Jesse Marinoff Reyes:
James Joseph “Gene” Tunney (1897-1978)!
Heavyweight champion 1926-1928 (his retirement). He lost only one fight in each of his amateur (to future light-heavyweight champ Tommy Loughran) and pro careers (fighting as a light-heavyweight), to middleweight champ Harry Greb, “The Pittsburgh Windmill,” in one of the most brutal fights of the roaring twenties—he would fight the hall-of famer four more times, beating him three times and drawing once, though ringside reports favored Tunney in that bout as well. Useful experience for “The Fighting Marine”—as he would move up in class to campaign as a heavyweight in 1925 and eventually challenging “The Manassa Mauler,” Jack Dempsey, the electrifying slugger who dominated boxing and the sports pages of the era in 1926, and taking the heavily favored champion in an easy ten round decision. It was, however, the rematch a year later that would cement Tunney and Dempsey’s names in the pantheon of greats who fought the signature matches of their times.
“The Battle of the Long Count” as it came to be known had a much more determined Dempsey facing Tunney’s agile footwork, expert hands and deft counterpunching. Though trailing on points with Tunney handling him easily, Dempsey bored in trying to land the big shots that he must have felt the only route to regaining the title. In the seventh, Dempsey cornered Tunney against the ropes and loosed a barrage of punches that sent Tunney to the canvas. History may have been altered then and there, but Dempsey hovered over the prone champion as he had done since the beginning of his career—ready to pounce on the fallen fighter as he struggled to regain his footing, common practice up until then. However, the rules had changed. A boxer was to retreat to a neutral corner in the event of a knockdown while the referee counted over the fallen fighter. Referee Dave Barry had to struggle with Dempsey to back him into a neutral corner and could not pick up the count until he’d done so. The extra time favored Tunney, as his head cleared. Instead of ten seconds for the knockout, Tunney’s time on the floor has been clocked at 13 seconds. By the time the ref picked up the count, Tunney regained his senses and was ready to go. Indeed, the following round, Tunney knocked Dempsey to the canvas, and dominated the final two rounds to retain the title.
The erudite Tunney was known as an intellectual outside of the ring, known to keep company with the likes of George Bernard Shaw. He married into high society and was a successful businessman in his retirement becoming an executive of banks, manufacturing companies, insurance firms, and a newspaper (the Toronto Globe and Mail). He pursued his interest in literature and was the author of A Man Must Fight (1932) and the autobiographical Arms for Living (1941). One of his four children, John V. Tunney, was a U.S. Senator (1971–77).
The cover for the original LIFE magazine was by the Modern Master of Caricature, Miguel Covarrubias. Covarrubias arrived in New York City in 1924 (at age 19) on a Mexican government grant where the poet, and fellow-Mexican emigré José Juan Tablada, and New York Times critic Carl Van Vechten introduced Covarrubias to the literary and cultural elite of the day. It wasn’t long before Covarrubias plunged into the New York publishing scene like a hurricane, crafting spot caricatures for numerous newspaper and magazine assignments, and eventually becoming one of publishing’s top caricaturists and cover artists—especially for Vanity Fair. Covarrubias would develop into a painter, ethnologist and art historian (among other interests), unfortunately for art directors and caricature fans. However, his body of work had long-lasting impact, whether in the work of his one-time studio mate Al Hirschfeld—or up to the present as echoes of his influence are seen in contemporary caricaturists the likes of Stan Shaw, Glenn Hilario, and David Cowles.
Clearly, Covarrubias noted the dichotomy between Tunney’s career and his outside interests. Not your everyday pug!
LIFE, July 19, 1928 issue
Illustration: Miguel Covarrubias