- The Washington Times - Monday, September 18, 2006

“In the event the man scoring the knockdown does not go to the farthest neutral corner, I will not start the count until he does so. Do you understand that, Champ? … Jack?”

— Referee Dave Barry’s prefight instructions

The rule was relatively new to boxing on the night of Sept. 22, 1927, when heavyweight champion Gene Tunney and the dethroned Jack Dempsey staged their rematch before more than 100,000 screaming meemies at Chicago’s Soldier Field. For years, the ferocious Dempsey had stood over fallen opponents, battering them anew as soon as their knees left the canvas. Now, at 32, he was an old dog being forced to learn a new trick.

A heavyweight title fight was much more significant in those days when each division had a single champion; only the World Series matched it in terms of impact. The New York Times, not known for its coverage of sports, devoted nearly eight of its first nine pages to Tunney-Dempsey II the day after.

Almost exactly one year earlier in Philadelphia, heavy underdog Tunney had stunned most of America by outboxing Dempsey decisively enough to win all 10 rounds on some scorecards and take his title. Now Jack, unshaven and scowling, was primed to reclaim it. But for the first six rounds, the bout looked like a rerun. Once more, Dempsey couldn’t land a solid punch as Tunney, a master boxer, jabbed and ran.

At one point, the frustrated “Manassa Mauler” gestured toward the champion and begged, “Aw, c’mon and fight!” But Tunney continued to jab, jab, jab until the blood cascaded down Dempsey’s face, and he looked like an old man in the ring.

Then, startlingly, the Long Count happened. Although largely forgotten today, it remains one of boxing’s most dramatic moments.

Less than a minute into the seventh round, Dempsey reached back in time and became the terrible tiger who had destroyed the likes of Jess Willard, Georges Carpentier and Luis Firpo. He landed a right to the jaw and followed with a vicious left hook — always his best punch — to the point of his opponent’s chin.

Shuddering and eyes glazing, Tunney crumpled while Dempsey landed several more punches on Gene’s way down. As Tunney rested on his haunches, clinging to the middle rope with his left hand, Dempsey hovered over him snarling. The ex-champ had never fought under the new rule.

Referee Dave Barry rushed over and grabbed Dempsey’s arm. “Go to a neutral corner, Jack!” he shouted into the din.

Growled Dempsey, pushing the ref away: “I stay here!”

And so he did for what must have seemed an eternity until, reason returning, he retreated to a neutral corner. Meanwhile, Tunney had four to eight extra seconds — contemporary estimates varied and old films are indecisive — to regain his senses before Barry started the count.

Tunney, no dummy, listened carefully and arose at “nine.” Getting back on his bicycle, he stayed out of Dempsey’s lunging way for the rest of the 10 rounds. Again, the decision was unanimous: “The winnah and still heavyweight champion of the world

Afterward, Tunney described what he felt after Dempsey landed the left hook: “That’s the last thing I remember clearly, although I counted seven [more] blows when I studied the movies. The next thing I remember is telling myself that the distance between my eyes and the canvas was distressingly short. ‘You must be down,’ I said to myself.”

After one more fight in 1928, Tunney retired as a millionaire at 31. Oddly, however, Dempsey emerged from their bouts as more of a hero than his aloof conqueror. Earlier, his public persona was that of a relentless destroyer in the ring and, in the minds of some, of a wartime slacker who had posed for a publicity photo that showed him “working” in a munitions plant while wearing shiny patent leather shoes. But his courage and good sportsmanship during and after the Tunney rematch turned him into a widely admired figure who seemed to have lost the bout through a fluke.

“The Long Count was the luckiest thing that ever happened to me,” Dempsey would tell patrons and friends who visited his popular Broadway restaurant years later. “As I returned to my corner [after the final bell], I was cheered for the first time in many years. People were applauding me and calling out my name in a way I had never heard before.”

As so often happens in sports, the two rivals became close friends after their fistic encounters and remained so until Tunney’s death in 1978 at age 81 (followed by Dempsey’s five years later at 87). And whenever Tunney was asked about the man he had licked, his answer was the same: “Jack Dempsey was the greatest fighter who ever lived.”

It’s something of a wonder the two men bonded because their backgrounds couldn’t have been more different. Dempsey quit school after the eighth grade to become a miner in his native Colorado, rode the rails as a hobo and boxed for pocket money throughout the western states before gaining a title shot against (and nearly killing) the gigantic and supposedly invincible Willard on July 4, 1919.

Tunney was born in New York’s Greenwich Village and learned to box at an athletic club before joining the Marines in World War I. He read Shakespeare and Hemingway, befriended the British dramatist and critic George Bernard Shaw and did not smoke or drink. In the ring, his only loss came in a brutal 1922 bout with Harry Greb that taught Gene the best offense was a good defense.

Long after the Long Count, in the early 1960s, Tunney shook his head when his son, John, said he was thinking of running for Congress from California.

“You don’t have a chance of winning, John,” the retired champion insisted.

John Tunney had the perfect retort: “I’ll risk it, Dad. After all, nobody gave you a chance of beating Jack Dempsey.”

The younger Tunney, a Democrat, was elected to the House three times and later to the U.S. Senate. He was indeed a winner — just like his father and, ultimately, Jack Dempsey.

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