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The ‘long counts’ and the course of history

mike tyson vs james buster douglas
Action Images/Reuters/Masaharu Hatano
Jack Hirsch investigates the ‘long counts’ that occurred during Buster Douglas’ win over Mike Tyson this week in 1990 and Gene Tunney’s rematch victory against Jack Dempsey in 1927. Did they change the course of history?

WE are not exactly talking equality here. No one ever does lest they destroy legendary tales which we have grown to worship. Myths perpetuated over time become nearly impossible to dispel not because we can’t, but because we don’t want to.

One thing is for certain though and will never change, is that boxing’s rich history is engulfed with a series of double standards from which we conveniently look the other way rather than expose. And the biggest one of all are two long counts, one historic and the other that should have been but we didn’t allow it to be. Here we explore both.

TUNNEY’S LONG COUNT

Boxing would not be fun without controversy. And the most controversial fight in boxing history evolved around Gene Tunney being given a long count in his rematch with Jack Dempsey on September 22, 1927 in Chicago. A barrage of blows from Dempsey dropped Tunney heavily in the seventh round, then instead of going to the neutral corner as the rules dictated, he stayed over his fallen foe delaying the count. In all, Tunney was down 14 seconds before getting up at referee Dave Barry’s count of nine.

In winning the title from Jess Willard eight years before, the rules had been vastly different. Dempsey was allowed to stand over the defending champion, then in barbaric fashion he unmercifully drove Willard to the canvas over and over before he had a chance to regroup. Never having had to go to a neutral corner before, Dempsey instinctively did not do so against Tunney. This force of habit ironically would carry over to the referee. In the following round he started counting the moment Dempsey’s knee touched the canvas after going down from a Tunney right.

The knockdown of Tunney was Dempsey’s last hurrah. He would go on to lose a 10-round decision to Gene as before. Why both Dempsey-Tunney title bouts were contested only over 10 rounds was a story in itself, but got lost in the age old debate of whether Tunney could have arisen before the count had reached 10 had it started the moment he went down.

long counts


DOUGLAS’ LONG COUNT

On February 11, 1990 in Tokyo, a supposedly invincible Mike Tyson was a mountainous favourite to successfully defend his world heavyweight championship against challenger James “Buster” Douglas. But as the rounds flew by the anticipated outcome was not playing out. As the eighth round was nearing a close it had become apparent that Tyson needed to do something drastic to hold on to his crown. Then it happened. A right uppercut deposited Douglas on his back. At ‘two’ he banged his glove in disgust over being floored, but still came perilously close to not beating referee Octavio Meyran’s count, getting up a fraction of a second before it reached 10. Or did he? Replays showed that although Douglas was officially up at ‘nine’ he was actually on the canvas somewhere between 13 and 14 seconds. However, unlike Dempsey who had contributed to his own demise, Tyson was punished by a slow count given to Douglas.

Douglas could not have known at the time he was the beneficiary of a few extra seconds. Like Tunney before him, Douglas’ only obligation under the rules was to cooperate with the referee’s count as it was being given. Although it turned out to be inconsequential, when Tyson was knocked out in the 10th round, referee Meyran had given him a similarly long count.

mike tyson

TUNNEY WINS – THE AFTERMATH

Little did anyone realise at the time of the Dempsey- Tunney return encounter that it would practically be the last hurrah for both. Save for exhibitions and a crazy mixed match against a wrestler, Dempsey never boxed again after. Tunney defended his title one more time, then retired as well.

Despite the brilliance of Tunney’s career in which he was defeated just once, by Harry Greb who he would later not lose to again in four fights, his legacy even more so than Dempsey’s is associated with the long count. This can probably be traced in large part to the lack of highlight moments in Tunney’s career. On the other hand Dempsey’s charisma and legendary tales spanned over several fights such as the seven first round knockdowns of Jess Willard, to the first million dollar gate against Georges Carpenter, the fiasco that left Shelby, Montana broke when he defended the title against Tommy Gibbons, and knocking Jack Sharkey cold while he turned to complain to the referee about low blows. The long count was merely an extension to the story of Dempsey as one of the most charismatic champions the sport has ever known.

Gene Tunney

Even after he retired, the public never really warmed up to Tunney. He was admired but always seemed to ride on the coattails of the long count. And not in a necessarily positive way because, in many ways, it overshadowed his great career accomplishments. However, Tunney did not seem to care. Although Tunney would attend fight shows from time to time he was not emotionally invested in the sport. That might explain in part why he retired in his prime.

