REGULAR readers of this column will know that I usually write about British boxers and their history, but I do occasionally like to stray across the Atlantic and cover some of the more interesting aspects of the world heavyweight championship, and its rich history. When I first became interested in this championship, back in 1973, there had only ever been 24 champions, and as a 15-year-old I watched, with great interest, how the most recent of these, Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier and George Foreman, were engaged in their titanic struggle for superiority. Inspired by their exploits, I wanted to know more about their predecessors and so, with no internet to assist me, I took myself along to Newcastle Central Library and requested the bound copy of the local newspaper for the third quarter of 1927. Within those pages I could read how the second contest between Jack Dempsey and Gene Tunney was reported at the time. I had seen some grainy footage of the bout on television and, knowing that it was the richest fight in the history of the sport and the one that contained the most controversial incident, The Long Count, the bout fascinated me more than any other, and it still fascinates me today.
Recently, while spending an interesting day perusing the collection of my good friend Larry Braysher, I came across a photograph that caught my attention, and I reproduce it here [see facing page]. Dempsey and Tunney fought each other twice, in Philadelphia and Chicago, and both contests were scheduled for 10 rounds. I think that, even to this day, they are the only two championship contests to be contested over this unusually short distance. Partly because of this, I presumed that Tunney, the master of defence, simply outboxed his rival and, despite infamously being floored for around 14 seconds in the 1927 Chicago fight, generally kept out of harm’s way, and cantered to a straightforward victory, as he had done in 1926. It certainly looked that way from the footage I had seen.
In recent years, the film of this fight has been colourised, but neither the original, nor this new footage, reveal the true extent of the damage that Tunney’s persistent and accurate jabbing did to Dempsey’s face. This accompanying photograph certainly does. One can see that poor Jack is in a bit of a mess. I suspect that the picture was snapped during either the ninth or 10th round. By this time, Jack had had his brief period of success when, by failing to go to a neutral corner after flooring Tunney in the seventh, the count only commenced after Tunney had already been on the canvas for around five seconds.
Tunney responded brilliantly, knocking Dempsey down in the eighth, before steadily beating him up over the course of the last six minutes. I should have read Boxing News more carefully, for in their report of the bout it was stated that in round nine, “Tunney ripped lefts and rights to the face so rapidly that Dempsey fell into a clinch and the champion seemed to be bathed in blood, but it was Dempsey’s, as he himself was practically unmarked. Dempsey had been almost shot to pieces at the gong.” In the last round, the report added that “Dempsey was being mercilessly pounded all the time and was practically out on his feet when the final gong went.”
Dempsey was in a very bad state when the bout ended, as is shown in the picture, and had it been scheduled for 15 rounds, rather than 10, I don’t think that Dempsey could possibly have gone the full distance. Gene Tunney was, in my opinion, one of the most underrated of all heavyweight champions and one hell of a fighter.
Around a fortnight after the bout, the fight film arrived in the UK and it was shown, in its entirety, in cinemas the length and breadth of Britain, to great interest.