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Carpentier-Dempsey: A Prequel to Dempsey-Tunney

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Perhaps the most direct and most obvious legacy of the Carpentier-Dempsey fight, at least to those interested in boxing per se, is the fact that in a number of important ways it laid the groundwork for the much more famous Dempsey-Tunney fights.  Those two celebrated bouts, the first fought in Philadelphia on September 23, 1926 and the second in Chicago on September 22, 1927, have been endlessly analyzed, their cultural and athletic significance parsed in both great depth and minute detail.  What seems to have escaped the attention of virtually all commentators, however, is the extent to which the social themes and implications ascribed to the Dempsey-Tunney bouts were already explicitly at work five years earlier in Carpentier-Dempsey.

First, there are factual ways in which Carpentier-Dempsey made possible the Dempsey-Tunney bouts.  It is widely accepted that the saga of Dempsey-Tunney is not just about what took place between the ropes but also of the extraordinary press coverage and public frenzy surrounding the event.  The tacit agreement between those who published newspapers, those who wrote for them and those who read them that a heavyweight title fight constituted a big story reached new heights in the months surrounding Carpentier-Dempsey.  The mechanics of this relationship were not, as one might be lead to believe by some accounts, created by Dempsey-Tunney but rather created by Carpentier-Dempsey and revisited by Dempsey-Tunney.  The Dempsey-Tunney story as a story, was able, one might argue, to take off the way it did precisely because the process was already a familiar one.  In 1926, in the weeks leading up to the first Dempsey-Tunney bout, boxing fans were not experiencing something new; they were taking their seats on a roller coaster they had already ridden five years earlier. And it was precisely because they had enjoyed that ride so much that they were eager to hop aboard for another spin.

More specifically, the Dempsey-Tunney coverage was based to a great extent on Jack Dempsey’s extreme celebrity.  As is always the case, Dempsey’s celebrity was a serial, comprised of any number of discreet episodes and incidents.  The single most important of these, before the Tunney bouts, was very clearly his fight with Carpentier.  It was thanks to Tex Rickard’s brilliantly orchestrated publicity campaign surrounding the 1921 affair that Jack Dempsey had truly become a household name. Without the key ingredient of Dempsey’s celebrity, which was in turn due in very large part to Carpentier’s popularity, Dempsey-Tunney would have been much less likely to gain the kind of momentum it did.

Dempsey himself, in one of his autobiographies, is explicit about the role Carpentier played in the creation of his celebrity. Writing about the period just after his fight with Carpentier, he says:

Even aside from my own efforts, my reputation was taking on great proportions.  Georges Carpentier had received such a build-up, and had been so popular, that by defeating him I came to be regarded as being better than had been supposed.  By beating a popular idol I had become more favorably known than by overwhelming giant Jess Willard, whom people cared less about.[1]

Without Carpentier, Dempsey’s fame would not have been what it was in 1926, meaning that Dempsey-Tunney would not have been what it was.

Carpentier vs. Gene Tunney, 1924

 

Carpentier-Tunney

Before 1926, Gene Tunney was not a household word like Jack Dempsey.  The level of fame he did enjoy, however, owed a considerable debt to his fight with none other than Georges Carpentier, in 1924.  While it was universally agreed that Carpentier was on the downside of his career at that point, he was nonetheless still basking in the afterglow of the extreme fame and popularity he had acquired in 1921.  Boxing fans and non-boxing fans alike still remembered Carpentier—so much so, in fact, that his fight with Tommy Gibbons on May 31, 1924, just seven weeks before he fought Tunney, drew what was, according to at least one report, a record-breaking crowd.  Although it is not clear what record may have been broken, what is certain that very large numbers of fans turned out and that they came to see Carpentier, not Gibbons. Even the more cynical boxing writers, eager to point out in the least generous of terms that Carpentier was completely washed up as a fighter by 1924, willingly concede his continued power as a drawing card.  Boxing writer Joe Williams says:

Ability is one thing.  Salesmanship is another.  Georges Carpentier, fragile Frenchman, has a minimum of the former and a maximum of the latter.  That is why he continues to rake in the festive doubloons in this country in face of the fact that he is through.

Carpentier drew a record-breaking crowd into the Michigan City bowl to see him spring away from Tommy Gibbons through 10 rounds. […] Carpentier will draw another big money crowd into the Polo Grounds to see him step with Gene Tunney, American light heavyweight champion, July 24.

In fact,  Williams goes on to point out, in spite of the fact that he was soundly beaten by Gibbons on May 31, Carpentier’s still-potent marketability wins him, not Gibbons, the nod for a bout with Tunney:

Gibbons showed Carpentier up completely several weeks ago.  Before the bout it was announced the winner would meet Tunney for the light heavyweight championship.  Gibbons was emphatically the winner, but the fight with the champion went to Carpentier because he is a better “crowd pleaser.”[2]

Williams concludes his article by predicting that even a decisive win by Tunney, who, he says, “is no great shakes of a fighter himself,” will not prevent Carpentier from continuing to be a “drawing card.” In short, it is clear that the considerable amount of attention paid to the Carpentier-Tunney fight was clearly due to the ongoing interest generated by Carpentier.

Indeed, Tunney had yet to make a real mark in the boxing game in 1924 and the fight with Carpentier, if only because of Carpentier’s fame, was seen as an important test of his worthiness.  An article published on June 29, 1924, entitled “Bout With Carpentier Will At Least Give Fans Line on Real Ability of Gene Tunney” jokingly lays out the stakes of the upcoming match:

The strange and perplexing case of Mr. James Joseph Tunney, known professionally as Gene, is to be wheeled back into the operating room for further clinical experiments.

