W O R L D ' S
H E A V Y W E I G H T
C H A M P I O N S H I P
T H E L O N G
A W A I T E D
R E M A T C H
S O L D I E R S ' F I E L D
S e p t . 2 2 , 1 9 2 7
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They called it the "roaring twenties." The United States was in its Golden Age; the good guys had just won the great war, our boys were home again, and America was enjoying its new status as one of the lead players on the world stage. Lindy flew across the Atlantic, everyone was making a mint on the stock market, and the middle and lower classes were for the first time awakening to the possibilities of a life without the endless slough of backbreaking labor.
In professional boxing lore, "The Long Count" refers to the boxing match between World Heavyweight Champion Gene Tunney and former champion Jack Dempsey on September 25, 1927 and, more specifically, a portion of the fight in which Tunney was allowed to remain on the mat for 13 to 16 seconds without being considered to have been knocked out, which is judged typically by a ten second count.
Almost a year before, on September 26, 1926, Tunney had defeated Dempsey for the heavyweight title, and this rematch was perhaps the biggest sporting event in the history of the world up to that point. 104,000 fans were jammed into Soldier Field in Chicago, Illinois on that fine September afternoon, and closing your eyes for a second, you can imagine the crowd: ladies with their bobbed hair and Coco Chanel imitation dresses, trying to outshine the other ladies nearby; men in their knickerbockers, some with bowlers upon their head, jumping to their feet and shouting to cheer on their heroes.
On one side of the ring, you had Jack Dempsey, one of the Big Five of sports in the 1920s, and perhaps one of the definitive icons of the decade. He was seen as the epitome of the classic boxer and, particularly due to his lack of title defenses for three years prior to the first Tunney fight, was seen almost as some sort of living legend. He was often sporting three-day-old stubble and carried enough of a rough edge to him to seem a champion of the common man.
In the other corner, you had Gene Tunney, who was about as far from Dempsey as one could be. Tunney was seen as the "intellectual" fighter, from his ardent support of the arts and deep interest in literature to his methodic boxing style, in which he kept himself distant from his opponents, chose his spots, and often won not by knockout but by points on the judge's scorecard.
Each fighter was supported by a portion of the crowd, though the majority of the people in Soldier Field that day were behind Dempsey. And two of those Dempsey fans were my grandparents, somewhere far back in the stands at Soldier Field.
There's a box of old photos from the 1920s in the top of my parents closet, near the back, behind the stack of old Elvis records and the fondue maker. About once a year, I'll dig that box out and look through those old photographs. They are missiles from another era.
The pictures depict my grandmother and grandfather in their late teens and early twenties, where I only remember them as being very old. My grandfather looks utterly dashing in a bowler, shirt, and tie, standing with his arm up on a white picket fence, without a care in the world. I flip to the next picture, and there she is: an absolute knockout in her flapper dress with her hair bunched up upon her head, with that inquisitive half-smile on her face that she still had when I would visit their house and sit at their kitchen table, watching her rummage in the kitchen for that one ingredient she needed for her cinnamon rolls.
The fight started out much like the first Dempsey/Tunney showdown, with Tunney circling Dempsey, avoiding him, keeping the fierce brawler at bay and only delivering the occasional punch, while Dempsey charged in and repeatedly missed with his blows. For six rounds, the two fighters danced this dance again, around and around, leaving Tunney ahead on the judges' scorecards.
Round seven was when that seminal moment happened. Dempsey managed to direct Tunney's movements into a corner of the ring, and with nowhere to move, Dempsey began to unload on him. Dempsey delivered two right jabs, a left jab, and then a devastating left hook right on the side of Tunney's neck.
Up to this point in boxing history, boxers had been allowed to stand over their opponents while the referee counted, enabling the dominant fighter to continue the barrage as soon as his opponent got back on his feet. Just a week prior to this match, however, the rules were changed to allow a fallen fighter a chance to recuperate. While a fallen boxer laid on the canvas, the other fighter was required to go to a neutral corner to give the damaged fighter a chance to recover. There was also a minimum count of eight given to a knocked-down competitor, regardless of whether that fighter had returned to his feet or not; this is now known as the "standing eight count."
Dempsey had fought professionally for decades at this point, and so when Tunney fell to the canvas, Dempsey did what he always did: he stood over Tunney, waiting for him to get up so the pounding would continue. The referee of the match, Dave Barry, had to repeatedly order Dempsey to move to a neutral corner prior to starting the ten count on Tunney. It took several seconds for Dempsey to take himself out of the fight and comply with this order, which was contrary to everything he had done in his entire professional career.
By the time Barry started counting, Tunney had been on the canvas for approximately seven seconds, which had given him time to get his breath back and to begin to recover. Tunney remained on the canvas for several more seconds, only regaining his feet at Barry's count of nine. All told, Tunney was down for 13 to 16 seconds, much more than the ten second count which most boxers are given after being knocked down.
The fight was allowed to continue at this point.
There is one picture that stands out above the rest. It seems to have been taken in Chicago, a city several hours from where my grandparents spent their lives and a city that my grandmother only visited once, in 1927, for the Dempsey/Tunney fight. The two of them are standing on a street near a car; my grandfather seems to be leaning back on the car. My grandmother's eyes are staring straight at the camera and she has that little half-smile on her face. Grandpa, though, is looking right at her; she is so beautiful in this picture, and he can't take his eyes off of the woman that he loves.
Dempsey went straight after Tunney again and proceeded to largely chase Tunney around the ring for the remainder of the seventh round, but during the break between rounds, Tunney was able to regain his composure and when the fight resumed, Tunney was controlling the match once again, staying away from Dempsey and choosing his shots. The fight ended without a knockout and, even after the disastrous seventh round, Tunney won the match by judge's decision.
After the match, Dempsey retired from professional boxing, only appearing in a few exhibitions in his later years. Tunney remained heavyweight champion until the next year, winning a few more matches until retiring as champion.
In their retirement years, Tunney and Dempsey became close friends, and were often seen dining together in Dempsey's restaurant in New York City.
When my grandpa was very old, he told me about their trip to Chicago and that that's when he knew he loved her. I didn't find the photograph until years after he died, and I look at the two of them, so vibrant and young and beautiful, taking their first steps into a long and amazing life.
Sometimes I dream that I'm sitting beside them at old Soldier Field, squinting at a match off in the distance, seeing Gene Tunney laying on the canvas. I imagine my grandfather on his feet, cheering loudly, and my grandmother in her seat next to him, looking up at the man she loves.