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Articles of 2010

His Posse Included Shaw And Fitzgerald; Tunney Was An Erudite Champion

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The Prizefighter and the Playwright: Gene Tunney and Bernard Shaw

By Jay R. Tunney

Firefly Books; Toronto and Buffalo

$35.00

Four years ago I was a participant, along with the late Budd Schulberg, sportscaster Jeremy Schaap, and Jay Tunney, in a panel discussion at the Irish Arts Center in New York. At some point in the evening I recall turning to Jay and telling him how much I’d have loved to be a fly on the wall at some of those famously elegant soirees his parents hosted at Star Meadow Farm, their palatial Connecticut estate, “if only to eavesdrop on the dinner conversation between Roy Rogers and George Bernard Shaw.

What I didn’t realize at the time was that Jay Tunney had already devoted more than a decade to an account of his father’s (mostly) post-boxing career, one centered around Gene Tunney’s long-enduring friendship with Bernard Shaw. The U.S. publication of The Prizefighter and the Playwright will officially be celebrated on the evening of September 23rd at the National Arts Club in Gramercy Park.

Born in 1897 of Mayo immigrants, James Joseph Tunney, though a high school dropout, was arguably the most cerebral, and certainly the best-read, boxer ever to hold the heavyweight championship of the world. A voracious reader from an early age, he maintained a little black book of unfamiliar words, which he committed to memory after looking up their meanings – and pronunciations. Somewhat embarrassed by his lack of formal education, he assiduously polished his diction, assiduously eradicating every vestige of a plebian New York street accent. (Tunney had grown up in Greenwich Village in an age before Perry Street was a chic address.) He was introduced to the Bard by a fellow Marine en route to France with the American Expeditionary Force; by the time he fought for the heavyweight championship he had plowed his way through the collected works of Shakespeare, and could recite Hamlet in its entirety. Invited to Yale to lecture on Shakespeare, he did so creditably, and without notes.

Tunney’s intellectual bent was not universally admired. Will Rogers (no relation to Roy), wrote in his folksy newspaper column, “Let’s have prizefighters with harder wallops and less Shakespeare, and Paul Gallico, the Columbia-educated sports editor of the New York Daily News, made light of Tunney’s chances in his 1926 challenge to Jack Dempsey, opining: “I think Tunney has hurt his own game with his cultural nonsense.

“I don’t think Master Tunney, who likes first editions and rare paintings and works of art, has it in him, wrote Gallico, who a decade later would abandon sportswriting and move to the Riviera, where he devoted the rest of his life to writIng timeless classics of literature like The Poseidon Adventure.

If the sporting press was reluctant to embrace a practicing pugilist whose erudition outstripped their own, the boxing public was almost hostile – in part out of resentment for what it considered Tunney’s “high-hat pretensions, and in an even larger measure due to its unwavering loyalty to the man over whose back Gene had climbed to reach the pinnacle of his profession.

Last year another former heavyweight champion, Larry Holmes, told the story of encountering what appeared to be a sweet little old lady whose first words were “I hate you. Nearly thirty years after the fact, the dowager still regarded Holmes’ 1980 battering of the aging Muhammad Ali a crime against humanity, in much the same manner, boxing fans of an earlier generation considered Tunney’s back-to-back victories over the popular Jack Dempsey beyond forgiveness.

If Tunney’s 1926 decision in Philadelphia had confounded boxing experts, who had almost unanimously picked against him, it did not entirely surprise a Dublin-born playwright living in London. Although George Bernard Shaw and Tunney had yet to meet, Shaw had watched newsreels of Tunney’s 1924 dismemberment of Georges Carpentier, and, much as he admired Dempsey, he had predicted that the Manassa Mauler’s undoing would eventually come in the form of a “scientific boxer who could exploit the champion’s brawling style.

