This review appears in the February 2007 issue of The American Spectator. To subscribe to the monthly print edition, click here.p> em> Tunney: Boxing’s Brainiest Champ and His Upset of the Great Jack Dempsey br> by Jack Cavanaugh br> (Random House, 496 pages, $27.95) /em> /p>
I’VE OFTEN THOUGHT that the heavyweight champions form a sporting analogue to the presidents of the United States: great soloists pursuing the ultimate prize of authority and power over other men, yet often finding the throne lonely and more complicated than they bargained for, haunted by their predecessors in unpredictable ways, and, although trained to think ahead and anticipate the unexpected, rarely getting out of action in the circumstances they would have wished. Unlike former presidents, who now get libraries and even Nobel Prizes, the former champs are fortunate if they just hold onto their marbles and their money.
Gene Tunney, who was briefly heavyweight champion of the world in the 1920s and is remembered today, when he is remembered at all, for defeating Jack Dempsey, seemed to understand that the fate of a boxer was often unhappy. Unlike most beloved champions, he was not married to the boxing game — and as a result, he was not beloved. Complicated and aloof, he never captured the imagination of the sporting public then or since, except as a poseur who had the gall to discuss his reading habits. His detractors in the sporting press, forgiving of so many other vices among athletes, could never forgive the clumsy hubris with which this poor man’s son flaunted his hard-won refinement. For the last 75 years or so, the only Tunney biographies were the two he wrote himself. Both are minor classics of nondisclosure. (In the spirit of full disclosure, I should mention that I conducted a fair amount of research on Tunney and Jack Dempsey for a book of my own, which I have for the time being abandoned.)
In his new biography, Jack Cavanaugh proves that Tunney was a defensive specialist in the boxing ring and out. Cavanaugh’s book, readable and well researched, puts us in the ring with Tunney but never allows us to get within a whisker of him. It’s a frustrating book, especially given the promise with which it arrived: to tell the story of the forgotten man Cavanaugh rightly describes as “the most unique heavyweight champion of all time.” That’s an understatement. There aren’t many athletes in any sport, before or since, comparable to Tunney.
If you were told that an Irish immigrant’s son growing up in turn of the century New York would serve in the Marines in World War I, go on to win the world heavyweight title while becoming a self-educated man of culture, live another half century in which he married a Carnegie heiress, befriended men like George Bernard Shaw and Thornton Wilder, lectured on Shakespeare at Yale, served in the Navy in World War II, attained directorship of numerous corporations, and fathered a U.S. senator, you would probably say that has the makings of a pretty good story. Gene Tunney was even remarkable in death: his gravestone makes no mention of his boxing career, citing instead his service to America in two great wars. It’s a touch of majesty almost unimaginable among today’s athletes.
The facts of Tunney’s life are the stuff of great American biographies. There is only one problem: the man himself seems not quite real, his character seemingly immune to what the historian Shelby Foote once described as the “picklocks of biographers.”
TUNNEY’S RECORD AS A BOXER is real enough, though. He was one of the ring’s immortals, a master of defense and counterpunching, an early pioneer of strategy (he studied his opponents like a prosecuting attorney), and a fanatic about physical conditioning. In over 70 fights, he was beaten only once, in a bloodbath to the legendary Harry Greb. Tunney lost perhaps two quarts of his own blood from a broken nose but fought on until the bout went to a decision. Soon afterwards, he posted bond for a rematch to stunned observers, and he went on to defeat Greb several times. He was difficult to discourage and impossible to deny.
At a young age, Tunney seemed to have envisioned the entire outline of his life, and then he set about sketching it in. He wanted to defeat Jack Dempsey for the heavyweight championship, make a million dollars, and then retire and pursue a different life. He achieved all of these things and vanished, more or less, from popular scrutiny until his death in 1978. You almost get the feeling that the only thing he didn’t plan was dying.
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H/T to National Review Online