James Joseph ‘Gene’ Tunney (May 25, 1897 – November 7, 1978), also known as ‘The Fighting Marine’, was a world heavyweight champion who held the title from 1926 to 1928.
Tunney first took up the sport of boxing as a kid when his dad, an ex bare-knuckle fighter and amateur boxer, bought him gloves at age 10 in order for him to learn self-defence. Catching a buzz for fighting fostered the youngster to take that aspect a step further and he started to box competitively which in turn lead to him, with relatively little amateur experience or honors to speak of, turning professional at age 18 in 1915.
2 years after his debut the United States had entered World War 1.
Feeling patriotic at the time – a young Tunney(by then a 15-0 pro) decided to join the marines and found himself stationed abroad in France. While there(and debating whether he would ever box again), he was entered into the American Expeditionary Force light heavyweight championship by his commanding officer and managed to win it despite fighting with a broken knuckle for the majority of the tournament. Emboldened by winning the AEF contest, despite his injuries and weighing no more than a light-heavyweight, Tunney set his eyes on defeating an icon in Jack Dempsey, who at the time held the heavyweight crown and also the public’s adoration.
Following in the foot-steps of fellow legend of the period, Benny Leonard, an extremely skilled, fleet-footed and fast-thinking cerebral type of boxer in the ring, Tunney like-wise was content to approach boxing like a game of chess: sticking-and-moving behind a piston like jab rather than slugging it out(only doing so when required). This cautious approach allowed for Gene to rack up an incredible 62(47KOs)-1-1-1 with 17 no decision contests that included 4 fights with the legendary Harry Greb(winning 2, drawing 1 and losing 1), Tommy Gibbons, and Georges Carpentier before eventually reaching his main goal of fighting and beating the self styled ‘Manassa Mauler’ and heavyweight champion Dempsey; which he duly did via decision over 10 rounds, in 1926, to become heavyweight champion of the world.
A rematch was held a year later at Chicago’s Soldiers Field in front of 100,000 + spectators in a fight that generated the first $2 million dollar gate in a boxing match and which also saw The Fighting Marine win another unanimous decision; despite his getting off to a shaky start, being knocked down for the first time in his career, and the ensuing controversial ‘long count( a claim made at the time that speculated Tunney was ‘on the canvas’ for 13 seconds and not the 8 or 9 suggested by him and his corner).
Dempsey retired in the aftermath and Gene followed suit almost a year later after defending his title by knocking out Tom Heeney. His last opponent.
By the end of his career he had amassed a 65-1-1-1 record. An impressive tally when you take into account that he really was a natural light-heavyweight campaigning at heavyweight, that his only defeat(which he avenged) was to Harry Greb, a boxer who most experts in pugilism consider to be in their top 5 pound-for-pound all-time list when it comes to debating the greatest fighter who ever fought, and whom competed in an era where the sport was arguably in its zenith and enjoying a Golden Age.
When it comes to hardcore enthusiasts and fans discussing the finest heavyweight champions that have held a world title, in any era, Gene Tunney has to be the least spoke of and most under-rated fighter from a litany of legends and greats the division has produced, despite consideration of the period he boxed in and his accomplishments in the sport.
Some in the boxing community have suggested that this lack of recognition and lukewarm homage by boxing experts and fans alike may have originated with sportswriters and ‘newspapermen’ back then, who placed the emphasis of their questions on his persona and activities outside of the ring rather than his accomplishments ‘inside the ropes’; content instead to focus on his curious lifestyle that in ways belied and was in contrast to his granite like constitution, violent vocation and class background with his lecturing of Shakespeare at Yale, interests in literature, fraternizing with famous writers and playwrights such as George Bernard Shaw, and his marrying of a billionaire socialite in Mary ‘Polly’ Lauder who at the time was a heiress to the Carnegie fortune and had grown up in an environment of wealth and privilege far removed from the heavyweight champion’s own upbringing. And not only was Tunney’s demeanor, background and personal interests in polar opposition to that of his more ‘rough and tumble’ rival and fan favorite – Dempsey(whose own lifestyle was simpler and easier for the average person back then to relate to), but his preference to engage in a ‘hit and not get hit’ manner( despite his holding of a decent K.O. record himself) was counter to the all-out, action-packed, ‘seek and destroy’ attitude that the Manasa Mauler had excited fans with in previous years; this cautious and prudent approach could have fostered an added resentment and hostility from the more blood thirsty spectator(s) and boxing sportswriter(s) of the time in acknowledging Gene’s style and achievements in the ring.
Tunney, being a determined individual with particular interests, had no desire in conforming to the social milieu of the period surrounding him or pandering to the demands of the media and disgruntled fans, and his legacy and standing among the pantheon of other greats who graced the heavyweight division seems to have suffered due to it. In addition, his defeating and retiring of Jack Dempsey, whose own fame and popularity was almost on par with the President of the United States at the time, wouldn’t have endeared him to the public and sportswriters of the day who loved and idolized his legendary opponent.
In spite of the above and the aforementioned differences between the two fighters, both remained good friends and would occasionally seek each others company.
Gene’s boxing career came to a conclusion in 1928 and from that post-retirement existence he went on to write two autobiographies: A Man Must Fight and Arms for Living, ran a few successful businesses, and was inducted into the The Ring magazine’s Boxing Hall of Fame in 1955.
He died in 1978 of circulatory problems, aged 81.
Tunney Fighting Quote: ‘The way to know about championship quality is to learn from champions, and that I did; studying them with professional purpose during my time in the ring and from habitual interest afterward’.