A knowledgeable boxing fan throughout his life, Bernard Shaw had briefly dabbled in the sweet science – he was listed in the program as a contestant in the 1883 Queensberry Championships in London, although no record exists of his having actually appeared in a bout – before settling more comfortably into an analyst’s role in covering major fights for various publications. A boxer had been this protagonist in Cashel Byron’s Profession, one of he five novels he wrote before turning to the stage. A year before Tunney beat Dempsey, Shaw had won his own version of the heavyweight championship when he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Shaw also appeared to share Tunney’s low regard for the sportswriting profession, having once suggested the passage of a bill “making it a punishable offence for a newspaper to order or publish any description of a prizefight until they had sent for a professional boxer and made the writer spar a bye with him, and obtain from a couple of competent judges a certificate that he at least knows his right hand from his left.

If Tunney had imagined that the heavyweight title would bring public acceptance, he was quickly disabused. Weeks after the first Dempsey fight, the old and new champion were presented in the ring at Madison Square Garden. Dempsey was lustily cheered; Tunney’s reception consisted for the most part of boos and catcalls. Even Dempsey found it embarrassing.

“Practically overnight, Gene Tunney recalled the moment, “I had become the most unpopular of all the heavyweight champions.

Although Tunney engaged in 85 professional bouts over a 13-year career barely interrupted by his wartime service (he had nine fights in France in 1918-19, both before and after the armistice), his reign as heavyweight champion was brief: He successfully defended in the 1927 Chicago rematch with Dempsey (the fabled “Long Count fight, in which Tunney was knocked down for the first and only time in his career), fought brilliantly in stopping the overmatched New Zealander Tom Heeney at Yankee Stadium in 1928, and then a few days later shocked the world by announcing his retirement at the top of his game.

The title did, on the other hand, provide entrée to the cultured circles he had long admired. Tunney had long been an admirer of Shaw. He considered “St. Joan a masterpiece (and later named his only daughter Joan). His early efforts at upward mobility through improved diction had been inspired by Shaw’s depiction of Eliza Doolittle in “Pygmalion. And, writes Jay Tunney Cashel Byron’s Profession a virtual roadmap for his father’s own social aspirations:

“With Cashel as a role model, Gene had permitted himself to envision a gentlemanly life beyond the ring as a realistic alternative, not a pipe dream. Even more significantly, Shaw’s Cashel allowed Gene to consider marriage beyond his own class, to a woman far removed from his world.

The latter was borne out by his courtship of Polly Lauder, a Connecticut socialite and heiress to the Andrew Carnegie fortune. Their happy marriage endured until Tunney’s death in 1978. One of their sons, John V. Tunney, was Ted Kennedy’s roommate at the University of Virginia Law School and later joined Kennedy in Washington when he was elected to the United States Senate in 1970.

The Tunney-Shaw relationship, on the other hand, very nearly got off on the wrong foot. In discussing his envisioned starring role in a movie version of Cashel Byron’s Profession (the pretense was that the proposal had come from some Hollywood mogul; in fact, it had been Tunney’s own idea) Tunney had suggested that Cashel’s character needed to be redrawn to reflect more accurately the mindset of a real boxer, remarks which, by the time they made their way to Fleet Street, ran under a banner headline “Tunney Takes A Swing at Shaw.

And Shaw, for his part, was all for updating his tale of 19th century pugilism, but wanted to write in a part that would also incorporate Dempsey’s acting talents.

Shaw was the most prominent of a small army of artistic types whose friendship Tunney valued. F. Scott Fitzgerald had been a card-carrying member of the Tunney entourage even before the Dempsey fights. In Europe just before his Rome wedding, Tunney was a guest at the tenor John McCormack at Moore Abbey in Kildare. He went climbing in the Alps with the author and playwright Thornton Wilder, and it was Wilder who introduced him, in Paris, to Ernest Hemingway. (The origins of Tunney’s relationship with Roy Rogers, alas, will have to await a sequel: The Prizefighter and the King of the Cowboys, perhaps?)

Probably fortunately, the film version of Cashel was never made, removing the last potential impediment to a fast friendship that endured from their first meeting until Shaw’s death in 1950. Shaw even wound up accompanying the Tunneys on their inadvertently extended month-long honeymoon on the Italian isle of Briona (now part of Croatia), occasioned when Polly was stricken with a near-fatal internal infection. For the next twenty years the by-then ex-prizefighter and the playwright 40 years his senior visited one another in their homes and maintained a lively transoceanic correspondence in which boxing, the subject that had drawn them together, was rarely even mentioned.

