Tuesday, 10 June 2014

Under-rated: Gene Tunney

With a group of my friends I sometimes play a game called 'under-rated / over-rated / rightly-rated' (admittedly the name needs some refinement if we're ever going to turn the idea into a TV panel show, as we believe it has the potential to become).

The rules are pretty simple: we mention someone or something and then debate whether, in the modern world / society as a whole, it's given the respect and status it's due (rightly-rated!) or whether, perhaps, it deserves wider attention and praise (under-rated!) or whether, frankly, we believe it's all a lot of hot air and/ or hype (over-rated!)

It can get quite heated and uniformity of agreement is pretty rare - but that's all part of the fun. For me, the genius of the game (modest, aren't I?) is that you can apply it to anything or anyone - here's a couple of examples ...

Let's take hard copies of newspapers! Under-rated in the modern world, I'd say, what with the growth of the Internet... nothing beats sitting in the garden on a Sunday morning leafing through The Observer or The Sunday Times ... it's never the same on an i-pad! Or how about movie director James Cameron? Well, he used to be rightly-rated, what with Terminator and Aliens and suchlike, but now, since Titanic and Avatar, I'd say he's massively over-rated. Can't fashion a decent narrative to save his life and is far too reliant on special effects!

You get the idea.

I also enjoy applying this game to boxing, which is what this blog is about after all. (Boxing itself is clearly under-rated as a sport, by the way, particularly in the modern world, where people are very sniffy about it and it doesn't get the media attention it deserves).

So then, in the first of an occasional series, I'm going to look today at a boxer who I think is under-rated - later posts might examine boxers or aspects of boxing which I believe are over-rated. (I probably won't bother with the rightly-rated ... there's never as much to discuss with that category).

So here goes: Gene Tunney is criminally under-rated. I'm assuming, by the way, that because you're reading this, you're a pretty big boxing fan and have therefore heard of Gene Tunney. On the contrary, if you're thinking: Gene who? then that only supports my point and there's no real need to read on. Instead you should check out Tunney's wikipedia page and come back here when you're up to speed.

As for those of you who are still reading, if you really want to test my theory on Tunney you need to find ten sports fans, not boxing fans specifically, and see how many of them name Tunney when asked to identify, say, ten famous heavyweight boxers. In fact, find out how many of them have even heard of Gene Tunney or could identify him from a photo.

Not many, I'd wager. In fact, if heavyweight champions ever came up on the peerless quiz show Pointless, I'd be willing to bet Gene Tunney would probably be a pointless answer. OK, I'm sure not many people would name Jess Willard, Bob Fitzsimmons or Jack Sharkey either, but they're not boxers who retired while still Heavyweight Champion of the World with only one loss in their entire 68-fight career.

Maybe it's not surprising that the general public are ignorant about Tunney, after all, the public are ignorant of quite a lot of things, so how about die-hard boxing fans? Well, they under-rate Tunney too. Despite the fact his only loss came against all-time great Harry Greb, which Tunney later avenged on three occasions, and that he also secured victories over Jack Dempsey (twice), Battling Levinsky, Georges Carpentier and Tommy Gibbons and drew with Tommy Loughran, 'Gentleman' Gene is rarely given the props he deserves.

Sure, he's in the boxing hall of fame, but so are plenty of people (many of them over-rated by the way)More pertinently, it puzzles me that, given his stunning record and the fact he beat the legendary Dempsey twice, Tunney almost invariably comes behind Dempsey when boxing writers list their top five or top ten heavyweights of all time. Bert Sugar, to quote one such example, rates Dempsey third and Tunney fifth, while this Boxing Insider article ranks Dempsey eighth and Tunney nowhere in the top ten, and Sports Illustrated place Dempsey sixth in yet another Tunney-less top ten

There are myriad factors at work here, I feel. For one, Tunney's reputation as a 'thinking fighter', and his 'intellectual' pretensions seem to rub a lot of boxing fans up the wrong way. His bookish style and perceived intellectual arrogance, quite simply, aren't what many fans look for in a heavyweight champ. As a consequence, people rarely know how to view the 'Fighting Marine ', probably because he stands so far removed in style and character from the norms to which boxers usually adhere, so instead they under-rate him, or, worse still, they ignore him.

There's also the fact that Tunney was highly unpopular because he deposed Dempsey - who remains a folk hero to many, although, ironically, when he was champion he was extremely unpopular for a while. "Gene Tunney is belittled to this day," the great boxing scribe A.J. Liebling once wrote, "particularly by fans who never saw him, simply because he whipped Jack Dempsey."

The years since his pair of victories against Dempsey have been cruel to Tunney, erasing his legacy among the wider public to near invisible proportions. As a I stated earlier, in discussions of the top five heavyweights of all time Dempsey 's name is often evident but Tunney's is often conspicuously absent, despite the fact his record is statistically superior to every heavyweight champion bar Rocky Marciano.

