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The Long Count
Seventy years ago, in a heavyweight title bout in Chicago, Jack Dempsey knocked Gene Tunney to the canvas. What happened next made this the most famous fight in the Golden Age of Sports
By William Nack
The crowd stretched away ... so far that sitting in the heat and glare of the cone lights just under the ring you couldn't see the last rows of customers. You could only sense that they were there from the combers of sound that came booming down the slope of the stadium out of the darkness.
Dempsey's right forced Tunney back. The challenger did not hesitate. He moved forward, looking as though he'd picked up an old, familiar scent from his days as a saloon fighter, a kind of psychic blood trail leading to a kill, and as he closed on Tunney, he suddenly planted his right foot and, in a single rolling motion of his shoulders, lowered himself into a crouch and then sprang out of it, throwing a left hook as he rose. The blow caught the champion going back, driving him even farther toward the ropes, and at once Dempsey was all over him. He cocked Iron Mike, the name to which his right hand answered, and fired.
Nine rows back, a 20-year-old racehorse trainer named H.A. (Jimmy) Jones, later famed for training Triple Crown winner Citation, leaped to his feet when he saw Dempsey wading in to strike. "Dempsey was like a cat -- just like a cat! -- the way he pounced," Jones, 90, recalls. "After chasing Tunney all night, Dempsey finally got a whack at him. And he whacked him good!"
Up at ringside, in the press rows, the newly appointed sports editor of The Washington Post, 22-year-old Shirley Povich, had never seen or heard a crowd like this. "Most thought Dempsey was in for the kill," says Povich, 92. "They had been waiting for it from the start. It was a Dempsey crowd, and everything he did brought a roar."
More than 145,000 souls had collected that night in Chicago's Soldier Field, the largest crowd ever to witness a prizefight, and for nearly 30 minutes the show had been a monotonous parody of the first Dempsey-Tunney fight, a year earlier at Philadelphia's Sesquicentennial Stadium, where the quicker, fitter Tunney, 28 years old and boxing masterfully, won all 10 rounds against an aging, awkward champion who, at 31, appeared to have nothing left after three years of ring idleness. It was the first time in history that the heavyweight title had changed hands on a decision, and the public resented Tunney for dethroning the revered Dempsey in such unworthy fashion. "A lousy 10-round decision," says Povich. Now here they were again, and after 6 1/2 rounds of Tunney's sticking and moving, beating Dempsey to the punch, Dempsey whacked him with the hook and, uncorking Iron Mike, smashed him back against the ropes.
Tunney flailed weakly with a right, exposing his head, and for the first time in almost 17 rounds of fighting -- in what had been for Dempsey, who had more one-round knockouts than any other heavyweight in history, the maddening pursuit of a ghost -- Dempsey finally had the target before him, stunned and stationary. So he stepped inside and ripped a short, jolting left to the side of Tunney's jaw. It was a nearly perfect hook; had it been another inch or two forward, on the point of the chin, Tunney's cornermen would have been reaching for the smelling salts to wake their fighter up. His knees buckling, the champion began to sink along the ropes. In a rush to finish him, Dempsey grazed Tunney's face with a poorly thrown right, then lashed another hook to his head. Tunney was pitching backward -- his right leg, bent awkwardly, was caught under him -- when Dempsey, looming like a thunderhead, drove him down into the deck with a hard right to the face.
Tunney landed with a thud that no one heard. Pandemonium had descended on the place.
"Dempsey was hitting him as he went down," recalls Jones. "Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang! I'll never forget it. I could see the glaze in Tunney's eyes as he got hit. A right and a left and a right! Four or five times, real quick. Hard, hard punches! His mouth opened up, and then he went down on his back."
From the press rows Paul Gallico of the New York Daily News was heard yelling in a high-pitched voice into a phone to his editors, "Tunney is down from a series of blows!" Nearby, sitting right behind Damon Runyon, Povich could hear voices around him screaming at the fighter still standing in the ring, "Come on, Jack!"