Mr. Tunney, professing to the light heavyweight championship of America, has signed to exchange punches, as the saying goes, with Georges Carpentier, celebrated French foot-racer, here next month. [3]

The ironic reference to Carpentier as a “foot-racer”  (and a later characterization of him as “decrepit”) notwithstanding, the thrust of the article is that Tunney remains an unknown commodity and that a fight with a well-known commodity like Carpentier will be a crucial step for him on the way to gaining both fame and respect.

Reports of Tunney’s victory, a TKO in the fifteenth round, confirm this: “Gene Tunney, by his decisive win over Carpentier, is now being touted for a match with Dempsey.”[4] His victory over Carpentier “brought Tunney an international reputation.” [5] 

The importance of the Carpentier fight as a stepping stone in Tunney’s career— that is, in his road to Dempsey-- became an integral element of Tunney’s story as it was put down in the boxing history books.  The Nat Fleischer biography of Tunney, Enigma of the Ring, spells it out:

The Marine [Tunney] fully realized what an opportunity faced him, for a quick defeat of Carpentier would place him in line for a crack at Dempsey’s title.  That fight meant everything to him.  It was the turning point of his career and Gene figured that he would be made or sent into the discard by the result.[6]

The standard reference Pictorial History of Boxing, by Fleischer and Sam Andre, echoes this idea: “Gene Tunney made a step towards the heavyweight crown when he stopped Carpentier in the 15th round, July 24, 1924, in Yankee Stadium [sic].”[7]

In a piece clearly designed to work up interest for Tunney in the wake of the new level of visibility he had attained via the Carpentier fight,  it is revealed that Tunney claims to have invented a new punch, the liver punch. A variation of the solar plexus punch invented by Bob Fitzsimmons, Tunney’s liver punch, the article explains, is the result of scientific reflection on his part.  “No blow,” Tunney is quoted as saying, “when properly and fully landed causes a more instantaneous or complete nerve paralysis.”  The laboratory in which Tunney tested his new invention and proved its effectiveness was his fight with Carpentier:

Carpentier was dropped by a liver punch in his fight at the Polo Grounds last summer.  Tunney caught the Frenchman coming in and hooked a left to the liver.  Carpentier dropped to the canvas, writhing with pain and claiming a foul.  It was half an hour before he was himself again.

The same article, written four months after the Carpentier-Tunney fight, capitalizes on the bout in another way as well.  When asked what his “greatest thrill” in the ring to date has been, Tunney replies that it was surviving Carpentier’s fabled right.  Not only had Tunney heard about it, he had seen it himself, when Carpentier knocked out Battling Levinsky for the light heavyweight title in 1920 and when the Frenchman sent Dempsey “scampering backward across the ring” in Jersey City. So it was a tremendous thrill, albeit a “negative thrill,” for Tunney to get caught with Carpentier’s thunderous right hand and be able to keep on fighting:

“I fully expected to crumple and pass out without further ceremony.

To my surprise I found that aside from a fleeting sense of dizziness, it hadn’t bothered me at all.  It was a thrill because I had never been cracked by a real puncher before.  Before that night, I hadn’t been any too sure that I could take it.”[8]

This article thus uses the Carpentier-Tunney bout as proof of Tunney’s skills, both offensive (the devastating and scientifically developed liver punch) and defensive (his ability to stand up to Carpentier’s supposedly formidable right hand). He can take a man out with a single punch and he has a chin, the article informs us.  Since his boxing skills were never in question, Tunney starts to look like the complete pugilistic package in the wake of his trial against Carpentier, certainly close enough to qualify as a legitimate challenger to Dempsey.  Carpentier-Tunney proved Tunney to be a worthy opponent for Dempsey: he withstood Carpentier’s awesome right as Dempsey had, he ended the fight with a decisive KO of Carpentier as Dempsey had.

At least one reporter writing on Carpentier-Tunney chose to cast the bout in terms that almost seem like a nostalgic revisiting of the reporting on Carpentier-Dempsey, thereby suggesting in a different way the extent to which the earlier fight still loomed large three years after the fact.  Frank Getty, in an article entitled “Carpentier Makes Gallant Stand In Fight With Tunney,” returns to the depictions of Carpentier as “gallant” and “game” even in the face of defeat.  The article describing the bout is in fact above all a purple description of Carpentier’s heroic and tragic martyrdom in the ring, much as so many of the pieces written in the days following July 2, 1921 were:

In agony of body and spirit, the vortex of a maddened throng that howled and cheered and jeered, Georges Carpentier made one last gallant gesture, before he passed probably forever, from the prize ring that has been his stage for more than sixteen years.

[…]

Carpentier, crying out with pain through lips that were mangled and bruised, was declared out on his feet.  He slumped to the floor, sobbing, a beaten man—but beaten at the end by a blow that landed unintentionally below his belt and brought on the most thrilling scenes of recent ring history, beggaring description […]

[…]

Carpentier, sprawled on the floor in a pose reminiscent of the “Dying Gaul,” literally crying from pain. […]

The Frenchman was bent over so that his hands nearly touched the floor.  His mouth hung open.  But he faced his man. […]

The truly magnificent moment of the Frenchman’s last stand came in the tenth round.  It came when Georges, eyes glazed, knees wobbling, blood gushing from his mouth, cried, “Non, non,” as the referee would have stopped the bout to save him further punishment.

