Lee Groves

10: Best final acts

3. July 26, 1928, Yankee Stadium, New York – Gene Tunney KO 11 Tom Heeney

The 31-year-old Tunney never saw himself as the stereotypical boxer and his life and career reflected that reality. Intelligent and well read, “The Fighting Marine” would enjoy the greatest fairy-tale post-boxing life his sport had ever seen. By exchanging vows with Carnegie Steel heiress Polly Lauder, Tunney married into one of America’s wealthiest families and one of their sons went on to win a seat in the United States Senate. Thus, it wasn’t a surprise that Tunney chose the best possible moment to gracefully leave the sport that garnered him fame, fortune and belated respect.

By capturing the heavyweight title from Jack Dempsey in 1926 and consolidating his victory in the “Battle of the Long Count” rematch in 1927, Tunney had already accomplished everything he wanted in boxing. He promised his wife he would retire after meeting Heeney, a New Zealander whose ruggedness earned him the nickname “The Hard Rock From Down Under.”

The opening rounds saw Heeney plowing inside and Tunney catching him with well-timed jabs and counters. The action was often messy and clinch-filled but Tunney did most of the effective scoring. By the eighth Tunney’s steady work had closed and cut Heeney’s left eye and his attack had the “Hard Rock” beating an uncharacteristic retreat. Ever game, Heeney continued to march in but Tunney’s razor-sharp skills and ring intelligence were far too much for him to handle.

In the closing moments of the 10th, a double jab and a chopping right sent Heeney to the floor along the ropes. Slumped on his stool and clearly laboring for breath, Heeney nevertheless came out for the 11th. Moving in and out with educated ease, Tunney raked Heeney with short punches to the face and body. Heeney refused to fall in the face of Tunney’s fusillade so referee Eddie Forbes was forced to intervene to save Heeney from his own bravery. The well-beaten Heeney offered no argument as he exchanged pleasantries with the victorious champion, who was about to embark on a long and prosperous life outside of boxing. 

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