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

The crowd stretched 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.
—Westbrook Pegler
Chicago Daily Tribune, Sept. 23, 1927

The sudden and furious sequence of punches grew out of nowhere, without warning, in the center of the ring. It began when the heavyweight champion of the world, Gene Tunney, threw a long left jab at Jack Dempsey's two-day stubble. Aged and finished as a fighter though Dempsey was, he saw it coming, canted his head slightly to the left, slipping the punch, and countered with a looping right that struck Tunney on the left side of his face.

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 6½ 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!"

Continue Story
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9