Referee Dave Barry motioned the men to the center of the ring at 10:07 p.m., Sept. 22, 1927. The 104,943 fans packing Soldier Field in Chicago that night didn't seem to mind the steady drizzle. They paid $2,658,600 for the privilege of being there, the richest gate in boxing history (it would remain so until television revised the economy of the sport).
"Now I want to get this one point clear," Barry instructed. "In the event of a knockdown, the man scoring the knockdown will go to the farthest neutral corner. Is that clear, Jack?"
Jack Dempsey nodded.
"Is that clear, Champ?"
Gene Tunney nodded. Tunney had taken the heavyweight title from Dempsey one year earlier, but couldn't remember ever being called Champ. The Champ had always been Dempsey, or at least it seemed that way. Dempsey had clobbered Jess Willard for three merciless rounds to gain the title in 1919. Over the next seven years, the Manassa Mauler successfully defended his crown five times, four by knockout: Billy Miske (3 rounds); Bill Brennan (12); Georges Carpentier (4); and Luis Firpo (2). Only Tommy Gibbons went the distance when he lost to Dempsey in 1923. In between title bouts Dempsey flattened a long list of opponents in exhibitions that further enhanced his fierce reputation.
Dempsey had been a 4-to-1 favorite in '26, the first time he met Tunney, but he also had spent three soft years since stopping Firpo: trips to Europe, movie contracts, vaudeville tours. In the same period Tunney won 18 fights, including a 12-round knockout of Gibbons. "During the first minute of sparring, I feinted Dempsey a couple of times," Tunney recalled of that fight in Philadelphia, "and then I lashed out with the righthand punch, the hardest blow I ever deliberately struck."
Dempsey didn't fall but later confessed, "I never got over that punch...that blow won the fight." Tunney out-boxed Dempsey for 10 rounds to become the 10th heavyweight champion of the world.
As the bell started the rematch in Soldier Field, Dempsey charged out, determined to become the first heavyweight to regain the title. He was stronger than before and sharpened by an elimination KO of Jack Sharkey in seven tough rounds. Though the odds were even, Dempsey was the sentimental favorite, partly because of his explanation to his wife, Estelle, for losing the title: "Honey, I just forgot to duck."
Dempsey's first looping left missed. Tunney clinched, danced Dempsey backward and then pushed off, stabbing, making the former champ blink with a right to the head. Tunney refused to be intimidated, and he won Rounds 1 and 2. Dempsey took the third by chasing Tunney and scoring inside with body shots that sometimes strayed low. Barry warned Dempsey, but he continued attacking in his weaving, scowling, ferocious style.
At ringside, movie stars, the governors of nine states, the presidents of Bethlehem Steel and General Electric and the New York World editor Herbert Bayard Swope, who bet $20,000 on Tunney, jostled the sons and daughters of various Vanderbilts, Talbotts, Whitneys and Biddies for a better view of the 20-foot ring. Up in the $5 seats, vendors hawked field glasses for "only a dime."