Tunney’s uneasy relationship with the press was compounded by his in-laws’ even more pronounced distaste for publicity. The prevailing view among Polly’s Social Register set was that a person’s name ought to appear in newspapers on the occasion of his birth and in his obituary; further mentions were superfluous. The Tunneys’ almost obsessive desire for privacy was further exacerbated by the Lindbergh kidnapping, which occurred when their own firstborn was just four months old.

One result of all this was that in setting down the tale, Jay Tunney frequently had to play detective in reconstructing a credible chronology of events that took place in the very house he grew up in. To his credit, his approach for the most part reflects a scholarly and meticulously researched narrative so attuned to the facts that one has to periodically remind oneself: This is his father he’s writing about.

Only once, at least that we noticed, does it get away from him: In describing Gene’s decision to hang up the gloves, the book claims “he would be the first champion – with the exception of the fictional Cashel Byron – to retire undefeated at the top of his game.

In fact he was neither the first (Jim Jeffries had retired, undefeated, in 1904, though he would spoil his record of perfection with his ill-advised one-fight comeback attempt six years later), nor was he undefeated. Tunney’s loss to Harry Greb in their 1922 bloodbath at the Garden was his only defeat in 86 professional fights. They fought one another four more times, and Greb never won again. Still, a loss is a loss and it hardly seems quibbling to point out that a boxer with an ‘L’ on his record can hardly be described as “undefeated. Even if he is your Dad.

(George Kimball’s review of The Prizefighter and the Playwright appeared, in a slightly different form, as a column in the September 23 edition of The Irish Times. Copyright © 2010 by The Irish Times Newspaper.)

Articles of 2010

Judah To Fight Mbuza March 5 In NJ

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Totowa, NJ – Kathy Duva, Main Events CEO, announced their promotional firm won the purse bid held at IBF headquarters in East Orange, NJ, Thursday. The bid was for the right to hold the IBF's junior welterweight title fight between Zab Judah of Brooklyn, NY and Las Vegas, and South Africa's Kaizer Mabuza.

IBF Championships Chairman, Lindsay Tucker explained, “It is a 50-50 split of the earnings between the two fighters. Kaizer is ranked No. 1 by the IBF, and Judah is No. 2. Where the fight will be held is up to the winning bidder.”

Judah (39-6, 26 KOs) is promoted by Main Events and his own firm Super Judah Promotions, and Branco Milenkovic, of South Africa, promotes Mabuza (23-6-3, 14 KOs).

Kathy Duva confirmed the fight will take place at Prudential Center in Newark, NJ, late February or early March this year as part of Main Events' Brick City Boxing Series.  (Saturday Update: the fight is March 5th, in NJ at the Pru Center. The bout will be part of a PPV card.)

“We are very happy that Zab has the opportunity to fight for the IBF Junior Welterweight title right here in New Jersey.  Winning this fight will put Zab right in the mix with the winner of Bradley-Alexander and Amir Khan.” Duva elaborated, ” Zab will work very hard to win this fight so that he will be one step closer to his ultimate goal of unifying all of the Junior Welterweight titles by the end of 2011!”

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Articles of 2010

UFC 125 Preview: Frankie Edgar Vs. Gray Maynard

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UFC_Edgar_and_Maynard_Dec._2010
Few predicted Frankie Edgar would grab the UFC lightweight championship last year but he did. Most felt he would eventually win it but Edgar not only took the title, he beat one of the best mixed martial artists in history to do it.

Edgar (13-1) has emerged from the milieu of nondescript MMA fighters to become one of the more brilliant performers for Ultimate Fighting Championship. Next comes a rematch with Gray “The Bully” Maynard (11-0) tomorrow at the MGM Grand Casino in Las Vegas. UFC 125 will be televised on pay-per-view.

