Searching through my late father’s gray metal file box, I noticed a faded brown envelope squeezed-in with a bunch of old documents and photos. At the top of the envelope in my dad’s writing were the notations, “Dempsey - Tunney.” I pulled-it-out, lifted the flap, and looked inside.
What I saw appeared to be a piece of old white fabric about three inches wide and folded into a rectangle. Just a few minutes earlier, I had found a similar and equally rare keepsake in that same file box. I immediately surmised what it was - an “armband.” (See blog post for January 30, 2009: “Showdown at Soldier Field - The "Rock" versus the "Head Man.”)
I carefully took-it-out of the envelope and as I touched it, I realized it was probably made using some type of silkscreen process. As I unfolded it, the black-ink words on the stained and wrinkled white background quickly became apparent: OFFICIAL COURIER - TUNNEY-DEMPSEY BOXING EXHIBITION - SOLDIER FIELD - CHICAGO - SEPT. 22, 1927.
I wrapped it around my left arm and it fit with a little room to spare. Just like the other armband, it had an old rusty safety pin on one end which could have been used to pin the two ends together. It measured about 17-3/4" by 3-1/2", and in the lower left-hand corner was a tiny, almost illegible printers union label and shop number.
Checking the envelope further, I found two more “pieces of history.” One was an “OFFICIAL COURIER” identification tag, the reverse of which bore the handwritten notations, “Chas. Nelson assigned to A. Gross Gate 32-42.” At the top of the identification tag was a hole with a string attached to it - probably to tie it to a shirt button or coat zipper. The bottom edge appeared to have been perforated, leading me to believe that there was a lower portion to the tag which was torn-off.
Lastly, there was an aging blue “ticket” entitling the bearer to “One Luncheon at [the] Championship Fight, Soldier Field Stadium, September 22, 1927.” In the bottom right-hand corner of the ticket was the name of a legendary fight promoter, Tex Rickard.
As a young man, my dad was an amateur boxer. At the time of this fight, he would have been 18-years-old. No doubt, he [along with thousands of others] would have been anxious to see the world’s heavyweight boxing championship being held in Chicago.
But how did he come by these fascinating souvenirs?
I know my dad occasionally worked as a vendor at Soldier Field around that time, so maybe he picked-up these mementos while working at the fight that evening. It seems unlikely that he was actually an “official courier” at the fight, since the back of the identification tag indicates it was probably issued to “Chas. Nelson [who was] assigned to A. Gross [at] Gate 32-42.”
Although I had a vague recollection of my dad mentioning Gene Tunney and Jack Dempsey, I couldn’t remember anything he might have told me about the fight at Soldier Field.
Of course, I knew the names of Tunney and Dempsey from their reputations as heavyweight boxers, but I really didn’t know anything about this fight which took place over 80 years ago.
Nevertheless, I decided to find-out. After all, this was another snapshot in a moment of my dad’s life.
As I would come to learn, these unique keepsakes came from what is arguably the most controversial heavyweight fight in boxing history; the 1927 championship rematch between James Joseph “Gene” Tunney and William Harrison “Jack” Dempsey.
But what were the circumstances leading up to this historic rematch?
Jack Dempsey had held the heavyweight boxing crown since 1919 after knocking-out Jess Williard. On September 23, 1926, after being out of the ring for three years, the 31-year-old “Manassa Mauler” defended his title against the 29-year-old challenger, “Fighting Marine” Gene Tunney. In the outdoor night rain at Philadelphia’s Sesquicentennial Stadium in front of 130,000 fans, the first Dempsey-Tunney bout went down in history.
In his book, Arms for Living, Tunney describes how during the six years leading up to the fight with Dempsey, he mentally prepared and focused on the opportunity to capitalize on the one weak spot he perceived in “the magnificent armor of the Dempsey fighting technique.” Tunney determined that Dempsey’s weak spot was that he “could be hit with a straight right and hurt.”
In the first round of their first fight, Tunney fended-off Dempsey’s first two attacks, and as Dempsey made his third rush with a wide left hook, Tunney “stepped in with the straight right as [he] had willed to do and so long practiced for just that moment.”
