The chairman of the board of the McCandless Corporation spoke in a deep, cultivated voice as he sat in his 12th-floor office over New York's Vanderbilt Avenue. He is handsome and vigorous, his dark brown hair lightening to gray now on the sides, the ridges of his ears faintly thickened and blurred by the thousands of punches that have grazed them and passed on. Through the fabric of his casual conversation he wove prominent names, obscure words and allusions to some of the 16 other companies he serves as a director. Gene Tunney, healthy, prosperous and eminently respectable, remains at 63 the showpiece of boxing's alumni.
"I don't have the time I once had to devote to literature," Tunney was saying. "When I return from a business trip I always find that things have piled up terribly. Now I spend a good deal of my time reading these."
He indicated the business reports stacked neatly on his broad desk. "Boxing is another matter, though. I attend a bout occasionally, but I would not consider serving as a federal boxing czar or in any of the other positions my name has been mentioned for. A man of my station has other interests."
The years have not changed Gene Tunney. More aloof from his public than any other great fighter we have had, he was also among the most sensitive to its reactions. It has been 33 years since Jack Dempsey's conqueror retired as undefeated heavyweight champion (or "chompion," as Gene says it), but he is still acutely conscious of his public image.
Curiously, Tunney's image as a fighter did not grow in proportion to his skill and accomplishments. He is chiefly remembered as a bookish young man who came out of nowhere to tame the wild Dempsey. The meagerness of these recollections implies a similar meagerness in Tunney's career, a distortion he has sometimes compounded. This is hardly fair to his boxing record.
Long before Tunney beat Dempsey in 1926 he was an experienced and highly rated contender. In 1922 he outpointed Battling Levinsky to win the American light heavyweight title. A few months later he lost the title to the tireless Harry Greb. In this, the only defeat Tunney was to suffer in 77 professional fights, he took a terrible beating. His nose was broken in two places, his mouth was cut and both eyes were slashed and closed, prompting Grantland Rice to write that "Greb handled Tunney like a butcher hammering a Swiss steak."
A beating of this kind would have ruined any but the most courageous fighter. Tunney not only stayed on his feet for 15 agonizing rounds but, upon recovering his faculties, demanded a rematch. He outpointed Greb in the return bout, then beat him three more times. During the closing rounds of their last fight, he had the satisfaction of hearing Greb whisper, "Don't knock me out, Gene. Let me stay."
On his way to the first bout with Dempsey, Tunney knocked out Georges Carpentier and Tommy Gibbons (who had withstood Dempsey for 15 rounds at Shelby, Mont, in 1923). But Tunney's best fights were against Dempsey. He won both of them by lopsided margins. Many reporters who saw them claimed that the only round Dempsey won in the two fights was the famous seventh in their second bout, in Chicago, when he knocked Tunney down. Westbrook Pegler described the end of their first bout:
" Dempsey tottered to his corner at the last bell with his left eye sealed shut and the entire left side of his face bulging like some horrible growth, to plunge into the arms of his handlers in collapse. Tunney, unmarked and with the same pained smile that he wore when he entered the ring, turned to his corner, dazed, almost as badly as Dempsey, by the unexpected ease with which he had won."
Jimmy Bronson, an oldtime fight manager who first saw Gene box as a marine during World War I, spoke warmly of his ability during a recent interview. "If either of Tunney's fights with Dempsey had been scheduled for 15 rounds," said Bronson, who is nearly as articulate as Tunney, "he would have knocked Jack out. As it was, both times he had Jack helpless at the end of 10 rounds. Gene was still three or four fights from his peak when he retired. I believe that had he fought another year or two he would have been recognized as the greatest of all heavyweight champions."