John J. Tunney, Jr. was born in 1860 in Kiltimagh, County Mayo, Ireland. Mary Jean Lydon was born seven years later in Gortgoriff, about one mile from Kiltimagh. How they ended up marrying each other in New York City around 1890 is something of a mystery. Nevertheless, John was a 37-year old stevedore and Mary a 30-year old homemaker on May 25, 1897, when their son James Joseph was born.
The family lived on 52nd street in Manhattan. James was one of seven children, all raised in a working class environment. Despite the rough nature of the neighborhood, James became a temperate and articulate young man. Nevertheless, living in that neighborhood meant fighting at times, and James learned to fight on the streets. Blessed with neither great strength nor speed, he did develop a crucially important skill: recognizing an opponent’s weakness and exploiting it at precisely the right moment. He soon joined the Greenwich Village Athletic Club and began formal boxing training.
“The Fighting Marine”
When World War I arrived, James enlisted in the Marines and eventually accepted the nickname, “The Fighting Marine”. He became light heavyweight boxing champion of the American Expeditionary Forces by war’s end.
Returning from France in 1919, he began a professional boxing career under the nickname “Gene” Tunney. His boxing skill matured as he defeated some of the best-known fighters of the day including “Soldier” Jones and Jack Burke. He then outpointed the master boxer “Battling” Levinsky to earn the American Light Heavyweight title (back in the day when there was only one title to be won).
In May of 1922 Gene ran into Harry Greb, known professionally as “the Human Windmill”, whose unorthodox style gave his contemporaries fits in the ring. Greb broke Tunney’s nose with the very first punch and proceeded to administer a terrible beating in a fight that would have been stopped in the first round today. Somehow, Gene managed to stay on his feet for 14 more rounds before losing the decision and the title.
Two days later, while still recovering in the hospital, Gene posted a bond for a rematch with Greb. The first fight, forever a terrifying memory for Gene thereafter, had actually revealed Greb’s vulnerability and given Gene the confidence to win his title back. That is precisely what he did in their second fight.
Tunney stayed busy, defeating Jacques Carpentier in July 1924 and handing Hall of Famer Tommy Gibbons his only knockout loss a year later. A fight with heavyweight contender Johnny Risko convinced Gene he was ready to step up in weight class and pursue the heavyweight championship.
Winning the Heavyweight Championship
The heavyweight champion at the time was Jack Dempsey, who agreed to fight Tunney on September 23, 1926. Tunney dutifully prepared for the fight, studying Dempsey’s style on film and training harder than ever. Dempsey, on the other hand, had been idle in the ring and was enjoying a rather dissolute lifestyle for a professional boxer. Bookies still made the out-of-shape Dempsey the 3-1 favorite.
Over 120,000 paying spectators watched this famous fight in Philadelphia. Tunney was far better prepared both physically and intellectually, and easily evaded Dempsey’s bull-like charges to win the heavyweight championship and shock the sporting world.
The “Long Count” Rematch
The rematch on September 22, 1927 would become one of the most controversial fights in American history. It took place at Soldier Field in Chicago, with 102,000 spectators paying a record $2.6 million at the gate. Another 50 million Americans tuned into the blow-by-blow radio broadcast. The first six rounds of the rematch followed the pattern of the earlier fight, with Dempsey unable to brawl as Tunney deftly jabbed and countered. In the seventh, Dempsey landed a left hook that stunned Tunney. Dempsey pounced and a vicious barrage sent Tunney to the canvas in a heap.
Dempsey was not accustomed to the new rule requiring the standing fighter to move to a neutral corner. The referee had to shove Dempsey to his place before he could begin a count. The result was the famously controversial “long count”, 17 full seconds between the time Tunney went down and the time he got back to his feet. Tunney managed to clinch and stall his way to the end of round seven. By the start of round eight Tunney was fully alert again and even knocked Dempsey down in that round. Tunney held off Dempsey’s increasingly desperate onslaughts and won the fight to retain his championship.
A Genteel and Honored Retirement
Tunney would defend his title only one more time, defeating an overmatched Tom Heeney in 1928. Gene retired from the ring with a record of 65-1-1, his senses intact, and a pile of money. He later married wealthy heiress Polly Lauder and enjoyed a successful business career.
James Joseph “Gene” Tunney, the son of Irish immigrants and a champion for the ages, died peacefully on November 7, 1978. He was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1990.