What if Gene Tunney Did Not Retire Post-Dempsey?

How would he have done?
Circa 1922: A full-length studio portrait of American heavyweight boxing champ Gene Tunney (1898 - 1978), wearing black tights and light-colored shorts, posing in a fighting stance. (Photo by American Stock/Getty Images)

Former Heavyweight Champion Gene Tunney did like his successor Rocky Marciano: he retired unbeaten as champion and never came back. Lennox Lewis also retired as champion, but he lost (and regained) his title in the ring, then called it quits afterward. Joe Louis was forced to come back for financial reasons, wasn’t the same, then got beaten by Ezzard Charles and brutalized by the Rock, then finally called it a day. Tunney beat the great Dempsey twice, had a soft defense in Tom Heeney, then abruptly retired at age 31. If he wasn’t still at his peak, he was very close.

It can be easily understood that he wanted to retain his faculties by retiring as a young man, and he also had a substantial fortune for those times. He was (like Marciano) decisive and never seriously entertained a comeback, but what if he never retired? Could he have had a long and glorious reign had he continued his career? In fact, in the eyes of many fans, his brief reign and early exit might actually diminish his legacy. Bearing all this in mind, we must ask ourselves: what if Gene Tunney kept fighting into his mid-thirties like the others, and how would this have affected his historical reputation?

The Heavyweight Division that existed between the reigns of Gene Tunney (1926-1928) and Joe Louis (1937-1949) was colorful, produced good copy, yet was ultimately unspectacular. From 1930-1937, there were five men who held the Heavyweight Championship, and none held onto the title for more than two years. It seemed as if boxing’s marquee division was not in the surest of hands. On one hand, the champions of that era are not at fault because they came before the great Joe Louis and after Tunney, but on the other, their ring exploits didn’t live up to the standards of their fistic forefathers or later, their successors.

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Of the men that reigned as champion during this “Interregnum” between Tunney and Louis, one of the best was the crafty sharpshooter Max Schmeling, who, in 1930, won the title in a somewhat ignominious manner by beating Jack Sharkey on a foul. Herr Maxie got hit below the belt, could not continue, and was awarded the Heavyweight Championship on technicality. He held the title for two years, and then then ironically lost it controversially to Sharkey in a fight that most observers had him winning. Schmeling’s somewhat elevated status today is mainly based upon his savage knockout of a young and still relatively green Joe Louis in 1936. Following his win in 1932 over Schmeling, the enigmatic Sharkey then lost the championship to Primo Carnera. The “Ambling Alp” was a game, but limited circus strongman turned fighter (who is widely believed to have been mob-controlled), a fact which further sullied the division’s reputation. Carnera lost the title to the inconsistent (but incredibly dangerous when properly motivated) Max Baer, who himself only held the belt for a year, losing it famously to the Cinderella Man, James J. Braddock. Baer had one of the most lethal right hands in the history of boxing, but never truly lived up to his potential. The man who beat him, Braddock, was champion for two years, with zero defenses of his title. He was knocked out brutally by Joe Louis in 1937.

With the crown never really comfortably fitting on one clear-cut and dominant champion during the early to mid-1930s, we need to again ask the question: how would Tunney be viewed as heavyweight champion if he retired a few years later and defended his title more than once? Taking those points into consideration, let us proceed in an alternate timeline with a few fantasy matchups to see how the “Fighting Marine” may have fared against the crop of Heavyweights that came in the wake of his initial retirement up until the arrival of Joe Louis on the national stage in 1935.

We pick up his career in late 1928, following his last official victory against Tom Heeney…

Gene Tunney vs Young Stribling: December 1928, New York.

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Despite being barely 24 years old, Stribling was a veteran of over 200 fights, and had won 73 of his last 75 fights, most by KO. Tunney was tested in this bout, being rocked a couple of times, but his patience and methodical approach eventually wore down his worthy challenger. Gene was still fully in his prime and was able to take the best of Stribling’s offerings, and fire back with authority. In the 11th round, Tunney battered Stribling relentlessly and dropped his beaten and exhausted foe to the canvas. Stribling could not beat the count and was dealt a knockout at the hands of a sharp and vicious Tunney.  Result: Tunney KO11.

Gene Tunney vs Tommy Loughran II:  April 1929, Philadelphia.

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Tommy was coming off of his 15-round drubbing of future Heavyweight Champion Jim Braddock and also had beaten an all-time pound for pound great in Mickey Walker. Tunney fought a young and inexperienced Loughran back in 1922, when the Philadelphian was only 12 fights into his career. Even still, Loughran gave a good account of himself, showing his future greatness, but Tunney won the “Newspaper Decision”. In this chess match of a fight, neither man did tremendous damage, as they couldn’t land flush often enough to seriously hurt each other. Realizing he was in there with someone who was at least his peer as a pure boxer, Tunney decided to work more on using his right hand to counter Loughran’s jab and also to limit its effectiveness by going hard to the body with his right hand. Although there are no knockdowns, the champion lands the harder blows and wins a close decision. Result: Tunney W15

Gene Tunney vs Jack Sharkey: December 1929, New York.

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Prior to this match, Sharkey was competing at the highest level in the sport, defeating Tommy Loughran and Young Stribling to secure a title shot versus Tunney. The crafty Sharkey was in excellent form on this night, and it was a battle of jabs and counter punching, with Tunney coming out ahead on points due to cutting up Sharkey’s face and landing a higher volume of punches. Result: Tunney W15.

