Johnny Risko: “The Cleveland Rubber Man”
By Norman Marcus on September 24, 2012
Whether you beat Risko or he beat you, you knew you were in a fight with a gladiator.
After they fought on Sept. 17, 1925 in Cleveland, Ohio, Gene Tunney, aka the Fighting Marine, said about Risko, “He’s the toughest man I ever fought…”
Johnny Risko was a Slovak who came to this country from the Austro- Hungarian Empire at the turn of the century. He started out in Cleveland working at the family bakery on the West Side. When he wasn’t training or on the road he was working the ovens for his parents. But he found out that the only way to make real dough in America was in the square ring. His manager, “Dapper” Danny Dunn, wanted a more American sounding name for his new fighter, so Mesto Bohunico became known as Johnny Risko. Early on his alias was the “Baker Boy,” but later the “Rubber Man” became more popular because he could take a lot of punishment and not show it, just like a big piece of rubber. Risko wasn’t a large man. He stood 5’11’’ and had a wingspan of 74”. He usually weighed between 190 and 210 lbs. He always looked chubby and out of shape. But the old saying, “What you see is what you get,” was not true of Johnny Risko.
He turned pro in 1924 and with the help of his trainer Charley Goldman he proceeded to make a name for himself in boxing. He won more bouts than he lost but not by much. The thing about Risko was that he was durable. Whether you beat him or he beat you, you knew you were in a fight with a gladiator. From 1925 through 1932 Johnny Risko was ranked among the top ten contenders in the heavyweight division.
It was on June 2, 1924 in a fight at the Elk’s Auditorium in Lorain, Ohio against Homer Smith that he dislocated his right shoulder. His right arm was literally yanked out of its socket in a fall to the canvas and it never properly healed. Although the right hand never of much use to him in the ring again, Johnny would now depend on an aggressive style and a good left hook to settle things.
Risko lost two big fights in 1925. The first was a decision to Jack Sharkey, aka the Boston Gob, at the Mechanics Building in Boston, Massachusetts on September 17th. Two months later on November 18th, Johnny lost a very close fight to Gene Tunney at the Public Hall in Cleveland, Ohio. The Coshocton Tribune wrote about that contest: “Tunney, shortly after the beginning of the fight, injured his right hand with a blow to Risko’s iron jaw. Later in the battle he directed his left against the same obstacle and when the bout ended both his hands were swollen. Risko won the first and third rounds of the fight. Four were even and in the remaining six, Tunney’s margin was so great that there could be no question of the decision.” Tunney, aka the Fighting Marine, later said about Risko, “He’s the toughest man I ever fought.”
Three years later Gene ducked another meeting with Risko. He handpicked Tommy Heeney for the last fight of his career, on July 26, 1928 at Yankee Stadium. It was a TKO11 for Tunney. Oh, by the way, Jack Dempsey was in Heeney’s corner that night to lend a hand. Maybe Jack still bore a grudge against Gene for that “Long Count” Tunney got in Chicago a year earlier.
In 1926 Risko fought seventeen times. He lost more bouts than he won that year, including losses to prominent fighters like Jack Delaney, Young Stribling, Mike McTigue and Tommy Loughran. He fought twenty-four times in 1927, ending the year with seventeen wins. He beat the likes of Phil Scott, Paulino Uzcudun, Lou Scozza and Jack Delaney.
On March 12, 1928, Risko fought a rematch with Jack Sharkey at Madison Square Garden in New York City. This time he won the bout by split decision over fifteen rounds. He had seven other fights that year including a win over George Godfrey, “The Black Shadow of Leiperville,” on points. The year of the stock market crash in 1929 found Risko fighting eleven times. His two big fights were a win over Ernie Schaff in Cleveland and a TKO loss to Max Schmeling. Let’s look more closely at the Schmeling fight.
The Ring Magazine called this meeting the 1929 Fight of the Year. This is how it played out that night.
Joe Jacobs, Schmeling’s manager, set up a fight between the two men with Risko’s manager for February 1st at Madison Square Garden. The press wrote that this fight was “one of the most dramatic heavyweight contests in the history of boxing.”
