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From time to time a particularly rough heavyweight fight puts the stigma of brutality on the sport of boxing. But to those of us who watched Harry Greb of Pittsburgh beat a youngster named Gene Tunney for the light-heavyweight championship of the U.S. back in 1922, no heavyweight fight since has seemed much more than a schoolyard spat. The fight in the old Madison Square Garden that night in the '20s was so sanguinary that the ring floor and the ring ropes actually were drenched in blood. Referee Kid McPartland and the reporters at ringside were liberally spattered. It was certainly the bloodiest fight of my time (and I go back to 1912) and maybe the bloodiest since the Romans fought with cestus.
In the first 10 seconds of the first round Greb broke Gene's nose in two places. Seconds later he opened a long, ugly gash over Gene's left eye, and from then on until the bell ended it in the 15th round Tunney's face was an inch-thick mask of blood. Doctors estimated he may have lost two quarts. "By the third round," wrote Grantland Rice, "Gene was literally wading in his own blood." The gore was so thick on Greb's gloves that he had to step back and hold them out so the referee could wipe them off with a towel.
Through it all Gene fought back, always with tenacity, often with verve. He wavered now and then, but he didn't flounder. Greb would rain a fusillade of blows against Tunney's face, down which blood cascaded, then push him away and ask the referee, "Wanna stop it?" McPartland would ask Gene, "How about it?" And Gene would shake his head. Every now and then when it looked as though McPartland might succumb to common sense and stop the slaughter, Gene would plead with him: "For God's sake, don't stop it."
Round after round Greb slammed Tunney into the ropes and smashed him with knife-sharp blows to head and body. It was awful to watch. McPartland used up half a dozen towels wiping the blood off Greb's gloves. After each cleansing, McPartland would move away from the fighters and Greb would leap to the attack again. His fists would thud against Gene's face, the blood would gush and McPartland would duck to avoid further splashing.
As the fight wore on Tunney began to grow weak from the killing, relentless pace. Time after time he would use his forearms to wipe away the blood that was blinding him, but he wouldn't quit. He would momentarily support himself against the ropes and paw at his tormentor with arms that were weary, aching, leaden things. He smiled in three of the toughest rounds (13th, 14th and 15th), as he had smiled in earlier rounds when it was touch and go as to whether McPartland would stop it. They were tired half smiles, but disdainful, and they said with fierce resolve, "I'm the champion and if you want my title you'll have to fight me until I am incapable of defending it—and that is not yet."
If a title had not rested on his decision, McPartland almost surely would have stopped the fight. But a referee of integrity will think hard before deciding against a champion who is taking a beating without flinching and pleading to be allowed to go on. All Greb could do was continue to pummel Gene. At the end of 15 brutal, terrifying rounds he gave Gene over to his handlers and loped off with his new title. Battered as he was, Tunney crossed the ring to Greb's corner, shook his hand and congratulated him. Then he said, "Harry, you were the better man—tonight."
"Won the championship!" shouted an exuberant Greb as one of his handlers kissed him on his unmarked face while several others half carried, half dragged him from the ring. But Gene, his body bruised, his face a pulpy mask, stumbled toward his dressing room, rivulets of blood from both cheeks meeting at the point of his chin and dropping onto his chest. He collapsed before he got there, and his handlers carried him the rest of the way. The moment supporting hands left him he fell, the back of his head striking the rubbing table.
After the fight, still looking comparatively fresh, Greb threw on his clothes, then hustled uptown to his pet speakeasy, paid the orchestra to play his and his friends' favorite tunes and danced until the musicians fell asleep. Happy Albacker, a Greb sidekick, had given me and some other Pittsburgh newspapermen the wrong name of Greb's hideout by mistake, and by the time we found him some of us had searched too long and too hard in too many speakeasies, an experience we itemized under the heading of research on our swindle sheets. The new champion was fidgety and looked wan. I asked him what was wrong.
"What's wrong?" he said irritably. "You've heard what all these people are saying about what an easy fight it was for me. They're crazy. It wasn't an easy fight, it was my hardest. I was so arm-weary and leg-tired from trying to knock Gene out I was in almost as bad shape as he was, but because he lost so much blood and I didn't lose any these boobs tell me I had a soft touch. Would you call an opponent a soft touch if you had hit him as hard as you could for 15 rounds and seldom made him stagger? Why, I couldn't even come close to dropping him. I was in there with a guy tonight who has an iron jaw and an iron will, and I don't look forward to our next meeting."
Someone said, "But you'll fight him again, won't you?"