Over the past few weeks I've been trying to have a little fun with weekly "Boxing Schedule" post by looking up one historical fight or another that took place in the same week some time in the past. As this week's installment turned out a little longer than I initially planned it to be, I figured I'd make a fan post and hopefully avoid derailing the discussion in the "schedule" post. So here goes:
92 years ago, on May 23rd 1922, at the Madison Square Garden, New York City, two of the greatest fighters of all time met in what was to be one of the most significant bouts of either man's career and the first ever Ring Magazine Fight Of The Year.
his Wikipedia article. I find absolutely no way to fit all of his accomplishments into one paragraph, if I were to describe his career to someone who is unaware of his accomplishments, I would need a separate fanpost just for that.
I could reference his unbelievable record (298 fights: 261 wins - 17 losses - 19 draws), the fact that he beat almost all of the greatest heavyweights of his era as a middleweight, the fact that he fought most of his career with vision in only one eye although nobody was aware of this, the fact that he is ranked the 7th greatest fighter of all time by the Ring Magazine in 2002 and the 5th best fighter of all time by Bert Sugar (Bert ranked Greb ahead of Muhammad Ali), the fact that he fought no less than 45 times in 1919 alone and many, many, many more.
But to give modern fans perspective about how great Greb was, I want to play a little bit with the following comparison:
Over the past decade or so, a few fighters have flirted with the monicker GOAT: greatest of all time. Fans of fighters like Roy Jones Jr., Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Manny Pacquiao have touted their favourites as the greatest. Let me just be blunt:
Number of Hall Of Fame fighters faced:
- Roy Jones Jr.: 5 for a total of 6 fights
- Manny Pacquiao: 6 for a total of 12 fights (assuming Erik Morales, Marco Antonio Barrera and Miguel Cotto all eventually make it into the Hall Of Fame)
- Floyd Mayweather Jr.: 5 for a total of 5 fights (including Arturo Gatti and, again, assuming Cotto gets in)
- By comparison, Harry Greb: 16 for a total of 48 fights!!
To give you an idea about how big Gene Tunney and especially Jack Dempsey were in the 20s, their first bout in 1926 drew an amazing audience of about 120.000 people and their second bout in 1927 (the "Long Count Fight") an unimaginable gate of $2,658,660, which was simultaneously the first $1 million gate and the first $2 million gate in entertainment history. Adjusted for inflation, that means about $22 million in today's dollars, which by the way is quite a bit more than last year's "record-breaking" Floyd Mayweather - Canelo Alvarez gate.
Tunney was a revolutionary fighter, a boxer ahead of his times, a thinking man's fighter, preferring to stay on the outside and use his footwork, his movement and angles, his left jab, his bodywork and his counters to keep his opponents off of him and outpoint them from afar. While not a defensive fighter by today's definition, he was a master at dictating distance and tempo and also a master counterpuncher. Especially for his time, it is utterly unprecedented that no fighter was ever able to figure out his style. He made all his wins look easy and reportedly dominated every opponent he ever faced, including Jack Dempsey (who at the time seemed truly indomitable, the Mike Tyson of his era, if you will...). Every opponent, that is, except one.
can be found here, but I will quote this one excerpt:
It is impossible to describe the bloodiness of this fight. My seconds were unable to stop either the bleeding from the cut over my left eye, which involved a severed artery, or the bleeding consequent to the nose fractures. Doc Bagley, who was my chief second, made futile attempts to congeal the nose-bleeding by pouring adrenalin into his hand and having me snuff it up my nose. This I did round after round. The adrenalin, instead of coming out through the nose again, ran down my throat with the blood and into my stomach.
An old Sports Illustrated article recounting the tale of the grueling bout, using reports from legendary American journalist Grantland Rice, describes the grim spectacle:
"By the third round," wrote Grantland Rice, "Gene was literally wading in his own blood." The gore was so thick on Greb's gloves that he had to step back and hold them out so the referee could wipe them off with a towel.
Through it all Gene fought back, always with tenacity, often with verve. He wavered now and then, but he didn't flounder. Greb would rain a fusillade of blows against Tunney's face, down which blood cascaded, then push him away and ask the referee, "Wanna stop it?" McPartland would ask Gene, "How about it?" And Gene would shake his head. Every now and then when it looked as though McPartland might succumb to common sense and stop the slaughter, Gene would plead with him: "For God's sake, don't stop it."
