Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked

Books | Sports

February 2, 2007

Boxing's Forgotten Champ

Writer Jack Cavanaugh talks about Gene Tunney, history's 'brainiest' heavyweight champion and twice a victor over Jack Dempsey.

Michael Myser

As a young sports reporter, Jack Cavanaugh had a chance meeting in the 1960s with a mythical figure of his childhood, former champ Gene Tunney. After their 45-minute chat, Tunney fell off the radar of Cavanaugh—and of the sports world—for decades, until Tunney's name came up in conversation, spurring Cavanaugh to write the authoritative Tunney story. Tunney: Boxing's Brainiest Champ and His Upset of the Great Jack Dempsey, is equal parts biography and history lesson, following the boxer from his youth in the West Village in New York to his unheralded, but extremely successful career—he lost just one of 77 fights.

Cavanaugh often strays from Tunney for in-depth explications of his various boxing contemporaries, New York and Chicago's political shenanigans, crooked boxing promoters, and shady sportswriters.

Jack Cavanaugh. Photo by Tara Cavanaugh.
Tunney was a great fighter, read Shakespeare, had a bunch of interesting friends, married an heiress, was a very successful business man, and beat Jack Dempsey twice.

Jack Cavanaugh. Photo by Tara Cavanaugh.

The climax is Cavanaugh's rousing account of Tunney's two fights with heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey, who Cavanaugh believes was more popular at the time than Babe Ruth. Given little shot at winning, Tunney completely dominated their first fight to steal the championship belt, and a year later defended that title in a controversial fight in front of nearly 150,000 fans at Chicago's new Soldier Field in 1928. Despite those two victories, Tunney remains largely unknown. Or did, until now.

The following interview has been edited for clarity. (Also, you can hear Cavanaugh and other sports-book authors read from and talk about their works at the free Varsity Letters event presented by Gelf on Wednesday, February 7, in New York's Lower East Side.)

Gelf Magazine: You met Gene Tunney on a train years ago, in the 1960s. When you first met him, what intrigued you most about him?

Jack Cavanaugh: I grew up in Stamford, Connecticut, where Tunney lived for many, many years. He moved into an old Colonial with 200 acres there, which he bought when he retired in 1928. He lived there until he died in 1978, so when I was growing up as a kid, I heard a lot about him. He was kind of a mythical figure up there, though rarely seen around town.
So I was sitting alongside this commuter, with a typical briefcase, and he started talking to me about the condition of the car, which was in pretty bad shape. I looked at him and thought, "God, this is Gene Tunney."
I was really in awe. I introduced myself and he was very gracious. We had a memorable conversation about his career for about 45 minutes or so, from Grand Central to the Stamford railroad station. We got off the train and he shook my hand very warmly.

GM: Tunney died in 1978. Did you spend any time with him other than that train ride?

JC: No, that was the only time I met him. I never saw him and never met him on the train again. At that time, I didn't have any intention of writing a book. That was so many years ago, and I was just a young reporter traveling to and from New York.
By the time I went to write the book in 2002, he'd been dead for more than 20 years. I just had that one memorable meeting with him.


GM: When did you ultimately decide he was a subject worthy of writing about?

JC: It was really happenstance. About five years ago, I was doing a feature story for the New York Times about this famous referee, and he mentioned Tunney. We talked about him for a while.
In the conversation, I thought it was amazing how Tunney just disappeared after fighting. Nobody talked about him or remembered him, but he was such an interesting man. He was a great fighter, read Shakespeare, had a bunch of interesting friends, married an heiress, was a very successful business man, and beat Jack Dempsey twice. Everyone remembers Jack Dempsey, but no one remembers Gene Tunney.
The more we talked about him, the more I realized there had to be a book here, if one hadn't already been written. And sure enough, there were two books about him, but he wrote them both. He wrote one in 1933 and another in 1941 when he went into the Navy for World War II. The more research I did, I realized he was a forgotten heavyweight champion. [Eds. note: After Cavanuagh began working on the book, John Jarret's Gene Tunney was published.]

GM: What about Tunney makes him so interesting?

