Dempsey & Tunney – different fighters; different people

Sean Anderson
20/05/2016 11:11am

Since the publication of the Queensbury rules some infamous rivalries have shaped the history of our great sport. Such rivalries have divided the opinion of many fight fans. These conflicts are often built up by the media and fans through the two boxers being the polar opposite of each other, be it the boxer versus the slugger; the poor versus the middle class; the arrogant versus the modest or the extrovert versus the introvert.

One of the greatest examples of this can be seen in the rivalry of The “Manassa Mauler” Jack Dempsey and the “Fighting Marine” Gene Tunney. They fought twice over the course of a year between September 1926 and September 1927; Tunney winning both bouts despite being the underdog.

So, how were these boxers so different?

Dempsey had a difficult start to life. Of a Mormon background his family travelled often in an attempt to find work. He dropped out of school early and left home at 16; travelling underneath trains and sleeping in hobo camps due to his lack of funds whilst searching for employment. As a result of this tough upbringing he turned to fighting, or more accurately bar-room brawls. He showed a flair for this and the rest is history. He was lamented for not serving in World War 1; however a short while later he was exonerated of such negativity after it was proven that he had actually been refused enrolment. During his career he enjoyed the limelight, making numerous public appearances at circuses and endorsed numerous products. He was also known to enjoy spending his hard earned money and had grown accustomed to a somewhat party lifestyle during breaks from boxing. On retirement he was described as a philanthropist and was renowned for his warmth kindness and generosity outside of the ring. As well as this he sponsored “Bucking Bronco” events, appeared in Hollywood movies, managed casinos and opened restaurants. He also enlisted in the US Army during World War 2.

Dempsey and Tunney

Tunney was also from a relatively modest background. A working class Irish family, his father worked at New York harbour. Tunney found boxing after his dad gave him a set of gloves in the hope it could ensure he would be able to defend himself on the mean streets of 1920’s New York. Similarly to Dempsey, Tunney also dropped out of school early but unlike his rival this was because he had found himself a steady income. He had landed a job at the Ocean Steamship company.

While Dempsey who boxed out of necessity, Tunney boxed as a hobby. After his talent became clear he turned professional whilst continuing to hold down a full time job. Unlike Dempsey he served in the Marines during WW1 before continuing his career. Tunney was an articulate man; his main interests included classical literature. Shakespeare was considered to be his main area of interest and he even lectured on this subject at Yale University. On retirement he married socialite and heiress of the Carnegie steel company Polly Lauder who he went on to marry in 1928. He served in the US Navy during WW2 before resuming his life as a successful business man. He actively tried to remain out of the public eye and was rarely seen at public events.

As you can see they were different in many ways, and it was no secret who the fans expressed preference for. Dempsey.
It would be difficult to even conclude these two divided opinions, as on the whole Dempsey was simply adored by US fight fans. Most obviously much of this can be attributed to Dempsey’s aggressive come forward style and phenomenal KO record (61-51) that grew affinity with his adoring fans. Conversely Tunney was described as a “thinking fighter” despite his also impressive KO record (65-48). He was thought to be heavily reliant on his jab and footwork; a style that was less appreciated in the 1920’s.

But why else did complete adulation escape Tunney in comparison to Dempsey? After all he was a twice war veteran, dedicated family man that beat every opponent he faced including Harry Greb and of course the great Dempsey. One reason lies in exactly that. He beat the people’s champion and many people never forgave him for that. Dempsey was the working class hero during extremely difficult times; to see him lose his title was shattering for his army of followers.

Tunney was a rarity in boxing. His intelligence was not hugely uncommon; former Light Heavyweight and Cruiserweight world champion Bobby Czyz was a member of Mensa. However what was unusual was his interest in English literature; no other world champion boxer has lectured University undergraduates on the dialogue of Shakespeare. This was seemingly another reason why resounding popularity evaded Tunney. To some this may have seemed unique, to most however this distanced him from their admiration as he lacked the common touch that fight fans love.

Finally, on retirement he was not constantly in the public eye like Dempsey. For fight fans, seeing their hero is a constant reminder of how great they once were, and Dempsey led a very public life on retirement. Tunney shunned the public eye and was more at home spending time with his family and lecturing within a university campus.

So, whilst both were working class men, it was the slugging, party loving, philanthropist against the safety first, introverted, scholar. There was only going to be one winner, even if this was not the case in the ring. Despite their differences as people, the two got on extremely well and became good friends after retirement. Tunney always claimed that the long count he was administered when knocked down in the second fight versus Dempsey in no way aided victory; Dempsey replied “I have no reason not to believe him. Gene’s a great guy.”

Just not as many fight fans thought he was as great as Dempsey.