Gene Tunney vs Jack Dempsey (lost radio coverage of boxing match; 1926)
On 23rd September 1926, Jack Dempsey defended his World Heavyweight Championship against Gene Tunney at the Sesquicentennial Municipal Stadium in Philadelphia. Occurring in front of around 135,000, Tunney dominated the ten-round bout to win by decision, ending Dempsey's seven-year run with the belt. Additionally, the match received live coverage from NBC as part of its launch, attracting around 39 million listeners.
Heading into the bout, Dempsey had not competed in a professional bout since 1923. After defeating Jess Willard on 4th July 1919 for the World Heavyweight Championship, Dempsey made five successful defences, including against Billy Miske, Bill Brennan, Georges Carpentier, Tommy Gibbons, and finally, Luis Angel Firpo on 14th September 1923. Following the last win, Dempsey took three years out from professional boxing to star in films alongside wife Taylor, with him only competing in a few exhibitions during this time period. Meanwhile, Tunney had been climbing the light heavyweight ranks, and by 1925, was deemed the best in that division. He therefore began to make challenges for Dempsey's belt, although initially few believed he stood a chance against the rugged Dempsey. To legitimise his challenge, Tunney defeated heavyweight Tommy Gibbons by KO on 5th June 1925, a man Dempsey only beat by decision. Eventually, a match was agreed for 23rd September 1926. Following a KO win over Dan O'Dowd on 29th December 1925, Tunney also took time-off from the ring, not only to prepare himself for the bout, but also to build his mainstream appeal by filming The Fighting Marine.
The bout was promoted by Tex Rickard. Initially, he planned for the bout to occurred on 16th September 1926 at New York's Yankee Stadium. However, he decided instead to hold it at the Sesquicentennial Municipal Stadium in Philadelphia a week later, after the New York State Athletic Commission did not grant Dempsey a New York boxing licence and demanded that a Dempsey-Harry Wills fight occur first. While some boxing fans felt it was "disgraceful and humiliating" for it to be held at this stadium, the reality was that around 135,000 travelled across the United States to see the bout, promoted as "the greatest battle since the Silurian Age". Further helping the fight's intrigue was the two boxers' clear differences, with Dempsey's instinct "savage" approach challenging the more scientific methodology from Tunney. Meanwhile, on 19th June 1926, RCA launched NBC, which became the first major network in the United States. In order to build upon its success with the Dempsey-Carpentier radio broadcast, RCA utilised the upcoming Dempsey-Tunney clash to advertise the new network. Consisting of 31 stations, the NBC broadcast travelled to numerous places across the nation, including theatres, city centres, and other public places. The commentary was provided by Graham McNamee, with the airing drawing around 39 million viewers. This contributed towards the fight generating nearly $2 million in revenue overall. It also produced around $3 million for Philadelphia businesses.
The bout took place on 23rd September 1926 in front of around 135,000 according to The New York Times, who attended despite the pouring rain. Heading in, Tunney was confident, believing he would not even need to be at his best to defeat the champion. He stated "I am positive that I am capable of a better fight than I've ever fought, because never yet have I been extended to the limit. I may not even fight my best fight against Dempsey. It may come next year when I am defending the title against the next challenger. Who knows?!". Despite many questioning the challenger's chances, Tunney, with the crowd on his side, dominated all ten rounds of the event. Tunney attributed his dominance towards landing a right cross to Dempsey's left cheekbone within the first round. Having practiced it in the year heading into the fight, Tunney and his trainer Lew Fink were hoping it would secure a knockout in a single round. While this did not happen, the punch make the champion considerably groggy, handing the challenger the advantage.
From there, Tunney controlled proceedings. From the early rounds, he built up a significant points lead, landing constant rights onto Dempsey's jaw and nose, and outmatching the champion in terms of agility, speed, and accuracy. Neither man suffered a knockdown throughout the contest, but by the end of the tenth round, it was clear Tunney would become the new champion by decision. The first time the World Heavyweight Championship changed hands this way, Tunney received a standing ovation upon the announcement, with the outcome widely considered a major upset. While media publications like The New York Times criticised Dempsey for lacking the aggressiveness that made him champion, Tunney was full of praise, stating "Dempsey is here now and I would like to have the boys be kind to him because he is a darned good sportsman." He was also greatly supportive of a potential rematch down the line. After Dempsey defeated Jack Sharkey on 21st July 1927, a rematch took place on 22nd September 1927. This match, famously nicknamed "The Long Count Fight", was also won by Tunney via decision, in what marked Dempsey's final professional bout.
Ultimately, the NBC broadcast of the bout occurred in a time period where radio recordings were exceptionally rare. Outdoor sporting event airings were especially likely to become permanently lost, as the primitive nature of acetate and lacquer recording discs were generally impractical to take out of studios. NBC did not record either Tunney-Dempsey clash, and whereas a pirate copy of the Long Count Fight was made, no audio exists from the first fight. Nevertheless, ample film footage has since resurfaced, and compiled into a YouTube video.
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- ESPN summarising Dempsey's career heading into the fight, and both Tunney matches. Retrieved 2nd Jan '23
- BoxRec detailing Dempsey's fight record. Retrieved 2nd Jan '23
- International Boxing Hall of Fame summarising Dempsey's career. Retrieved 2nd Jan '23
- The Boxing Film summarising Dempsey and Tunney's film careers, and the NBC broadcast of the match. Retrieved 2nd Jan '23
- The Fight City detailing Tunney's career, including his rise through the light heavyweight division and his seemingly underdog wins over Dempsey. Retrieved 2nd Jan '23
- BoxRec detailing Tunney's fight record. Retrieved 2nd Jan '23
- 6th September 1926 issue of The New York Times reporting on Tunney's confidence heading into the bout. Retrieved 2nd Jan '23
- Great Movie Serials noting Tunney took time off to film The Fighting Marine. Retrieved 2nd Jan '23
- The Philly History Blog summarising the fight and how it was promoted. Retrieved 2nd Jan '23
- 23rd June 1926 issue of The New York Times reporting on the New York State Athletic Commission refusing to sanction the fight on New York grounds. Retrieved 2nd Jan '23
- When Dempsey Fought Tunney detailing the hype generated for the match, including based on each boxer's style (summary found on The University of Tennessee Press). Retrieved 2nd Jan '23
- 24th September 1926 issue of The New York Times reporting on Tunney winning the bout. Retrieved 2nd Jan '23
- 29th September 1926 issue of The New York Times reporting on Tunney's comments surrounding how he won the bout. Retrieved 2nd Jan '23
- The Fight City noting Tunney's first win was considered shocking, and the subsequent "Long Count Fight". Retrieved 2nd Jan '23
- Ngā Taonga noting most early-1920s sports airings were never recorded. Retrieved 2nd Jan '23
- Boxing Noir noting NBC did not record either of its Tunney-Dempsey broadcasts, with only a pirate copy made for the Long Count Fight. Retrieved 2nd Jan '23