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September 22, 1987|EARL GUSTKEY | Times Staff Writer

Sixty years ago today, two men climbed into a 20-foot ring in Chicago and for 40 minutes made the world stand still.

Dempsey-Tunney II. The Long Count fight. In 1927, they called it the fight of the century. It might well have been.

Radio was in its infancy, yet NBC estimated that on the night of Sept. 22, 1927, about 50 million people around the world heard Gene Tunney successfully defend his championship against Jack Dempsey.

Listeners heard from ringside, against the steady roar of a Soldier Field crowd estimated all the way up to 150,000, the excited voice of Graham McNamee.

They heard him at sheep stations in Australia's outback. Every member of a United States Marine Corps regiment in Shanghai heard it. A two-man University of Michigan scientific team on a Greenland iceberg heard it. Patrons in Paris and Rio de Janeiro cafes heard it.

McNamee's voice filled hushed New York and Chicago night clubs. In Puerto Rico, listeners marveled at reception so clear that they could clearly hear not only McNamee's voice, but the boxers' feet shuffling as well.

And in every little town in the United States and Canada, families huddled near their radios, sharing the excitement in McNamee's voice, particularly when he shrieked during the fight's epic seventh round:

"Some of the blows that Dempsey hit make this ring tremble! Tunney is down! From a barrage! . . . They are counting!"

America, 60 years ago, was an exciting place, certainly an appropriate stage for possibly the most anticipated sports event in history. Four months before the fight, Charles Lindbergh took off from Roosevelt Field on Long Island, bound for Paris.

Babe Ruth, the linchpin of maybe baseball's greatest team, the '27 Yankees, and his young teammate, Lou Gehrig, were annihilating American League pitching. On the night of the Long Count Fight, Ruth hit his 56th home run at Yankee Stadium. In eight more days he would hit his 60th.

The Roaring Twenties. Flappers, Al Capone, hip flasks, George Gershwin, coonskin coats, jazz and the golden age of sports.

September, 1927. A new Pierce-Arrow cost $2,495. A Chrysler "52" sedan went for $725. In Los Angeles, the NYK cruise line was offering a first-class cruise to Hawaii, Japan, China and Australia for $790. AT&T announced that telephone service would be available soon between New York and London at $75 for three minutes, $25 for each additional minute.

Tunney's purse for beating Dempsey in Chicago was staggering--$990,000. Dempsey's check was for $437,500.

Midwest train travel in September, 1927, was booming. The Pullman Company announced the day before Dempsey-Tunney II that for the first time in its history, every rail car it owned was rolling from somewhere to Chicago. Fifteen cars had been added to the 20th Century Limited alone, 10 to the Broadway Limited and 5 to the Baltimore & Ohio Line's Capitol Limited.

A trainload of boxing fans arrived on fight day from Los Angeles, aboard the "Johnnie Wilson De Luxe Fight Special." For $197.92 each, 300 Southern Californians got ringside seats--the house was scaled from $40 to $5--round trip rail transportation, meals and two nights at Chicago's Morrison Hotel.

On fight day, 30,000 Chicago hotel rooms were filled.

Every day for a month, sports sections of America's major newspapers ran training-camp stories and pictures of both fighters, Dempsey at Lincoln Fields Race Track, Tunney at Lake Villa, Ill. Tunney was a 4-1 underdog when he won the championship from Dempsey in Philadelphia a day short of a year earlier.

This time, in the second of their two 10-round battles, it was an even-money fight when the boxers left their dressing rooms at 10 o'clock and headed down the long aisles to the ring. The immense throng came to its feet, row by row, roaring at the sight of Dempsey.

The 32-year-old former champion, wearing a three-day stubble of beard and his familiar old black-and-white checked robe, entered the ring first. He was darkly tanned and weighed 192 1/2. In a few minutes, to a loud but distinctly less thunderous ovation, Tunney arrived. The champion, 29, 189 1/2, wore a blue and scarlet robe, with the U.S. Marine Corps emblem on the back. Tunney seemed all pink and white, compared to Dempsey.

At 10:07 p.m., referee Dave Barry summoned the fighters to center-ring. In the days that followed, the Tunney camp maintained that Barry said the following:

"The rabbit and kidney blows are barred, of course. Now I want to get this point clear. In the event of a knockdown, the man scoring the knockdown will go to the farthest neutral corner. Is that clear, Jack? Is that clear, Champ?"

Years later, Tunney often commented that he was struck by Barry's addressing him as Champ, the first person ever to do so. After eight years of a near-obsessive pursuit of the scowling man standing before him, and having once beaten him, Gene Tunney must at that moment have never been more certain of his destiny, that somehow he could not lose.

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