I tell you that the day is coming when the champions of the roped arena will be intellectual as well as physical giants. They will have the bodies of a Jeffries and the minds of an Edison or a Maxim or a Lombroso.* They will be as proud of their bulging brows as of their chest measurements.”
— Former heavyweight champion James J. Corbett, January 27, 1913
Gene Tunney was 15 years old and just getting his feet wet in the ring when Gentleman Jim made that mind-boggling prediction, but certainly no other boxer has come closer to fulfilling it than the well-read, articulate and intelligent Tunney, who took the heavyweight title from Jack Dempsey in 1926 and successfully defended it twice before retiring to a life of ease and corporate success.
But rather than being revered for the qualities hymned by Corbett, Tunney was mocked as a highfaluting stuffed-shirt more at home in the ivory tower he constructed for himself than on the throne of Sullivan. Beating Dempsey, the emblem of the Roaring ‘20s, made it worse. When Tunney retired on July 31, 1928, sportswriter Ed Frayne probably spoke for most of the boxing cognoscenti when he bid a snide farewell to the man he called “pugilism’s strangest character.”
“The most unique heavyweight champion ever” is how Jack Cavanaugh prefers to put it. Cavanaugh is the author of Tunney: Boxing’s Brainiest Champ and His Upset of the Great Jack Dempsey (496 pages, $27.95), published earlier this month and simultaneously nominated for the Pulitzer Prize by Random House. The book has been garnering impressive reviews, and Cavanaugh recently took time out from grading the papers of students in the English classes he teaches at Fairfield University to talk about Tunney and what he learned about him in the three years he spent researching and writing the unauthorized biography of the champion he considers boxing’s “forgotten man.”
“Everybody remembers Dempsey, but not the guy who beat him,” he said.
Cavanaugh lives in Wilton, Connecticut. He was born and grew up in nearby Stamford, where he learned to box at the Boys’ Club. Cavanaugh read The Ring magazine, idolized Joe Louis, and says that on many nights the voice of Don Dunphy calling fights on the radio “would literally lull me to sleep.”
In the 1970s and ‘80s, Cavanaugh covered many major bouts, including Ali-Frazier I, for Reuters news agency and the New York Times. But he was just starting out on that road in the early ‘60s when, as he rode the commuter train to New York City from Stamford one morning, the well-dressed man sitting next to him suddenly turned and remarked on the unkempt condition of the railroad car they occupied.
“Oh my God,” realized Cavanaugh upon taking a gander at his seatmate. “This is Gene Tunney!”
“He was in his middle-to-late 60s, ruddy, with a tinge of gray in his hair. After a couple minutes discussing the bad condition of the car, I said to myself, ‘I’m not going to waste time on that.’” And, with some trepidation, Cavanaugh steered his conversation with the “mythical, mystical figure nobody ever saw” (Tunney lived on a 200-acre estate in North Stamford, and “was not the kind of guy you were going to run in to at the mall”) to the subject of the former champion’s boxing career.
“I’d heard about his bad relationship with the media,” Cavanaugh said. “They all thought he was a literary phony, always talking about reading books. Once, when he was fighting, Tunney held a press conference and he put a copy of Somerset Maugham’s novel, ‘On Human Bondage,’ on the table where everybody could see it.”
To his great surprise and delight, though, Tunney talked openly and candidly on the one-hour ride to Grand Central Station. Among other things, “He conceded that he could’ve handled it better with the media. ‘I shouldn’t have lashed out,’ he said. ‘I made it worse. I would’ve liked to have been more respected, but it was my own fault.’”
In fact, Cavanaugh says, Tunney was no intellectual poseur. The son of Irish immigrants who dropped out of high school, Tunney “wanted to be different,” in the ring and out of it. “He read voraciously, and was actually close friends with (authors) George Bernard Shaw, Thornton Wilder and Maugham. They came to visit him.”
In April, 1928, while Tunney was heavyweight champion, he was invited to Yale University to talk about William Shakespeare to an English lit class. He arrived expecting an audience of about 40 students, but the crowd was 10 times that. He spoke knowledgeably about Shakespeare for an hour, Cavanaugh said, and the next day the New York Times ran a 1000-word piece about the event on its front page.
By and by, says Cavanaugh, legendary sportswriters like Ring Lardner, Damon Runyan and Paul Gallico – who Tunney, with his penchant for using a $5 word when a $1 word would do, called his “derogators” – the kind of affectation that helped make them that –“realized they had it all wrong.”
Fight historians and fans who derogate “The Fighting Marine’s” boxing achievements are equally off-base, he says. Cavanaugh’s personal ranking of the top heavyweight champs puts his old hero Louis in the top spot, followed in order by Jack Johnson, Muhammad Ali, Tunney and then Dempsey.
Tunney started boxing around the age of 10, when his father gave him a pair of gloves and told him to learn how to use them because bullies were always picking on the slim youngster whose habit even then of carrying books around made him an inviting target. At the CYO, Tunney started sparring with other kids and quickly realized that he had a natural talent for boxing. But even after he won the American Expeditionary Force light heavyweight title as a Marine in World War I, Tunney only turned to boxing for a living as a civilian because he couldn’t get back his old job with a New York steamship company.