All it took was not one, but two victories over BJ Penn.

If you’re not familiar with Penn, he’s one of the most versatile fighters in MMA history and had been nearly unbeatable in the 155-pound lightweight division. That is until he clashed with Edgar. Until he met New Jersey’s Edgar, the Hawaiian fighter chopped down lightweight opponents with ease. It was only the heavier welterweights he had problems against. Namely: Canada’s Georges St. Pierre.

Edgar showed poise, speed and grit in defeating Penn in back-to-back fights. The world took notice.

“You know, if I keep winning fights, the respect will come eventually,” said Edgar during a conference call.

Now Edgar will find out if he can avenge the only loss on his record.

“I just think I grew as a fighter. You know, mentally, you know, physically I, you know, possess differently skills, increased – you know, I think I boxed and got better, my Jiu-Jitsu got better and, you know, just have much more experience now,” Edgar says.

Maynard seeks to find out if Edgar has added any more fighting tools to his repertoire. Back in April 2008, the artillery shelled out was not enough to beat the Las Vegas fighter.

“It’s a perfect time. He had the chance and, you know, he took it and the time is now for me and I’m prepared,” said Maynard (11-0). “Any time you’re going up against the top in the world, you evolve and change and so I’m prepared for a new fight, so it will be good. I’m pumped for it.”

Though Maynard’s record indicates he is unbeaten that’s not entirely true. He did suffer a defeat to Nate Diaz during The Ultimate Fighter series and subsequently avenged that loss last January.

The UFC lightweight title is in Maynard’s bull’s eye.

“Looking to take the belt for sure,” said Maynard. “We’ll see on January 1.”

Edgar versus Maynard should be a good one.

Other bouts:

Nate Diaz (13-5) faces Dong Hyun Kim (13-0-1) in another welterweight tussle. Diaz is the only fighter with a win over Maynard. Anyone watching TUF remembers Maynard tapping out from a Diaz guillotine choke. The Modesto fighter has a tough fight against South Korea’s Kim.

Chris Leben (21-6) fights Brian Stann (9-3) in a middleweight fight. Leben is a veteran of MMA and if an opponent is not ready for a rough and tumble fight, well, that fighter is not going to win. Stann dropped down from light heavyweight and we’ll see if the cut in weight benefits the Marine.

Brandon Vera (11-5) meets Thiago Silva (14-2) in a light heavyweight match up. Vera is trying to rally back to the promising fighter he was tabbed several years back. Silva is a very tough customer and eager to crash the elite. A victory by either fighter could mean a ticket to the big time.

Clay Guida (27-8) versus Takanori Gomi (32-6) in a lightweight bout. Guida has become one of the most feared fighters without a title. No one has an easy time with the long-haired fighter. Gomi lost to Kenny Florian but knocked out Tyson Griffin. Can he survive Guida?

Marcus “The Irish Hand Grenade” Davis (22-8) clashes with Jeremy Stephens (18-6) in another lightweight fight. Davis is a go-for-broke kind of fighter and is looking to get back in the win column after a tumultuous battle with Nate Diaz last August. Stephens needs a win too. In his last bout he lost to Melvin Guillard.

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Articles of 2010

Borges Looks Back, And Forward With Hope

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PacquiaoClottey_Booth_6

As the end of another year approaches, there’s no need to invoke Charles Dickens to describe what went on in boxing. It was neither the best of times nor the worst of times. It was just too much time spent on The Fight That Never Took Place.

For the second straight year the sport could not deliver The Fight, the only one fans universally wanted and even casual fans craved – the mix between Floyd Mayweather, Jr. vs. Manny Pacquiao.  No one has to be singled out for blame for that failure because this time there’s plenty to go around on both sides. The larger issue is what does it say about a sport when it cannot deliver its top event?

What would the NFL be without the Super Bowl? Where would major league baseball be without the World Series? Golf without the Masters? College basketball without March Madness?

They would all be less than they could be and so it was with boxing this year. Having said that, the sport was not without its signature moments. It was not bereft of nights that left those of us with an abiding (and often unrequited) love for prize fighting with good reason to hope for the future.

