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Don't Count Him Out
Richard O'Brien
December 11, 2006
A new bio of Gene Tunney brings a fresh appreciation to the career of an often maligned champion
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December 11, 2006

Don't Count Him Out

A new bio of Gene Tunney brings a fresh appreciation to the career of an often maligned champion

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by Jack Cavanaugh
Random House, $27.95

Fifteen seconds. That's how long Gene Tunney sat on the canvas in Chicago's Soldier Field on the night of Sept. 22, 1927, put there by a Jack Dempsey barrage in the seventh round of their second fight. Just 15 seconds out of a professional boxing career that spanned 14 years and 77 bouts, yet in a way that's where Tunney remains to this day, pale and frozen on that canvas as the ref tolls the Long Count.

Never mind that it was the only time in his career Tunney was knocked down, or that (once Dempsey retreated to a neutral corner) he got up before the official count of 10 and resumed boxing the ears off Dempsey to easily win the decision, just as he had easily won their first fight. Never mind that he retired as heavyweight champion and went on to success in business and enjoyed the friendship of literary luminaries George Bernard Shaw and Thornton Wilder. For all of his accomplishments in and out of the ring, Tunney remains an enigma, remembered chiefly for that moment of controversy against Dempsey.

In his impressively researched and richly detailed book Cavanaugh goes a long way toward fleshing out this complex man, while also making the case that Tunney, often dismissed as a defensive powder-puff puncher, was one of the best fighters in history. In the process Cavanaugh provides a colorful depiction of America during the 1920s, when such sporting icons as Dempsey, Tunney, Babe Ruth and Red Grange mixed with Al Capone and flamboyant New York City mayor Jimmy Walker.

Born in New York City's Hell's Kitchen in 1897 to Irish immigrants, Gene Tunney grew up as a good student and an accomplished athlete. His mother fervently hoped that he would enter the priesthood, but he followed his stevedore father into work on the docks. It was his father, a lifelong boxing fan, who gave young Gene his first pair of gloves. Though never a street fighter (unlike Dempsey, who grew up brawling in the mining towns of Colorado), Tunney took to the discipline of boxing. He had his first professional fight, winning by a knockout, at age 18. But it was only after he won the American Expeditionary Forces light heavyweight title while serving as a Marine in France four years later that he dedicated himself to the sport. His goal, he said at the time, was to wrest the heavyweight title from the sensational new champion, Jack Dempsey.

That he did just that, seven years later (a 10-round decision in Philadelphia), was testament to his remarkable abilities and discipline. But it was also what damned him forever in the eyes of boxing fans. Once reviled as a draft dodger, Dempsey in defeat became far more popular than ever before, and the man who beat him--the Fighting Marine, no less--was derided as an aloof, bookish (he reads Shakespeare!) pretender. Cavanaugh thoroughly examines that dichotomy between the two fighters and provides a long-overdue portrait of a fascinating fighter--allowing its subject, at last, to rise from that canvas in Chicago.