JC: I think he's the most unique champion of any division in history. First, you had someone who dropped out of high school at the age of 15 to support his family. His father was a dockworker not making much money and the family was very poor. From the time he was a little kid, he read constantly.
First, he was always getting picked on by all the neighborhood bullies for his reading. Then, as he got into boxing, and writers found out about his reading habits, he took a pounding from the media. Writers began to make fun of him, and he took a lot of ridicule for that. They thought he was a literary poseur, a phony highbrow.
And he had a fascinating life. Tunney was spending time in museums, hanging around with George Bernard Shaw, reading Shakespeare. This wasn't a normal boxer. He was even invited to Yale to lecture on Shakespeare. He was a really handsome guy as well, and he distanced himself from the rest of the boxing world. But he kept on winning and winning and winning.
Then he beat probably the most popular athlete of the 1920s—more popular than Babe Ruth—in Jack Dempsey. This was while Dempsey was the quintessential heavyweight champ.

When he retired, he disappeared. … Tunney was never around, so it was easy to forget him.
GM: Despite his record, why have so few ever heard of Gene Tunney?

JC: He was forgotten partly because he had beaten a beloved champion. It was also partly because he wanted to be overlooked. He just wanted to be a businessman, and to be pretty much left alone after he quit fighting.
When he retired, he disappeared. Tunney was always being invited to the big fights, but he'd never go. Instead, he was living up on his estate in Connecticut and wanted nothing to do with boxing. Tunney was never around, so it was easy to forget him.
Plus, he wasn't the heavyweight champion that people thought a heavyweight champion should be. Historically, every heavyweight champion wins his title by knocking out his opponent. Tunney was the first fighter ever to win a heavyweight title by decision.
He was even underrated when he was fighting. He was given virtually no chance of beating Dempsey in their first fight in 1926.

Gene Tunney

Gene Tunney. Photo courtesy Library of Congress, Carl Van Vechten collection

GM: The book is called Tunney, but you devote quite a bit of the book to other boxers, not just Jack Dempsey and Tunney, as well as politicians, promoters and others. Why did you expand beyond Tunney?

JC: I hate to even say it, because it's such a cliché, but this isn't just a boxing book.
The reason I did that was because it was the roaring '20s. It was probably the most colorful era in U.S. history with a lot of colorful characters. And Tunney knew many of them.
It was a very unusual era. The politics was unusual: You had Jimmy Walker, the only New York mayor to be forced out of office because of corruption. You find Al Capone, who shows up around the second Dempsey fight in Chicago. Other gangsters show up. You even had corrupt sportswriters who were taking money from boxers and managers, which I don't think people realized.
But these other characters only come up if they're relevant to the story. As my editor said to me, "Only refer to other interesting people if they're connected to the story." That's what I tried to do.

GM: Speaking of those "characters," was boxing doomed from the beginning, what with the gambling, gangsters, crooked managers and promoters surrounding the sport, even in the early 1900s?

JC: Not necessarily doomed, but it attracted some unsavory characters. It's a perfect gambling situation and it's easy to fix a fight. You only need to have one fighter to agree not to do his best. It lends itself to an unsavory element.
Even the crowds in those days were rowdy. You weren't having many educated people going to boxing bouts. But Tunney and Dempsey changed that. Those fights attracted all parts of society and changed how boxing was perceived. In large part, it was because of this clean-cut, good-looking, former Marine who read voraciously.

GM: And that expanded popularity held up until fairly recently.

JC: I'm glad I'm not covering it anymore, because the sport is absolutely dead. Back in the '70s and '80s, we had Ali, Hagler, Hearns, who were very intriguing. Since then, no one's come along to take their place as a marquee type of fighter. The sport has changed dramatically. Once Ali left the ring, it went downhill really fast. It needed people with great personalities. That was true in the '70s and '80s, but there's no one like that today.
It's deteriorated to the point that no one follows boxing any longer.

GM: So you believe boxing is primarily driven by personalities?

JC: Definitely. From way back in the '20s, right through the Ali reign, the most famous athlete in the world was the heavyweight champion. If you won the heavyweight title, you became the most famous athlete in the world. Today there are like four heavyweight champions, and nobody knows who they are. And nobody cares.

GM: But you write that even Tunney was somewhat aloof, at least with the media.

He'd come to press conferences carrying a book by Somerset Maugham, and they made fun of him. He resented that very strongly.
JC: The aloofness was not entirely his fault. The relationship with sportswriters was an adversarial one because the famous writers of the era thought he was putting on a show with his reading. He'd come to press conferences carrying a book by Somerset Maugham, and they made fun of him. He resented that very strongly. He just resented the treatment; he was being made fun of because he read books. Today, he'd be on the cover of Newsweek, Sports Illustrated…he'd be a beloved sports figure.

GM: Who did you find were his favorite authors?

JC: George Bernard Shaw was one of his favorites. He became friendly with Shaw; in fact he met all these writers. He read and knew Somerset Maugham. Tunney could even quote Shakespeare, as he did when he spoke at Yale.