Round after round Greb slammed Tunney into the ropes and smashed him with knife-sharp blows to head and body. It was awful to watch. McPartland used up half a dozen towels wiping the blood off Greb's gloves. After each cleansing, McPartland would move away from the fighters and Greb would leap to the attack again. His fists would thud against Gene's face, the blood would gush and McPartland would duck to avoid further splashing.
As the fight wore on Tunney began to grow weak from the killing, relentless pace. Time after time he would use his forearms to wipe away the blood that was blinding him, but he wouldn't quit. He would momentarily support himself against the ropes and paw at his tormentor with arms that were weary, aching, leaden things. He smiled in three of the toughest rounds (13th, 14th and 15th), as he had smiled in earlier rounds when it was touch and go as to whether McPartland would stop it. They were tired half smiles, but disdainful, and they said with fierce resolve, "I'm the champion and if you want my title you'll have to fight me until I am incapable of defending it—and that is not yet."
Despite all the gory details of a brutal execution, the Pittsburgh Post reported that Tunney fought extremely well.
He made a great fight for 10 rounds, but Greb set a pace in the last five that overwhelmed his opponent.
When the decision was announced, Greb had won the Light Heavyweight title. Tunney was lively enough to congratulate his opponent and walk back towards his dressing room on his own, but collapsed while climbing the stairs, and, as described by himself in his book, had to be carried unconscious. They had to drain his stomach of blood (he reportedly lost 2 quarts of blood) and was attended to by doctors for nearly two hours before being able to leave the arena. His recuperation took weeks. Harry Greb, on the other hand, hit the town and spent the night partying with his entourage:
Greb (...) paid the orchestra to play his and his friends' favorite tunes and danced until the musicians fell asleep
Yet in all the violence, the blood and the hailstorm of punches, an idea was planted into Tunney's head. From his book:
I discovered through the early part of that fight that I could lick Harry Greb. As each round went by, battered and pummelled from post to post as I was, this discovery gradually became a positive certainty in my mind.
You'd be tempted to dismiss this as an attempt at damage control by the clear loser or as simple boasting. But Harry Greb knew it too. In a post-fight interviews, he said:
Why, I couldn't even come close to dropping him. I was in there with a guy tonight who has an iron jaw and an iron will, and I don't look forward to our next meeting. (...) Fighting is my trade and I'll fight him any time, but it's gonna be a different story the next time."
And in another interview with Harry Keck, dean of Pittsburgh sports editors:
"He hurt me in damn nearly every round—and him bleeding the way he was. Don't let anyone tell you he's just a counterpunching boxer who can't hurt you. He's the most punishing and most accurate hitter I ever fought. If you don't take the fight to him he'll take it to you, and any move you make is usually the wrong one. You end up catching a left in the puss and a stinging straight right to the body. I couldn't keep away from that right."And after excusing himself to go to the toilet and pass blood in his urine:
"That's the first time that ever happened to me, and I've been belted in the body by the hardest punchers in the business. Also you may notice I'm not ordering no steak tonight. That's because my face stopped so many left hooks, left jabs and right crosses it feels like somebody's been hitting it with a sledge hammer. I'll bet I never really hurt Gene at all. I just bloodied him, and the loss of all that blood weakened him.
Tunney backed up his words in the ring. The two met 4 more times over the next few years, with 3 Tunney wins and a draw or 2 wins and 2 draws depending on which newspaper you read. Tunney adapted and pretty much dominated Greb over those 4 bouts.
He wouldn't lose to Greb or anybody else ever again, as he would end his career with his amazing feats at Heavyweight, dominating the indestructible Jack Dempsey twice and retiring as the undefeated Heavyweight champion. His only loss in his 85 bout, 13 year career - that one bloody night at Madison Square Garden in May 1922.
Harry Greb would go on to finally win the World Middleweight title and hold it for 3 years. Before the first Dempsey - Tunney bout, a bout in which Tunney was the heavy underdog, Greb was offered a job as Jack Dempsey's sparring partner in preparation. Greb declined saying:
I'd feel like a burglar taking Jack's money. Nobody can get him in good enough condition to whip Gene.Greb died at 32 years of age, failing to wake up from the anesthetic during an operation to repair damage to his nose and respiratory tract caused by his ring career and several car crashes. Gene Tunney was one of the pallbearers at his funeral.