Schmeling described it this way in his autobiography. “Risko, whose explosive power had brought him many victories…attacked from the first round on with powerful combinations. He threw left hooks and straight rights from everywhere, and I started to lose my bearings. The many German-Americans in attendance suddenly became silent. It appeared that I wasn’t up to the merciless assault. Risko went all out. This night would decide his career, too. Only with a victory could he position himself for a shot at the vacant world title – he was the toughest competition I had faced to that point…In the middle of Risko’s swarming attack I staggered him with a hard right, immediately followed by another. He went down. In the second round he had already pulled himself together and began again with devastating combinations. But I boxed him methodically and undermined his attack with hard counter-punches. I floored him again in the 7th and 8th rounds. In the 9th round something happened that momentarily stunned the crowd. The ironman Johnny Risko, suddenly turned away, wearily shook his head and lifted his hands in a sign of defeat.”
In 1930 Johnny fought nine times, notably beating Paulino Uzcudun on points in 10 rounds but later losing to middleweight Mickey Walker the same way. The next year 1931 was a good stretch for Risko. He fought twelve times and beat some good boys, among them Tom Heeney, King Levinsky and Max Baer.
1932 saw Johnny’s career slowing down a bit. He only fought three times. But they were all wins against big name talent. He beat Mickey Walker, Tuffy Griffiths and King Levinsky. The Walker bout was a sell out. The New York Times wrote the next morning, “More than 14,000 fans witnessed the fight. The first in Cleveland Stadium since the Stribling-Schmeling Championship fight a year ago.” In 1933 he faced six men, including wins over Levinsky and Tommy Loughran. Johnny fought nine times in 1934, highlighted by another win over Loughran.
Risko was absent from the ring during the years 1935 and 1936. He went home to Cleveland and worked full time in the family bakery. People would come to buy bread and shake hands with the famous “Baker Boy.” Risko needed the time off, to heal and rest, both physically and mentally. He returned to boxing in 1937, winning two of three bouts. Johnny went on to fight a string of nameless journeymen for the rest of the decade. 1938 only shows two fights, a win and a loss. Risko picked up the pace in 1939 with six bouts. He lost two but also won four in a row, including three KOs. He only fought two times in 1940. One was a win on January 1st over a Sandy McDonald in Hot Springs, Arkansas on points. His last fight was a loss on February 19th at the Beach Arena, in Miami Beach, Florida. Tony Musto KO’d Johnny in round three.
Johnny never fought again. He ended his career with a record of 69-46-6 (22 KOs).
Anyone who followed boxing in those days knew Johnny Risko. Yet his record doesn’t accurately reflect how good he was in the ring. He had an amazing run, considering he lost about forty percent of his fights. His ring career lasted almost twenty years. How could a boxer be a top contender and still lose almost half his fights? Here is my read on it.
Back in the day a fighter like Risko could fight more times in a year than some current contenders fight in an entire career! So the fighters won a lot but they lost a lot too. Risko or any fighter could get awfully tired with such a busy schedule. In his prime his opponents were the cream of the division, not just the “tomato cans” he faced at the end of his career. The pace at times was just horrific.
Why did they fight so often in the 1920s and 1930s? The boxers always needed money, but more importantly the venues were there. Athletic clubs were all over the cities and towns of America and they all sponsored boxing matches. People wanted to be entertained and boxing gave them the excitement they craved. There were only three major professional sports to follow at the time, baseball, boxing and horseracing. Professional football and basketball were in their infancy. There was some college football but it wasn’t nearly as popular as it is today. Media consisted of newspapers, magazines, radio, and the movies. There was no television or cable and computers did not exist. Baseball, boxing and horseracing did very well in the entertainment market. All of their money was made selling tickets at the gate. They were literally the only games in town!
Johnny Risko was to his hometown of Cleveland what Ted Williams was to Boston. He always had a big heart but ironically that couldn’t save him. Johnny died suddenly of a heart attack at the age of fifty and was buried on Cleveland’s West Side