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The Man Who Wasn’t There

Gene Tunney, one of boxing's greatest champs, but least known personalities.

By 2.21.07

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This review appears in the February 2007 issue of The American Spectator. To subscribe to the monthly print edition, click here.

Tunney: Boxing's Brainiest Champ and His Upset of the Great Jack Dempsey
by Jack Cavanaugh
(Random House, 496 pages, $27.95)

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.

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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About the Author

Paul Beston is associate editor of the Manhattan Institute's City Journal.