There have been a lot of boxers who have fought for the Marine Corps. Some have been champs, like Leon Spinks, but none have been celebrities like Gene Tunney. Tunney earned his "The Fighting Marine" nickname during the First World War by becoming the Light Heavyweight Champion of the American Expeditionary Force in France. In September 1926, Tunney out boxed Jack Dempsey to become the Heavyweight Champion of the World.
Tunney frequently spoke about the time he spent in the Marine Corps, and that he was proud to be a Marine. A prize possession was a blue athletic robe with a red Marine Corps emblem presented to him on behalf of the Marine Corps League by John Lejeune, the Major General Commandant. Tunney was told: "this gift represents the sentiment of all those who served with you overseas, and of the 18,000 men now in the service. Remember the Marines are behind you to a man." Tunney wore this robe for his most important fights.
Tunney was the second of seven children born from his Irish immigrants’ parents in Greenwich Village. His family was working class and Tunney held a number of odd jobs in his youth to help with financial burdens. When he reached the age of ten, his father presented him with his first pair of boxing gloves and he took part in the sport when he had free time. Although he would develop what was described as a scientific boxing style, he initially learned to fight in the streets. In his teens, he started to frequent the Greenwich Village Athletic Club at nights. His day time job was typing for a steamship company. He was first paid to box at 18. He won $18 for the defeat of his more seasoned opponent, knocking him out. In World War I Tunney served in the U.S. Marines. He joined in July 1918 and was stationed in France. He was awarded the Good Conduct Medal for won the Expeditionary Force light heavyweight championship while stationed in France. He started his professional career following his honorable discharge.
In 1922, he defeated Battling Levinsky and won the American Light Heavy Weight title. The only defeat of his career was against challenger Harry Greb later that year. The fight went to fifteen rounds. Greb broke his nose but "could not knock him out". Greb won but a year later beat him in the rematch, another fifteen round, hart-hitting marathon, winning a majority decision. He then set his sights on the heavyweight championship, held by the most famous boxer of the time, Dempsey, who he had long wanted to challenge. The first of two matches with Dempsey took place in 1926. Rematches with Greb in 1923, 1924 and 1925 were all won by Tunney
Tunney was of Irish descent.
Tunney was a thinking fighter who preferred to make a boxing match into a game of chess; a style which was not popular during the times when such sluggers like Jack Dempsey, Harry Greb and Mickey Walker were commanding boxing's center stage. Tunney's style was influenced by other noted boxing thinkers such as James J Corbett and Benny Leonard.