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Long count allows Tunney to keep title


© St. Petersburg Times, published November 30, 1999

Jack Dempsey's fist crashed into the champion's jaw. This was his chance. He waded in and Gene Tunney crumpled to the canvas. In 10 seconds, it appeared, Tunney would be counted out and Dempsey would be heavyweight champion again.

But the count, and the fight, went longer.

The two fighters couldn't have been much more different.

Dempsey was born in Manassa, Colo., quit school after the eighth grade and became a miner. As a sideline, he rode the rails and boxed for pass-the-hat money. He would enter mining-town saloons and say he could beat any man in the place. He almost always did.

Tunney was born in New York's Greenwich Village and learned to box by joining an athletic club. He read Shakespeare, developed friendships with George Bernard Shaw and Ernest Hemingway, and abstained from alcohol.

As a Marine during World War I, Tunney won the light heavyweight championship of the American Expeditionary Force in Paris in 1919. He briefly held the American light-heavyweight title in 1919 and 1923 before relinquishing it when he turned heavyweight.

Dempsey was known for his vicious left hook, which he used to defeat Jess Willard for the heavyweight title in 1919. Dempsey wore the crown until Sept. 23, 1926, when he lost it to Tunney on a decision.

Afterward, Dempsey's wife, actor Estelle Taylor, asked what had happened. His reply became a classic line: "Honey," he said, "I forgot to duck."

In July 1927, Dempsey knocked out Jack Sharkey, setting up the Dempsey-Tunney rematch on Sept. 22, 1927. The crowd of 104,943 at Chicago's Soldier Field put the gate at a record $2.6-million. Tunney got $1-million, Dempsey $450,000.

There were rumors that Al Capone had tried to fix the fight. Authorities took it seriously enough to replace referee Dave Miller with Dave Barry, a veteran of about 600 fights, at the last minute.

When Barry called the boxers to the center of the ring for their final instructions, he reminded them -- twice -- of a new rule that required a fighter scoring a knockdown to retreat to a neutral corner, that he wouldn't begin his count until the fighter still standing headed for the farthest corner.

In the seventh round, Dempsey caught Tunney with a left hook to the chin. Tunney sagged against the ropes and Dempsey landed three more punches. Tunney went down and Dempsey stepped back to the nearest corner as Paul Beeler, the knockdown timekeeper, began his count.

Barry rushed over to Dempsey. "Go to a neutral corner, Jack!" he screamed. Dempsey didn't move. Barry grabbed him and shoved him. Finally, Dempsey remembered the rule and crossed the ring.

Barry returned to Tunney. As Beeler's count reached five, Barry began his own. "One ... two ...

Tunney's mind cleared. He listened as Barry's count reached nine, then got to his feet. He had been down for what some said was 14 seconds. He back-pedaled his way through the rest of the round and again won by a decision.

He said he could have gotten up but was taking advantage of the delay. Dempsey's fans swore he'd been cheated out of victory, but Dempsey always acknowledged that the long count was solely his fault. "I didn't know what I was doing," he said years later. "I guess I was punchy. I didn't get to my corner. Besides, Tunney wasn't hurt that bad."

-- Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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