A lapse on the scholarly Tunney's part led to a flurry of newspaper nonsense in the 1930s. As the dilettante sports editor of a publication called The Connecticut Nutmeg, he revived the old argument about a man's chances in hand-to-hand combat with a gorilla. Gene declared himself on the side of humanity. He claimed that a good left hook in the stomach would demoralize an ape.
"He didn't spend years doing bending and mat exercises," Tunney wrote of the gorilla. "A man has 24 ribs. Your encyclopedia will tell you that a gorilla has but 13.... Twenty-four ribs are much more protection than 13."
He went on to claim that Gargantua, the world's most celebrated circus gorilla, could be beaten by "any one of a dozen third-rate heavyweights I know." The newspapers took up the discussion. Someone advanced the name of Two-Ton Tony Galento, then in his heyday, as a suitable opponent for Gargantua, a nomination Galento brusquely declined.
The tempest subsided when a studious reporter checked his encyclopedia and found that Tunney's research had been somewhat deficient: a gorilla has 13 pairs of ribs, one more pair than a man.
A more rewarding crusade has come out of Gene's passion for physical fitness. During World War II he served as a lieutenant commander—and later as a commander—in charge of the Navy's conditioning program. No one could have taken the job more seriously. In his war against the potbelly ("which eventually leads to a moral collapse") he even designed a special slenderizing device for portly sailors.
Today, though his tastes in food and drink are rich, Tunney is a splendid product of sensible conditioning. His weight never goes above 220 pounds, or below 215. He takes daily setting-up exercises, walks and steam baths. He swims in the spring-fed pond on his Connecticut estate and in the icy waters off Maine, where he has an island summer home. And, despite his poor grip, he plays tennis frequently. In the Gene Tunney of 1961 it is not difficult to see the magnificent athlete of 1926.
" Tunney always enjoyed more and better physical conditioning than anybody he ever fought," Grantland Rice wrote. "He dedicated himself to the task as no other athlete, with the exception of Ben Hogan, ever dedicated himself."
This single-minded devotion to training was, of course, one of the keys to Gene's ultimate success. As a skinny kid growing up on Perry Street in New York's Greenwich Village he became interested in boxing. There were few escapes from the area's pervasive poverty; some of the boys chose the direct, criminal way out, while others, like Gene's brother Tom, joined the police force (where he became a much-decorated detective).
Gene first looked on boxing as a recreation, not as a career. His education was limited to nearby parochial and business schools, and afterward he boxed in the evening recreation center at P.S. 41. By the time he entered the Marines in 1918 as a well-developed young man, he had had 12 professional fights.
In France he displayed his talent before company officers and received permission to take time off from his military duties to train more effectively for Marine boxing shows. When his big chance came, he was ready: he won the light heavyweight championship of the American Expeditionary Force in Paris in 1919.