[…] Twice again in this round smashing blows without return sent the bewildered Frenchman to the canvas.  Each time he arose and clung on.  And when Andy Griffin would have intervened and tried to push Georges away, the gallant soldier-boxer from overseas spat out a disdainful protest and fought on.[9]

What is especially significant is this account is the way in which Tunney’s victory is nearly completely obscured by Carpentier’s defeat, as was the case of course in the aftermath of Carpentier-Dempsey.  The article ends with the image of the “gallant soldier-boxer” spits out “a disdainful protest” and fighting on.  Tunney is almost nowhere to be found, except in a fleeting and rather disdainful reference to the fact that he “lacks the killer instinct.” And, as in the earlier fight, this is as true for the fans at ringside as for the reporter himself; their focus is Carpentier:

Everyone screamed and shouted at once, but no one heard.  And two stalwart bluecoats carried Georges, apparently still in frightful agony, from the ring to his dressing room, while Tunney, who had beaten his man, was almost forgotten.

Ironically. Tunney’s playing second fiddle to the beaten Carpentier in the press ultimately served him well, as it equated him (albeit implicitly) in the minds of the public with Dempsey. One might argue that it took Tunney fifteen rounds to finish off Carpentier as opposed to Dempsey’s four and that the win therefore does not put him on an equal footing with Dempsey.  One might also point out that the Carpentier of 1924 was not the Carpentier of 1921.  These things are true.  One might also argue that it might have taken Dempsey more like fifteen rounds to dispose of Carpentier, had the two men been as close in size as Carpentier and Tunney were in 1924.  Pugilistic debate notwithstanding,  Tunney’s dramatic win over the “gallant” Carpentier put him symbolically in Dempsey’s place and made him an appropriate challenger for Dempsey’s title. Dempsey-Tunney, a couple of years later, would be another chapter in a saga that began in 1921, an ongoing tale with three main characters.  Two dragons had slain the handsome and gallant knight; the only logical conclusion to the story would be for them to face each other.

Dempsey-Tunney

The Dempsey-Tunney saga, as it was played out in the press and in popular reception, followed closely, in some ways strikingly so, the path laid out by Carpentier-Dempsey.  What took place in the ring during the two Dempsey-Tunney matchups was of course vastly different from the four rounds of Carpentier-Dempsey, but the hype surrounding it very clearly recalled the earlier event.

Even in strictly pugilistic terms, however, the legacy of Carpentier-Dempsey made itself felt in the first (although not the second) Dempsey-Tunney matchup.  It is a widely accepted and oft-repeated fact that the terrific right landed by Tunney in the first round, which set in motion wheels that Dempsey was unable to reverse, was inspired by Carpentier’s famous Round Two right hand.  Various historians and biographers report the fact:

Although the fight went the distance and Dempsey fought gamely, he never appeared to recover from a first-round right Tunney landed to his head.  It was a punch Tunney had been planning after a careful review of Dempsey’s fight films.  He had noticed that Carpentier nearly knocked the champion out with a straight right counter to Dempsey’s dangerous looping left in their 1921 title fight. (Evensen, 93)

Tunney had noticed something when Carpentier and later Firpo tagged Dempsey with right hands.  Sometimes, not often but sometimes, as Dempsey charged, he let his left drop a bit, as he was getting ready to hook.  A boxer with fast enough hands could slip a right cross over Dempsey’s lowered left glove.  That was how Carpentier connected to the cheekbone. (Kahn, 398)

French boxing historian Alexis Philonenko explains that Tunney had watched the film of Dempsey’s 1919 fight against Jess Willard and found nothing useful in it.  When he watched the Carpentier-Dempsey film, however, there was a revelation:

[…] the right that had shaken Dempsey caught [Tunney’s] attention.  He noted that Carpentier’s punch had truly been a tremendous one; you don’t break your hand with a harmless punch.  And, studying Dempsey closely, he saw that he had really been shaken, because he backed away on wobbly legs.  Tunney concluded that Dempsey wasn’t invulnerable to punches and that the entire problem consisted of hitting him hard enough but not so hard as to break your own hand.  This posed a particular problem, as we will see. […] Gene Tunney considered Dempsey’s claim that he had never been in danger [against Carpentier] to be false.  Dempsey had, in fact, been in danger for three seconds and anything could have happened.  […] The only realistic conclusion was Tunney’s, that Dempsey was in fact vulnerable.[10] 

One French historian goes so far as to have Tunney thinking of Carpentier as he stepped into the ring to fight Dempsey:

Climbing into the ring […], Gene Tunney thinks of Georges Carpentier.  Of the second-round right hook that he saw over and over again in the film, the one that nearly took Dempsey out.  And after all, Tunney tells himself, his own right is more persuasive than the Frenchman’s.[11] 

Dempsey biographer Randy Roberts’ blow-by-blow description of Dempsey-Tunney I also describes the inspiration Tunney drew from Carpentier’s famous right:

Suddenly, as Dempsey launched another left, Tunney stepped in toward the champion and snapped off a straight right hand.  It was a move that Tunney had practiced since he saw Carpentier hit Dempsey with an identical punch in 1921. (230)

The two punches were indeed identical, though Tunney’s would prove to be considerably more persuasive:

[…] like Carpentier’s blow, Tunney’s punch landed high, on the cheek instead of the jaw.  “Perhaps if the punch had landed on Jack’s jaw,” Tunney wrote years later, “I might have knocked him out.”  Even high, though, the punch hurt.  Dempsey staggered back, sagging a little, and then clinched, trying to gain time for his head to clear.  (230)

As Carpentier biographer Olivier Merlin points out, Tunney’s punch was just like Carpentier’s, but with “ten more kilos behind it.”[12] Tunney was, simply put, a bigger, better Carpentier.

