Gene Tunney vs. Johnny Risko: The Fighting Marine and the Baker Boy

By Norman Marcus on March 4, 2015
Gene Tunney vs. Johnny Risko: The Fighting Marine and the Baker Boy
Here in the early part of his career, Risko proved to be more than Gene Tunney expected.

Tunney thought Dempsey was getting a bit long in the tooth. Gene smelled blood in the water. But first he had to take care of Risko…

“He which hath no stomach to this fight, Let him depart…”—William Shakespeare/King Henry V: Act IV, Scene III  

In 1925 Gene Tunney had a plan. He was looking for a fight with the heavyweight champion, Jack Dempsey. Johnny Risko just looked like another step up to that meeting. But Tunney would find that Risko would not roll over for him. Johnny had the makings of an up-and-coming contender. He could mix it up with some pretty good boys. Here in the early part of his career, Risko proved to be more than Tunney expected.

Some thought Risko was damaged goods. When he fought Homer Smith in 1924, at the Elks Auditorium in Lorain, Ohio, Johnny had dislocated his right shoulder. His right arm was literally yanked out of its socket in a fall to the canvas and it never really healed. The right hand would be virtually useless to him in the ring now. Johnny returned to the family bakery in Cleveland. The long days of hard work and the tremendous heat from the ovens, helped his shoulder feel better. Risko would be reborn six months later with a new left hook. While the shoulder and his right hand would never be the same, he developed a new aggressive style with his left. Somehow he made it work for him.

Tunney stood 6-feet tall and usually fought at 180 to 190 pounds. He was a great defensive fighter and counterpuncher. Gene had a good left jab and when pressed, could stand toe-to-toe with an opponent and go to the body with power. He had gone through the North American Light Heavyweight Division like a hot knife through butter, winning that title twice. First he took it from Battling Levinsky on points, then lost it to Harry Greb in a UD15. Harry was one of the dirtiest fighters of all time. The next year Tunney took him on again and won the title back in a brutal SD15.

Tunney thought the Manassa Mauler was getting a bit long in the tooth. Gene smelled blood in the water. But first he had to take care of Risko. A win against the Baker Boy would make his demand for a title shot with Dempsey more attractive to the promoters and the fans.

Meanwhile the champ had been occupied with other things, since his last fight against Luis Angel Firpo on September 14, 1923 at the Polo Grounds in Brooklyn. He had stopped the Wild Bull of the Pampas in the second round. But three years away from the ring and any real training had not done Dempsey any good. He was still the best short puncher in the business but he had a lot of ring rust on him. Jack faced some serious work if he was to take on Gene Tunney and win in 1926.

You see, after the Firpo fight, Dempsey had spent an awful lot of time in France, Paris to be exact, learning about something called ice wine. This was not the serious work the champ needed. Dempsey’s training consisted solely of getting in close with the ladies. Like Georges Carpentier, the Orchid Man, the Mademoiselles found that Dempsey could go to the body like no other man. Years later he told a friend, “You know most people think that the most beautiful women in the world are in Hollywood but that’s not true. The most beautiful girls in the world are in Paris and if you are young and heavyweight champion of the world you can meet such women. And I was young and heavyweight champion of the world…”

Tunney on the other hand was not thinking about beautiful girls. He now spent all of his time studying the fighting style of Johnny Risko and the writing style of William Shakespeare. Tunney appeared to be a real anachronism. He was a throwback to a former time. “A healthy mind inside a healthy body,” as the ancient Athenians believed. Gene tailored each fight to counter the style of his opponent. He was fast and had great stamina. “One half unconscious thought was burned in my mind: Stay on your feet,” he confided to those close to him. In many ways he tried to plan or choreograph his ring movements well in advance of the bout. It was very similar to the way Tommy Loughran prepared for his fights. Constantly repeating his movements in front of full length mirrors, until he was completely satisfied with himself. (Loughran was Light Heavyweight Champion of the World from 1927-1929 and later a top ranked heavyweight contender during the 1930s.)

Risko was about Tunney’s size. He stood at 5’10” and weighed in at around 180-200 pounds. He wasn’t cut or ripped as you looked at his body. He appeared smooth and soft, kind of like the Pillsbury Doughboy. But Johnny had the heart of a lion. He would charge into you and could take a tremendous amount of punishment to land his left hook. Later in his career fans started calling him the Cleveland Rubber Man, for his ability to absorb a great deal of punishment and not show it.

The fight took place on November 18, 1925 at Public Hall, Cleveland, Ohio. It wound up going the distance. According to the Coshocton Tribune, “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 of his hands were swollen. Risko won the first and third round of the fight. Four were even and the remaining six, Tunney’s margin was so great that there could be no question of the decision.” It was a NWS12 for Tunney. Risko’s manager Danny Dunn later claimed “Tunney never forgot the tough time my big fella gave him.” He claimed that Tunney ducked another meeting with Risko for the rest of his career. Gene later said, “He was the toughest man I ever fought.”

