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Sunday, December 07, 2008

Brains and Brawn Make a Champion

Gene Tunney, heavyweight boxing champion of the world from 1926 to 1928, is probably best remembered by sports fans for his storied bouts against Jack Dempsey, especially the second one (the famous "long count" match). Tunney was not typical of most of his boxing competition, much preferring to turn his fights into chess matches rather than slugfests, so it should probably be no surprise that he was a great fan of Shakespeare's plays and counted Ernest Hemmingway and George Bernard Shaw among his personal friends.

According to USA Today, some of Tunney's book collection along with some boxing memorabilia will be auctioned by Sotheby's this week:
Tunney's unusual life of boxing and books will be on display on Thursday in an auction of his memorabilia by Sotheby's in New York. Items on the block include the gloves Tunney wore and the stool he sat on when he defeated Dempsey in the 1920s, a collection of Shakespeare's plays from the 17th century, and books inscribed by Hemingway.

"It wasn't a persona or an act that he did to get attention," said Selby Kiffer, a senior vice president at Sotheby's. "This was really who he was. He was just as comfortable if not more comfortable in a library than in the boxing ring."
...
As boxing champ, Tunney lectured once at Yale about Shakespeare for nearly an hour without notes. He related characters in Shakespeare's plays to those in his own life, comparing the blustery soldier Ajax in "Troilus and Cressida" to a loud contemporary boxer, said his son, Jay Tunney, who is writing a book about his father.

"He brought Shakespeare into his own life and showed people in the audience how Shakespeare influenced him," Jay Tunney said. "That's what made his lecture stand out."

Tunney owned the first complete collection of Shakespeare's plays, published in 1685. It is expected to sell for $80,000 to $120,000.

Hemingway gave Tunney three books, including "A Farewell to Arms." Tunney turns up in a later Hemingway book, "Island in the Stream," when the characters drink to him at a Havana bar.
Gene Tunney was a champion in more ways than one.
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