Three times promoter Bob Arum took the sport into massive stadium venues just like the good (very) old days and each time boxing drew a far larger crowd than its many critics expected. Twice those fights involved the sport’s leading ambassador, Pacquiao, who brought in crowds of 40,000 to 50,000 fans into Cowboys Stadium against inferior opponents Joshua Clottey and Antonio Margarito. Imagine what he might have done had Mayweather been in the opposite corner?

While both fights were, as expected, lopsided affairs, they showcased the one boxer who has transcended his sport’s confining walls to become a cultural icon and world celebrity. Pacquiao alone put boxing (or at least one boxer) on the cover of TIME and into the pages of such varied publications as Esquire, GQ, The Wall Street Journal, the American Airlines in-flight magazine and even Atlantic Monthly.

As history has proven time and again, that is what happens when boxing has a compelling personality to sell it and Pacquiao is that. Mayweather is such a person as well,  but for different reasons.

The one night he appeared in a boxing ring, he set the year’s pay-per-view standard against Shane Mosley while also leaving a first hint of dark mystery when he was staggered by two stinging right hands in the second round.

Mayweather was momentarily in trouble for the first time in his career but the moment passed quickly and Mosley never had another. By the end he had been made to look old and futile, a faded athlete who’d had his chance and was unable to do anything with it. So it goes in this harsh sport when the sands are running out of the hour glass.

As always there were some surprising upsets, most notably Jason Litzau’s domination of an uninterested and out of shape Celestino Caballero and Sergio Martinez’s one-punch demolishment of Paul Williams. The latter was not so much an upset as it was a stunning reminder that when someone makes a mistake against a highly skilled opponent in this sport they don’t end up embarrassed. They end up unconscious.

SHOWTIME did all it could to further the future of the sport, offering up a continuation of its interminably long but still bold Super Six super middleweight tournament as well as the launching of a short form bantamweight tournament which already gave fans to two stirring and surprising finishes with Joseph Agbeko decisioning Jhonny Perez and Abner Mares upsetting Victor Darchinyan in a battle of contusions.

While the Super Six has had its problems – including several of the original six pulling out – it also lifted the profile of former Olympic gold medalist Andre Ward from nearly unknown to the cusp of universal recognized as the best super middleweight in the world this side of Lucian Bute. If Ward continues winning he’ll get to Bute soon enough because that’s why SHOWTIME signed a TV deal with the Canadian and America may get its next boxing star if Ward proves to be what I think he is – which is still underrated and underappreciated.

HBO and HBO pay-per-view put on 23 shows, few of them compelling and many of them paying big money to the wrong people while doing little or nothing to grow the sport that has helped make their network rich. But they did have the knockout of the year – Martinez’s second round destruction of Williams – and some fights in the lower weight classes that were left you wanting more.

Two new names popped up who are causing the kind of fan reaction that also gives us hope for 2011 – American Brandon Rios and Mexican Saul Alvarez. They are two of the sport’s brightest young prospects because each comes to the arena the old-fashioned way – carrying nothing but bad intentions.
Aggression and knockouts still sell boxing faster than anything else and each exhibited plenty of both this year and left fans wanting to see more. Alvarez is already a star in Mexico without having yet won a world title and Rios is the definition of “promise.’’ Whether the star will continue to shine and promise will be fulfilled may be answered next year and so we wait anxiously to find out.

Backed by Golden Boy Promotions, there is no reason 2011 shouldn’t be Alvarez’s year and if it is people will notice and remember him because he has a crowd-pleasing style that is all about what sells most.

That is what boxing needs more of – fresh faces and new stars… so as fans we should root for guys like Alvarez, Ward, Rios and young Brit Amir Khan, who is a star in England but still a question mark with a questionable chin but a fighter’s heart here in the U.S.

