Nearly eighty years later, my father can still recall the scene outside the Windsor Hotel in Montreal: the dashing and immaculately dressed young man in a felt hat standing by a sleek car—a Packard, probably, or maybe a Cadillac—supervising the bellhops as they loaded his luggage. The man in question was Gene Tunney. He had retired from boxing at the age of thirty-one and was on his honeymoon, having just married a Carnegie heiress from Greenwich. Even though he was watching from a distance down Piel Street, my father can also remember the aura that Tunney emitted: “very supercilious,” he says.
Then and now, my father has never really followed boxing, but that doesn’t matter. Gene Tunney had been world heavyweight champion for the previous two years. That meant, by definition, that he was one of the most famous and easily recognized people anywhere. His every move, his every utterance, was news. It’s hard to imagine it today, when only diehard subscribers to Ring magazine or the most addicted viewers of ESPN can pick the heavyweight champion, or all five of them, out of a lineup.
For a good part of the last century, boxing was a large and conspicuous presence on the American scene. Every town had its boxing clubs; in the larger cities, there were fights several times a month, or week. The members of every American immigrant community cheered on their own. Every major newspaper had a boxing reporter, or two, usually their most literate writers; floods and strikes, the journalist Heywood Broun once said, were strictly for second-stringers. Americans followed fighters in every weight division, but nothing—except, maybe, a presidential election—brought them together more than a heavyweight title fight.
Consider, for example, who sat at ringside in Chicago’s Soldier Field on September 22, 1927, the night of the second championship fight between Tunney and Jack Dempsey. Nine United States senators. The presidents of the nation’s six largest railroads. John Barrymore, Charlie Chaplin, Gloria Swanson, Douglas Fairbanks, Al Jolson, Irving Berlin, Joseph Pulitzer, Ty Cobb, Marshall Field, as well as assorted Rockefellers, Vanderbilts, and Astors. Alfred Sloan and Walter Chrysler. Admiral Richard Byrd. Dr. Charles Mayo of the Mayo Clinic. Bernard Baruch. Condé Nast. “Kid, if the earth came up and the sky came down and wiped out my first ten rows, it would be the end of everything,” Tex Rickard, the promoter who’d brought them all together, told a sportswriter that night. “I’ve got in those ten rows all the world’s wealth, all the world’s big men, all the world’s brains and production talent. Just in them ten rows.” But every bit as remarkable was what lay beyond, in the cheap seats: 140,000 other people—still one of the country’s largest sports crowds—representing nearly every stratum of American society.
For all its popular following, though, boxing was always an uncertain proposition, subject to changing laws and changing tastes, and the …