(Before his military service, Tunney engaged in several pro fights strictly for the money, according to Cavanaugh. The record books say he won them all, but according to Ted Jamieson, who lost to Tunney in the AEF finals in France in 1918, Tunney later told him that “in his early days he met with several knockout defeats. Gene then was a fighter, but his visits to the resin for 10 seconds made him change his style and he took to scientific boxing.”)
After the war the wins piled up, but because he was “strictly a boxer in a milieu where you’re supposed to be able to punch,” Cavanaugh said, Tunney didn’t get much notice by the press, even in his hometown of New York City, then with 12 daily newspapers. When he went to his manager, Doc Bagley, to complain about the lack of media interest, Bagley informed him that the standard operating procedure was to pay sportswriters under the table for their professional attention. Promoter Tex Rickard did it, and so did other boxing managers. “Tunney very reluctantly went along with that,” Cavanaugh said.
Beating Battling Levinsky for the American light heavyweight title on January 13, 1922, earned Tunney respect, and then came Harry Greb. “He thought he could take Greb,” said Cavanaugh, “but you couldn’t be prepared for Greb because you didn’t know what he was going to do. He’d hit you leaping in the air.”
Greb won the 15-round decision, the badly punished Tunney fired Bagley for making the match, and a year later, with the well-connected Billy Gibson holding the managerial reins, he evened the score against Greb. They fought twice more, with Tunney the winner.
No other fighter ever studied his opponents as thoroughly and intensely as did Tunney, according to Cavanaugh. Nobody gave him a chance against Dempsey in their September 23, 1926 title fight, but Tunney had watched Dempsey in person and on film, and “early on he saw that Dempsey was vulnerable to a quick right to the jaw.” When the bell rang at Sesquicentennial Stadium, Tunney went right out and hit him with one. “Tunney was always convinced that that won the fight for him,” said Cavanaugh.
One year and a day later came the “Battle of the Long Count” in Chicago, when Dempsey floored Tunney in round seven. Tunney got up and won the decision, but the debate about how long Gene was on the deck has raged ever since. Till the day he died at age 81, Tunney maintained he would have made it up well before referee Dave Barry reached ‘10’ even if Barry had started counting before Dempsey headed for a neutral corner. Cavanaugh sees no reason to doubt that. “He was dazed at first, but Tunney was never lying flat out on the canvas. He had an arm draped over a rope, and seemed to know what was going on.”
Promoter Tex Rickard wanted a third fight, and Tunney was willing, according to Cavanaugh. “But Dempsey wanted no part of Tunney” in the ring again. “He had plenty of money, and he knew he couldn’t beat this guy.”
After stopping Tom Heeney, Tunney retired at the behest of his wife, heiress Polly Lauder. “She was terrified he’d get hurt,” said Cavanaugh, who calls their marriage “one of the great love stories of the ‘20s.” The former champion had little to do with boxing after that. “She had him hanging around with her kind of people,” Cavanaugh said. “That’s kind of what he aspired to. He didn’t like hanging around with the fight crowd, to say the least. He’d rather talk about the latest books, politics, and was fascinated with business. He’d always had an eye out for what to do after he retired. He met some wealthy businessmen, and they led him into the business world.”
Eventually, Tunney would sit on 12 boards of directors, and become CEO of two companies. Competitors who figured the former heavyweight champion for a lightweight in the boardroom ended up as stunned as Dempsey had in the ring. “They found him a very shrewd negotiator and businessman,” Cavanaugh says. “When he went into business, he read everything he felt he should know, and was as well-prepared as he had been for his fights.”
Cavanaugh was particularly touched learning about the friendship between Tunney and Dempsey that deepened as they entered middle and old age. “They saw each other more. Tunney would go to Dempsey’s restaurant with his wife. There was a very close bond between them.” When Tunney’s son, John, ran for Congress in California in 1964, “just like his dad against Dempsey, he was a very prohibitive underdog,” Cavanaugh said. That changed when Jack Dempsey and Gene Tunney appeared together at Tunney campaign rallies, speaking and showing film footage of their fights.
“To this day, John Tunney thinks that may have won him election to Congress,” Cavanaugh said. (From 1970-76, Tunney represented California in the U.S. Senate.)
Tunney’s death in 1978 devastated his old foe, Cavanaugh says. “It was the loss of a very good friend.”
Not much of a boxing fan anymore thanks to the multitude of champions, junior champions, interim champions and in-between weight classes, Jack Cavanaugh says the sport today more than ever could use a Gene Tunney, bulging brow and all.
“He was reviled in his day, but with his good looks and intelligence he’d be on the cover of Time and Sports Illustrated. They’d love him.”
And it probably wouldn’t even require a bribe to make it happen.
* The references are to famous inventor Thomas Edison; Sir Hiram Stevens Maxim (not Joey), who invented the first machine gun and the mousetrap; and Cesare Lombroso, father of modern criminology. (For the record, I had to “Google” Maxim and Lombroso. Gene Tunney I am not.)