Tunney’s right was thrown with “every ounce of power” he had and it impacted on Dempsey’s cheek, rather than his jaw.
Even so, Tunney observed that Dempsey “was stopped in his tracks and his knees sagged. I could see he was hurt.”
In his autobiography, Dempsey by the Man Himself [as told to Bob Considine and Sill Slocum], Dempsey recalled that in the first round of their first fight, “Tunney walked right out of his corner and hit me in the mouth with a good straight right. A couple inches lower and it would have knocked me down. I never caught up.”
As a result of Tunney’s first round blow and the fact that Dempsey was rusty from a lack of fights during the previous three years, Dempsey was unable to keep up with the much faster Tunney.
For the entire ten-round bout, the “fighter” Dempsey hardly landed a solid blow against the “pugilist” Tunney, who used an orthodox defense while methodically scoring with lefts and rights. By the end of the fight, Dempsey’s eyes were almost swollen shut. Tunney won the bout by decision and became the new heavyweight champion of the world.
Sharkey was no pushover. Dempsey’s manager, Leo Flynn, told Dempsey that Sharkey was a better boxer than Tunney (and Sharkey later became heavyweight champion in 1932).
As Dempsey said his autobiography, “Sharkey gave me living hell for the first five rounds” and “was as good a fighter as I’ve ever seen.”
But in the sixth and seventh rounds, Dempsey started working Sharkey’s weaker mid-section.
During the seventh, after being hit by Dempsey a half dozen times around the belt, Sharkey stepped back, dropped his hands, turned his head towards the referee, and yelled about Dempsey hitting-him-low. At that very moment, Dempsey hit Sharkey in the chin “with one of the last good punches of his life.” Sharkey fell to the canvas and was out for the count.
Two months later, the rematch with Tunney was held in Chicago.
On September 22, 1927, Dempsey sought to regain the championship crown from Tunney in the fight which became known as the battle of “the long count.”
The Chicago Defender reported that according to the official figures released by the “collector of internal revenue” in Chicago, the ten-round bout drew a crowd of 145,000 and had a paid gate of $2,658,660. Up to that time, it was the largest paid gate in the history of boxing [and a record which stood for 50 years afterwards].
Everyone who was anyone was there - from the royalty of Europe to the most prominent American businessmen of day. Of course, many of the country’s most crooked politicians made the fight, along with the city’s most notorious gangsters. Chicago’s downtown hotels were filled to capacity.
Ringside seats cost $40 a piece - although the “ringside space” covered a vast expanse of territory and included as many as 25,000 seats. Ticket prices began at $5, and went to $10, $15, $20, $25, $30 and then $40.
Sixteen-hundred National Guard and Naval Reserve members were assigned as ushers and were supplemented by 400 “crowd directors” to handle spectator entrances and congestion points. Along with the usual detachment of firemen, there was a complete fire patrol company assigned to guard against fires, as well as two large first aid stations to deal with medical emergencies. Finally, 2,500 policemen were assigned to keep the peace - and also to make sure that the holders of the $5 tickets actually sat in the $5 seats (some of which were benches almost 700 feet away from the ring).
Sixteen state governors, including corrupt Illinois Governor Len Small, were among the spectators in the 108 first-row ringside seats. (However, the “first row” in which the paid spectators were seated actually began at the fifth row, behind four rows of seats and tables assigned to the working press - reporters, radio broadcasters, and telegraphers.) Also sitting in the first row was Chicago’s corrupt Prohibition mayor, William Hale “Big Bill” Thompson.
Reflecting the crowd’s occupational diversity, scattered among the ringside seats were circus legend John Ringling, Mayo Clinic co-founder Dr. Charles Mayo, Chrysler Motor Company president Walter Chrysler, banking magnate J. P. Morgan, Jr., “The World’s Greatest Entertainer” - Al Jolson, and Tunney’s close friend [intercollegiate boxing champion and de facto coach] New York department store owner Bernard F. Gimbel. Among the ladies accompanying their husbands the wives of Chicago meat-packing entrepreneur Phillip D. Armour and Milwaukee brewer William Pabst.