It took the loss of his title to Tunney in Philadelphia, to finally endear Dempsey to the public. When his wife at the time, the actress Estelle Taylor asked Dempsey what happened, the now former champion replied, “Honey, I forgot to duck.” The public ate it up. Practically overnight Dempsey went from villain to hero, becoming the sentimental favourite in their rematch.

The perception always has been that Tunney emerged as the beneficiary of the long count, Dempsey as its victim. What is indisputable is that it created healthy controversy that is still debated even 92 years later. The sport was better off for their long count than it would have been without it.

DOUGLAS WINS – THE AFTERMATH

The sport suffered as a consequence of Douglas’ long count. It showed the darker side of boxing. Although Don King promoted both men, he immediately swung into action to get the verdict overturned. He exerted his considerable influence over WBC president Jose Sulaiman who, shamelessly, persuaded Meyran to admit he’d made a mistake. What should have been a heartwarming story of the biggest upset in boxing history instead was sullied by a subplot that many found despicable.

Fortunately, the public rose as one in condemning those who tried to get the verdict overturned. The Nevada State Athletic Commission, outraged over the WBC’s actions, let it be known that if the sanctioning body stripped Douglas of the crown then they would no longer be welcome in their state. Being as though the majority of the mega fights were staged in Las Vegas at the time, the WBC smartly backed off and gave Buster full recognition as champion.

Unlike Tyson, Dempsey never lodged an official protest against the long count. Some people around him grumbled that gamblers may have been involved and gotten to the referee, but it was just speculation and nothing more. Dempsey himself did not complain at the time or in the years after. He did make mention of Barry counting over him before Tunney had went to a neutral corner in the following round, but made it clear he harboured no bitterness over that.

The ironic thing is that unlike Dempsey, Tyson had a right to complain because the long count was not a consequence of him breaking the rules. Slow counts in boxing are a little more common than people are aware, but Meyran’s was slower than usual. That he delivered a slow count twice in the bout were the actions of a referee who wanted to give the fallen fighters every opportunity of getting up, but did not do justice to the man who had scored the knockdown.

In reality, King and Tyson did have the right to lodge a protest. Many others would have done so as well, but only as a starting point to exert pressure on everyone involved to hasten the rematch. Instead they tried to bully their way to overturning the verdict and have the championship returned to Tyson.

To return the title to Tyson would have set off a public storm. So, the verdict stood, but Tyson’s eroding image was battered further. This explains in large part why little sympathy was forthcoming his way as a result of the long count, whereas Dempsey’s iconic status grew as a result of it.

Mike Tyson long counts

Generations have debated whether Tunney could have arisen on time with a normal count, not so with Douglas. The reason is straightforward: Dempsey was the underdog and a hero to the public. They wanted to see him regain the title, remind them of a happier time when he ruled the heavyweight division. Conversely, Tyson was perceived as a bully. His troubles outside of the ring were of a champion out of control. Many wanted to see him get his comeuppance. After it happened, no one wanted to hear that Tyson victimized even if it were true.

COULD TUNNEY HAVE GOT UP WITHIN 10 SECONDS?

Dempsey and Tunney became great friends afterward, each deferring to the other. “Gene told me he could have gotten up so I have to believe him,” said Dempsey when asked what might have happened had there been no delay in the count. Tunney always confirmed that, but perhaps out of respect for their relationship he wanted to give Dempsey his due stating he did not know whether he could have survived the follow-up attack without those precious extra seconds.

Veteran newspaper men such as Paul Gallico and Dan Daniel, who were covering the fight from ringside, had a prevailing view of the time that Tunney wouldn’t have gotten up in time had the count not been delayed, but if he did Dempsey would have finished him. I’m not so sure.

Tunney was obviously badly dazed when going down, laying on the canvas stunned, first looking up at Barry and making eye contact with the referee when the official count reached ‘three’. That would have put the count at ‘eight’ had it started immediately.    

After making eye contact, Tunney immediately looked down at the canvas. With the referee shouting the count in his ear, Tunney grabbed the ring rope and pulled himself up at ‘nine’. Tunney had prepared meticulously for what he would do in the event Dempsey hurt him. He circled the ring for the remaining couple of minutes of the round as Dempsey chased in hot pursuit, unable to catch up. By the end of the round Tunney had fully recovered.