Povich sees it yet today: "Tunney is going down, and my memory is sharp of Dempsey pummeling him on the head as he sags. And I can still see Tunney's hand, a vivid memory, reaching for the [middle] rope and finally grabbing it."
Beyond Soldier Field, 50 million people gathered by their home radios as announcer Graham McNamee, speaking to more people at one time than any man ever had, blurted out the news in his cracked, quavering voice: "And then Dempsey comes back, and Tunney is down! Tunney is down from a barrage of lefts and rights to the face!" Nine people died of heart attacks listening to that broadcast, three of them during McNamee's blow-by-blow of the seventh round.
Eleven-year-old Dan Satenstein was at home in Chicago sharing the earphones of a crystal set with his 20-year-old brother, Charlie, when Dempsey pounced. "I started to scream, 'Tunney is down! He knocked him down!'" Dan, 81, recalls. "My [two] brothers started screaming and jumping up and down. But then there was such bedlam and noise at Soldier Field that we lost the audio. 'I can't hear,' I kept saying. 'Everything is drowned out.'"
The voice of McNamee was lost in those great combers of sound that boomed out of the Chicago night. In Hell's Kitchen, on Manhattan's tough West Side, another 11-year-old boy had been leaning far out the window of his tenement flat and listening, across a 10-foot gangway, to a neighbor's radio describing the fight. "I'd never seen or heard anything like it before," says 81-year-old Harold Robbins, author of The Carpetbaggers and other popular novels. "I was hanging there, from my waist out. I could hear the voice, but then there was all the excitement and noise, and I couldn't tell who was down or what was going on."
It was precisely 10:34 p.m. on Sept. 22, 1927, 70 years ago this week, and what was going on in the middle of Soldier Field was the most dramatic, memorable sporting event of its era, the so-called Golden Age of Sports. Even today, seen in the silvery flicker of old films, the aftermath of the knockdown bedevils the eye and haunts the memory of that night.
The knockdown rule decreed by the Illinois State Athletic Commission was plain enough: When a knockdown occurs the timekeeper shall immediately arise and announce the seconds audibly as they elapse. The referee shall first see that the opponent retires to the farthest corner and then, turning to the timekeeper, shall pick up the count in unison with the timekeeper, announcing the seconds to the boxer on the floor. Should the boxer on his feet fail to stay in the corner, the referee and timekeeper shall cease counting until he has so retired.
A dazed Tunney is sitting on the floor, and Dempsey skips around him, heading toward his own corner, directly behind Tunney, while timekeeper Paul Beeler, at ringside, counts.
Now Dave Barry, the referee, is touching Dempsey's chest and pointing to a neutral corner to his left, ordering Dempsey there, but the fighter ignores him and steps into his own corner, about five feet behind Tunney, who has just uncrooked his twisted right leg.
Barry follows Dempsey, standing between him and the fallen fighter, and he again points to the neutral corner, yelling at Dempsey to leave.
Only now does Dempsey move, sliding his hand along the top rope as he lumbers away from his corner.
Here Barry finally turns toward Beeler and hears the count.
But instead of picking up that count in unison with his timekeeper, Barry calls out, "One!"
The Long Count, the name by which this fight forever will be known, has begun.
Just hours before the Long Count, with a man on base in the bottom of the ninth inning and the New York Yankees losing to the Detroit Tigers 7-6, Ruth struck a towering two-run, game-winning homer that landed five rows from the top of Yankee Stadium's rightfield stands. He carried the bat in his hand around the bases. The home run was his 56th of the season. Eight days later, on Sept. 30, he would hit number 60. The Yankees would never again be quite the team they were that year -- perhaps the greatest baseball team that ever played -- and Ruth would never have a season like that again. Indeed, between Soldier Field and Yankee Stadium, those closing days of September 1927 would be the zenith of that era in sports.
And so, in the end, there was a sense of symmetry in what was happening in those frantic days surrounding the Long Count, with Ruth circling the bases as Dempsey ascended as a martyr into myth.