It is important to note that this particular punch, inspired by Carpentier’s famous second-round right, was the decisive moment of the first Dempsey-Tunney fight.  Tunney himself said that Dempsey “never got over the punch… that blow won the fight.” (Roberts, 231) Dempsey’s own versions of that first round in Philadelphia also suggest the importance of that one punch:

As the fight started, I came in with what I thought was my usual attack, weaving from side to side and throwing a left hook at Gene’s jaw.  But before it could even land, his own right counter-blow took me on the side of the head with a force that staggered me.

[…] Instead of my having landed the first blow against a formidable opponent, softening him up for the entire fight, Gene Tunney had handed it to me. […] I tired not to let him see how badly I had been shaken up. […]  (Round by Round, 234)

Assessing the damage done to him in the first round, he says:

Suddenly I had become an old man.  A fast, skillful fighter—though not fast enough to be dazzling—had landed a hard blow with ease at the very start of the fight, without my even having seeing it coming or having time to duck. I had been beaten to the punch. (Round by Round, 234)

Given these words, one might almost even wonder if Dempsey was alluding to this specific blow in his celebrated post-fight quip to his wife, “Honey, I forgot to duck.”

As a cultural event, the Dempsey-Tunney affair drew heavily on Carpentier-Dempsey.  Much of the mythical aura that surrounds the two Dempsey-Tunney bouts to this day is directly attributable to the ways in which they were masterfully hyped by promoter Tex Rickard.  For boxing historians, at least, that much is well known and often said.  Less often pointed out is the fact that the publicity machine set in motion by Rickard had been constructed by him five years earlier, for Carpentier-Dempsey.  Not only were the strategies and tactics the same, the specific themes of the pre-fight story line bore some remarkable resemblances to those that had been served up to an eager public in 1921. Just a few years after the “battle of the century,” there was another “battle of the century” and the combatants must have seemed eerily familiar to fight fans:

[…] the images created by Tex Rickard and cultivated by Philadelphia’s press for the coming “battle of the century” [Dempsey-Tunney I; September 23, 1926] reflected the jazz era’s uncertainty over self-identity.  Readers were told “two modern gladiators,” one a “cave man,” the other a “student,” would test the limits of “brute force” and “brains.”  The fight was pitched as a struggle between “primitive man” and his “modern counterpart.” Publicity on the fight relentlessly portrayed each fighter as a “type.”  Dempsey is described to working-class readers as “a Neanderthal with the backward sloping brow of the man born to be a fighter.”  Tunney is puffed to his suburban supporters as an upwardly mobile challenger having “a full and well-developed forehead- the head of student and scholar.”  Readers concerned with America’s “moral direction” were told “the cause of culture might be materially advanced if mind were to triumph over matter.” (Evensen, 83-84)

The characters of the story being told in the newspapers were thus virtually identical to those in the Carpentier-Dempsey story.  Dempsey, once again, is a “cave man,” a “primitive man,” a “Neanderthal.” His opponent, once again, is “modern,” a man who represents intelligence and sophistication. Once again, interest in the fight is promoted via a stark contrast between the two antagonists and the drama that their physical confrontation cannot fail to produce. And once again, Rickard’s scheme works.

As was the case for Carpentier-Dempsey, the press spun the fight into an allegory that readers took surprisingly seriously, an allegory that reveals much about the people who espoused it:

The much ballyhooed bout [Dempsey-Tunney] became a cultural text in words writ large by sports and editorial writers for the benefit of their reading publics.  The story they spun might have been time-tried hokum, but that made the passion it prompted no less real or revealing. (Evensen, 53)

The passion created by newspaper writers in preparation for Dempsey-Tunney II  revolved around the defeated Dempsey, whose loss made him a more compelling and attractive figure than he had ever been before:

This scenario owed much to the power of personality, Dempsey’s personality, and its careful cultivation in the press, as well as the passionate embrace of that image by a leisure class which took its heroic symbols seriously—and none more so than Jack Dempsey. (Evensen, 96)

It is important to recall here that the hero of that same leisure class, just a few years before, was the defeated Georges Carpentier. It is also important to remember that, just as he had been in 1921, Dempsey was the villain in the “backstory” of his first fight with Tunney.  In another eerie echo of 1921, the first Dempsey-Tunney bout pitted the “slacker” against a war hero.  Just as in 1921, the 1926 crowd favored the war hero, the “Fighting Marine.”  As had been the case with Carpentier, Tunney’s soldier image was well grounded in fact but was hyped by the newspapers to such an extent that it almost began to resemble fiction.  Marshall Hunt of the New York Daily News wrote of the “manufacture” of Tunney’s image as a “fighting marine” and a “scientific challenger.”  Hunt characterized such myth-making as “cultural nonsense” but admitted that it made for good reading and helped the circulation of the newspapers in which it appeared.[13]

The Tunney “character” as created by the press was in fact striking in its resemblance to the Carpentier “character” in several ways.  Tunney was described as the representative of such cardinal virtues as clean living and duty to country. As a boxer, he was characterized by his “finely honed skills” and his career exemplified “success through virtuous individual effort.” (Gorn, 32)  Like Carpentier the child of the mines, he did not come from a privileged background but had, in contrast to the still-rough-edged Dempsey, willed himself into being a true “gentleman;” like Carpentier, he was presented as “a perfect blend of self-improvement, social idealism and physical toughness.”

