Jack Dempsey, the “Manassa Mauler,” misses an opportunity to regain the heavyweight boxing title when he fails to return to a neutral corner after knocking down champ Gene Tunney in a title match in Chicago. Dempsey waited five precious seconds before heading to the neutral corner, at which point the referee began the 10-count as the rules dictated. As the referee reached nine seconds, Tunney got back up to his feet. He had actually been down for what amounted to 14 seconds. Tunney went on to win the bout in a decision after 10 rounds.
Jack Dempsey, one of the most formidable and popular boxers of all time, was born in Manassa, Colorado, in 1895. One of 11 children, he left home at age 16 and traveled around Colorado’s mining towns, earning a living boxing under the name of “Kid Blackie.” In 1916, he abandoned saloon-floor matches in favor of professional bouts and earned a reputation as a quick and lethal fighter who generally knocked out his opponents at some point in the first round.
By 1919, Dempsey earned a fight with heavyweight champion Jess Willard. They met at an outdoor arena in Toledo, Ohio, on July 4. The 37-year-old champ was no match for the young brawler, and Dempsey attacked fast and furiously, knocking the giant to the canvas seven times in the first round. At the end of the third round, Willard had a broken jaw, a closed eye, two broken ribs, and a partial loss of hearing. He chose not to come out of his corner for the fourth round, and Dempsey was proclaimed the heavyweight champion of the world.
Dempsey, nicknamed the Manassa Mauler, was one of the great sports stars of the 1920s. He successfully defended his title five times in four years to the refrain of record-breaking ticket sales. He employed a brutally aggressive style that has been appropriated by many champions since. Bobbing and weaving, he remained on the offensive almost continuously, swinging rights and lefts out of his crouching stance with amazing speed and power. After a memorable match against Luis Angel Firpo–the “Wild Bull of the Pampas”–in 1923, Dempsey’s promoter decided it was in the champ’s best interest to fight as infrequently as possible, thereby ensuring that excitement and profit would be high when he did. In 1924 and 1925, Dempsey was out of the ring.
Meanwhile, Gene Tunney, a scholarly former U.S. Marine with a refined boxing style, was steadily accumulating victories. The “Fighting Marine” lost sometimes, which may be why Dempsey agreed to meet Tunney for his first match in three years. On September 23, 1926, at Sesquicentennial Stadium in Philadelphia, Tunney dethroned a rusty Dempsey before 120,000 fans. Tunney never knocked Dempsey down, but he systematically accumulated enough points to win the heavyweight title in a decision after 10 rounds.
Dempsey briefly considered retiring, but in July 1927 he returned to the ring to defeat Jack Sarkey, which earned him a rematch with Tunney. On September 22, 1927, the Manassa Mauler came to Soldier Field in Chicago to regain his title. More than 100,000 spectators turned up, and there was talk that gangster Al Capone had tried to fix the fight. To avoid any possible charges of a fix, the referee was replaced at the last minute. Dave Barry, the new referee, took the boxers aside just before the match began and reminded them of a new rule that required a fighter scoring a knockdown to retreat to a neutral corner. He could not begin his count, he warned them, until the fighter on his feet started backing off to a far corner.
As the match got underway, Tunney took charge of the fight, racking up points and keeping Dempsey at bay. In the seventh round, however, the old Dempsey returned, knocking Tunney against the ropes and then felling him with three strong punches. Tunney went down, and Dempsey took a step back to the nearest corner–not a neutral corner. Barry rushed over to Dempsey and yelled, “Go to a neutral corner, Jack!” but Dempsey just stood there, glassy-eyed. Finally, Barry grabbed him and shoved him on his way. Dempsey shuffled across the ring, finally remembering the new rule that had been twice told to him before the match. Barry then began the 10-count, and Tunney got up at nine.
Tunney’s total of 14 seconds on the ground allowed him precious time to recuperate from Dempsey’s assault. He ran from his opponent for the rest of the round and then came back to dominate the eighth, even knocking Dempsey down briefly. Tunney won another decision.
Dempsey continued to box in exhibition matches until 1940, but he was never a serious contender again. He became a successful restaurateur in New York City and remained a popular figure until his death in 1983. Gene Tunney retired in 1928 after successfully defending his title against Tom Heeney. He became a wealthy business executive and died in 1978 at the age of 81. His son, John V. Tunney, was a U.S. senator.