The Time Tunnel: 75th Anniversary of "The Long Count"

by B. R. Bearden

"The Long Count." It’s been 75 years since the phrase was attached to the second fight between Jack Dempsey and Gene Tunney. Even the most casual boxing fan probably knows it involved a knockdown and an "eight count" that went for about twice that long. Dempsey failed to regain the title and Tunney would retire as heavyweight champion. But there was much more to the story.

The real story involves mobsters and suspicious refereeing, an offer to kill a proposed referee should he "double-cross" the wrong people, and a strange count which, combined with Dempsey's stubborn streak, cost him the fight and the distinction of being the first man to regain the heavyweight title.

In their first fight, September 23rd, 1926, Jack Dempsey entered the ring as the 11 to 5 favorite. But the fans were betting on the Dempsey of old, not the old Dempsey. For Jack had grown old; not in years but in inactivity. Though only 2 years older than Gene Tunney at 31 years, it might as well have been ten. Dempsey had fought 3 times in the past six years, and not at all in the last three, whereas Tunney had fought 15 times, including 4 fights the previous year against Harry Greb, Tommy Gibbons, Johnny Risko, and Dan O’Dowd. Two were future Hall of Fame inductees, Greb and Gibbons, and Risko and O’Dowd were Top Ten ranked fighters. It would be a sharp, young, hungry fighter against a champion laden with ring rust.

Knowing Tunney to be fast and skilled, the Dempsey camp brought in Tommy Loughran, the great light heavyweight fighter who would claim that division’s title the next year. It was immediately apparent to Loughran that Dempsey was shot. His timing was gone, his reflexes terribly eroded, and the light heavyweight had no trouble handling the man who was still the most feared heavyweight in the world. Tommy suggested they close the camp to reporters so he could work with Dempsey on his timing but supposedly Tex Rickard, the promoter, nixed that, saying it would kill ticket sales. Commenting later on the odds, Loughran said if they’d asked him, he’d have told them to reverse them to Tunney’s favor.

The Sesqui-Centennial Stadium in Philadelphia held 120, 757 rabid fans who, despite a heavy rain, came to see Dempsey thrash the upstart Tunney. As it was, the fight fans were shocked to see Tunney easily outbox the fierce Manassa Mauler and take his title. The outcome was as dismal as the weather to those who believed Dempsey the Champ would always be The Champ.

A year later the rematch was in the works. This time Dempsey trained harder and knew what to expect from Tunney. But there were other factors at play in the background. Al Capone was a huge Dempsey fan and had offered to manage the fighter after his break with Doc Kearns following the Luis Firpo fight in 1923. Nobody’s fool, Jack turned Scarface Al down, though it appears Capone took no insult from the refusal. Meanwhile, Tunney had borrowed $200,000 from Philadelphia mobster Boo Boo Hoff. Abe Attell, Hall of Fame featherweight champion, was also involved with Hoff. The ex-fighter had been implicated as a go-between during the Black Sox Scandal, when the Chicago White Sox sold the World Series in 1919 to mobsters, but Attell was never charged.

In speaking of the role Capone and Hoff might have played, Attell said, "Tunney… had a similar situation in Philly with Boo Boo Hoff, but he made the mistake of borrowing money from Boo Boo, so the connection was tighter than Dempsey with Capone."

Boxing at the time was divided ethnically every bit as much as racially. The Irish, the Italians, and the Jews all had their fighters and a sure bet was to match a fighter of one group against a man of a different group. The mobs, as well, were divided along the same cuts, with Chicago being run by the Italians under Capone and Philadelphia by the Jews, with Hoff a major player. How much did the mobs play on the minds of those involved? Well, champion Gene Tunney was brought into Chicago for the weigh-in in an armored car escorted by two squad cars.

But could a Jewish mobster come into the town of so powerful an Italian mob boss as Capone and influence the outcome of such an important fight? As Pacheco reports Abe Attell told him, "It was the Italians against the Jews. The Jews won!"

Two referees were considered for the affair, Dave Miller and Dave Barry. Al Capone wanted Miller but word got out that if Miller was chosen, Capone would control the fight. How the word "got out" is unclear, but it wouldn’t be a stretch to consider Hoff a source for the rumor. Despite Capone’s preference of Miller, there is no "outward" indication that he was anything but a good referee. Barry, on the other hand, was clearly involved with mobsters and ran a speakeasy in Chicago, though not with the well-wishes of Chicago boss Capone. Barry got the nod anyway.

Dempsey didn’t protest too strongly against Barry, as surely Doc Kearns would have, and instead took the philosophical view that the referee was merely a formality. As The Ring, January 1967, stated,

"Jack pointed out that no referee could help him regain the title because he could not hope to outpoint Tunney. ‘I’ve got to rely on these,’ the Mauler said, holding up his fist. ‘I have got to knock him out.’ "

It was a mistake on Dempsey’s part not to realize how much the referee could influence the fight, especially when he was favored by those with money behind Tunney.