Nothing should be read into Tunney barely beating the 10 count. Boxers have traditionally been told in the event they are knocked down not to get up too fast, to take an eight or nine count before rising. Just because Tunney did not make eye contact with Barry for the first eight seconds after going down does not mean he wasn’t aware of what was going on. Had he been forced to get up if given a normal count the feeling here is he could have. Worst case scenario, without the extra time to recover it may have resulted in another knockdown soon after the first one but Tunney, who had exceptional recuperative powers, would likely have regrouped.

COULD DOUGLAS HAVE GOT UP WITHIN 10 SECONDS?

It was Tyson’s misfortune that the knockdown of Douglas did not happen earlier in the round. As soon as Buster regained his feet the bell rang depriving Mike of the chance to follow up his advantage when Douglas was most vulnerable.

The question that no one wanted to ask is whether Douglas could have gotten up in time had Meyran’s 10-count lasted just 10 seconds? Perhaps that’s because Douglas’ story was so compelling that no wanted to tarnish it in any way. Certainly, there is no intention to do so here, but in my opinion he would not have. In part, admittedly, that’s an assumption based on Douglas’ reputation throughout his career as a front runner who tended to shut down once the going got tough. In the only other two world title fights in his career, Douglas flat out quit against Evander Holyfield, making no attempt to get up before the count reached 10. Before that, in 1987, Douglas had been doing well against Tony Tucker, then suddenly stopped fighting after getting stunned with a right forcing referee Mills Lane to intervene.

Unlike Tunney who was badly hurt and needed every second of the count, Douglas appeared largely unhurt when on the canvas. He was stunned by the sudden turn of events. Buster did not need to wait until the last possible moment to get up, cutting it so close that the referee could have pulled him out claiming he had reached the count of 10. Douglas stalling for so long to get to his feet reminds one of Tyson’s classic line that everyone has a plan until they get hit. Without the additional time it is not unreasonable to think that Douglas, wrestling with his own desire and ambition, would not have beaten the count and thus changed the course of heavyweight history.

EPILOGUE

Barry continued to referee fights for six more years before passing away in 1936 at the age of 52.

Meyran had refereed some of the biggest fights of his era, but is remembered more for Douglas vs Tyson than all the rest combined. It is fair to say it finished his career. Meyran would referee only one more world championship fight, that being for a WBO title.

Tunney wanted a third fight and could never understand why Dempsey had no interest. The answer was simple, that although Dempsey failed to regain the title, he nevertheless left the ring on top due to the controversy. It resulted in him becoming a legend not only in the sport of boxing but in society. In his retirement years, Dempsey connected wonderfully with the public, never turning down an autograph request and mingling freely with all who stopped by to meet him at his restaurant on Broadway.

“It may have been the best thing that ever happened to me,” said Dempsey when he once was asked about the long count, understanding how popular it made him. For even if Jack had regained the title by a knockout his status as both a heavyweight great and public icon would not have exceeded the heights he achieved as a result of the long count. Dempsey passed away in 1983, at the age of 87.

Just as Joe Frazier had put Muhammad Ali centre stage as the world’s most recognisable personality, so it was that Dempsey could never have achieved the popularity he did without Tunney.

jack dempsey long counts

Although he never came close to reaching the fame of the man he beat for the title, the long count boosted Tunney’s profile to levels it would not have reached without it. Unfortunately, it did come at the expense of the rest of his career being overlooked, but nevertheless having his name attached to Dempsey’s was a good thing.

After defeating Dempsey again, Tunney’s lone fight was a title defence against New Zealander Tom Heeney the following year. Tunney was an intellectual which was in sharp contrast to Dempsey, yet their friendship flourished. When Tunney passed away in 1978 at the age of 81, Dempsey took the news hard.

Douglas will forever be remembered for engineering the greatest upset in boxing history, but his resolve often did not match up to his talents. As hard as he fought to dethrone Tyson, Douglas’ effort against Holyfield was disgraceful, coming in overweight and out of shape. Douglas was never a factor in the heavyweight division after that.

There would be no rematch, but Tyson did recapture a couple of the belts years later and reestablished a level of invincibility that was ultimately shattered by Holyfield. But like Dempsey, Tyson’s popularity soared in retirement. Arguably his is still the biggest name in the sport.

Tyson’s ring career is more complex. It ranges from him being regarded as one of the greatest heavyweight champions in history to that of being an underachiever. The long count arguably deprived Tyson of what would have been the defining moment of his career. Had Meyran counted Douglas out, the perception of Tyson would be greater than it is today. His courage would have been lauded and the front runner image would have disappeared. It has now been 30 years since that night in Tokyo.

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