And, of course, Mrs. Mabel G. Reinecke was there. At the time, Mrs. Reinecke was the “collector of internal revenue” in Chicago.
Mob boss Al Capone was said to have bet $40,000 to $50,000 on Dempsey (the equivalent of about a half-million dollars today). Capone was friendly with Dempsey, but it was Capone’s suspected friendship with the referee scheduled to officiate the fight that generated concern.
Rumors of a Capone “fix” caused the Illinois athletic commission to replace referee Davey Miller with referee Dave Barry on the day of the fight. Capone, who reportedly purchased 100 of the $40 ringside tickets for his friends and associates, arrived at the fight with occasional companion and Florida neighbor, renowned writer Damon Runyon.
In addition to the mass of humanity packed-into Soldier Field, an estimated 60 million people listened to the fight by radio - including 15 death row inmates at Sing Sing Prison.
During the first three rounds of the 1927 rematch, Tunney scored better than Dempsey, with the action picking-up in the third round when each fighter landed a flurry of a half-dozen blows to the other.
In the fourth round, Tunney pumped several solid rights and lefts to Dempsey’s jaw and head, with limited retaliation from Dempsey. At the bell, Dempsey was wobbly as he went to his corner.
The fifth and sixth rounds saw Tunney continue to score with numerous solid lefts and rights to Dempsey’s face and jaw, with Dempsey responding with a few solid lefts to Tunney’s jaw and a couple hard rights to his body.
In the seventh round, Dempsey appeared to come out of his corner with renewed confidence. Near ringside, Dempsey threw a series of about seven punches culminating with a devastatingly accurate left hook to Tunney’s jaw followed by a right cross, the combination of which knocked-down Tunney to the canvas - the first knockdown of Tunney’s career. (As I watched the film of the fight, I could almost feel pain as I saw Dempsey’s left hook hit Tunney’s jaw.)
Once Tunney was down on the canvas, however, the 10-second knockdown count did not immediately begin. Referee Dave Barry first directed Dempsey to go to the farthest neutral corner as required by the somewhat recent “knockdown rule.”
As had been Dempsey’s usual practice after he knocked-down his opponent, he initially hovered over Tunney waiting to pounce as soon he got-up. After the knockdown, Dempsey moved to the corner right next to where Tunney was down on the canvas and paused there until referee Barry directed him to the farthest neutral corner.
It wasn’t until approximately five seconds had elapsed that referee Barry began the count over the seemingly dazed Tunney. Tunney was down on his rump with his legs spread apart and knees bent, but still had the soles of his shoes on the canvas. With his left glove, Tunney held onto the middle strand of the ring’s ropes while his left shoulder leaned into and rested on the rope’s bottom strand. In one remarkably clear Chicago Daily Tribune photo, Tunney’s face had the look of calm, reflective thought.
Although the fight’s official timekeeper, Paul Beeler, had completed the count of “four” and Barry should have picked-up the count at “five” - as required by the “knockdown rule,” Barry instead began the count at “one.”
By the time Barry reached his count of “four,” approximately nine seconds had elapsed and Tunney just then appeared to focus on Barry’s count. At Barry’s count of nine - after approximately 14 seconds had elapsed, Tunney got up from the canvas. For the remaining minute-and-a-half of the round, Tunney deftly circled around the ring avoiding Dempsey’s left hook. With footwork quicker than Dempsey’s, Tunney kept himself out of danger and put-up an effective defense until the end of the round.
In his autobiography, Dempsey said he forgot all about the recent rule that a man scoring a knockdown should “immediately retire to neutral corner.” He explained that, “when you’re fighting the way I used to fight - all of the corners look alike, and it’s hard to stop what you’re doing, standing over a guy and waiting for him to get up, and start figuring out which corner is farthest away from where it’s all happening.”
