from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Known as the "Human Windmill," Greb would later win the World Middleweight Championship. 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 of blood, 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 the highly skilled Tommy Loughran—the future World Light Heavyweight Champion and Hall of Fame inductee—in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on August 24, 1922. He put Loughran down with a right hand in the first round, but Loughran rose to fight on and staggered Tunney in the third. The bout went the twelve-round scheduled distance and was ruled a no-decision. The Philadelphia Inquirer thought Loughran won the bout, while the Philadelphia Record, Philadelphia Public Ledger and New York Times gave it to Tunney.
The fight against Loughran was between two fights with heavyweight Charley Weinert. The first match took place on August 17 in Newark, New Jersey, and ended in a no-decision after twelve rounds. According to all three Newark newspapers and all reporting New York City newspapers (except one), Tunney won the fight handily. The second match was held at Madison Square Garden on November 29. Tunney had an easier time in the rematch, winning by a fourth-round knockout.
After nine consecutive fights without a loss, Tunney faced Greb for a second time. Before a crowd of 15,000 at Madison Square Garden on February 23, 1923, Tunney and Greb engaged in a closely contested fight. Tunney, who utilized a punishing body attack to try and slow Greb down, was awarded a fifteen-round split decision. However, the verdict was hotly disputed. 19 of 23 newspapermen at ringside believed Greb deserved the win. 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. After fifteen rounds, Tunney was declared the winner by a unanimous decision. The consensus was that Tunney won 9 rounds, Greb four and two were even.
The pair met twice more. They fought a ten-round no-decision bout in Brooklyn, Ohio, on September 17, 1924. The New York Times reported that the bout was fought on "fairly even terms." The last match between Tunney and Greb took place in St. Paul, Minnesota, on March 27, 1925. Although it was officially ruled a no-decision after ten scheduled rounds, Tunney clearly got the better of the action. The Associated Press reported: "Tunney gave Greb as thorough a beating as he has ever received."
The Road to Dempsey
By the mid-1920s, 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 the aging Georges Carpentier at the Polo Grounds in New York City on July 24, 1924. Carpentier was an experienced, quick, skillful, tough and hard-hitting opponent, but he was past his prime. Tunney dominated the match, flooring the Frenchman three times in the tenth round and once in the fourteenth. In the fifteenth, the referee decided that Carpentier could take no more and stopped the contest.
On June 5, 1925, Tunney faced Tommy Gibbons, who had never been knocked out. Gibbons had even gone a full fifteen rounds with the feared Dempsey just two years earlier. Although he was thought to be at the tale end of his career, Gibbons was still regarded as the first true test for Tunney in the heavyweight division. The "Fighting Marine" passed the test with flying colors, winning the fight by a twelfth-round knockout. It would be the only knockout loss for Gibbons in 106 professional fights. Tunney followed the Gibbons victory with knockout wins over heavyweights Jack Herman Bartley Madden and Dan O'Dowd, and he won a 12-round newspaper decision against Johnny Risko.
With Tunney now considered among the top contenders in the division, fans wanted to see him matched with African-American Harry Wills, The Ring magazine's No. 1-rated heavyweight contender. 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-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-new technique of studying the films 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 put on a boxing clinic, never allowing Dempsey into the fight and walking away with a well-deserved 10-round unanimous decision. The Ring magazine later dubbed Tunney's win the "Upset of the Decade."
Tunney 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, Illinois. Tunney again exhibited supreme technical skills and remarkable conditioning in continually circling Dempsey, using his jab to keep the former champion at bay and taking a clear lead on the score cards. In the seventh, a flurry of punches by Dempsey floored Tunney for the first time in his career. Under a then-new Illinois rule, a fighter scoring a knockdown had to go to the farthest neutral corner before the referee could start counting over the fallen opponent. However, Dempsey went to Tunney's corner. By the time Referee Dave Barry got Dempsey to go to a neutral corner and started his count at one, Tunney had been down for several seconds. Taking full advantage of the extra time, Tunney got up at Barry's count of nine—14 seconds after he had been dropped. Tunney later said he could have arisen at Barry's count of three, when he first looked up at the referee. Tunney survived the round and came back to score a flash knockdown against Dempsey in the eighth, dropping the former champion to one knee with a right hand. Tunney clearly won the last three rounds and retained his title with a 10-round unanimous decision. However, the "long count" tainted the fight in the minds of many fans.
