SI Vault
 
The Long Count
William Nack
September 22, 1997
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
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
September 22, 1997

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

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9

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.

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9