In Arms for Living, Tunney said, “I was oblivious of the long count aspects, which caused so much debate. There has been plenty of myth and confusion about that. On the floor I first became aware of the count when I heard the referee say ‘two.’ Eight seconds to go, eight seconds in which to do the most critical thinking in my life. I had never been knocked down before, but had often thought about what I’d do if I were. Every professional boxer knows he must take advantage of the respite of nine seconds.”
In the eight round, Tunney appeared to have recovered as he came out of his corner. The two traded shots until Tunney landed a right to Dempsey’s head and knocked-him-down to one knee. Ironically, referee Barry immediately began the count over Dempsey before Tunney made any attempt to retreat to a neutral corner. However, Dempsey promptly got-up, albeit unsteadily, after a count of “one.”
For the remainder of the eighth round, as well as during the ninth and tenth, Tunney continued to hit Dempsey “with the encyclopedia of boxing,” winning the last three rounds and retaining his heavyweight championship crown by decision.
After the fight, the Chicago Daily Tribune reported that Dempsey had wired the Illinois athletic commission advising that he and his manager would be filing an official protest over Barry’s handling of the count - but the protest never arrived. Nevertheless, the commission’s chairman publicly contended that commission rules sustained the fight officials in allowing Tunney to be on the floor for 14 seconds rather than the 10 seconds provided in the Marquis of Queensberry rules. It was later reported that the commission also declared that Dempsey’s manager, Leo Flynn, had failed to register as Dempsey’s manager, and for that reason was not permitted to make a formal appeal.
Tunney's winnings came to $990,445.54 (the equivalent of about $12 million today). Because he wanted the thrill of having an even million dollars in hand, Tunney wrote a personal check to Tex Rickard for $9,554.46 and Rickard gave him a check for $1,000,000.00. Dempsey's purse as "loser" was a more modest $425,000.00 (the equivalent of over $5 million today).
Although there was a lot of talk about a third fight between Tunney and Dempsey, it never came off.
In addition to becoming the most successful boxing promoter of his time, Rickard was a remarkable character himself.
Before becoming a fight promoter and manager, Rickard served as a town marshal in Texas, prospected for gold in the Yukon, ran gold-rush saloons and gambling halls in Alaska and Nevada, was a cattle rancher in Paraguay, and spent time as a soldier of fortune in South Africa.
When he died in 1929, Rickard's body was laid in state where the boxing ring stood on the floor of Madison Square Garden in New York City.
To this day, questions remain. “Would Tunney have been able to get-up at referee Barry’s count of “four” (when nine seconds had actually elapsed) and continued to fight?
And, even if Tunney could have gotten-up before ten seconds had “in fact” elapsed, could he have survived the remainder of the round with Dempsey on the attack?
In his autobiography, Dempsey commented that, “I’ll never really know whether he could or could not have gotten up during what should have been the first section of the count. Gene has often told me he could have, and I have no reason not to believe him . . . Maybe Gene could have gotten up. Maybe not. Everything happens for the best.”
Copyright 2009 by R. M. Burton
If you’re interested in forming your own opinion about “the long count,” footage of the fight is available on an old HBO Sports videocassette - Boxing’s Best - The Heavyweights - “The Stylists,” hosted by Curt Gowdy (ISBN 1-55983-278-9). This fascinating videocasette also has a clip of a 1894 motion picture personally made by Thomas Edison of a fight between Gentleman Jim Corbett and Peter Courtney - whom Edison hired for the purpose of making the film.
A better quality film of “the long count” is also available on an ESPN Classic Ringside DVD - “Top 10 Heavyweights” (ISBN 1-5944-4820-5). This DVD has a newsreel explanation of the long count controversy in slow motion. As you might gather by the title, this two-DVD set names the Top 10 Heavyweights of all-time (at least in the opinion of a panel of experts). It also contains numerous old and fascinating films of the greatest heavyweight fighters of all-time.
In addition, another old videotape - Greatest Rounds Ever - Part 1, Good Times Home Video (1990), has a clip of the seventh round “long count” with commentary by several boxing experts. (Ironically, the experts voted Jack Dempsey as the better boxer.)