Now comes the rule that would lead to 75 years of controversy and cause the fight film to be studied over and over, stop watch in hand, by most boxing historians; the neutral corner rule.

As written, the rule went:

"When a knockdown occurs, the timekeeper shall immediately arise and announce the seconds audibly as they elapse. The referee shall see first that the opponent retires to the farthest neutral corner and then, turning to the timekeeper, shall pick up the count in unison with him, announcing the seconds to the boxer on the floor.

"Should the boxer on his feet fail to go, or stay, in the corner, the referee and timekeeper shall cease counting until he has so retired."

Simple enough. But the neutral corner rule had only been in effect for a couple years and wasn’t in effect at all in Illinois, the site for the second fight. So, how did it come to be a factor in this fight? There are conflicting stories on why the neutral corner was added; The Ring writer Dan Daniel said, "Suppose Leo P. Flynn and Bill Duffy, who represented Dempsey in the conference on rules, had not held out for the stipulation that if either fighter scored a knockdown, the aggressor had to go to a far corner?"

But did they insist on that provision, or not argue against it?

It actually seems Dempsey did want the rule. Quoted in the Chicago Daily Tribune the day after the fight, George Lytton, one of the two judges, said of the neutral corner rule, "That has been Dempsey's contention ever since the Firpo fight."

Abe Attell said, "If he had his way, Kearns would not have allowed Barry to be the ref or allowed the new neutral corner rule or the big ring size; none of it. Every corner is neutral until the bell rings to stop the contest, was Kearns’ view. But unfortunately, Dempsey did not have Doc Kearns to maneuver for him, since they were on the outs."

Obviously, such a rule does not favor the puncher Dempsey over the boxer Tunney. It had always been Jack’s tactic to stand over fallen foes and pummel them the instant they rose. Is there any reason Dempsey would have endorsed such a rule? Perhaps not if he thought it over as Kearns would have; but Kearns wasn’t with him and the rule was allowed.

It is ironic to note that the neutral corner rule was instituted because of a Dempsey fight, his whirlwind fight with Luis Angel Firpo. In that wild melee, Firpo was knocked down seven times in the first round and Dempsey twice, the second time sending him through the ropes. In the second round, Jack knocked the big Argentinean out. Afterwards, partly to pacify the perennial "Ban Boxing" crowd and partly to keep the confusion in the ring to a manageable level, it was decided there would be no more standing over fallen fighters by their opponents. But Dempsey would not fight again until his first match with Tunney, and wasn’t familiar with the mechanics of the rule he inadvertently helped bring into existence and apparently insisted on having in affect.

Next comes ring size. The slugger wants a small ring to make it easier to catch his man, but the final size favored the boxer, Tunney. As Attell told it, "Look what they got from the Illinois Boxing Commission… Kearns always insisted on a 16-foot ring when Dempsey fought. In a phone booth nobody walks out alive but Dempsey. Somehow, though, Tunney ended up with a 20-footer for the fight- a ring made for a track meet".

Besides the neutral corner, the other concession Dempsey won was the length of the two fights; 10 rounds. He knew his condition. In 10 rounds he might catch the fleet Tunney, even in the larger ring, but past 10 he wouldn’t have enough left to do anything if he did catch up to him.

As to the referee and the mob, The Ring stated, "In 1951, Ed Sullivan, who lived with the Dempsey entourage at Lincoln Fields while jack was training for the fight, wrote a revealing column in the New York News about an offer by five Chicago hoods to have the ‘right man’ referee the battle if the Dempsey camp fought for its choice. The fee was to be $50,000."

According to Sullivan’s 1951 article in the New York News, the referee choices entered an ominous stage with the mobsters. "But behind the scenes, the Dempsey camp kept trying to arrange the selection of a referee who would be friendly to the ex-champ. Chicago mobs said it could be done and we drove in to a Chicago hotel to listen to their reasons."

"Dempsey’s manager, Flynn, asked, ‘How do you know that your hand-picked referee won't double-cross us?’ ‘Because,’ said one of the Chicago hoods, ‘we will be sitting in Working Press seats and the minute he steps out of the ring, we will take him by the arms and escort him out of the ballpark. If there's a double-cross, when we get outside the park, you'll hear the backfire of a car, only it won't be no backfire. It will be one of us shooting him very dead indeed.’ "

The proposed referee was present for this meeting where his life was tossed about lightly, and though Sullivan doesn’t name him, indications are that it was Dave Miller. Was the other side putting the same mortal pressure on Dave Barry? Probably, as Abe Attell asserted that he was Hoff’s referee.

Sullivan went on to tell how they returned to the training camp and told Dempsey of the offer.

"You're stark, staring crazy," Dempsey told them. "I told you once before that I'll carry my own referee into the ring, in my fists. Now you want me to put up $50,000 and I say to hell with it. I want no part of it and that's final. Don't make any deals in your name or my name. Tell the boys I appreciate their interest, but no dice."

On September 22, 1927, Dempsey climbed into a much too large ring with a referee not of his choosing to do battle for "his" title. Less people showed up for the rematch at Soldier Field, Chicago, with its higher ticket prices, but there were still 104,943 on hand and the gate a new record, $2,658,660.

For the first five rounds Tunney controlled the fight with his sharp jabs and quick footwork, but the sixth was Dempsey’s as he stalked his nemesis like the Mauler of old. Even so, Tunney would later say, "I knew after the first round that I had Dempsey. I knew, further, that it would be only a question of time when I would knock him out. Twelve rounds would have done it."

In the seventh, Tunney seemed to be taking a breather, or had decided Dempsey was too far gone to be a threat. Whatever his thoughts, they were abruptly snapped back to the situation at hand when Jack caught him with a left. As Tunney fell back against the ropes, Dempsey unleashed a torrent of punches, backed by all his power and fury, and Gene collapsed to the floor.

As Tunney said, "Everybody saw Dempsey land that left hook to my jaw, but never knew how much it surprised me. I never saw the punch. Not seeing it surprised me- I was always cocksure about my eyesight in the ring."

Through a dark glass we can see what transpires, the events moving slowly as they unfold:

Tunney is moving away from Dempsey, near the ropes. Jack throws a right which barely grazes his jaw, then follows with a long left hook that catches Tunney flush on the jaw. Gene staggers back against the ropes and Dempsey pummels him with a combination of four or five punches, all on target. The champion grumbles in a dazed heap on the floor, not six feet from Dempsey’s corner.

Tunney is down, the referee is beginning his count, and Dempsey hovers at his shoulder. On its feet, the crowd roars. On his back, Tunney pulls to a seated position, one leg turned under him at an unnatural angle. He pulls his leg around, still making no effort to rise, a bewildered look on his face. The heavyweight championship of the world, and boxing history, hinges on the next 20 seconds or less. The referee begins his count, the rise and fall of his arm painfully slow, then realizes Dempsey hasn’t gone to a neutral corner. Barry says something to Dempsey but the excited champion doesn’t respond; his eyes stare feverishly at Tunney. The referee stops his count and takes hold of Dempsey’s arm to guide him in the direction of the corner. That done, he begins the count again, some said at the timekeeper’s count of 5, others that he started over with 1. Either way, Tunney receives a count of between 14 and 17 seconds. He needs it, for it’s not until the referee’s new count of seven that Tunney looks at him with clear recognition of where he is and what’s transpiring. At the referee’s count of nine, Gene gets up and takes off on his bicycle, avoiding the rushes of Dempsey for the rest of the round. The scene spins faster and the moment passes; Dempsey’s opportunity is forever gone. In the next round Tunney scores a flash knockdown of Dempsey and from then on will coast to a win via decision.

But questions remain. Why didn’t Dempsey go to the neutral corner? Some have said it was his stubborn nature and combative personality, while others ascribe it to confusion. It is probably a combination of the two. The man is down, he looks like he’s not getting up, so why move away? Stand there and watch him be counted out. Such might have been in Jack’s mind. Also, he appeared completely baffled by the new neutral corner rule once it actually came into play, whether or not he endorsed it. The rule stated the standing fighter must move to the farthest neutral corner, but Tunney had went down almost in Jack’s corner. The farthest corner was Tunney’s; was it neutral? Then which of the other corners should he use? They are both 20 feet away.

In "The Heavyweight Champions" Stanley Weston describes the confusion, "When Tunney hit the deck near the ropes, Referee Dave Barry started to count: One, two… Barry stopped suddenly when he realized that Dempsey had not gone to a neutral corner, according to the rules. ‘Get to a neutral corner, Dempsey!’ Barry ordered. Jack turned around and tried to figure which of the four corners of the ring were neutral. The pointing finger of one of his seconds answered the question and Jack finally was where he was supposed to be."

Sid Mercer wrote in the Cleveland News the day after the fight, "Dempsey at first stepped past Tunney and went to his own corner only a few feet away. Barry, however, ordered him to the neutral southeast corner, Jack's own corner being the southwest."
"The timekeeper had counted one when he saw the referee arguing with Dempsey who did not seem to comprehend what the order was. Perhaps three or four seconds were lost that way and in the meanwhile the count stopped. It started again as Dempsey reached the neutral corner and the referee picked it up at five after returning to Tunney."

In the next round, Tunney dropped Dempsey and stood at the referee’s shoulder as he counted. Did Tunney go to a neutral corner? No. Did the referee stop the count to steer him to it? No. In his book,
"The 12 Greatest Rounds of Boxing", Ferdie Pacheco quotes writer Roger Kahn, noted Dempsey authority, who said, "Tunney was as close to a neutral corner as I am to Moscow. And this was not the only evidence of a biased ref. A referee has many ways to influence a fight; for example, on the break."

As Pacheco says of the referee’s tactics whenever Tunney clinched, "In this fight, Dave Barry would grab Dempsey’s right arm so that he could not punch or move the other fighter, in effect neutralizing Dempsey’s infighting."

Ed Sullivan noted how the Chicago hoods said their referee could influence the fight, "This guy used to referee fights for Gibson, when Benny Leonard was champ. At Benton Harbor, in 1920, when Leonard's fighting Charlie White, you remember White left-hooked Leonard out of the ring. The referee, to give Leonard a chance to pull himself together, got into an argument with Charlie White, y'hear, and by the time he finishes arguing, Leonard is back in action. Benny wins by a knockout in the fifth round, but he had some help."

They are, of course, speaking about the referee they wanted to use, but it seems much like Barry’s interaction with Dempsey when he stopped his count.

Even the referee’s actions in picking up the count are in question. The rule said, "The referee shall see first that the opponent retires to the farthest neutral corner and then, turning to the timekeeper, shall pick up the count in unison with him, announcing the seconds to the boxer on the floor. Should the boxer on his feet fail to go, or stay, in the corner, the referee and timekeeper shall cease counting until he has so retired."

Yet, according to sportswriters at ringside, rather than resuming the count as it was once Dempsey had complied, Barry began again at one. Not only that, but he also apparently slowed his count, giving Tunney even more recovery time.

Timekeeper Paul Beeler had three stop watches, one in hand and two on the table. He said, "Barry faced me and was swinging his right hand, yelling out the count, one. I had a split second in which to decide whether to go with Barry’s count or continue my own original count, which had started when Tunney was floored. I went along with referee Barry; he was in charge. When Barry reached the count of nine, Tunney got to his feet and did a great job of backpedaling for the rest of the round. My watch read 17 seconds! Why 17 seconds? Well, Barry had inadvertently slowed down the cadence of the count from five to nine. Why was a count of 14 reported? That was due to the sportswriters’ adding my five seconds to Barry’s nine count."

Did Barry deliberately slow his count? Beeler said, "It’s difficult to count seconds accurately without using a stopwatch, the general tendency being to count them slower than they actually are. That’s what referee Barry did."

Yet when Dempsey rabbit punched, repeatedly, and Tunney’s corner yelled at Dave Barry to do something about it, he did not. Were he paid off to favor Tunney, it would have been a perfect opportunity, unless he was instructed there must be a clear win for Tunney, not a disqualification.

Did any of this make a difference? Or was Tunney going to get up at 8 no matter how the count was administered? There is no agreement on that score, either.

"He beat himself by being slow in getting back to his corner," said judge Lytton. "There have been many remarks to the effect that Tunney could have risen sooner. I don't think so. In my opinion Tunney would have been counted out if the ex-champion had moved away faster."

Tunney said, "I was not hurt when I took a count in the seventh round, but considered it just as well to take my time about arising."

Dempsey said, "It appeared they gave Tunney a generous count in the seventh, just enough extra time to let him get his bearings and climb back on his bicycle. Gus Wilson's watch ticked off 15 seconds while Tunney was on the floor and Gus, as a trainer for many fighters, has been in the business long enough to be able to read a stop watch."

Leo P. Flynn, Dempsey's manager, stated, "Tunney is the pugilistic champion of the world by grace of what was either a queer decision or a colossal case of inefficiency in the simple matter of counting seconds. A dozen stop watches showed Tunney down for 15 seconds in the seventh. Even if Tunney could have got to his feet at the end of an up and up count, Jack would have floored him again. He needed those extra five seconds mighty bad. I'll file a formal protest as soon as possible. Investigation might clear up several things, even if the protest gets no farther."

It is 75 years later, those "several things" are still not clear and despite the passing of Tunney and Dempsey and all involved, the Long Count is still counting.

The Cleveland News: Sid Mercer, September 23, 1927

The Chicago Daily Tribune: George Lytton, Sept. 23, 1927

New York News: Ed Sullivan, 1951

The Pittsburg Press: Nat Fleischer, Feb. 20th, 1957

The Ring: Dan Daniel, January 1967

"The Heavyweight Champions" Stanley Weston, 1970

"The 12 Greatest Rounds of Boxing", Ferdie Pacheco with quotes from Roger Kahn
& Abe Attell, 2000


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