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All of this Cavanaugh chronicles in a manner heavy on fact but light on reflection. He relates much boxing history from eras before and after Tunney, and he devotes whole chapters to Dempsey’s exploits in which Tunney does not make even a walk-on appearance. Cavanaugh’s treatment nearly relegates Tunney to a supporting role in his long-awaited feature and lends credence to the age-old verdict that Tunney is only interesting insofar as he was connected to Dempsey. The book’s subtitle reinforces this impression.
Tunney’s and Dempsey’s names were hyphenated in history after their two famous fights, especially the second one, held in Chicago’s Soldier Field in 1927 and known ever since as the Battle of the Long Count. The slugging Dempsey, who was champion throughout the 1920s and had a stature on par with Babe Ruth, had lost his title to Tunney the previous year in a huge upset. Now their second fight was unfolding in much the same way, until the seventh round, when Dempsey suddenly found the mark and put Tunney down with a barrage of punches, the only knockdown Tunney suffered in his career.
But Dempsey forgot the rule, agreed on beforehand, that a fighter scoring a knockdown had to retreat to a “neutral” corner before the count could be started. The rule was created with Dempsey in mind; he had become notorious for standing over fallen opponents and blasting them back to the canvas. Now, with so much at stake, he reverted to his old ways and stood over Tunney. Only after Dempsey retreated did the referee begin his count. At the referee’s “nine,” Tunney rose, evaded Dempsey’s rushes, and went on to win the fight by decision. Debates raged about how long Tunney was on the canvas, whether he could have gotten up if not given extra time, and whether the referee’s action was fair. One of those sporting controversies that takes on a life of its own — like Ruth’s called shot or Bobby Thomson’s home run off Ralph Branca — the Long Count defined the two men in the public imagination forever.
With one important note: it was always Dempsey’s name that came first. The crowd cheered him after he lost both Tunney fights, and they gravitated to his popular Broadway restaurant for 40 years. Dempsey had an impromptu way of saying memorable things, the best example of which was, “Honey, I forgot to duck” (employed half a century later by another natural genius, Ronald Reagan). Pitiless inside the ring but generous and good-humored outside of it, Dempsey was loved for good reasons.
By contrast, Tunney was like the William Howard Taft to Dempsey’s Theodore Roosevelt, the gifted but bloodless successor to a man shrouded in myth. Unlike Dempsey, whose vivid character emerges from even the dustiest boxing histories, Tunney is a name attached to a series of deeds. His inscrutable public face is the only one we see.
CAVANAUGH’S DIFFICULTIES in getting beyond that public face were compounded by the Tunney family’s interest in an authorized biography, an arrangement the author rejected. Like its late patriarch, the family seems determined to control the terms on which they engage the American public. After all these years, their protectiveness is remarkable, even inspiring, for those who still admire such things.
Yet while Cavanaugh was denied access to what must be a treasure trove of information, he could have done more with what is available to explore Tunney’s character. Sooner or later, a biographer needs to quit playing defense himself and venture a point of view. Who was Tunney, really, and what was the source of his amazing willfulness? What does it tell us that in two full-length autobiographies Tunney can barely bring himself to mention his father, a longshoreman on the Hudson River docks who bought him his first pair of boxing gloves? Were Tunney and Dempsey really “close friends” in later life, as commonly described, or did Tunney resent Dempsey’s popularity?
And what about the terrible drinking problem that Tunney developed after he left the ring?
Here was the most resolute champion of self-control that ever graced American sports, given to writing articles on the dangers of smoking and asserting that a man’s goal at 40 should be to attain greater fitness than he enjoyed at 20. According to the scraps of information out there, Tunney’s drinking went back at least as far as his stint in the U.S. Navy in World War II, and his problem seems to have been more severe than garden variety alcoholism. The image is hard to reconcile with the youthful paragon of discipline, yet Cavanaugh never raises the issue, even in passing. And Tunney slips away from us again, maybe for good.
The mystery of Gene Tunney — what drove him, and what eventually broke him — remains. Without an interrogation of its subject, Cavanaugh’s biography is too much like Tunney himself: impressive on every surface, but silent at its center.
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H/T to National Review Online