A naturally philosophical character with an interest in literature who was friends with George Bernard Shaw, it seems that Tunney's worse crime was to be different. His confession that he suffered "intense anxiety with crowds" did not win him many admirers, for example, among those who felt heavyweights should conform slavishly to masculine stereotypes.

Two weeks after his first victory against Dempsey, Tunney attended a bout at Madison Square Garden in his home city and was roundly booed while Dempsey was cheered. Unsurprisingly, Tunney's desire to please the public quickly evaporated after this. "I planned a psychological defence for all future jeers," he later recalled. "I should get fifty cents of every dollar the booers paid for the privilege. In the future there would be no free boos." 

If Tunney's PR skills were lacking, there is much to admire in the way that he single-mindedly approached boxing. To him every opponent's style was a riddle to be studied, pondered and then overcome. A graphic illustration of this could be found in his aforementioned series of fights with the fearsome Greb. When the duo first met Tunney suffered his first, and only, professional defeat and was battered so badly, suffering a severed artery and multiple nose fractures, that family and friends urged him to quit boxing. "It is impossible to describe the bloodiness of that fight," Tunney later said. "The only consciousness I had was to keep on trying." 

Nevertheless, Tunney had the strength of character to detach himself from the slaughter and formulate a plan for how to handle a return. The following day he demanded a rematch - and in four further fights with Greb he so reversed the balance of power that by their final meeting it was Greb who was bloodied and beaten. These five momentous fights wreck the casual misconception that Tunney was a man with no stomach for the heat of battle who merely used boxing as a means for social and financial advancement. "I honesty do not believe there was ever a boxer who had more genuine love for boxing competition than myself," Tunney once said.

Similarly, Tunney correctly assessed ahead of his challenge for the World Heavyweight title in 1926 that Dempsey was susceptible to right hands, and could be thwarted by a solid defence and plenty of speed. "The laugh of the Twenties was my confident insistence that I would defeat Jack Dempsey," Tunney later recalled. "To the boxing public, this optimistic belief was the funniest of jokes. To me, it was a reasonable statement of calculated probability." He implemented this strategy perfectly in winning a unanimous 10-round decision.

More than 100,000 people came from far and wide to Soldier Field, Chicago in 1927 for the rematch between the two men, which was one of the most anticipated title fights in history. This second contest set a gate receipts record that would stand for over 50 years, and broadly conformed to the pattern of the first fight with Tunney evading Dempsey's attacks and racking up the points until the seventh round - and one of the most dramatic moments in sporting history - as a vicious combination floored Tunney for the first time ever.

Rather than retreat to a neutral corner, Dempsey excitably hovered over his stricken opponent, allowing him an extra five or six seconds to recover before the referee began his count. Tunney rose at the count of nine, later maintaining that he took as long a breather as possible and could have risen anytime after the count of two. "Nobody but a fool fails to do that," he declared. Accounts vary but it's thought that between five and 12 people following the fight died of heart attacks during the course of the fateful seventh. Tunney then backed away for the remainder of the round, knocked Dempsey down in the eighth and punished him severely for the final two rounds to capture another points decision. 

For a second time, the 'Manassa Mauler''s admittedly thrilling style, which thrived against the uncultured likes of Jess Willard and Luis Firpo, had been found wanting in a battle of wits. However the idea that Dempsey had been somehow robbed of the title by ill fortune and a 'long count' (rather than the fact Tunney had his measure) soon gained notice and saw him become even more of a popular hero, while Tunney's achievements were largely ignored. 

Tunney was a man who fought for the concept of the boxer as a thinker while attaining all his goals and never making a sentimental comeback that ended in 'glorious' defeat. These factors, coupled with the fact he defeated an American hero, meant the public and boxing fans never warmed to him. Yet away from the indifferent gaze of the world, Tunney was a generous man, paying Dempsey a friendly visit the day after he took his title and maintaining a close friendship with him. 

"My great work now is to live quietly and simply," Tunney, who died in 1978, declared in his retirement statement. "For this manner of living brings me most happiness." Just as he had succeeded in the ring, so Tunney succeeded in building a family and business interests when his fighting days were over. Fans never gained the satisfaction of seeing Tunney lose the title in the sort of brave but futile effort against a younger man which often wins sympathy for an older champion. Quite simply, the majority of fight fans never seem to have forgiven Tunney for being too successful.

With the feats of the great boxers seldom recited from father to son these days, in the way that Roman or Greek myths were passed down the generations, it is unlikely that Tunney will ever now receive the popular acclaim his achievements warrant.

Perhaps the most under-rated heavyweight champion of them all deserves far better.

N.B. Fight figures from BoxRec, some sources differ on the stats of Tunney's career, due to newspaper decisions, no contests etc

Luke G. Williams
Follow @boxianajournal

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