It was about this time that Gene began to see in boxing the opportunity to seize the wealth, fame and position he had dreamed about for a long time. He had grown supremely sure of himself. Taking up boxing in earnest, he built up his wrists and forearms by squeezing hard rubber balls. To strengthen his brittle hands, he chopped wood one winter in a Canadian logging camp.
He disdained the unhealthy, smoke-filled gyms of New York, preferring the "flower-scented air" of the country training sites. Sure of his destiny now, he applied himself to hours in the gym perfecting his various punches, and other hours on the road building up his wind and legs. He even practiced running backward, in which he achieved a facility that was to serve him well after he arose from The Long Count.
There was more behind Tunney's success, of course, than superb conditioning. While he liked to read, he had a fighter's toughness of mind, as well as body, and he could deal out—or take—a brutal beating. His five brawls with Harry Greb are still looked back on as monuments of their kind.
It is as unsatisfactory to describe the style of a great athlete as it is to transcribe birdsong to the printed page; but it can be said that Tunney was a stand-up fighter, crafty and graceful, with an accurate, cutting jab and one of the most damaging right-hand punches to the body that boxing has known. After two fights with Tunney, Dempsey refused a third because he feared blindness.
Tunney directed his own career once he had established himself as a professional. "I had a manager named Sammy Kelly," Gene recalled, "but he kept making matches without consulting me. I was still very young and I'd say, 'No, I'm not ready for that fellow.'
"Finally, one day Kelly said, 'Well, who the hell are you ready for?'
"I made out a list of the men I considered suitable opponents at that stage of my career. Kelly was disgusted. He thought I had no heart. So I went with Doc Bagley, because New York State regulations said that a fighter must have a manager. It was monstrous, but it was the law. I stayed with Bagley until after my first fight with Greb. I had taken a frightful beating. Awful. But the next morning Bagley said:
" 'You certainly gave me a hard time last night, kid. Working on those cuts. It was rough.'
"While Bagley talked to me, the doctor was sewing up my eyebrows with a big needle. It felt as if he were pulling my eyeballs out. 'Yes,' I told Bagley, 'you had it rough.' But in my mind I said, 'I'm going to get rid of this fellow.' I bought my contract back for $5,000. He didn't want to sell, but I insisted."
Billy Gibson managed him during the period when Tunney was campaigning for a championship fight with Dempsey. "Gibson was a grand old fellow," Gene said, "but at this time he was a menace to me. I didn't know he was suffering from paresis. He made contracts and concessions that I couldn't possibly honor. Later there were all sorts of lawsuits. It cost me a lot of money." Tim Mara, a onetime New York bookmaker and owner of the New York Giants professional football team, and Max (Boo-Boo) Hoff, a Philadelphia bootlegger, brought suits against Tunney for services they claimed to have rendered—Mara on the grounds that he helped to get Gene his first match with Dempsey, Hoff that he had somehow "protected" Tunney's interests in that fight. Only Mara collected—$30,000 from an out-of-court settlement—but Tunney's legal expenses were heavy.