Never in the history of American sports had there been a scene like the one at Soldier Field. For hours through the early evening, as American flags fluttered on the rim of the stadium and a light rain came and went, thousands of people swarmed across Michigan Avenue and filed through the gates. "Along the upper sweeps of the stadium, 500 and 600 feet away, it looked like a flow of army ants through the dim, hazy light," wrote Grantland Rice in the New York Herald Tribune.
The day before, as the gate swelled toward a record $2,658,660 -- about $22 million in today's dollars and thus the largest gate, by far, in the history of boxing -- the promoter of the fight, Tex Rickard, called the event "the crowning achievement of my life." Rickard has been called the greatest boxing promoter of all time, and he was certainly among the most flamboyant showmen of his era. He was born in a dusty roadside hovel in Missouri, and on his way to Soldier Field he prospected for gold in the Yukon, was a faro dealer in the Klondike, ran saloon gambling halls in gold-rush towns in Alaska and Nevada, served as the marshal of Henrietta, Texas, owned a cattle ranch in Paraguay and was a soldier of fortune in South Africa.
Along that path, he began promoting fights. In 1906, in Goldfield, Nev., Rickard put up $30,000 in cash as the guaranteed purse for the lightweight championship bout between Joe Gans and Battling Nelson. It was twice the largest purse ever before offered for a lightweight fight, and Rickard caused a local sensation by putting the money on display, in stacks of gleaming, newly minted $20 gold pieces, at a Goldfield bank.
Rickard thus launched himself as a seller of fights. By 1927 he was at the apex of his powers. He had first promoted Dempsey in 1919, when the fighter took the heavyweight title from Jess Willard, and together they had grown rich beyond any contemporary measure in sports. There were five million-dollar gates during the '20s, and Dempsey and Rickard figured in all of them. Indeed, with Rickard at the till, Dempsey became sports' fattest cash cow. In the first four of those million-dollar gates, he attracted customers who paid nearly $6 million, and the Long Count would bring that sum to nearly $9 million.
"Who can tie that for five appearances?" wrote Rice. "Who can come within $5,000,000 of [Dempsey's] mark? ... He is the greatest drawing card in sport."
And Chicago, to be sure, was Rickard's piece de resistance. Sitting at ringside, he presided over the richest, gaudiest assembly of people that any sporting event had ever drawn. For days, trains pulling private and Pullman cars had converged on Chicago from every point of the compass -- The Broadway Limited from New York, the Illinois Central from the South, the Santa Fe from out West -- in what one railroad worker described as "the greatest troop movement since the war." When a train chartered by James J. Corbett, the former heavyweight champion, arrived at the LaSalle Street Station, half the talent of Broadway stepped off, including George M. Cohan and Irving Berlin.
Rickard had the audacity to offer 42,000 ringside seats, at $40 apiece. Some of those seats were 137 rows back from the ring, but Rickard sold them all -- to Hollywood entertainers such as Al Jolson and Charlie Chaplin; to European royalty, including Princess Xenia of Greece; to all those Eastern swells, the Astors and the Harrimans and the Whitneys, who had arrived by private railroad cars; and to thousands of bankers, mobsters, industrialists, lawyers and politicians. "Plutocrats rubbed elbows with pickpockets," the Herald Tribune reported. They had occupied the swankiest hotel rooms in town, and now they hovered like moths around the brightly lit ring -- Rickard's personal signature on the night, with its gilded posts and the gilded water buckets hanging from them.
"Everybody was there," recalls Povich, one of 1,200 newsmen at the fight. "If you were a celebrity, you had to be there. It was the place to be. It was being whispered that some ringside seats were selling for a hundred dollars. My, my!"
Pridefully beholding his grandest creation, Rickard turned to the man sitting next to him, Hype Igoe of the New York World, and said, "Kid, if the earth came up and the sky came down and wiped out my first 10 rows, it would be the end of everything. Because I've got in those 10 rows all the world's wealth, all the world's big men, all the world's brains and production talent. Just in them 10 rows, kid. And you and me never seed nothing like it."