Tunney was often asked if he could have survived the seventh round without the aid of a long count. Tunney always insisted that he could have arisen at Barry's count of three, when he first looked up at the referee. "When I regained consciousness after the brief period of blackout, I felt that I could have jumped up immediately and matched my legs against Jack's, just as I did," he once said.
Tunney's second title defense came on July 26, 1928, 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 future World Heavyweight Champion Jack Sharkey. However, Heeney was no match for the "Fighting Marine." 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. For his win against Heeney, Tunney was given the inaugural Ring magazine Fighter of the Year award.
Five days after the Heeney fight, Tunney announced his retirement from boxing. "There is no contender at the present time who appears capable of attracting real public interest," he said. "If there were I might delay my retirement long enough to face him in the ring, but it looks as if it might take two or three years before a dangerous opponent is developed. That is too long to stand and wait."
Although 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 with a record of 79-1-4 (50 KO) with 1 no contest.
Following his boxing career, Tunney 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. "I feel like a part of me is gone," Dempsey said when his former foe died. "As long as Gene was alive, I felt we shared a link with that wonderful period of the past. Now I feel alone."
Tunney wrote two autobiographies: A Man Must Fight in 1932 and Arms for Living in 1941.
Tunney was inducted into the The Ring magazine's Boxing Hall of Fame in 1955. He was honored as one of the inaugural inductees into the World Boxing Hall of Fame in 1980 and as an inaugural inductee into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1990. 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 several objects from his career, including the boxing gloves he had worn during the infamous "Long Count" fight. "The Tunney family is honored that this museum, so much a part of our national heritage, will become the permanent home of a pair of brown, leather boxing gloves worn in one of my father’s—indeed one of the 20th century’s—most historic fights," said Jay Tunney, the late champion's youngest son. "He would be immensely proud, as we are."
Tunney married Mary Josephine (Polly) Lauder in Rome, Italy, on October 3, 1928. Lauder was a Connecticut socialite and Carnegie Steel Company heiress. The Tunneys would have four children: Gene L. (1931-2009), John V. (born 1934), Jonathon R. "Jay" (born 1936) and Joan (1939-2008).
Representing the state of California, John V. served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1965 to 1971 and the U.S. Senate from 1971 to 1977.
In August 1969, Joan was reported missing in Norway. She was found alive two months later in a French hospital suffering from amnesia. The following May, she was charged with murdering her husband, Lynn Carter Wilkinson, in England. A psychiatrist told the court that she had suffered from schizophrenia for nine years. Joan pleaded guilty to manslaughter on the grounds of diminished responsibility and was committed to a mental hospital.
In 2010, Jay Tunney wrote a book chronicling the relationship between his father and George Bernard Shaw titled The Prizefighter and the Playwright.
- All-Time Light Heavyweight Ranking
- All-Time Cruiserweight Ranking
- 4th Tracy Callis
- All-Time Heavyweight Ranking
Fleischer, Nat. The Heavyweight Championship (1961)
Jarrett, John. Gene Tunney: The Golden Guy Who Licked Jack Dempsey Twice (2003)
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 (1998)
Roberts, James B. and Alexander G. Skutt. The Boxing Register (4th ed., 2006)
Cavanaugh, Jack. Tunney: Boxing's Brainiest Champ and His Upset of the Great Jack Dempsey (2006)
| World Heavyweight Champion
NBA World Heavyweight Champion
NYSAC World Heavyweight Champion
1926 Sep 23 – 1928 Jul 31