“Normally, I could hit hard enough, 
as anyone who studied my fights might have known. But the impression was that I was essentially defensive, the very reverse of a killer, the prize fighter who read books, even Shakespeare.”

–Gene Tunney


A 1st generation American of Irish descent, James Joseph ‘Gene’ Tunney is ranked among the top heavyweight boxing champions of all time.  The epitome of the self-made man, Tunney was one of seven children who quit school at 15 yrs old, served in the marines (crowned U.S. Expeditionary Forces champion) during WWI, and was a lumberjack for the J.R Booth Company of Ottawa. While in Canada he kept the fact that he was a boxing champ to himself, claiming he “wanted the solitude and the strenuous labors of the woods to help condition himself for the career that appeared before him.”

Of 82 bouts, Gene Tunney lost only once, was knocked down only once (by Jack Dempsey, no less), and was never knocked out.  A thinking man’s boxer, he was known as an intelligent, defensive boxer who “treated boxing as a sweet science” and would out-point his opponents, unlike many of the sluggers (Jack Dempsey, Harry Greb, etc.) of the day.  Tunney also possessed great punching power, and could stand toe-to-toe when needed– like when he defeated Harry ‘The Human Windmill’ Greb with an unrelenting punishment of body blows that brought the brawler down.  He was reigning world heavyweight boxing champion from 1926-1928, and was also crowned Ring Magazine’s first-ever ‘Fighter of the Year’ in 1928.

1928 was also the year Tunney married his beautiful bride, Polly Lauder.  She was a wealthy well-healed socialite (related to the Carnegie family) whose father, George Lauder, Jr. was a philanthropist and accomplished yachtsman who once held the record for the fastest trans-Atlantic yacht passage ever made. Upon their marriage, Tunney promised his bride that he would quit boxing for good. True to his word, he would defend his boxing title just once more (after his rematch with Jack Dempsey) against challenger Tom Heeney of New Zealand. The couple made Stamford, Connecticut their home and raised four children together.

Gene Tunney seldom spoke about his days in the ring with his children. His son Jay, who wrote “The Prizefighter and the Playwright: Gene Tunney and Bernard Shaw,” recalled that the first time had any inkling of his father’s fame was in 1944. The family went to the rodeo at Madison Square Garden, and Roy Rogers, riding out on Trigger, announced that Gene Tunney was in the crowd, and spotlights shone on where he was sitting. “At first I thought the lights were for me,” his son, Jay Tunney said. “But then there was this huge wave of applause.” And rightly so.  Gene Tunney was a class act.

World champion athletes — from top row, left to right; Babe Ruth (baseball), Gene Tunney (boxing), Johnny Weissmuller (swimming), Bill Cook (hockey). Bottom row, from left to right; Billl Tilden (tennis), Bobby Jones (golf), Fred Spencer and Charlie Winters  (6-day bicycle race). — Image by © Underwood & Underwood/Corbis

August 27th, 1927, Speculator, NY — Gene Tunney, heavyweight champion of the world, who will defend his title against the former title holder, Jack Dempsey, in Chicago, September 22nd, is daily engaging in light training. He will not start heavy work until he reaches Chicago about September 1st. Here, Tunney is engaged in his favorite recreation, reading. — Image by © Underwood & Underwood/Corbis

July 24th, 1928 — Vintage press photo showing world heavyweight champion boxer Gene Tunney as he appeared while in training for his upcoming bout with Tom Heeney.

Sept 9th, 1927, New York, NY — Composed and in command again after the only knockdown of his career, heavyweight champion Gene Tunney sends Jack Dempsey to the canvas for the count of one in the eighth round of title bout in Chicago.  Tunney controlled the rest of the round as well as the ninth and tenth to earn a unanimous decision.  The referee is Dave Barry. — Image by © Bettmann/Corbis

Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania, 1926 — Gene Tunney as he prepared for bout with Jack Dempsey at his new last-minute quarters at Glen Brook Country Club. — Image by © Bettmann/Corbis

1926 — Boxer Gene Tunney, in training, hitting a punching bag. — Image by © Bettmann/Corbis

August 2nd, 1926, Saratoga, NY — Gene Tunney leaping over the rail at his training quarters as a start for his daily routine of muscle-building in preparation for his bout with Jack Dempsey. — Image by © Bettmann/Corbis

