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 Spoil, 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.