200 Years of Illinois: Of Maulers and Marines

roberts dempseySeptember 22, 1927. The date of The Long Count, one of most memorable moments in the annals of pugilism.

In this corner, the heavyweight champion of the world, Gene Tunney, the Fighting Marine.

Opposing him: Jack Dempsey, the Manassa Mauler, keen to get even for his defeat at Tunney’s able hands the previous year.

Yet after six rounds, Dempsey looks finished, his slugging style foiled and undone by Tunney’s ring savvy and technical acumen. Dempsey needs a knockout to defeat Tunney and every one of the 100,000 fans gathered at Soldier Field in Chicago know it. Fifty seconds into the seventh round, Dempsey incredibly appears to have landed the telling blow. Tunney, for the first time in his career, goes down, driven to the doorway of dreamland by two left hooks, and escorted over the threshold by a pair of combinations delivered as he falls to the canvas.

Then the drama began. Reporting from a ringside seat between silent film star Gloria Swanson and Princess Xenia of Greece is Randy Roberts, author of Jack Dempsey: The Manassa Mauler.

Standing in a corner, just a few feet from Tunney, Dempsey waited for the champion either to get up or be counted out. Neither happened. Instead referee Barry yelled at Dempsey to go to the farthest neutral corner, as the rules required. “I’ll stay here,” Dempsey told Barry, as if that was concession enough to the new laws of the ring. Later, Dempsey told Dan Daniel, “I couldn’t move. I just couldn’t. I wanted him to get up. I wanted to kill the sonofabitch.” Barry, however, refused to allow Dempsey to remain near Tunney. So, grabbing Dempsey by the arm, the referee half-shoved, half-escorted him to the farthest neutral corner.

…By the time Barry returned from escorting Dempsey, four seconds had lapsed; in fact, the timekeeper, Paul Beeler, was calling out “five” in order to give Barry a count to pick up. But instead of starting his count at six, Barry shouted “One!” At the count of three–or seven seconds after the knockdown–Tunney lifted his head and looked at Barry. In turn, Barry moved closed to Tunney so that the champion could hear the count above the din of the crowd. At the count of four, Tunney probably could have got up. But that would not have been the intelligent thing to do; the wiser boxer takes a count of nine before he rises. If nothing else, Tunney was an intelligent boxer. He waited until Barry shouted “nine” before he regained his feet.

Tunney recovered, wore Dempsey down and felled him once, and ultimately won in an overwhelming decision. The fight became, and remains still, a cornerstone of boxing lore.

Dempsey’s paycheck, $425,000, was the largest ever received by a challenger. But more important than the money, the drama of the fight meant that Dempsey’s last fight would be remembered for a long time. Listening to the fight on the radio had caused ten men to die of heart failure; half of them died in the seventh round.

Judge for yourself: