Gene Tunney and the Quality of Mercy

Gene Tunney, heavyweight champion from 1926 to 1928, could never quite break through with the fight crowd. In part, it was because any heavyweight champion who followed Jack Dempsey would have suffered by comparison. In part, it was because he wasn’t their kind of guy, in the ring or out. He was a scientific boxer, not an attacker like Dempsey, and he was a devoted reader of literature, especially Shakespeare, a revelation that hurt him with hard-boiled fight fans and many boxing writers, whose attitudes Will Rogers, though not of their clan, captured well: “Let’s have prizefighters with harder wallops and less Shakespeare.”

Tunney’s last fight, against New Zealander Tom Heeney at Yankee Stadium on July 26, 1928, gave final testament not only to his greatness in the ring but also to his lukewarm appeal as a headliner. The bout drew a disappointing 50,000 fans—in the 1920s, this was only a so-so crowd—and brought in a gross gate of $691,014.50. Tex Rickard, the promoter, lost about $150,000 on the event. It was a far cry from Tunney’s two previous fights, when fans paid $2,658,600 and $1,895,733, respectively. Those two fights had one common ingredient: both featured Dempsey. And Dempsey, introduced to the crowd before the Tunney-Heeney fight, drew a louder ovation than either man.

Tunney vs. Heeney was a one-sided affair, though distinguished by Tunney’s ring brilliance and Heeney’s toughness. They didn’t call Heeney the Hard Rock from Down Under for nothing. Tunney battered Heeney in almost every round, but the challenger, though badly outclassed, fought with great courage. The referee, Eddie Forbes, finally stopped the fight in the eleventh round, with Heeney, still upright, taking another going-over. Tunney was the winner and still champion.

It was Tunney’s farewell to the ring. He was a wealthy man now, and about to become much wealthier, through his pending engagement and marriage to Polly Lauder, heir to a $50 million Carnegie fortune. He announced his retirement five days after beating Heeney and devoted the rest of his life to business interests and cultural pursuits. He died on November 10, 1978. (Polly, who lived to 100, died in 2008.)

In defeating Heeney, Tunney gave fight fans one last reminder of their ambivalence. He had not quite finished Heeney off, at least not in the spectacular fashion of Dempsey, and it seemed to some that he could have done more. This was an old complaint: Tunney had long suffered from the charge that he lacked “killer instinct,” the desire to destroy an opponent when the opportunity presented, without the burden of pity. Dempsey exemplified this instinctive brand of fighting. Tunney, by contrast, saw rationality as his guide. "I was always guided by reason in the ring," he wrote. "For everything I did, I had a reason.”

And Tunney took a dim view of killer instinct, as he explained in his 1941 autobiography, Arms for Living:

Throughout my time as a pugilist I was pestered by the talk that I was not a killer. . . .but I could perhaps console myself with the reflection that maybe I was not frightened enough to be a killer. That’s really what it amounts to. The secret of the ruthless fighter with murder in his soul is simply that he is afraid. He displays the savagery of tooth and claw, he’ll do anything to win, he’ll take any unfair advantage, he’ll foul, he’ll beat down a helpless opponent with raging brutality, in every respect he’s untamed ferocity—and it’s all a manifestation of an inner terror. He lacks confidence, he isn’t sure of himself; the killer is plain scared.

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Recounting the Heeney fight, Tunney described how he had been doling out punishment, round by round, especially to the challenger’s eyes. In the eighth round Heeney, still giving chase to Tunney, began pawing at his own eye, blinking. “I realized what had happened,” Tunney writes. “The eye had suddenly gone blind. The punch had paralyzed a nerve or stopped the flow of blood, and sight in the eye had gone black temporarily. . . . What a mark for a killer. Leap in and slug down a helpless opponent. Slaughter and murder a half-blind man.”

Instead, Tunney held back momentarily. “See if he’s all right,” he said to referee Forbes, who, as Tunney tells it, took a look at Heeney and determined that the vision was coming back. “I can see now,” Heeney affirmed. The bout lasted three more rounds, with Tunney in full command. (On my VCR tape of this fight, Tunney’s instruction to the referee in the eighth round is not apparent, though Forbes does appear to be watching Heeney, and Tunney does let up on his assault during the sequence in which Heeney seems in distress. Tunney's intercession looks quite subtle to modern eyes, but it was remarked upon at the time.)

In reacting this way, Tunney was guided not only by his awareness of blinded boxers but also by two poignant memories. First was his 1921 fight against Eddie Josephs, who fought Tunney in Staten Island, his home turf (Tunney himself was a Manhattanite). Tunney gave Josephs a beating, and by the final round, Josephs was missing two teeth and had several broken ribs. But he soldiered on, determined to go the full distance in front of his hometown crowd. In a clinch, he asked Tunney not to knock him out, and Tunney obliged, fighting the last frame from long range. Though nominally rooting for Josephs, the Staten Island crowd hooted Tunney’s failure to put his opponent away.

And Tunney remembered watching an old friend from the armed services, Gene Delmont, box in a headline bout. Delmont started out well but then took a hard right in the fourth round that changed the fight, and for the rest of the way he had nothing, holding on until the tenth and final round. Tunney concludes his first autobiography, A Man Must Fight, by describing his visit to Delmont afterward, and how it shaped his actions against Heeney a few years later:

I asked him what happened in the fourth round. And this was his answer:

“I got a punch over the left eye that didn’t hurt much. I thought it closed my eye. I couldn’t see with it. When I got back to my corner, I told one of my seconds that the eyelash was in my eye. I asked him to open the eye and turn the lash out.”

‘Your eye is open,’ he said.

‘Stop kidding me,’ I said. ‘I can’t see a thing. Open it.’

‘I tell you it is open,’ he insisted.

“Like a death sentence I realized I was blind in that eye. The doctor now tells me I am going . . .”

And so I could not hit Heeney again.

The restraint showed by this most unusual of heavyweight champions, a student of Shakespeare, could be seen as a boxing dramatization of Portia’s famous words from The Merchant of Venice, that “the quality of mercy is not strained . . . It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:/‘T is mightiest in the mightiest; it becomes/The throned monarch better than his crown.” Call it mercy or call it reason, but Gene Tunney concluded his boxing career as he concluded most everything else—on his own terms.