Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The Long Count

     Eighty-three years ago today, on September 22, 1927, champion Gene Tunney and challenger Jack Dempsey fought for the world heavyweight title at Soldier Field. Tunney had taken the title from Dempsey by unanimous decision 364 days earlier, and fans had been clamoring for a rematch ever since. The rematch remains one of the most famous bouts in boxing history.
     People who were there said what they remembered most was the brilliant light in which the fighters were bathed. Dozens of cone-shaped fixtures were suspended directly above the ring, sending columns of white light onto the canvas. “All is darkness in the muttering mass of crowd beyond the spotlight,” Graham McNamee intoned to the radio audience. “The crowd is thickening in the seats. It’s like the Roman Colosseum.”
     Estimates of the crowd varied widely, from a low of 105,000 to a high of 150,000. This mass of humanity produced gate receipts of $2,658,600—establishing a record that stood for over 40 years. Dempsey received $450,000, Tunney slightly less than $1 million.
     The weather was cool, around 55 degrees, with a gentle breeze from the lake. The crowd paid almost no attention to the four preliminary bouts, but came to life when Dempsey appeared at 9:55 p.m. He bounced around the ring and chatted nonchalantly with Mayor Big Bill Thompson while waiting for Tunney, who made his entrance some five minutes later. Dempsey and Tunney shook hands and said a few words to one another.
     “They’re getting the gloves out of a box tied with pretty blue ribbon,” McNamee informed his listeners. Then it was time to get down to business. “Robes are off,” he cried. “The bell!” As in the earlier fight, Dempsey was the aggressor. The methodical Tunney was content to backpedal and feint, patiently looking for openings. When he saw one, he struck quickly and danced away before Dempsey could effectively retaliate. Throughout the early rounds, Tunney stayed out of trouble and piled up points. Time and again, he lured Dempsey in too close, then nailed him with a straight left to the forehead followed by a right cross to the jaw. By general consensus, the champion won each of the first five rounds.
     Dempsey emphasized body blows early in the fight, but these had little impact. He went for the head from the sixth round on, realizing that he would probably need a knockout in order to win. He scored twice in the sixth with wicked lefts to the jaw, and most observers gave him a narrow edge in that round.
     Dempsey continued to attack in the seventh. He came out of his corner with renewed enthusiasm and caught Tunney against the west ropes almost at once. Tunney missed with a right cross. Then Dempsey delivered a left hook to the jaw, followed by a right cross that landed as Tunney was already falling to the canvas. “What a surprise!” Tunney wrote in his autobiography. Dazed, Tunney sat on his haunches with his left arm looped around the middle rope. Dempsey stood over him menacingly, eager to finish him off if and when he got back to his feet.
     Referee Dave Barry did not begin to count over Tunney until Dempsey retreated to a neutral corner, per the rule that is meant to prevent a man from being struck while he’s down. Between four and five seconds elapsed before Barry began counting. “Meantime,” Harvey Woodruff wrote in the Tribune, “champion Gene, whose title seemed [to be] slipping from his grasp, rose on one knee and, with his senses rapidly recuperating, coolly awaited the count of nine before arising to his feet.”

     The notorious “long count” was that simple. There was no question that Tunney was on the floor for 13 to 14 seconds—when 10, of course, is enough to register a knockout. But there was also no question that Dempsey was tardy in moving away from his fallen opponent. He had stood over Tunney for several seconds with his right arm cocked. Barry correctly interpreted the rule which stated, “Should the boxer on his feet fail to stay in the [neutral] corner, the referee and the timekeeper shall cease counting until he has so retired.”
     Tunney always maintained that he could have gotten up whenever he pleased. “I was not hurt,” he claimed, “but considered it just as well to take my time about arising.” When the fight resumed, Dempsey attacked relentlessly, but Tunney held him off with body blows. Dempsey chased Tunney around the ring, derisively motioning for him to stand and fight. Tunney kept on moving. Soon his head was clear of cobwebs, and he managed to deliver a right to Dempsey’s jaw and a left to the midsection just before the bell.
     By surviving the seventh round, Tunney had recovered the momentum. He scored a knockdown of his own in the eighth with an overhand right to Dempsey’s head. Jack popped back up after a count of one, but he was wobbly as the bout continued. Tunney shot a series of lefts to the jaw, then rocked Dempsey with lefts and rights to the head. The bell sounded with the two fighters toe-to-toe in the center of the ring and the fans on their feet, roaring.
     Tunney was in command the rest of the way. Dempsey, desperate by now, repeatedly resorted to illegal “rabbit punches” to the back of the champion’s head throughout the later rounds. Like his legitimate blows, however, they did little damage. Most uncharacteristically, Tunney threw caution to the wind. Sensing that Dempsey was tired and wounded, he abandoned his dancing and forced the issue. He advanced on the challenger and banged away virtually at will in the ninth round, opening a nasty cut above Dempsey’s left eye. In the 10th, the frustrated Dempsey wrestled Tunney to the floor. When he got back up, Tunney landed five left jabs to the face without being hit in return.
     Dempsey knew he needed a knockout, but as the clock ticked down he simply did not have the strength to throw anything but a few token punches. Tunney showered him with a barrage of left and right hooks in the closing seconds. If the bell had come any later, Dempsey almost certainly would have ended up on the canvas.
     Tunney won a unanimous decision. “It simply was a case,” Walter Eckersall wrote in the Tribune, “of a boxer, who was much faster, winning a 10-round decision over a fighter who always commands respect because of his punching power.”
     Dempsey and his supporters, naturally, complained bitterly about the long count. “It appeared they gave Tunney a generous count in the seventh,” Dempsey said, “just enough extra time to let him get his bearings and climb back on his bicycle.” Dempsey’s manager, Leo P. Flynn, declared that Tunney had retained the title “by grace of what was either a queer decision or a colossal case of inefficiency in the simple matter of counting seconds.” Flynn was just warming up. “Even if Tunney could have got to his feet at the end of an up-and-up count,” he said, “Jack would have floored him again. He needed those extra five seconds mighty bad.”
     Flynn filed a formal protest, which was denied. At the time, his and Dempsey’s grievances were written off as sour grapes. Over the years, though, the controversy surrounding the long count grew until it nearly overshadowed the estimable careers of the two principals, both of whom deserved to be ranked among the great heavyweights.
     “Some folks are saying that I should fight Dempsey again,” Tunney said the day after the fight in Soldier Field. “I don’t agree with them. I have beaten him twice and I see no reason why the public should want to see us matched again.” With that, Dempsey retired; his record was 62-6-10, with 49 knockouts. He became a sort of professional celebrity and opened a successful nightclub in New York. Tunney fought only once more, earning a technical knockout of Tom Heeney on July 26, 1928. He then hung up his gloves, married a Connecticut society woman, and embarked on a tour of Europe’s art museums and literary haunts. His record was 65-1-1, with 47 knockouts.

Adapted from Heydays: Great Stories in Chicago Sports
(c) 2009, 2010 by Christopher Tabbert.

No comments:

Post a Comment