The two men, who would on one September night in 1927 bring the world to a halt, entered it a world apart. Dempsey was born on June 24, 1895, to dirt-poor, vagabond Mormon parents in Manassa, Colo. He was the 9th of 13 children who lived in a tiny, two-bedroom house.
Tunney came into the world in slightly better circumstances. He was born May 25, 1898, in a flat over a grocery store at 111 Bank St., in New York's Greenwich Village.
Dempsey, after his father moved his family on a decade-long odyssey through Colorado and Utah mining camp towns, learned to fight in Saturday night saloon bouts. His first purses were literally nickels and dimes contributed when miners passed the hat for winners. He fought in such places as Price, Leadville, Montrose, Salt Lake City, Goldfield, Ely, Tonopah, Durango and Cripple Creek.
He fought savagely, like a wild man fighting for his life. He was not a man of strategy, or art. His was an attack so savage it inspired fear and retreat.
Tunney was the opposite. He learned to box in New York gymnasiums from expert teachers. He learned early, for example, that boxing's most effective punch is a left jab--which even 60 years later, some world-class boxers have difficulty grasping--and that the greatest virtue of all is to avoid getting hit.
Tunney developed into a superb amateur boxer in New York. Then, as a 166-pound Marine in 1919, he won the Allied Expeditionary Force light-heavyweight championship in Europe during the Armistice.
When he turned pro, he was everything Dempsey was not--smooth and polished, inside and outside the ring. He was not a college man but he sounded like a professor. He was a contemplative man with movie star looks. He read Chaucer and Plato, and moved easily in Eastern social circles. Dempsey, the Western hobo, was self-conscious, gruff, unsmiling and uncomfortable with strangers.
In Mel Heimer's 1969 book, "The Long Count," Dempsey indicated that he felt incomplete, even after he won the heavyweight championship from Jess Willard, in 1919: "I was still a bum with a knife and fork, and I dressed like a guy an honest cop would arrest at a carnival."
Tunney, three years after winning the service title, became the pro U.S. light-heavyweight champion. He promptly lost that title to Harry Greb, who cut him to ribbons over 15 gory rounds in 1922. It was the only fight Tunney ever lost. He beat Greb in a return, then beat him three more times.
In 1921, Tunney beat Soldier Jones on the undercard of the Dempsey-Georges Carpentier fight, boxing's first million-dollar attraction, at Jersey City, N.J. Studying the fabled champion in the main event, he became convinced that he could beat Dempsey. It was the beginning of an obsession.
"Dad told us all his life that it was simply a question of style, that he knew from the beginning his style would be devastating to Dempsey, if he ever had the opportunity to fight him," said John Tunney, a Los Angeles lawyer and former U.S. senator from California.
"Dad said that Dempsey had terrible problems with stand-up boxers, like Tommy Gibbons," Tunney said recently. "Guys who stood up to him, tried to punch it out with him . . . Dempsey ate those guys alive."
Tunney went through the 1920s obsessed with arranging a fight with Dempsey. It seemed as if he'd never get the chance. After beating Willard in 1919, Carpentier in 1921 and Luis Angel Firpo in 1923, Dempsey went into virtual retirement in Los Angeles, appearing only in exhibitions in 1924 and not boxing at all in 1925.
Sportswriter Grantland Rice, in his 1954 book "The Tumult and the Shouting," recalled a golf game in the mid-1920s with Tunney and his close friend, golfer Tommy Armour. According to Rice, after each drive, Tunney would toss aside his driver, then run down the fairway throwing punches, muttering "Dempsey, Dempsey . . . "
" 'He's obsessed. His brain knows nothing but Dempsey,' " Armour told Rice. " 'I believe Jack could hit him with an ax and Gene wouldn't feel it. I don't know if Dempsey has slipped, but I'll have a good chunk down on Tunney when that fight arrives.' "
Promoter Tex Rickard finally brought them together in Philadelphia, on Sept. 23, 1926. Dempsey, who spent the previous three years in Los Angeles with his actress wife, Estelle Taylor, was suspect. No more, many believed, was Dempsey the hungry, rail-riding hobo, the unchecked saloon brawler.
By 1926, he had gotten a nose job. And he had appeared in movies. The fight mob sneered, figuring that Dempsey's best fights were behind him. But no one was excited about Tunney's chances, either. Dempsey was a 4-1 favorite at Philadelphia.
Wrote Nat Fleischer, editor-publisher of Ring magazine: "Dempsey has used the heavyweight title as a medium for almost everything but defense."