The fight had everything a showman could want in a promotion. It had the smell of money and the taste of blood, as all fights did when Dempsey was involved; a sense of intrigue born of persistent rumors that the fix was in for Dempsey; and a powerful current of history and romance. (No heavyweight champion who had lost the title had ever won it back.) Could the old Manassa Mauler come back and reclaim his crown from this dancing, counterpunching pretender? Most of all, in the national psyche, the fight offered two men as contrasting in their styles outside the ring as in. It was in this contrast that Rickard found the promotional hook he had also used in his other most celebrated bouts: the pitting of a hero against a villain.
Dempsey had played the villain in his day. Unfairly accused of being a draft dodger in World War I -- he was exempted on grounds that he was the sole support of a half dozen relatives -- Dempsey was widely perceived as a slacker when he defended his title against the French war hero Georges Carpentier on July 2, 1921. He was cast as Lucifer to Carpentier's Archangel Gabriel. The fight, which grossed a then staggering $1,626,580, was the first of Rickard's million-dollar gates. By 1927 the perception of Dempsey as unpatriotic had dissipated, and he was the fallen warrior seeking to defy the Fates.
Of course, there was that other powerful undercurrent nourishing Dempsey's enormous popularity: Born in Manassa, Colo., and raised there and in Utah, he was seen as a rugged individualist from the Wild West -- the free-roaming hero that Hollywood was celebrating in film. The ninth of 11 children of a shiftless father who did not support his family, Jack left home mud-poor at 16, a loner who did everything from mining coal to hauling beets to picking fruit. Always scrounging for work, he lived in hobo jungles and "rode the rods" between towns, lying on the two narrow cables that ran along the bellies of railroad cars, and he fought countless fights in saloons and mining towns under the name Kid Blackie. Pushing his way into a bar full of lumberjacks with noses like doorknobs, he would announce, in the manner of John L. Sullivan, "I can lick any man in the house. For a buck." That's how his West was won.
Dempsey had a fighter's body, with long, supple arms, sloping shoulders and a perfect set of pins. He was a savage in the ring, a remorseless aggressor from bell to bell. He even whaled at sparring partners as though they were opponents. Box? Who said anything about boxing?
When Dempsey was young and lithe and fit, he would pace endlessly, moving back and forth across a room in his slightly pigeon-toed walk. "He was like something wild in a cage then," recalled his former trainer Jimmy DeForest a few days before the Long Count. "I said to him one night when he was walking around, 'You must have something serious in your life that makes you this way...something on your conscience.' He only laughed: 'I was always this way since ever I can remember.'" Dempsey was often likened, as Jimmy Jones expressed it, to a pouncing cat. In newspaper accounts of the Long Count, he would be described by turns as "an infuriated animal" and "a wounded lion" and "pantherlike."
Dempsey's professional career was a long and profitable extension of his mining-camp brawls. He was a darkly tanned man of 6'1" and 187 pounds when he showed up in Toledo to meet Willard for the title in 1919. Willard was a veritable lumberjack at 6' 6 1/2" and 245, but Dempsey had chopped down men that size before, and he attacked Willard from the first bell. Before the round was over, Willard had been on the deck seven times, and Dempsey had caved in the right side of his face, shattering the cheekbone in 13 places with a single left hook. Willard did not come out for Round 4. "He had the best left hook in boxing history," ring historian Bert Sugar says of Dempsey.
Never was Dempsey more the wounded cat than in his 1923 title defense against Luis Firpo of Argentina, a melee that has been called the wildest, most thrilling heavyweight bout of all time. It began when the 220-pound Firpo, sidestepping Dempsey's charge, dropped the champion within seconds of the opening bell. By the end of the first round Firpo had been down seven times, Dempsey twice. At one point Firpo shoved and belted Dempsey through the ropes and into the press row. It took a reporter and a Western Union operator to push the enraged, screaming champion back into the ring. The two fighters somehow survived the round, but Firpo never made it through the second. A left hook dropped him for the ninth and final time.
