Gene Tunney (standing) used a body attack to outpoint Greb in their third fight. (Sports Studio Photos/Getty Images)
He was superb technical fighter with a short-lived reign in the golden era of boxing, defeating one of the greatest heavyweights of all time to claim the title and losing only to one of the most legendary practitioners of the earliest days of professional prizefighting. The great Gene Tunney passed away on a day like today, 44 years ago.
James Joseph Tunney was born on May 25, 1897, in New York City to Irish parents who had emigrated from the Emerald Isle after the great potato famine. He was one of seven children. He became interested in athletics at an early age and joined the US Marines later in his youth.
He made his pro debut in his late teens and then spent most of his years in the Marines as part of the boxing team during World War I. With a highly technical style developed in hundreds of amateur fights in the armed forces, Tunney managed to remain undefeated for most of his career, which led to his challenge of Jack Dempsey for the title in 1926 (which Tunney won) and then an immediate rematch that instantly became one of the most infamous heavyweight clashes of all time.
In what became known as the “Battle of the Long Count,” Tunney remained on the canvas for over 14 seconds while Dempsey was summoned to a neutral corner by referee Dave Barry, trying to enforce a new rule (previously, there was no rule forcing fighters to retreat to a neutral corner following a knockdown). The conspiracy theories around that fateful moment live on today, but the fact remains that Tunney was able to win that rematch on points as well, retiring shortly after making the lone defense of his title in 1927.
He retired unbeaten as a champion, and with the exception of his now legendary loss to middleweight Harry Greb in a light heavyweight bout in 1922, he held an unblemished record that still stands out today in an era where the “0” was nowhere near as protected as it is today.
Although his loss to Greb remains the only official loss in a record that also holds 80 wins and three draws, it is said (mostly by Tunney, who was known as a gentleman inside and outside the ring) that he had also lost to master technician and former light heavyweight champ Tommy Loughran in a pro-style bout during his tenure in the Marines. The lack of proper records and rules at that time (in which most of Tunney’s results were unofficial “newspaper decisions”) does not detract from the fact that Tunney remains one of the most underrated heavyweights of any era.
Tunney died on November 7, 1978, in Connecticut at 81 years of age. He was elected as Ring Magazine’s first-ever Fighter of the Year in 1928 and inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1990.
Diego M. Morilla has written for The Ring since 2013. He has also written for HBO.com, ESPN.com and many other magazines, websites, newspapers and outlets since 1993. He is a full member of the Boxing Writers Association of America and an elector for the International Boxing Hall of Fame. He has won two first-place awards in the BWAA’s annual writing contest, and he is the moderator of The Ring’s Women’s Ratings Panel. He served as copy editor for the second era of The Ring en Español (2018-2020) and is currently a writer and editor for RingTV.com.