Monday, 22 September 2014

The Long Count

On 22 September 1927, before a record crowd of 104,000 at Soldiers Field in Chicago, Jack Dempsey attempted to regain the Heavyweight Title he had lost to Gene Tunney the previous year. It was to become one of the most controversial fights of all time.

Though they came from not dissimilar backgrounds the two men could not have been more different.

Dempsey had won the title seven years earlier when he destroyed the 6'7" 'Pottawattomie Giant' Jess Willard, knocking him down seven times in the first round, breaking his jaw, three ribs, and leaving him deaf in one ear. It was one of the most savage beatings ever witnessed in a boxing ring and made Dempsey the most feared boxer of his or any previous generation, and it was said the cast of his eye alone was enough to chill his opponents to the bone.

But for Gene Tunney boxing was a science not a brawl, and the means to make a living not a life to lead. He preferred books to prize fighting and counted such literary luminaries as F Scott Fitzgerald and George Bernard Shaw among his friends. The public however hated his intellectual pretensions and at their first fight the previous year the crowd had been firmly behind their hero, Dempsey. But Tunney, who studied his opponents on film before a fight, had produced a boxing masterclass winning every round to take the title.

By the time of their second fight public opinion had changed following the accusation that Dempsey had dodged the draft in World War One and he was jeered as he entered the ring, the crowds allegiance now being with the ex-Marine Tunney.

The re-match appeared to be going very much the way of the first fight with Tunney keeping his distance, avoiding Dempsey's increasingly desperate lunges, and jabbing his way to a large points lead when in the 7th Round two right-crosses staggered him before beneath a flurry of follow-up punches he slumped to the canvass.

Tunney was clearly dazed as he held onto the ropes with his left glove. Dempsey stood over him glowering, waiting for him to rise, and ignored the referees instruction to return to his corner before the count could begin.

It remains uncertain exactly how much time was lost and some suggest it could have been as much as eight seconds but Tunney took every moment, staring directly at the referee and not rising to the count of nine. He then skilfully swerved and dodged Dempsey's wild and uncoordinated attacks.

Normal service was resumed in the following round with Tunney flooring Dempsey and going onto dominate the remainder of the fight.

The notorious 'Long Count' still remains one of the most controversial events in boxing history, however.

When asked in the aftermath of the fight why he had ignored the referees instructions Dempsey replied: "I wanted to kill the son-of-a-bitch." Talking to his wife he also coined the famous phrase - "Honey, I forgot to duck."

But his good grace in defeat, raising the Champions arm in triumph, earned him the applause of the crowd and he later restored his reputation as a patriotic American by serving in the Pacific during World War Two.

But he never fought in the ring again.

Gene Tunney was to retire the undefeated Champion the following year.

The unschooled Dempsey and the intellectual Tunney were to become lifelong friends following retirement even if they never could quite agree on the outcome of the fight had it gone to the count of ten.

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