Dempsey came under attack in the press for barroom fouls -- hitting on the break and striking Firpo as he climbed to his feet -- but fight fans loved him. "He was uncontrolled and uncontrollable violence," says Randy Roberts, author of the 1979 biography Jack Dempsey: The Manassa Mauler. "He was the Mike Tyson of his day, always portrayed as an animal, with the outlaw image. But there was an authenticity about him. Dempsey was exactly who he was. He was comfortable being himself. The love for Dempsey was the love for a person who always wanted to be himself. No airs."
Tunney was his antithesis, real as well as perceived. He represented an altogether different set of values and aspirations. He was born in New York City, the son of an Irish Catholic stevedore, and raised in a Bank Street row house not far from the Hudson River in Greenwich Village. Tunney first learned to fight as an amateur at local clubs, but not until he joined the Marine Corps and went to Europe with the American Expeditionary Force in World War I did he begin to box seriously. After winning the AEF's light heavyweight title, he decided to turn pro and, on returning to the States, to take aim at Dempsey's title. Unlike the onetime desperate hobo, Tunney seemed to spring straight out of a Horatio Alger novel. He suggested one of those young heroes who, in pursuit of self-improvement, studies hard, lives clean, sleeps tight and practices self-discipline. He thought of himself as a pugilist, not a fighter, and he approached boxing as Capablanca approached chess.
"I thought of pugilism as a fencing bout of gloved fists rather than an act of assault and battery," Tunney wrote in Arms for Living, his 1941 autobiography. "More intricate than fencing because you wield two weapons, more of the chess play of blow and counterblow. I became absorbed in the rational processes of the jab, the hook, side step and counter, the feint, the lead." He would do to Dempsey what Corbett, the defensive master, had done to the brawling Sullivan in 1892, boxing him silly and taking the title from him. "Defense was my natural technique," Tunney wrote, "the science of sparring, the strategy of it, thinking expressed with boxing gloves."
In fact, on his long and logical climb to Soldier Field, Tunney did just what he had planned all along. While working his way up, he defeated Battling Levinsky to win the light heavyweight title in 1922 and became one of the finest boxers that division has ever known: a crafty, clever mover and puncher who studied his opponents, developed strategies for beating them and always showed up trim, prepared and in control. That was how Tunney climbed into the ring against Dempsey in Philadelphia in 1926.
For 10 rounds Dempsey hardly landed a solid blow, while Tunney sliced and pounded him bloody and nearly blind. When the fight was over, Dempsey's eyes were swollen into slits. He wanted to acknowledge the new champion but could not see his way across the ring. "Take me to him," he muttered to an aide. There, whipped and bowed, he hugged Tunney and turned and left -- more popular in defeat than he had ever been in victory.
Just as Dempsey was a 19th-century man, a simple, straight-talking natural from the vanishing Old West, so Tunney was a 20th-century creation, a more complex hybrid from the city. "In the 1920s, American society was increasingly becoming the society of Sinclair Lewis's George Babbitt," says Richard Davies, a professor of sports history at the University of Nevada at Reno. "A society of business and industry, of technology and organization, increasingly bureaucratized, urbanized and regimented. Tunney represented this kind of life in which Americans were being captured. Dempsey represented those values and that way of life that Americans once had and lost, the rugged, self-made individualist. It is one of the reasons that he was popular."
And Tunney was not. He made the mistake of reading books and often came across in public as an aloof, condescending snob who had what The New York Times called "an unconcealed dislike for the sport." Arriving in Chicago to begin training for the rematch, he told a large gathering that he was not in town for a fight. "I'm here to train for a boxing contest," he said. "I don't like fighting. Never did." In camp one day, bristling over Rickard's talk of a possible $3 million gate and Tunney's $1 million payday, the champion said, "I deprecate this insistent talk of money. It is useless and disgusting."
While Dempsey trained at Lincoln Fields, a racetrack south of Chicago, Tunney did his sparring at the Cedar Crest Country Club in Lake Villa, Ill., a resort town 50 miles northwest of the city. While Dempsey spent his leisure time playing pinochle and wrestling with bent-nosed pugs, Tunney passed his hours with Eddie Eagan, tediously identified in the prints as "a Yale Rhodes scholar and amateur boxing champion," or curled up in a library with W. Somerset Maugham's Of Human Bondage.
