…. Tunney Hunsaker!!
Muhammad Ali is a sporting and cultural star to outshine Sirius. He has become a totemic figure occupying significant space in the global collective consciousness and our dreams. Many of us have measured out our youth, maturity and now old age following and being inspired by his legendary deeds and the generosity of talent, heart and spirit he has expended in his regal life.
In the brilliance of his life and career the lives of many others from an extraordinarily diverse range of backgrounds have been illuminated. The Supporting Cast series of posts will spotlight some of these lives.
David Remnick in his excellent book on Muhammad Ali calls him the King Of The World which seems entirely appropriate to me. And, like Kings from time immemorial Ali has had inner and outer courts seeking and competing for his attention, his financial largesse and his affection. Beyond the courts there have been multitudes who have witnessed his reign and interacted with him directly and indirectly as bitter enemies, flag waving supporters, sceptical observers and head shaking in wonder historians. Again, like a King he has had to face internal dissension and threats to his crown from dangerous outside and foreign sources – opponents within the boxing ring and from society at large. He has had his trusted advisers, his jesters and his nay saying doubters. He has survived it all and not without heavy cost triumphed against all these forces to end his days in seemingly serene repose.
Enter in Act 1 aged 30 from Fayetville West Virginia weighing 192 pounds, Tunney Hunsaker! The date was October 29th 1960 when Eisenhower was in the last dwindling days of his presidency and the seemingly endless promise of JFK’s new frontier was about to begin. The venue was Ali’s home town of Louisville Kentucky. Some 6000 souls can say they were present at Ali’s professional boxing debut and Tunney Hunsaker’s cameo role in his legendary career.
Hunsaker was by then already an air force veteran and the serving Police Hunsaker was by then already an air force veteran and the serving Police Chief of Fayetville. He had turned Pro in 1952 and following a promising early start, winning ten of his first dozen bouts, he had taken a long lay off between the middle of 1953 and 1958.
On his return he was coming off a series of 6 straight losses including one against Ernie Terrell when he laced on the gloves to fight Ali. Ali’s management team like all those wanting to ease a serious prospect into his career wanted a match that would teach the young cub something about the pro game but not one that would place him in any serious danger of defeat. Hunsaker was there to be a literal and metaphorical range finder. He was an honest and durable fighter but not one blessed with outstanding talents.
Ali was starting his professional life after a stellar amateur history. He had over a hundred contests under his belt and he was just back from Rome with a gold medal around his neck. He was also the proud owner of a hatful of golden gloves titles – all these triumphs attained while still a teenager. His early trainers, Joe Martin and Fred Stoner, knew he was something special but how far could he go? Tunney Hunsaker was the first step on
the unfolding story which would answer that question.
As Tunney stood in his corner looking across the ring the young Ali he saw was a superb physical specimen. Six foot three in height and weighing 186 pounds with the sheen of youthful fitness and condition. More than that he had a personal aura, a glow that said this is somebody who will make a mark on the world. Hunsaker’s hope would have been the knowledge that frequently lions of amateur boxing do not deliver on their promise in the brutal mans world of pro boxing. Most of them will not become contenders let alone champions. Did this jive talking flashy pink Cadillac kid from Louisville have a true fighting heart? Could he take a heavyweight punch and recover?
Hunsaker was not to know that Ali, at this stage of his career, virtually lived in the gym spending long sweat soaked hours forging the fighting skills that he would so thrillingly display in the decades ahead. Or that he had a fighter’s heart as big as his imagination which was virtually limitless.
The six rounds of the bout were an education for both fighters. Ali learned that a heavyweight punch did hurt but that he coud handle the pain and not let it distract him from his work. Hunsaker learned that the kid was much faster with his jab, his movement and his thought than any boxer he had ever faced. All his old pro tricks, the holding and pushing and feints were to no avail against an opponent who had talent and fitness to burn. Tunney Hundaker became the first pro to learn the hard way how Ali’s lightning jab and the slashing combinations of punches that followed could sap the body’s strength and befuddle the mind. At the end of the fight Hunsaker was bloodied and well beaten and Ali elated and looking forward to a future as a champion of champions. Hunsaker with typical honesty admitted that Ali was just too good and predicted that he would become heavyweight champion of the world.
We all know what happened later for Muhammad – tales of impossible glory, triumph and tragedy celebrated in story, song and myth. But what became of Tunney Hunsaker after he had banked the three hundred dollars he got for the fight and the caravan moved on?
Well, he had six more fights winning two before he faced his final opponent in the ring, Joe Shelton, in his home state on April 6th 1962. He lost this fight when he was knocked out in the tenth and then faced the toughest battle of his life as he lapsed into a coma from which he did not emerge for nine days. His fighting heart and devoted medical care pulled him through and he returned to Fayetville to resume his role as a community cop for decades after. He was inducted into the law enforcement hall of fame and was thrice awarded the title of Sunday School teacher of the year.
Tunney Hunsaker died on April 27th 2005. There is a bridge named after him crossing the New River Gorge. He served his sport and his community with steadfast courage and loyalty and won their respect and affection.
That’s an epitaph any one of us would be proud of.
This post dedicated on Father’s Day to my Dad, Wally Hickey, with whom I spent many happy times discussing the life and lore of Muhammad Ali.