Perhaps most striking, and this again in stake contrast to description of the dark, scowling, “beetle-browed” Dempsey, are the idealized physical descriptions of Tunney, recalling nearly verbatim  those of  the blonde and gentlemanly Carpentier:

Handsome, tall, blond, his face unscarred despite sixty professional fights, he seemed entirely unlike other pugilists. […] from his countenance beamed an ever-present smile of poise and confidence, and always a gentleman, he treated others with courtesy and consideration. (Gorn, 32)

Like Carpentier, Tunney was not a “violent fighter,” but rather a “practitioner of ‘ring science’,” a “boxer, not a bruiser.” (Gorn, 34) Like Carpentier, Tunney was thought to have little chance of winning the fight and his underdog status served to make him all the more appealing. Like Carpentier, he cut the gallant figure of the brave soldier marching courageously into a battle he was likely to lose.  Photographs of Tunney in uniform frequently accompanied articles about the upcoming fight, in spite of the fact that the war had been over for nearly eight years at the time of the first Dempsey-Tunney bout.  In a transparent publicity stunt, Tunney arrived in Philadelphia in a airplane, a gratuitous gestured clearly designed to evokes images of wartime heroism perhaps inspired by Carpentier (given that Carpentier had been an aviator in the war, while Tunney had not). As has been the case with Carpentier, Tunney’s status as a veteran of the Great War was always front-and-center:

Few believed Tunney could beat the champion Dempsey.  Still, those at ringside were deeply moved as the stalwart young challenger strode confidently into the arena on the night of 23 September 1926 for the first fight.  At ringside, several of his armed force comrades rose to attention and sang the Marine Corps Hymn.

As they had done for Carpentier, and for nearly identical reasons, the crowd went wild at the sight of the clean-cut hero who had come to challenge the dark and brooding champion:

As the Fighting Marine stood  at ring center, bathed in light, the wild cheers of a packed stadium rained down on him.  The betting odds stood as high as three to one against him Tunney.  But many Americans favored the challenger because his career embodied central cultural values about which they believed passionately. […] Tunney embodied hard work, the cultivation of finely honed skills, clean living and patriotism.  His triumph would be that of an individual who lived by social rules and succeeded through self-control. (Gorn, 33)

Tunney, like Carpentier, represented a sort of rags-to-riches story, that of a hard-working, enterprising young man who bettered himself by dint of discipline, determination and clean living:

Simply put, Tunney virtually leaped from the pages of Horatio Alger’s novels because he represented success through virtuous individual effort.  His victory would help validate crucial cultural myths on which the middle class had been raised. (Gorn, 33)

As with Carpentier-Dempsey, the strategy worked. The saga of the toe-to-toe matchup of the representatives of two supposedly essentially antithetical types of men served to sell staggering numbers of both newspapers and fight tickets.

Both Dempsey-Tunney bouts were described as events that attracted fans from all strata of society, events that united the cream of society and industry with the hoi-polloi and highbrows with lowbrows. Tunney, like Carpentier, appealed to a broad audience:

[Tunney’s] great personal appeal allegedly extended interest in professional boxing to new groups of people, including women and members of the learned class.  Finally, Tunney’s image was enhanced by his service during the Great War. (Gorn, 32)

Evensen provides lists of all the celebrities (Al Jolson, Charlie Chaplin, William Randolph Hearst, Bernard Baruch, members of Coolidge’s cabinet, etc.) present at both Dempsey-Tunney fights (87, 110) and characterizes Dempsey-Tunney II as “the ultimate democratizing event”:

Culture and “commonality” rubbed shoulders […], the event uniting “highbrow” and “roughneck,” cosmopolitan, sophisticate and prodigal in an enduring public memory of jazz-age America. (118)

The Dempsey-Tunney fights attracted significant numbers of improbable fight fans, people who would normally not be thought of as boxing enthusiasts. This made for unlikely socio-economic juxtapositions; titans of industry and political figures took the same interest in the same event as the man (and woman) on the street. Here again, it is hard not to see the Dempsey-Tunney as a revisiting of Carpentier-Dempsey.  The themes of democratization, of the attraction of non-boxing fans (specifically women and members of the “better” classes of society) were already, as we have seen, cornerstones of Carpentier-Dempsey, five year before the first Dempsey-Tunney bout.  This fact, however, has been overlooked by historians.  Eliot Gorn, for example, in his excellent essay on Dempsey-Tunney, says:

The Dempsey-Tunney matches generated middle- and even upper-class interest far beyond boxing’s traditional lower-class base.  […] the open presence of socially prominent persons—including a number of women—would have scandalized middle-class Victorians a generation or two before. (Gorn, 28-29)

Frederick Lewis Allen, in his oft-quoted history of popular culture in America in the 1920’s makes a similar point and similarly fails to recognize the ground supposedly broken by Dempsey-Tunney had in fact already been broken by Carpentier-Dempsey :

Prize-fighting, once outlawed, had become so respectable in American eyes that gentlefolk crowded into the ringside seats and a clergyman on Long Island had to postpone a meeting of his vestrymen so that they might listen in on one of the big bouts. (209-211)

Gorn is right when he says that boxing’s traditional American fan base was drawn largely from the working classes (in contrast to England, where there was a long and healthy tradition of upper-class gentleman aficionados of the sport). And he is right that the idea of middle-class boxing fans, and especially women, would have shocked “respectable” people just a few decades before.  However, by failing to mention that these taboos had already been broken-- and in a spectacular and widely-reported fashion—by Carpentier-Dempsey, he gives a somewhat inaccurate sense of the socio-cultural import of Dempsey-Tunney.