Tunney had been in training since late May, and he appeared even keener and more confident than he had been the year before. He had already won two major battles before the first bell. He had been granted his demands for a 20-foot ring -- Dempsey had wanted a tighter 18-footer -- and for strict enforcement of the knockdown rule. Tunney's handlers did not want Dempsey hovering near a stricken Tunney, as he had done against Willard and Firpo, waiting to pounce before Tunney even straightened up.
Those two victories aside, Tunney should have been an overwhelming favorite to win the rematch, but in the days leading up to the fight, as Chicago filled with gamblers, a surge of Dempsey money had turned him from a 7-to-5 underdog to an even-money proposition. No doubt the enormous sentiment for Dempsey was at work here -- the wish that he would win overpowered rational judgment -- but rumors also had been intensifying that the fight was in the bag for the former champion. Davey Miller, who ran a pool hall with a gambling room upstairs, was the leading referee in Chicago in those days, and he was expected to be the third man in the ring. Word had gotten out that mob boss Al Capone had bet $45,000 on Dempsey. When Dempsey's former manager, Doc Kearns, arrived in town, he visited Capone and asked him how he thought Dempsey would do.
"'I got a big bet on him that says he wins,'" Kearns would recall Capone saying. "'Not only that, I've let the word get out that he'd better get a fair shake. Nothing preferential, understand. But a fair shake.'"
This did not bode well for Miller. In his 1938 book Farewell to Sport, Gallico wrote that "Davey Miller was Capone's man, and blatantly so." The Chicago boxing officials responsible for picking the referee had heard not only about Capone's bet but also about a brother of Miller's putting $50,000 on Dempsey. Seeking to minimize the risk of scandal, the officials sat Miller and put Barry in the ring, where now he is standing about five feet from Tunney and still counting.
Tunney, sitting in a slouch with his left hand clutching the middle rope, is looking at the canvas and trying to sit up.
Three! ... Four!
Until now in a daze, his face vacant, Tunney suddenly raises his eyes from the deck and looks up at Barry as he continues the count.
Tunney shifts his gaze away from Barry to his corner, directly across the ring.
"Stay down!" his corner is yelling above the din, urging him to use the full count. "Stay down!" Barry moves closer to Tunney and is now standing almost over him as Barry raises his arm higher and drops it farther in a more distinct toll.
Directly behind Barry, outside the ring in Dempsey's corner, Dempsey's trainer, Leo Flynn, stands and holds up his right hand, palm facing out toward the fighter, to warn him not to leave the neutral corner early.
Barry tolls his right arm deeper.
Still holding the rope, Tunney pulls himself to his feet.
He had been down about 14 seconds in all, the first time he'd ever been on the floor in his career, and he did the only thing he knew how to do to survive. He had trained running backward for miles, planning for all contingencies, and he was running backward and sideways now as Dempsey chased him from post to post and from rope to rope. This was Dempsey's golden chance. Tunney ran and danced away. Dempsey lunged and missed with a hook. Tunney skipped left and darted right. He was trying to clear his head. He was in superb physical shape, which saved him, and as the seconds wore on, Dempsey began to slow. He was tiring of the chase. At one point he waved his left arm in a beckoning gesture. "Come on and fight!" Dempsey said.
Tunney wanted no more of him in the seventh. "Now, wasn't that a silly thing to say to me?" Tunney said later. "Do you really think he believed I was going in to make that same mistake all over again?"
Tunney survived the round, of course, but Dempsey really did not. It had exposed him for the aging, shot fighter that he was. "He had punched himself out," Povich says. Dempsey had no legs either, and after Tunney caught him with a straight right in the eighth, dropping him to his knees, he had nothing left.
Dempsey was in desperate trouble, but he hung on through the 10th. "In the last round Tunney was pecking away at Dempsey's face, and it looked like a piece of beefsteak," recalls Jones. "If that fight had gone any longer, Tunney would have won by a knockout. Whupped him outright!"
