Dempsey’s Last Stand (diary entry)

11 05 21 3athena 11 05 21 2athena 11 05 2111.05.21

Tuesday night’s second lesson continued my teaching consultancy and my unique course on reviewing combat sport history. This week we continued with Jack Dempsey and looked at his two battles with Gene Tunney, the man who usurped him and he could not beat. However, before and in-between these bouts we had a look at an example of Tunney’s climb to the top and Dempsey’s road back.

You will recall that I painted a picture of a totally unprepared and over-confident Jess Willard as Jack Dempsey smashed his way through strings of first round knockouts and knockouts in general in his ascension to the heavyweight crown. How prepared was Dempsey for the man who dethrone him? Gene Tunney goes down in history as a boxer’s boxer. When discussing Jim Corbett, we saw him sparring and training with his idol. However, whereas Corbett proved popular due to his clever footwork and inventive use of the jab, Tunney lost popularity to Dempsey when they first fought. Up to this point Dempsey had a strong cult following, but the mainstream public had been against him when he had soundly defeated the light heavyweight Georges Carpentier due to Dempsey being accused of draft dodging. Likewise, Luis Firpo was the hero immortalised in a painting as he sent Dempsey through ropes during their meeting. This was despite the fact that the rest of the match had been very one-sided with Dempsey regularly knocking Firpo down and eventually out. Now it seems that Tunney’s evolution of Corbett’s style was out of favour of what they had come to expect from the explosive Dempsey.

We watched Tunney’s match with George Carpenier. This was when Tunney was campaigning to face Dempsey and apparently the American public were very doubtful of his prospects. Unlike the four round demolition job Dempsey had done previously, Tunney fought Carpentier over 15 rounds before knocking down in the 15th. It looked like a liver shot to me but Carpentier called foul. Tunney won on a technical knockout. The fight is largely Carpentier acting as the aggressor and lunging forward whilst Tunney is happy to fight from the outside, picking his shots and clinching. It’s Tunney’s fight even without the TKO, but I can imagine a similar response from the audience that the Mayweather/Pacquiao fight received almost a century later. Tunney was a clever, canny boxer in the Mendoza and Corbett mould, but not a very entertaining one for the crowds that were now fired up on aggressive fighters like Dempsey, Gibbons and Greb (the only man to beat Tunney).

Dempsey and Tunney’s first bout saw Tunney again working from the outside. Although it was an even bout, Tunney didn’t seem too phased by Dempsey’s constant pressure. Like other great defensive fighters such as Jack Johnson and the aforementioned Corbett, Tunney uses footwork, uses his jab and uses the clinch. Dempsey appears to be on form with his familiar style. He is on the front foot all the time, using his head weaving and crouched stance. Tunney is clinical throughout the fight, accumulating points throughout the match. Towards the end Tunney had almost closed Dempsey’s eye and a contemporary account has him down as looking groggy. Tunney won by a unanimous decision that was hard to dispute despite Dempsey’s hard work.

In the interim between their first and last encounter, Tunney did not fight but Dempsey did. Dempsey’s opponent was Jack Sharkey, a man who idolised Dempsey and taken his name in his honour along with Tom Sharkey’s (a fighter we discussed during the Corbett to Johnson eras). Sharkey has an impressive record and fought all the greats of his era – the only man to have fought both Jack Dempsey and Joe Louis – and he also refereed Archie Moore’s fight against Yvon Durelle. He beat the great Tommy Laughran during a decade when Loughran is generally considered to be at his best. Although he would lose to him in the 1930s that decade would also see Sharkey defeat Primo Carnera and Max Schmelling for the world heavyweight championship (he would then lose it in a rematch with Carnera).  He pretty much stood toe-to-to with Dempsey and fought in a similar fashion although he lacked Dempsey’s head movement. The fight ended in the seventh round when Dempsey’s familiar inside hooking apparently caught Sharkey low. Sharkey complained to the referee and was knocked out by Dempsey’s totally legal signature left hook.

Tunney vs Dempsey II looked like familiar territory in the first six rounds. Tunney boxed clever from the outside, clinched when necessary and was ahead on points as Dempsey kept trying to charge him. Then in round seven Dempsey sent Tunney to the canvas for the first time in Tunney’s career with a great combination. This part of the bout is now considered one of the most controversial in sports history. Dempsey, who battled his way to the championship eight years previously by using a knockdown and pounce tactic, forgot the new neutral corner rule. Interestingly, we noticed that during Tunney’s fight with Carpentier back in 1924 he was pretty much obeying this yet to be introduced rule. The referee sent Dempsey to his neutral corner and did not start counting until he had reached it. Prior to this Dempsey had waited to pounce, giving Tunney several extra seconds. Tunney took his time, including the extra seconds, and rose to his feet ready to continue. He then boxed at a distance conservatively until the next round where he sent Dempsey down. The fight was schedule for 10 rounds and the final two were fairly uneventful with Tunney managing Dempsey is familiar fashion to earn him another unanimous decision. Tunney would only fight one more time where he would defeat Tom Heeney on a TKO in the eleventh round of a 15 round contest.