Those guys and others not yet as well known are the future of boxing, a sport that for too long has been recycling the likes of Mosley (as it will again in May for one last beating against Pacquiao in a fight that's a joke), Bernard Hopkins (who can still fight although it is unclear why he bothers or where it’s all headed), Roy Jones and, sadly, even 48-year-old Evander Holyfield, who continues to delude himself but not many other people into believing he will soon unify the heavyweight title again.
If fighters like Ward, Alvarez, Rios, Khan, WBC welterweight champion Andre Berto and middleweight king Sergio Martinez continue their rise they could be the antidote for the art of the retread that Arum and Golden Boy have been forcing fans to buy the past few years at the expense of what boxing needs most – fresh faces.

The heavyweight division, which many believe determines the relevancy of boxing to the larger world, remains a vast desert of disinterest here in the US. The Klitschko brothers, Vitali and Wladimir, hold 75 per cent of the title belts but few peoples’ imaginations in the US, although to be fair they are European superstars and don’t really need U.S. cable TV money to thrive economically.

Each defended their titles twice this year, Vitali against lame competition (Albert Sosnowski and Shannon Briggs) and Wladimir against better fighters (Sam Peter and Eddie Chambers) but not competitive ones. Sadly, there is no American on the horizon to challenge them, a comment on the division and on our country, where the athletes who used to be Joe Louis or Muhammad Ali now opt for the easier and frankly safer road of the NFL or the NBA. Who can blame them considering all the nonsense a fighter has to go through to just make a living these days?

The one heavyweight match that would be compelling and might lift the sport up for at least a night would be either of the Klitschkos facing lippy WBA champion David Haye. The fast-talking Brit claims to not be ducking them but he’s had more maladies befall him after shouting from the rooftops how much he wants to challenge them that you have to wonder if Haye is simply a case of big hat no cattle syndrome.

For the sake of the sport, we should all be lighting candles each night in hopes our prayers will be answered and Haye will finally agree to meet one of them. It may not prove to be much of a fight but at least it will give us something to talk about for a few months.

Whatever Haye and the Klitschkos decide the fighter with the most upside at the moment however seems to be Sergio Martinez.  He has matinee idol looks, a big enough punch to put Paul Williams to sleep with one shot and a work ethic second to none. The Argentine fighter had a year for himself, starting with a drubbing of Kelly Pavlik followed by his demolishment of Williams. Those kinds of victories, coupled with his Oscar De La Hoya-like looks, are the type of things that if HBO or SHOWTIME would get behind him could allow Martinez to capture the attention of both fight fans and more casual ones.

In general, Hispanics fighters continued to dominate much of the sport’s front pages with Juan Manuel Marquez’s two victories in lightweight title fights leading that storyline. His war with Michael Katsidis is a strong candidate for Fight of the Year and his technical skill and calm demeanor make him the uncrowned challenger to Pacquiao. The two have unfinished business that should be settled this year if Arum stops standing in the way.

Two other fighters who gave us moments to remember in 2010 were Juan Manuel Lopez, who knocked out three solid opponents including highly respected Mexican warrior Rafael Marquez, and Giovani Segura, who won four times (that’s three years work for Mayweather) in 2010, all by knockout. Along the way, Segura defeated one of the great minimum weight fighters in history, slick Ivan Calderon, to win the belt on Aug. 28.

Lastly, boxing gave us another magical cinematic moment as well with the release of “The Fighter,’’ a film based on the life and hard times of junior welterweight scrapper Micky Ward. The film has won rave reviews and many awards and seems likely to have several of its actors nominated for Academy Awards, most notable Christian Bale for his sadly humorous portrayal of Ward’s troubled half brother, former fighter Dickie Ecklund.

Boxing has a long history of providing the framework for memorable movies and it did it again with “The Fighter,’’ a film that did more for boxing than any promoter did all year.

All in all, it wasn’t the best of years for boxing but it was a good year that picked up speed in the final months and, like that great golf shot you finally hit out of the rough on the 18th, left us with reasons to hope for a better year in 2011. If somehow it gives us Mayweather-Pacquiao, the emergence of Alvarez and Rios, the ascension of Martinez and Haye vs. the best available Klitschko in addition to the kind of solid performances that always come along, it could be a year to remember.

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