"We were devastated when Tunney won," says Studs Terkel, then a 14-year-old Chicago boy and later a prize-winning author. "Devastated! Who was this guy Tunney? This guy who recited Shakespeare? Dempsey was boxing in the '20s. Caruso was the opera, Chaplin was films, Ruth was baseball and Dempsey was boxing. We couldn't believe he had lost."
Of course, the Long Debate began swirling before the fighters reached the showers, raising two central questions that will forever go unanswered. Had Barry picked up the count in unison with the timekeeper at five, instead of starting again from one, would Tunney have been able to get up before the count of 10? Tunney says he could have arisen at Barry's count of three, when he first looked up at the referee. Had Barry started his count at five, leaving Tunney four fewer seconds to recover on the deck, would Tunney then have been able to escape Dempsey's initial charge across the ring?
Barry did not follow the rule as written, but the Illinois commission denied Dempsey's subsequent appeal. The Long Count was Dempsey's last fight, and no other ending to it could have served him half as well. Says Povich, "The loser, Dempsey, emerged from the fight as the hero -- gypped out of a legitimate comeback for the title. This was, in a sense, the best and luckiest thing that ever happened to him. The general impression was that the fight was stolen from him. It served Dempsey like nothing else could have as far as his popular image was concerned."
Dempsey and Rickard remained close friends after the Long Count. In late 1928, in a deal sealed by a handshake, they agreed to become partners in the fight-promoting business. In January 1929 an ailing Rickard summoned Dempsey to his hospital bed in Miami. He had just undergone an emergency appendectomy. "I got it licked," Rickard said. "When I want you, I'll call you." He called a few hours later. Rickard died in Dempsey's arms.
To those in the fight game Tunney remained a remote figure the rest of his life. He had one title defense after the Long Count, earning $625,000 for knocking out a plodder named Tom Heeney in July 1928, and then quit, vacating the title. Along the way he had truly reinvented himself, like Fitzgerald's Gatsby, and his marriage to Polly Lauder, a wealthy socialite, lifted him further, from the streets of Greenwich Village to the blue lawns of Greenwich, Conn. He once lectured on Shakespeare at Yale, and he took walks in Europe with George Bernard Shaw. He became a business executive and virtually disappeared from the fight game.
In 1965, a year after Cassius Clay took the heavyweight title from Sonny Liston, Tunney went to Washington, D.C., to see his son John sworn into Congress. "I don't know anything about the heavyweights except Liston and Clay and [Floyd] Patterson," the former champion said. "And they are so bad, I have lost interest."
Tunney died of blood poisoning on Nov. 7, 1978. His funeral was private. He and Dempsey had stayed in touch over the years, and Dempsey was shaken by his passing. "I feel like a part of me is gone," he said. "As long as Gene was alive, I felt we shared a link with that wonderful period of the past. Now I feel alone."
The thing about Dempsey, though, is that he rarely was alone. By the time he died of heart failure on May 31, 1983, his life had been long and full of wonders, from his time as a saloon tough through the championship years and even beyond. Nine months after Rickard died, Dempsey lost his fortune in the stock-market crash. "Four million dollars in one day," says his daughter Barbara. But he had been broke before, and he picked himself up and fought more than 100 exhibitions, did some refereeing and acting and, still stinging from the old slacker label, enlisted in the U.S. Coast Guard at the outbreak of World War II. He served in the Pacific.
Of all the things Dempsey did over those postfighting years, though, nothing did more to establish him as an enduring landmark of his times than his life as a Manhattan restaurateur. He was the warmest of handshakers and the softest of touches. First at 50th Street and Eighth Avenue and later on Broadway, Jack Dempsey's Restaurant was a shrine for out-of-town visitors -- whom he inevitably greeted with "Hiya, pally" -- and a hangout for old boxers and a medley of sporting figures. Dempsey sat by the window waving at passersby.
"He never forgot where he came from," says his widow, Deanna. "He never forgot who he was." He greeted and schmoozed and told stories. About riding the rods. About the mining towns. About the day he beat Willard in the roaring Ohio heat. And always the one about the Long Count, under the lights at Soldier Field, and the night he lost but won.
Issue date: September 22, 1997