Sins of Omission

The Fighting Marine: Gene Tunney

Though he beat Jack Demp­sey decisively the two times they met in the ring, was undefeated as a heavyweight, and retired as heavyweight champion, Gene Tunney is often forgotten when today’s era of fight fans or others discuss the greatest heavyweights.  Political correctness doesn’t allow us to forget black champions such as Jack Johnson, although he lost a dozen fights, six by knockout, and had seven draws.  Johnson’s claim to fame was defeating the “Great White Hope,” James J. Jeffries, in 15 rounds.  Yet, when he faced Johnson, Jeffries hadn’t fought in six years and was 35 years old, overweight, and short on conditioning.

James Joseph Tunney was born in 1897 to parents who had immigrated to New York City from County Mayo, Ireland.  For Tunney’s tenth birthday his longshoreman father gave him boxing gloves and began training him, not because the father wanted him to become another Sullivan or Corbett, the father’s heavyweight heroes, but because his skinny son was coming home battered from fights in their rough Irish neighborhood at the western end of Greenwich Village.  By this time Tunney was called Gene because that was the closest the baby of the seven Tunney children could come to pronouncing James.

At De La Salle Academy, Tunney excelled not only in every sport but in the classroom.  Nonetheless, at 15 he dropped out of the tenth grade to take a job with...

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