Meanwhile, Tunney worked frantically, and often at cross-purposes with his manager, for a championship fight. He finally signed to meet Dempsey in a 10-round bout in Philadelphia. There, on a rainy September night in 1926, Gene's long quest came to a relatively simple climax. He methodically beat the tar out of Dempsey and became the heavyweight champion of the world.
One year later, on Sept. 22, 1927, the two met once more, this time in Chicago, in the Battle of the Long Count. Tunney reacts to questions about that fight much as a veteran trouper rises to a cue. There is the little start of recognition in his eyes, the involuntary squaring of the shoulders, the flow of familiar words:
"I had been in command of the fight through the first six rounds," Tunney recalls. "Then, in the seventh, I started a left lead, and Dempsey crossed his right over it. I never saw the punch clearly, nor do I remember much of what followed. I counted seven blows in all when I saw the movies afterward."
Tunney went down, clinging to the middle strand of rope with his left hand. Referee Dave Barry, acting on the rules of the Illinois boxing commission, tried to get Dempsey to go to a neutral corner. Sensing the kill, Dempsey refused to move. Barry finally led him away, then returned to his position over the fallen Tunney and began the count once more at "one." Some observers claimed that Tunney was on the floor for 14 seconds.
"He was down 17 seconds," insists Jimmy Bronson, who was in Gene's corner. "We had a stopwatch on him."
Tunney is candid: "I have no idea how long I was down. I only know that when I began cerebrating I heard the referee count "2". By "9" my head was clear and I got up."
He survived the round, frustrating Dempsey by the speed with which he kept out of reach; those hours spent running backward had prepared Gene for an exercise in Fabianism of which Shaw must have been proud. Exasperated, Dempsey gave up the chase at one point and motioned to him with his gloves. "C'mon and fight, you son of a bitch!" he snarled.
Dempsey's taunt enraged the young champion, but he continued to circle out of range. Safely back in the corner between rounds, he thought out his problem: how to avoid being hurt again. Alexander the Great, shown the Gordian knot, simply severed it with his sword. Tunney's solution to his own problem was equally direct. When the bell rang for the eighth round, he went out and hit Dempsey on the chin and knocked him down.
From that point on, only Dempsey was in danger of being knocked out. The decision at the end of 10 rounds was clearly Tunney's.
Jack Sharkey now emerged as the most attractive challenger for the heavyweight title. Tunney, however, with an artist's sense of what is right, knew that his second bout with Dempsey had been the climax of his career; he merely wanted to append a satisfactory coda before withdrawing into retirement. Years of concentration had led up to this moment, and he was determined not to leave anything to chance. As the foil for his last bout, he chose a game, durable and somewhat less than dangerous New Zealander named Tom Heeney.