Gene Tunney vs. Jack Dempsey II
Solders Field, Chicago
September 22, 1927
Graham McNamee NBC
Fight Film & Broadcast Sync
“The legendary battle of the Long Count between Jack Dempsey and Gene Tunney had been recounted and retold during many intellectual debates, heated arguments and bar fights for nearly a century. Motion pictures of the knockdown dramatically captured the famous seventh round and have since become part of boxing lore. However the blow by blow descriptions that millions across the country heard is an obscurity.”—Frederick V. Romano
The film is famously shown in slow motion. The sequence begins nearly a minute into the seventh round. As he had done throughout the fight, Challenger Jack Dempsey advances toward Heavyweight Champion Gene Tunney. As Tunney throws a left, Dempsey counters with a right that catches Tunney to the head. Tunney, likely phased by the punch, fails to see Dempsey’s looping left hook and straight right. Both punches connect, and Tunney is staggered. He falls to the ropes where Dempsey continues his attack. Tunney’s knees give way under a crushing left hook and a right sends the champion to the canvas. Dempsey wrote that he hit Tunney with all the punches he’d been throwing in his sleep over the previous year. Referee Dave Barry gestures for Jack to follow the rules and go to a neutral corner, but now it was Dempsey who appeared stunned and amazed at what had just happened. Barry delays the count—at least a few seconds go by, or for many boxing fans, a near eternity. Dempsey walks directly behind the champion, then looking up, Dempsey finally complies with Barry and steps away. The referee turns toward the fallen champion, and ignoring the call of the timekeeper, restarts the count at One. Through the count, Tunney sits up holding the lower rope. At three he glances at the referee, otherwise he is still. His condition is a mystery. At eight, Tunney pulls his feet under and stands at nine. For the remaining two minutes Tunney retreats, unsteady at times, with Dempsey in pursuit, charging and swinging mostly at the air in front of Tunney’s head. Dempsey tries again and again trap to the champion, but Tunney manages to stay just out of reach. The round ends. Tunney shoves Dempsey away. The fight continues through the scheduled 10 rounds and Tunney retains the title.
Theater audiences witnessed films of the fight in the days and weeks following the event. “The Long Count” as it came to be called, created one of boxing’s greatest controversies. Did referee Dave Barry’s delay of the count save Tunney from a knockout? Over the years, the film of the seventh round would become boxing’s version of the Zapruder film, a movie watched over and over, with every frame analyzed for what happened and what might have been. Those first theater-goers, however, watched in silence. 1927 was still the era of silent films.
While the film remains a silent witness, the battle itself was heard by millions as it was broadcast live on radio around the world. The fight was announced by legendary sports commentator Graham McNamee. McNamee was a pioneer in radio who specialized in baseball coverage. In 1923, he was hired to call the Harry Greb and Johnny Wilson fight, but came away dissatisfied with the established formalities of commentary, where by describing events as a casual viewer, describing the action in past tense. This was akin to telling a story. McNamee began adding more personality to his delivery, describing not just the action as it happened, but embellishing or “coloring” the drama of the contest and describing the atmosphere inside the venue. He amped up his tone, sometimes breathlessly shouting the action. McNamee conveyed that he was just as thrilled with the action as the fans listening. This style came to be called play-by-play.
McNamee announced both the 1926 and 1927 Tunney-Dempsey fights for NBC. It’s been written that the second fight was especially dramatic, and it was reported that between seven and ten radio listeners were so caught up in the commentary that they suffered heart failure.
NBC did not record Tunney-Dempsey broadcasts. In fact most radio broadcasts of the 1920s were never saved. Radio was still a live medium, and recording technology, primarily disc-cutting, was limited. Recording discs could only capture a few minutes at a time. With the LP and recording tape decades away, it was impractical to document countless hours of broadcasts.
Over the years I’ve reached out to fellow boxing collectors and asked if they knew anything about a recording, but nothing was ever verified. While doing a search a few months ago I came across lecture notes by Matthew Barton, a curator at The Library of Congress. He referred to a, “surviving radio broadcasts from 1927 … the Jack Dempsey-Gene Tunney long count heavyweight title fight … one of the reasons that we know just how long the long count was is because it was recorded.” I contacted Mr. Barton and it turned out he’s a very knowledgeable boxing fan. We discussed the recording, and he referred me to several radio historians who may be able to help with a copy. One source came through.
The existence of the broadcast turned out to be an open secret. The second Tunney-Dempsey air-check was indeed recorded—or more appropriately, it was pirated. With borrowed disc-cutting equipment, engineers at a small blues record label called Paramount of Port Washington, Wisconsin, captured McNamee’s broadcast on ten separate 78RPM recording discs.
According to radio archivist Louis V. Genco, “Paramount was a small, Wisconsin-based operation notorious among collectors today for the indifferent quality of its recording work, even as it recorded material by artists who are now very much in demand. Paramount (not Paramount Pictures) did not own its own recording studio until 1929, and up to that date depended on facilities rented from other companies, mostly in the Chicago area. On the evening of the fight, engineers cut and recorded the broadcast on a total of ten discs, each covering one round of the action with McNamee’s call. The sound quality is hollow and distant, leading to the conclusion that the recording was made by simply placing a microphone before a radio tuned to a station carrying the broadcast, most likely one of NBCs Chicago outlets.”
A limited number of copies were replicated and distributed, sold poorly, and the recording faded into obscurity. It’s unclear how many complete sets still exist. Along the way, a transfer of the audio was made for preservation.
With both audio and fight film in hand, I wanted to bring the two sources together to complete the movie. Matching exclusive sound and picture, referred to as “rubber sync,” is something of a challenge. The film was taken with hand-cranked cameras that varied in speed. The footage (I have a print of the 1927 theatrical release) does not show the entire three minutes of round 7. As for the audio, it’s low fidelity, but the recording is stable, and it captures the entire round. McNamee’s voice is prominent, with the crowd in the far background except during peak moments of action. Once loaded into a video editor, I looked for cues where the action, sound and commentary lineup—the opening bell, the crowd responding to key moments of action, and the referee’s count, were all clear reference points. McNamee’s narration was less help than I thought. His delivery was not particularly smooth. His speech halts at times, as if trying to find the right words. He’ll pause, perhaps distracted, then chase the action again, sometimes matching, sometimes lagging behind. My goal was to sync film and audio to where McNamee was likely responding and speaking, just like anyone at the fight or watching the film might respond.
In 1940, the ban on the interstate distribution of boxing films was lifted. The Long Count was seen by a much larger audience than when it was first released, including the eyes of a new generation. Watching the knockdown sequence in true-life speed, specifically from the time Tunney hits the canvas to when Dave Barry begins counting, appeared more of a technicality, than enough time for a groggy fighter to recover. As a result, the controversy declined, but it has never died. The spectacle is actually with the count itself, the drama of Barry’s dramatic tolling of the count, with Dempsey waiting in the wings, and Tunney’s Zen-like posture, making the world wait fourteen long seconds.
The matching radio call with the Long Count film is no revelation, but it offers a fresh perspective—to both see, and hear, the highlight of this classic fight. There’s a thrill in watching this film with the live sound. McNamee’s excitement is contagious. His call of the action, though rough by today’s standards, is enjoyable for that very reason. Unlike our perspective, with the film burned into collective memory, we hear a man describe this historical event as it unfolds in front of him, just a few feet away from the microphone. He has no idea what’s going to happen next, nor the impact of those three minutes for years to come.