Gorn also describes the improbable coverage and symbolic weight given Dempsey-Tunney by the mainstream press before the fight:

The mainstream press—“middle-brow” journals like Time Magazine and newspapers carrying sophisticated stories from the major wire services—invoked broad patterns of symbolism to depict the two boxers. Amidst descriptions of uppercuts, left hooks and counterpunches, a subliminal battle raged among old Victorian norms, new corporate imperatives, and the values of a consumer society.

And after:

Moreover, following days of intensive build-up in sports sections, American newspapers screamed the results of both fights with block-letter headlines.  Even the staid New York Times announced the first fight’s outcome with a three-tier banner across page one, followed by seven solid pages—in the main section, not the sports section—of coverage. (29)

Gorn goes on to put this journalistic excess into its proper context, that of the over-all hyping of the fights: “Promotion, hype, and commercialization swirled around the Dempsey-Tunney bouts.  Advertising helped make the identification of fans with fighters clear.” (29)

While he does say “[b]y the Twenties, “there was nothing unusual about associating athletes with products, not about modern media techniques being used to sell sports heroes,” Gorn nonetheless argues that the Dempsey-Tunney promotion broke new ground:

What was new was the scale of the sports coverage and the ease with which business organizations, the press, local booster associations, and the respectable middle class, found common ground.  In a corporate, increasingly bureaucratic society, sports were perceived as good business, good press, good for morals and good for morale. (30)

Gorn is right to marvel at the “crossover” phenomenon of middle-class publications’ devoting substantial amounts of space to a boxing match and specifically at the excesses of the daily newspaper coverage of Dempsey-Tunney. What he fails to recognize, however, is that these excesses are considerably less amazing when one realizes how closely they followed a model already established by Carpentier-Dempsey.  The fact that the New York Times devoted a three-tier front-page banner headline and multiple full pages of the front section to a prizefight is remarkable.  It was even more remarkable, however, when those things had happened for the very first time five years earlier.

Evensen also emphasizes the crucial role the press played in the creation of the phenomenon that was Dempsey-Tunney:

The Chicago fight [Dempsey-Tunney II, September 22, 1927] showed the power of tall-tale telling in creating civic spectacles that stylized the uncertainties of a nervous generation.  The publicity apparatus that united the daily press and newly emerging radio networks in the promotion of sports and the creation of celebrity had “put Chicago on the map,” in the words of Big Bill Thompson. (115)

As with Gorn, Evensen’s characterizations are accurate and insightful: the Dempsey-Tunney fights indeed constitute an example of “enduring public memory” and they indeed  demonstrate the power of myth-making and of the press.  Also as with Gorn, however, it is important to remember that these phenomena were not new in 1926—they had already been seen in 1921. The Dempsey-Tunney saga is the most remembered and most extreme example of such phenomena but it was not the first.  It was made possible largely because of the new ground that had already been broken by Carpentier-Dempsey.[14]

A fact that sometimes gets lost in the shuffle is that it wasn’t until after his first loss to Tunney that Dempsey became the crowd favorite, a hero and an icon.  Like Carpentier, he emerged greater in defeat than he would have been in victory.  In effect, in the wake of Dempsey-Tunney I, Dempsey became Carpentier, the loser whose defeat earned him the affection of the public. Just like Carpentier, he lost with heart and thereby became a hero:

Even veterans’ groups who had castigated Dempsey for ducking the draft had to admit nothing Dempsey had done since he won the title had so honored him as the way in which he lost it. (Evensen, 95)

As had been the case with Carpentier, the flames of public admiration for the defeated combatant were fueled by the press: “The press played the fable of the fallen hero for all it was worth.” (Evensen, 98)

The narrative of Dempsey-Tunney II re-enacted the central conflict of Dempsey-Tunney I, itself a re-enactment of Carpentier-Dempsey, with the crucial difference that the “slacker” had become the crowd favorite:

Ralph Gannon of the Chicago Daily Journal saw the drama’s central irony.  More than 100 million men and women worldwide would witness an event staged in a field [Chicago’s Soldier Field] memorializing America’s war dead in which the generation’s most notorious shirker and one of its better known war heroes would fight to the finish.  Yet it was the slacker, the “mixed breed enigma,” whom “everyone wanted to win” with an intensity formerly found only in the Great War itself. (Evensen, 108-109)

In terms of the cultural symbolism of the Dempsey-Tunney bouts, both Evensen and Gorn are eloquent, making persuasive and articulate arguments in favor of  the landmark prizefights as cultural “texts” that reveal much about the socio-historical moment at which they took place:

[…] sports often become freighted with meanings which renders them akin to art, drama and religion.  The Dempsey-Tunney fights of the 1920’s provide striking examples of how, in subtle ways, cultural phenomena like sports may reveal larger social tensions. […] a close reading of the press coverage shows that people interpreted them in a manner particularly germane to their time. (20)

Gorn warns against the false assumption that the commercialization of the fights, the “hype,” precludes the sincerity of the fervor with which Americans greeted the events:

Hoopla and ballyhoo notwithstanding, athletic events could stir men deeply. […]