Boxer Gene Tunney in training.  Tunney had dropped out of school at 15 but remained an avid reader and lifelong autodidact. A disgusted sportswriter once caught him reading Samuel Butler’s “Way of All Flesh” in training camp, and later Paul Gallico wrote in The Daily News, “I think Tunney has hurt his own game with his cultural nonsense.” After he retired from the ring, Tunney sought the company of writers and educators and also became friendly with Thornton Wilder, the British novelist Hugh Walpole and Ernest Hemingway, who once got carried away and in a Mailer-esque moment shot his elbow into the champ’s mouth before Tunney flattened him against a wall.  via

1929 — The boxer Gene Tunney and the writer George Bernard Shaw in Brioni. The two men regularly corresponded and exchanged visits and, together with their wives, even spent a monthlong holiday together in 1929, when Tunney, newly married to Polly Lauder, a Connecticut heiress, was hiding from the press in Brioni, the Adriatic resort. Associated Press image.  via

Nov 2nd, 1933, New York, NY — Theodore Roosevelt Jr. and Gene Tunney, former heavyweight boxing champion at the scavenger hunt premier at the Waldorf Astoria.  This popular European social entertainment had its American premiere, when a large group of the social elect put out from the hostelry on a chase through pre-ordained labyrinths of mirth provoking situations in search for an incongruous list of non-essentials, the succesful discovery of which brought prizes to the finders. — Image by © Bettmann/Corbis

1935, New York, NY — Former boxing champion Gene Tunney, Bernard Gimbel, Ernest Hemingway and Jack Dempsey, at Dempsey’s Restaurant. — Image by © Bettmann/Corbis

Dec 4th, 1935, Hollywood, CA — H.G. Wells, the noted British writer and novelist, Gene Tunney, former heavyweight boxing champion, and Charlie Chaplin (left to right), at the party in Hollywood given for Wells by Chaplin. — Image by © Bettmann/Corbis

January 1935, Palm Beach, Florida — The Tunneys Go Night Clubbing at Palm Beach. Gene Tunney, retired Heavyweight Boxing Champion of the world, with his wife, the socially prominent Polly Lauder, as they attended a night club, The Patio, here.  They are among the prominent people vacationing at this southern resort. — Image by © Bettmann/Corbis

January 1935, New York — Mr. and Mrs. Gene Tunney, are pictured aboard the S. S. Conte Di Savoia when they bailed for Europe on January 19th for the first part of their projected trip around the world.  Mr. Tunney is the former heavyweight boxing champion of the world, while his wife is the former Polly Lauder. — Image by © Bettmann/Corbis

Aug 10th, 1941 — In December 1940, a year before Pearl Harbor, James Forrestal, then Under-Secretary of the Navy, persuaded former U.S. boxer Gene Tunney to head the Navy’s physical fitness program.  The former Marine Corps PFC rose to the rank of commander.  Lt. Commander Tunney is shown here standing on elevated platform conducting an exercise training session for a large group of sailors.  INP photo. — Image by © Bettmann/Corbis

Feb 9th, 1946, Havana, Cuba — Gene Tunney, retired heavyweight champion of the world, who was a physical education instructor for the Navy during the war, is one fellow who practices what he preaches.  Tunney, shown lifting the weights, hasn’t let a seventeen-year absence from the ring affect his desire to keep in top shape. — Image by © Bettmann/Corbis


  1. Great post! Tunney was a brilliant fighter and a very intelligent man although, when Muhammed Ali refused to be drafted Gene publicly lashed him for not serving in the US Army. Ali, also no fool, said he wasn’t taking that from a former champ who refused to fight any black boxers – sad but true.

  2. Great post – great comment (Garth Cartwright). I had never heard that story before. Ali is a hero of mine. Like most middle class, midwestern white kids who grew up in the 1970s, I didn’t “get” him at all. Now I think Ali is a genius and a man of rare character on so many levels.

    Great post about Tunney though. He seems like a cool cat too. As is James Braddock – another fighter I’d like to know more about.

  3. the hugh wapole was a HUGE waGnerite, HITLER loved these guys. melchior was sponsored BY walpole. strange BEDfellows. GLAD 2 hear TUNNEY was navy MAN, was his KID senator?

  4. Great post thanks. Knowing nothing about boxing, I had never heard of Tunney – good story. Ray Liotta to play him in Biopic?

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