The Dempsey-Tunney Fight of 1926

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Among the many events at the Sesquicentennial, perhaps none drew as much attention and publicity as the world’s heavyweight title fight between defending champion Jack Dempsey and challenger Gene Tunney. Held at the Sesquicentennial Municipal Stadium on September 23, 1926, the boxing match drew a crowd of over 120,000 people and became one of the best known fights of the 1920s.

Although Tex Rickard, the promoter for the fight, originally investigated staging the match in Chicago or Jersey City, he eventually arranged for it to be held on September 16, 1926 at Yankee Stadium in New York. These arrangements had to be abandoned, however, when the License Committee of the New York State Athletic Commission refused to issue Dempsey a license to box in New York. Rather than fight the decision in court, Rickard chose to accept the offer of E.L. Austin, Director of the Sesquicentennial, to hold the match at the Municipal Stadium in Philadelphia on September 23.[1]

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The decision to move the match to Philadelphia was warmly welcomed by residents of the city. Boxing was hugely popular in the 1920s. As Tunney prepared for his match with Dempsey, a crowd of 2,000 people came just to watch him spar twelve rounds with two workout partners on August 15, 1926.[2] On that same day, more than 1,000 people paid $1 each plus tax to watch Dempsey during his workout at Saratoga Springs, New York.[3] The New York Times published 75 articles on the fight preparations in August and September alone and ran a three-tiered front page headline as well as nine full pages of coverage the day after the fight.[4] While tickets to the fight sold quickly, not everyone approved of the bout being held at the Sesquicentennial. One letter to the New York Times argued that the fight was being held to “bolster up deficient receipts” at the Sesquicentennial and that it was “disgraceful and humiliating (or should be) to the American people.”[5]

Plenty of Americans did not find the fight disgraceful or humiliating at all. The match was attended by both the mayor of Philadelphia and the mayor of New York City as well as Pennsylvania Governor Pinchot, several other governors from across the country, Secretary of the Navy Curtis D. Wilbur, and many millionaires and members of well-known families.[6] Extra trains brought crowds from New York, New Jersey, Chicago, and dozens of other places. People around the world eagerly listened for radio and telegraph reports regarding the outcome of the match.

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After ten rounds fought in the pouring rain, Tunney defeated Dempsey to claim the title of world’s heavy-weight champion. Although the match did not end in a knockout, Tunney is said to have been “a complete master, from first bell to last. He out-boxed and he out-fought Dempsey at every turn.”[7] In meticulous detail, the New York Times summarizes the fight and notes Tunney’s strategic and calculated responses to the more rushed and ineffectual charges by Dempsey. One year later on September 22, 1927, Tunney would successfully defend his title and defeat Dempsey again at Soldier Field in Chicago in a fight that came to be known as The Long Count.

The Dempsey-Tunney boxing match drew incredible crowds to the Sesquicentennial and demonstrates the extreme popularity of boxing during the 1920s. The Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce estimated that the crowds likely brought an additional $3,000,000 in revenue to city businesses through purchases of meals, hotel rooms, train and taxi rides, and other items.[8] The match helped boost Sesquicentennial attendance numbers while also showing that many members of the public now favored public sporting events to world’s fairs as a way to spend their leisure time and money.

[1] New York Times, “Dempsey Title Bout Suddenly Shifted to Philadelphia.” August 19, 1926.

[2] New York Times, “Tunney Boxes Twelve Rounds; 2,000 Attend the Workout.” August 16, 1926.

[3] New York Times, “1,000 Pay $1 Each to Watch Dempsey.” August 16, 1926.

[4] Pope, Steven W. “Negotiating the ‘Folk Highway’ of the Nation: Sport, Public Culture and American Identity, 1870-1940.” Journal of Social History Vol 27 No 2. (Winter, 1993): p. 327-340.

[5] French, Joseph Lewis. “Disapproval of Sesqui Fight.” New York Times. September 12, 1926.

[6] Davis, Elmer. “Victory is Popular One.” New York Times. September 24, 1926.

[7] Dawson, James P. “Tunney Always Master.” New York Times. September 24, 1926.

[8] New York Times. “Philadelphia Sees Bout a Great Boon.” September 25, 1926.