[…] In a fragmented nation, sports as well as movies, radio and other aspects of the burgeoning mass culture helped bridge the divisions of  ethnicity, social class and region with a shared sense of national identity. […] Moreover, journalists were well aware the sedentary white-collar and bored blue-collar workers responded to images of youthful heroism.  More than mere escapism, sports preserved such values as courage, autonomy and physical skill which the modern world threatened to erode.  The Dempsey-Tunney fights resonated on these and other levels.  Each boxer came to represent key values in American life, and the two men together symbolized central tensions and contradictions of the 1920s. (31-32)

He also emphasizes the symbol content and import of the public spectacles that were the Dempsey-Tunney fights and convincingly argues that boxing is a particularly effective means of providing a communal experience with profound cultural resonance:

The sense of concentrated group consciousness—of communitas—grew out of the fights’ ability to merge the controlled but intense violence of boxing with central cultural themes.  Bringing Dempsey and Tunney together in a single ring transformed abstract norms into emotionally satisfying drama, converted a conflict of values into a palpable physical struggle, fused symbols, metaphors, and blood into messages mere words could not convey.  The fights, then, were texts—stories we told ourselves about ourselves, to paraphrase Clifford Geertz—inviting exegesis. (43)

Americans reacted so passionately to the fights, loved and hated both boxers, because the bouts represented the “really real” through the dramatic symbolism of violent human combat. (47)

It is all the more effective, Gorn says, when the two combatants are (or are perceived to be) representative of starkly contrasting social types:

By antithesis each man helped define what his opponent stood for, and it was the juxtaposition of the two images which gave the fights their deepest emotional content. (43-44)

At bottom, the contrast was between two differing archetypes of manliness, the question being posed was which of the two figures (who were, until they moment they stepped into the ring, more semi-fictional characters than real people) represented a more viable, more appealing, more appropriate model of manliness:

Boxing, like other sports of the 1920s, remained primarily a male passion, and the tensions I have been describing addressed conflicts over what it meant to be a man in modern America. (44)

It is important to recognize that, despite the remarkable resonance between Carpentier-Dempsey and Dempsey-Tunney, there are nonetheless distinctions to be made in terms of the symbolic socio-cultural content of the two events.  Tunney was indeed billed as “The Fighting Marine” and he was packaged, to a certain extent, accordingly-- and the public had not forgotten that Dempsey had not fought in the Great War. By 1926, however, enough time had passed since the war that questions of military service and patriotism were no longer central in the way they had been five years earlier.  

More than a military man, Tunney was a self-made man, another aspect his story shared with Carpentier’s.  Both men had not only achieved financial success, they had transformed themselves, at least according to contemporary accounts, into truly cultured individuals, lovers of art, music and literature. Tunney, however, represented a more specific version of the self-made man than had Carpentier.  Carpentier’s self-made man tale unfolded along lines more or less in keeping with a nineteenth-century European ethos. Tunney, on the other hand, came to represent a specifically American, specifically twentieth-century type of man, as Gorn explains:

The challenger’s popularity was based on his fusion of the older ethic of virtuous individualism with important values of the industrial era.  Tunney’s connection with machine culture often became explicit. […]

In a New York Times interview four days before the first Dempsey-Tunney fight, Henry Ford characterized mass production as managerial intelligence, skillfully combining speed, power and accuracy with economy, system and continuity—precisely the metaphors used that day to characterize Gene Tunney’s boxing style.  Efficiency, scientific planning, a positive mental attitude, skillful application of resources, all described Tunney in the ring.  Like his mythic contemporary Charles Lindbergh, Gene Tunney reconciled the contradictory impulses of heroic individualism with the interdependence of an increasingly technological and bureaucratic society.  Tunney the man and Tunney the fighter retained great appeal, especially among middle-class Americans, because he symbolically merged venerable bourgeois values and new corporate ones.  As a symbol, the Fighting Marine affirmed that America’s past and future were of a piece, that virtue and self-reliance could still thrive in a technocratic environment. (33-35)

Just as Carpentier had provided a bridge between the pre- and post-war periods for Frenchmen, so Tunney provided a bridge between pre-industrial and industrial culture for Americans.

While Carpentier-Dempsey had been the symbolic showdown between a brute and a knight, a conflict that is itself traditional and codified, Dempsey-Tunney was rather the confrontation between a brute and modern office-worker, an early avatar of the “company man.” Dempsey-Tunney was a specifically twentieth-century, and specifically American, showdown.  Dempsey represented the tradition of the untamed West, the rugged ethos of a continent not yet entirely tamed; Tunney represented the urban East, with its fast-growing technology and dizzying rates of both industrialization and social ascension.  Notwithstanding the emphasis placed on Tunney’s military background, the Dempsey-Tunney affair was rife with implicit sociological, not military, content.  Carpentier-Dempsey, through the example of Carpentier and the counter-example of Dempsey, has been about heroism, valor and gallantry, about war and America’s evolving place in the world.  Dempsey-Tunney, by contrast, was about individual identity, as defined by geography, ideology and lifestyle; it was about society and Americans’ vision of their country, past and future. [15]

Dempsey-Tunney, it must also be said, was played out on a scale in comparison to which even  Carpentier-Dempsey paled.  All the records broken in 1921 were themselves broken in 1926 and/or 1927.  Frederick Allen is right  when he says that “the public mania for vicarious participation in sport […] reached its climax in the two Dempsey-Tunney fights.”[16] The press coverage of Dempsey-Tunney also reached new heights.  The creation of the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) radio network was simultaneous with the first Dempsey-Tunney bout:

