Such is the enduring power of sporting occasions to instill marvel and wonder among spectators, that disputes and controversy over results, wins, losses, and what-might-have-been questions remain among the fiercest of all. Boxing is no exception to this, but surprisingly few boxing bouts have been controversially called. One notable exception is the April 6, 1987 World Middleweight Title fight between the incumbent Marvin Hagler and the former World Welterweight champion Sugar Ray Leonard. Hagler, known as “Marvelous Marvin”, had been unbeaten as the world champion for thirteen fights stretched over six years, and was widely tipped to prevail again, having seen off determined challenges from better-regarded fighters such as Tommy Hearns and Roberto Durán. The fight with Leonard went the full twelve rounds, with no knockouts from either side, but to the surprise of many (including Leonard himself, who was heard congratulating Hagler in the ring at the fight’s end), a split decision from the judges handed the bout – and with it, the title – the Leonard. Hagler never boxed again.
Before that still-disputed fight at Caesar’s Palace thirty years ago, however, it was the result of a World Heavyweight Title fight that would set the pundits arguing for decades on end as what happened, how, and why.
The fight in question took place at Soldier Field stadium in Chicago on 22 September 1927, and featured the reigning World Heavyweight Champion, James Joseph “Gene” Tunney (1897-1978), a former US Marine, and William Harrison “Jack” Dempsey (1895-1983), the man he had succeeded the previous year in a title defeat. It was a classic sports rivalry: Tunney, the cerebral middle-class introvert versus Dempsey, the brash, working-class people’s hero – though in truth, the two men admired one another more than the media of the day would ever avow.
As had happened the previous year, through most of the bout Tunney consistently outpointed and outwitted his opponent. Everything changed in Round 7, however, when Dempsey suddenly displayed some fearsome punches that he must have wished he had done in his first fight with Tunney. The champion buckled under Dempsey’s gloves, and fell to the canvas. So far, so typical of most of Dempsey’s fights up to then – or so his fans must have thought, anyhow – and this is where the controversy began, and where Dempsey ultimately lost a fight that he really should have won there and then. As he had done so in those bouts, Dempsey hovered above his opponent, preparing to finish Tunney off with a knockout blow, but the referee urged him to remember the rules and retire to a neutral corner so that he could star the count. By the time Dempsey had gone to the corner, five seconds had elapsed – and Tunney got to his feet just in time, after a count of nine had been given. This means that Tunney had been down for a crucial fourteen seconds. In other words, if Dempsey had gone to the neutral corner immediately after flooring Tunney, he would have won the fight, and with it the World Heavyweight Title – and thus made history, in becoming the first man to win the Title more than once.
It didn’t happen. The fight became known as the Battle of the Long Count, and would be debated by boxing fans and correspondents the world over for the next ninety years. The two men involved appear to have gotten over it a lot sooner than everyone else. To his great credit, Dempsey was gracious in defeat, telling Tunney ‘You were best. You fought a smart fight, kid.’ The boxers would in time become great friends, making headlines again in the 1960s when Dempsey and Tunney joined forces in assisting the political campaigns of Gene’s son John V Tunney, who later became a US Congressman.