Review: "Tunney: Boxing's Brainiest Champ and His Upset of the Great Jack Dempsey"

To suggest that Gene Tunney was an exceptional man is to understate the case.

In 1926, he won the heavyweight championship by outboxing Jack Dempsey. It was the first fight in which the championship had changed hands without a knockout. Tunney also won their rematch, a fight remembered for the so-called "long count" that allowed the champion to gather his senses and get up off the canvas after Dempsey had knocked him down, in part because Dempsey was slow in finding his way to a neutral corner.

Though he was still a young man, Tunney defended his championship only one more time, then retired. Once he'd left boxing, as Jack Cavanaugh writes, Tunney "was far more comfortable talking about literature, politics, or even opera than boxing."

Because he took the title from one of most popular champions boxing has produced, and because once he'd retired, he was not much interested in being introduced at bouts as a former champ, Gene Tunney has not been much celebrated. As former L.A. Times sports columnist Jim Murray once wrote of him, "They never called him 'champ.' He was unloved, underrated, shunned by his own people, rejected by history. Still, he was the best advertisement his sport has ever had."

Jack Cavanaugh uses that passage from Murray's column at the beginning of Tunney. Then, over the next four hundred twenty five pages, Cavanaugh goes about correcting the injustice to which Murray refers. In the process, he provides a picture of the boxing world as it was before and during Tunney's time at the top. But even people who wouldn't attend a boxing match if it were transpiring across the street at no charge will enjoy this book for the stories it contains, some of them having nothing to do with Gene Tunney. Cavanaugh's book demonstrates once again that, like it or not, our most brutal and corrupt sport has generated some of the very best tales ever associated with our games.


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