The Radio Corporation of America used its broadcast of the Dempsey-Tunney title match to take out full-page advertisements in newspapers nationwide announcing the creation of the National Broadcasting Company.  The network had been made possible by the million dollar acquisition of New York station WEAF, which would send the signal of the fight to as many of the five million American homes equipped with radio that could be made to receive it.  RCA publicists predicted public reaction to fight coverage would enhance the respectability of radio […] Americans would realize that radio was “an instrument of service” that would one day bring “every event of national importance to every home in America.” (Evensen, 89)

The second Dempsey-Tunney fight helped put NBC’s new rival, CBS, on the map and was heard by astonishing numbers of people: it is estimated that some 50,000,000 Americans heard the broadcast from Chicago, half the adult population of the country. Three of every four adult American men, it is said, listened to the fight. And it was not just Americans, either: outside the US, 90,000,000 people in fifty-seven countries tuned in. (Evensen, 100) Clearly, the Dempsey-Tunney fights played a significant role in the history of radio and thus of mass media overall.  The same is true of Carpentier-Dempsey, the first title fight and first heavyweight fight ever broadcast on radio, but on a much smaller scale than would be possible five years later.

Sportswriter Gene Fowler was (mostly) right when he says he calls Dempsey, Tunney, Rickard and Kearns “the founding fathers of boxing as big business, mass spectacle, and civic celebration.” (quoted in Evensen, 118). Where he is not entirely right, of course, is in failing to cite Carpentier as one of these “founding fathers.” Boxing as big business had—and still has—everything to do with the pre-fight hype; the pre-fight hype for Dempsey-Tunney was, as Rader has pointed out, a “buildup [that] followed Rickard’s familiar formula.”  The formula in question, of course, was the one Rickard created for Carpentier-Dempsey.

The Dempsey-Tunney fights were interpreted as “sociological phenomena” and were thought to signal “a new era in the professionalization and commercialization of sports spectacles.” (Evensen, 89) The 1920’s were indeed a new era in those domains, but it was a new era that began in 1921 with Carpentier-Dempsey, not in 1926-27 with Dempsey-Tunney.

In the United States, this fact has been overshadowed by the frenzy occasioned by the Dempsey-Tunney fights.  In France, however, it is Carpentier-Dempsey that remains the most important sporting event of the early twentieth century—according to some historians, of the entire century.  Tristan Bernard, writing in 1925, says that “Carpentier was, and continues to be, a national hero.”[17] Carpentier biographer Ginette Haÿ says: “Newspapers are unanimous in recognizing the fact that no other athletic event since has provoked such passion, such psychosis even, all over the world.” (136) For the French, Carpentier-Dempsey remains “the fight of the century,” “despite many other imitations.”[18] Carpentier, in the eyes of his compatriots, “has remained in the history of boxing as a man who fought in the fight of the century.”[19]  It is argued that it is the “true fight of the century, the most famous in the entire history of the ring.”[20] 

Gaston Bénac, who was at ringside, writes some twenty years later of “this capital event of French sport” in historic terms: “Hasn’t this unforgettable match remained in fact the most important monument of French sport of the past thirty years? Twenty-two years later, people still talk about it as if it happened barely a month ago…”[21] In the introduction to his book, he defends his choice to emphasize the event and takes his historical assessment one step farther: “If I have insisted [..] on the Carpentier-Dempsey match, it is because it constitutes, to my way of thinking, the most important athletic event of modern times.” An overstatement, to be sure, but neither should the significance of Carpentier-Dempsey and the precedents it set be understated.

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[1] Dempsey, Round by Round, 214. Return to text

[2] Joe Williams, “Carpentier Draws on Popularity, Not on Fistic Ability,”  Beloit Daily News (July 19, 1924).  In Antiquities of the Prize Ring archive file for Georges Carpentier, 1924. Williams, along with a number of others, identifies the Carpentier-Tunney fight as a championship contest but it appears that this was not the case.  Tunney was the American light heavyweight champion; as a Frenchman, Carpentier did not qualify to fight for that title. See Frank Getty, “Carpentier gets Final Opportunity in Ring Tonight,” Beloit Daily News (July 24, 1924); in Antiquities of the Prize Ring archive file, Carpentier, 1924. Return to text

[3] This article is reproduced in the Antiquities of the Prize Ring archive file for Gene Tunney, for the year 1924; it is identified only as having come from the Journal-Gazette. Return to text

[4] From a clipping (photo and caption) dated July 26, 1924 from the Antiquities of the Prize Ring archive file for Tunney, 1924; no source given. Return to text

[5] From the caption to a photo, no date or source given in the Antiquities of the Prize Ring archive file for Tunney, 1924. Return to text

[6] Nat Flesicher, Gene Tunney: The Enigma of the Ring (New York: The Ring Inc., 1931) [cited on www.genetunney.com]. Return to text

[7] In fact, Carpentier-Tunney took place at the Polo Grounds, not Yankee Stadium.  For some reason, the mistake is frequent. Return to text

[8] Joe Williams, “Light-Heavy Champ Says Punch Is New; Better Than Plexus: Tunney’s Blow Is Recent Sensation/Carpentier Fell Before It,”  Beloit Daily News (November 29, 1924).  From the Antiquities of the Prize Ring archive file for Tunney, 1924; as is the case for many of these articles, this is clearly a syndicated piece but no specific wire service or syndication agency is indi