Gene Tunney vs Max Schmeling: September 1930, New York.

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At this time, the young German Schmeling was touted as the biggest threat to the veteran Tunney’s title. Max had defeated top contenders Johnny Risko, Paulino Uzcudun, and Jack Sharkey to earn his shot. A big surprise in the fifth round had Tunney off of his feet courtesy of a sizzling right hand counter from Herr Maxie. He rose at the count of 7 and like his fight with

Dempsey three years earlier, he utilized his movement to avoid another knockdown. However, he was never really in the fight after that, and Schmeling walks away with the win via steady diet of right hands. Tunney didn’t have the same level of endurance as in previous fights, and the younger man took full advantage of Gene’s slightly slower legs. Gene’s armor is starting to show some chinks in it, and at age 33, he may be on the downslide of his career. Result: Schmeling W15.

Gene Tunney vs Phil Scott: March,1931, New York.

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In a tune-up to see if he still had it in him to again be champion, Tunney took on “Fainting” Phil Scott. It was thought that Scott would be a stern enough test, but not too tough as to ruin a big rematch with Max Schmeling. Scott was known for being a skilled and game fighter, but also for having a glass jaw, hence his nickname. Tunney prepared well for this fight, and looked in good form, dispatching Scott in 8 rounds, ending the match with a great left to the body/straight right to the head combo to close the show. Result: Tunney KO8.

Gene Tunney vs Johnny Risko:  August 1931, New York.

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A final tune-up before his pending rematch with Schmeling, Tunney faced tough former contender Johnny Risko. Tunney again was in good form, and battered Risko for 10 rounds of a scheduled 12 and wins via referee stoppage in the 11th as his opponent could not intelligently defend himself. In spite of two good outings since his loss to Schmeling, questions still lingered about Tunney’s chances in regaining his title, as it had yet to be done. Risko and Scott were good fighters, but not on Schmeling’s level. Result: Tunney TKO11.

Gene Tunney vs Max Schmeling II:  December 1931, Berlin.

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Schmeling initially beats the 34-year-old Tunney to the punch early, but Gene begins to work the body in the middle rounds and uses his level changing to set up hard right hand counters of his own. Schmeling cannot land his vaunted right hand consistently enough to stop the swift moving and hard jabbing challenger. As the fight wears on, Tunney continues to defy Father Time. He sweeps the final five rounds and wins the fight convincingly. The old lion still has something left and he becomes the first fighter to win back the Heavyweight Championship. Result: Tunney W15.

Tunney basks in his return to prominence and does not fight for most of 1932, only performing once, taking on Ernie Schaaf in May and winning a tough decision. Tunney had enough left to outlast Schaaf, but questions lingered as to whether he could still fight at the highest level. For the rest of the year, Tunney rests, focusing on his family life. At age 35, his pace and quality of opposition in the past eighteen months has prompted a respite. A few good young fighters faced off to generate a new #1 challenger and out of this crop, the “Livermore Larupper” Max Baer comes out on top.

Gene Tunney vs Max Baer: February 1933, New York.

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Tunney, nearly 36 years old, is actually a slight underdog to the powerful Baer who is almost a dozen years his junior and in devastating form of late. Baer is not a polished fighter like Tunney but can end the fight in an instant if he is able to land his massive, clubbing right hand. This is the same right hand that killed Frankie Campbell and probably dealt death to Ernie Schaaf. Tunney is undaunted, as he has faced the wrath of Jack Dempsey, who incidentally is in Baer’s corner for this fight.

The crafty and slick Tunney still has a few tricks under his sleeve, and for the first six rounds, soundly outboxes the wild and dangerous Baer. However, Tunney hits a wall in the middle rounds and his younger foe begins to land his huge right hand, staggering Tunney in the 10th. By the 12th round the champion is battered badly and is not defending himself well. Baer steps up his assault and drops the brave but aging champion in the 13th. Tunney’s 36-year-old legs betray him and while conscious, he cannot beat the count. Result: Baer KO13.

After his match with Baer, Tunney seriously contemplates retirement. He lost to man he felt he could have beaten easily at his best. His legs were not what they once were and cannot deftly slip the punches of his opponents and make them pay with hard counters with the same regularity as before. Tunney has had an absolutely incredible career, highlighted by five fights with Harry Greb, and two matches with Dempsey, Schmeling, and Tommy Loughran. In all, he fought four Heavyweight Champions, defeating all (whether the first time or in a rematch) but Baer. After being inactive for the remainder of 1933, Tunney officially retires on July 4, 1934. Besides being Independence Day, this date has significance because it is the pro debut of one Joseph Louis Barrow, better known as Joe Louis. This signifies a kind of passing of the torch, from one true great to another, ushering in a new era. Gene Tunney finishes his mythical career with a record of 71-3 with 51 wins coming by way of knockout.

I truly believe had Tunney continued fighting beyond 1928 that his career arc very much could have played out like the above scenario. Granted, Tunney didn’t face a Muhammad Ali or a Lennox Lewis in this hypothetical span of time, but he had plenty of solid competition available. He also could have become more popular due to the length of his reign. As tantalizing as it can be to think about, Joe Louis and Gene Tunney never would have crossed paths as Tunney was seventeen years Louis’ senior. But wouldn’t that make a great What If?

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