GM: Despite all that reading, he was a pretty solid fighter, becoming the heavyweight champion in 1926. Was his first victory against Jack Dempsey, in Philadelphia, dismissed because of Dempsey's three-year layoff?

JC: Dempsey did have that three-year layoff, but stayed in very good condition. He fought a lot of exhibitions. When he came back to fight Tunney, a lot of people blamed the layoff for his loss, but he trained for a very long time. I think it was a matter of styles, and I think even if they'd fought five years earlier, Tunney still would have beat him.
But when he first fought Dempsey, he was a huge underdog. Tunney was given no chance to beat him. Not only does he beat him, he boxes his ears off in that first fight. But that just made Tunney less popular, because everybody loved Jack Dempsey. And a lot of people thought it was a fluke, even though Tunney won every round.

GM: Why was the rematch so controversial?

JC: Many of the writers there thought there was a long count. Dempsey knocked Tunney down in the seventh round, and Dempsey just stood over Tunney. Four or five seconds elapsed before Dempsey realized he had to go to the farthest neutral corner before the referee would start counting.
Tunney had anywhere from four to seven seconds to recuperate before the count began. A lot of writers thought Dempsey got cheated out of a knockout, but they were wrong. The long count was totally legitimate and Tunney dominated the rest of the fight. Dempsey himself admitted years later he made a mistake and said what the referee did was perfectly justified.
But the sentiment around the world, not just the United States, was that Dempsey was cheated out of a title. It became without a doubt the most controversial fight, the most controversial round, of all time. Also, to this day, that was the biggest crowd ever to see a sporting event in this country. They estimated there were 145,000 at Soldier Field.

GM: You write very detailed accounts of these fights. Where did you get your play-by-play?

JC: There's a company based in New York called the Boxing Hall of Champions and they have the greatest collection of old fight film in the world. I knew about this company and they sent me any film of any fights I wanted. They sent me a lot of Dempsey fights and a lot of the Tunney fights. I watched them very carefully, obviously. I have videos of both of the Tunney/Dempsey fights. That was a huge help.
When I'm describing what happened in those fights, I've seen them over and over and over again, watched them in slow motion, and analyzed them.

GM: Does that style of fighting, from the '20s, hold up over time?

JC: I think the styles haven't changed all that much. You have the great punchers, who hit very hard, but aren't very good boxers. Then you have those guys like Tunney, the boxers, who rely on speed and calculation. You have people like George Foreman, the puncher, and Ali, the boxer.

GM: You've been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for this book. What does that mean to you?

JC: It's a great honor. I think it's a real long shot. It's flattering, though.

You can hear Cavanaugh and other sports-book authors read from and talk about their works at the free Varsity Letters event presented by Gelf on Wednesday, February 7, in New York's Lower East Side.

Michael Myser

Michael Myser is a freelance writer in Morristown, New Jersey. His writing can be found at michaelmyser.blogspot.com.







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Comments

- Books
- posted on Feb 16, 07
RON TAMOSCHAT

ENJOYED YOUR BOOK ON TUNNEY , BUT WAS DISAPPOINTED THAT YOU DID NOT MENTION OR EXPLORE HIS WELL KNOWN PROBLEMS WITH ALCOHOL LATER IN LIFE. ALSO YOU DID NOT GIVE HIS WEIGHTS FOR EACH OF HIS FIGHTS WITH DEMPSEY. ALSO , JIM CORBETT'S CRITICISM OF TUNNEY FOR "MUSCLING UP" TOO MUCH AS HE BUILT HIMSELF INTO A LEGITIMATE HEAVYWEIGHT BY DOING HEAVY GYMNASTIC EXCERCISES.YOU ALSO SAID THAT THE THREE KNOCKDOWN RULE CAME IN 10 YEARS AFTER DEMPSEY-TUNNEY , BUT I BELIEVE IT CAME IN IN THE 60 'S AFTER SOME FATALITIES IN THE RING. I ALSO WOULD HAVE LIKED MORE PHOTOS OF TUNNEY , THERE SEEM TO BE ENOUGH AROUND. I DON'T MEAN TO NIT-PICK , I JUST THINK THE ABOVE MENTIONED ITEMS WOULD HAVE ADDED TO A GOOD BOOK ABOUT A VERY INTERESTING SUBJECT.


Article by Michael Myser

Michael Myser is a freelance writer in Morristown, New Jersey. His writing can be found at michaelmyser.blogspot.com.

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