As for Dempsey, Gene later told friends, “I did six years of planning to win the championship from Dempsey.” It’s a good thing too. During the next two years, Tunney found himself in the ring with Dempsey twice. First time was in Philly in 1926 and then in Chicago in 1927. After these two big Tunney wins, (including the ‘Long Count’ fight) Gene decided it was a good time to retire as champion. He didn’t need any upsets now. A rematch with Johnny Risko was too risky. It was out of the question.

Instead the new champion picked the solid journeyman Tom Heeney as his opponent. Tommy had a record of 38-8-5. Although Jack Dempsey was in Heeney’s corner that night, it was not enough. Tunney got that final win on July 26, 1928 at Yankee Stadium, New York. It was a comfortable TKO11 for Gene Tunney. The champion announced his retirement a few days later.

Tunney later married Carnegie heiress Mary Lauder and moved to Connecticut. He lived the life of a country gentleman. Gene commuted to New York City everyday by train. He worked as a stock trader on Wall Street and became a multimillionaire. The other passengers on the train never recognized the identity of this quiet man with the crew cut, often reading a small volume of Shakespeare. He was The Ring Magazine’s 1928 Fighter of the Year.

As for Johnny Risko, he never won the heavyweight championship. The stars just wouldn’t line up for him. He fought on for another fifteen years. The Rubber Man continued to be dangerous in the ring. He lays buried on Cleveland’s Westside.

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  1. Lindy Lindell 11:56am, 04/08/2015

    Norman,  Tunney didn’t pick Heeney as his final opponent.  He had to fight him, as he was the mandatory challenger after an elimination bout with—Johnny Risko.  It was the first main go in Detroit’s Olympia Stadium.

  2. Whole Lotta Rosie 08:05am, 03/06/2015

    Wanna tell you a story
    Bout a woman I know
    Oh she steals the show
    She ain’t exactly pretty
    Ain’t exactly small
    42-39-56
    You could say she’s got it all

  3. Clarence George 07:15am, 03/06/2015

    A well-filled sweater, Irish, and no mistake.

    And speaking of guts, check out this photo of Floyd Patterson’s distended belly.  Disgraceful!

    http://i202.photobucket.com/albums/aa216/PASmith_photos/Floyd_Med_ball_sml.jpg

  4. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 06:47am, 03/06/2015

    Clarence George-How’s this for a shift….today’s ideal is a 34-24-40 figure! Years ago I had a sweetheart who I swear was 40-24-40 and only a little over 5’ tall…..I felt like I King of the World!

  5. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 06:41am, 03/06/2015

    Clarence George-Soon as I lose my gut I will reward myself with one of those nifty tees! I’m betting it’s one of Al Haymon’s companies. Quite a stretch for 5’8” 140 lb.  40-24-34 Anita to portray a 95 lb. Chinese peasant.

  6. Clarence George 05:57am, 03/06/2015

    Irish:  I think that drawing was used for a Coke ad.  It’s a beaut, isn’t it?  Speaking of which, I found this company that manufactures great tees with images of guys like Dempsey and Louis on ‘em.  Nice.

  7. Clarence George 03:58am, 03/06/2015

    Excellent point, Beaujack.  Greb and Wiggins fought eight or nine times, with the latter always on the losing end (except for one draw).  No surprise that Wiggins thought Greb his toughest opponent.

    I guess I went with Wiggins because Dempsey considered him the ultimate street fighter.  High praise indeed from the Mauler.  Imagine a Wiggins-Galento brawl.  The words “blood alley” leap to mind.  And, no, I’m not referring to that rather mediocre John Wayne-Lauren Bacall film, the one with Anita Ekberg cast as a Chinese peasant!

  8. beaujack 09:59pm, 03/05/2015

    Clarence, that Chuck Wiggins was some tough S.O.B., but what does it say about the smaller Harry Greb who had the better of Mr Wiggins several times in their rumbles in the ring ?...

  9. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 09:30pm, 03/05/2015

    The painting of Tunney above reminds me of the paintings of the great race horses of the day like Seabisquit.

  10. Kid Blast 07:18pm, 03/05/2015

    BTW, FD, PLEASE SEND ME YOUR EMAIL ADRESS

  11. Kid Blast 07:17pm, 03/05/2015

    I think you might be mate

  12. FrankinDallas 02:42pm, 03/05/2015

    Kid…I think Tunney avoided black boxers his entire career….
    am I correct?

  13. Kid Blast 09:11am, 03/05/2015

    As a quasi-historian, Tunney is very high on my list of ATG’s. Look at his record and look at who he beat.

  14. Clarence George 09:12pm, 03/04/2015

    Very enjoyable read.

    Risko several times fought Chuck Wiggins, who’d be among my top choices of companion when walking through a dicey neighborhood.

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