This past Saturday, former linear champion Wladimir Klitschko did battle with up-and-coming contender Anthony Joshua. Similar size, similar attributes, similar styles, the two heavyweights were like strange mirror images of each other. Except that the old lion was being underrated in many circles, and young Joshua was being somewhat overrated.
Now, this is not a knock on Anthony Joshua. He has talent, skills, and athleticism. He’s built like a superhero, and seems like a nice guy. But he had one win over a fringe contender who probably didn’t deserve his top ten ranking, and a win over a good prospect. And that was it. Anthony Joshua looked like the goods, but he hadn’t proven it yet.
Klitschko had looked awful his last time out, throwing few punches in an awkward decision loss to walking id Tyson Fury. There was some debate after the fight, arguing whether Klitschko’s loss was due more to age and wear, Fury’s unpredictable spoiling style, Klitschko’s overall flaws, or some mix of the three. But it had seemed that many were completely dismissing the style differences between Fury and Joshua, and that Wladimir could only look worse, especially after a 17 month layoff. In many respects, he was being underrated.
Then the fight happened. It’s been covered by many good writers, and I encourage readers to check out those write-ups, as well as the fight itself. But it must be said that Wladimir Klitschko greatly exceeded expectations in a gallant, yet losing effort, and Joshua survived a gut-check to win in spectacular fashion. Both men looked good, both men went down. There were momentum shifts, toe-to-toe action, and plenty of excitement. In the loss, Klitschko still showed himself to be no less than the second best active heavyweight in the world. And Joshua beat a legit contender, as well as an all-time great. It was a great night for boxing, at a time when boxing could use more great nights.
Beyond the substance of the fight itself, the underrated/overrated aspect got me thinking. Boxing books, magazines, broadcasts, and message boards are all filled with discussions of great fighters, of losers, of excitement, of boredom. And many fighters are lifted in esteem, based on the opinions of pundits and fans. And many are basically crapped on, treated as lesser combatants, or even that dirty word… bums.
I enjoy boxing at all weights, but it’s no secret that I have a particular fondness for heavyweights, especially historical heavyweights. My ongoing 200 Greatest Heavyweights list is essentially a research project for heavyweight boxing history. And I have read thousands of pages, and watched hundreds of fights. Among heavyweights, there are several who are treated with esteem among many boxing aficionados, that may not quite deserve the pedestal they receive. And the reverse is true, were many good and great fighters remain unappreciated by those who love the sport.
This list could be made so much longer. There are literally dozens of fighters who have what I consider to be inaccurate public perceptions. But for the sake of brevity – and as you can read below, brevity is not my strong suit – I will restrict this list to four overrated and four underrated heavyweights.
I want to emphasize here that “overrated” doesn’t mean bad. It could be argued that the greatest athletes in any sport end up being overrated, even beyond their actual greatness. This list isn’t a knock on the fighter. Indeed, there are some on my “overrated” list that rank significantly higher, historically, than several on my “underrated” list. This is simply a measure of how public esteem can triumph over reality. Anyway, here goes the overrated:
Ken Norton – Ken Norton arguably beat the Greatest 3 times. Right there, that places him on some all-time lists. The problem is, Ken didn’t actually accomplish all that much outside of the three Ali fights. Norton was strong, aggressive, powerful, defensively astute, and possessed a great jab. He matched up well against the post-layoff version of Ali that was less mobile and a bit slower than the lightning-fast 60s version. Norton’s strengths played well against Ali’s weaknesses, and he gave Ali hell three times, winning the first fight outright, losing the second in an either/or sort of match, and being arguably robbed in the third. Norton also gave Larry Holmes hell in a losing effort, fighting evenly with a still-young Easton Assassin in a classic war. He also barely edged past Jimmy Young in a fight that could have been scored either way, obliterated a likely-overrated Duane Bobick, and beat down an old Jerry Quarry. Good stuff. But far from the best resume of his era. Beyond that, he tended to get starched when facing big punchers, getting knocked out early by Foreman, Shavers, Garcia, and Cooney. He’s 4-7-1 all-time against top ten contenders, which isn’t terrible, but it definitely keeps him out of a top ten, or even thirty ranking, among all-time great heavyweights.
Riddick Bowe – I have spent some time recently delving into the 90’s heavyweights, and enjoying how much of an underrated era it was… especially since it was rather underappreciated at the time. I’ve been especially fascinated by the chronicles of Riddick… ahem, sorry,
Anyway, Riddick Bowe really is the 90’s equivalent to Ken Norton. Not in terms of style or personality, but in terms of how strong his reputation is compared with his actual accomplishments. I plan on reviewing his career more thoroughly when I write his bio in my top 200 list, but suffice to say, he is like Ken Norton in that he made his name by having the number of an all-time great, but his actual accomplishments outside of that opponent are pretty slim.
In total, Bowe has 6 wins over Ring-rated top ten opponents, which ties him for 46th all-time among heavyweights. Two of those wins were over Evander Holyfield, and they are certainly impressive. But he also possessed a size and style which always befuddled Evander. Holyfield struggled with taller opponents, and taller opponents with significant athleticism were even tougher. Factor in Bowe’s physical strength and infighting ability, which negated much of Holyfield’s normal advantages, and we have Holyfield Kryptonite. And he still lost one of the three fights, and was badly hurt in the other two. Now, going 2-1 against a prime Holyfield almost automatically signifies a degree of greatness. But I see plenty of people waxing nostalgic about how amazing Bowe was, and how he would obliterate the current crop of heavies. His reputation is almost entirely centered around being a tough match for Holyfield.
Beyond that, he was beaten up badly by a young Andrew Golota. Golota at his best was a pretty good fighter, but a full third of Bowe’s top ten victories came from winning by disqualification in fights he was badly losing, against a good, but not great (and very inconsistent) fighter. His other top ten wins were against Herbie Hide and Jorge Luis Gonzalez. Hide would have been great at cruiserweight, but was always outgunned by good heavies, and Gonzalez was basically just a lazy, failed prospect. Beyond the top ten, the man known as Big Daddy’s best wins came against faded former contenders like Michael Dokes and Tony Tubbs, and against fringe guys like Jesse Ferguson and Elijah Tillery. Bowe’s talent was there, but he was inconsistent, often unmotivated, washed up before 30, and had a surprisingly thin resume. Bowe was a potentially great fighter, but he never quite made it to “great” status in my eyes.
Mike Tyson – I hesitated a bit with this one. Mike is a legit all-time great. His resume is solid, even if his prime occurred during a middling era. But to hear people talk on message boards, he was virtually unstoppable. There are plenty of highlight videos on YouTube that show him looking like a beast against painfully overmatched opposition. Mike had huge power, great hand speed, solid defense in his prime, a very good chin… he was pretty much the ultimate heavyweight pressure fighter. In his prime run, he bested 7 top ten heavyweights, several in impressive fashion. He beat a pair of hall-of-famers during that run, though one was old and rusty (Holmes), the other intimidated into a shell (Spinks). But that run was brief, lasting from late 1986 to 1989. By 1989, cracks were beginning to show in his facade. And then came 1990, his unraveling against Douglas, and his fall from grace. The bad habits he developed in the late 80s and early 90s stuck with him during his comeback from prison in the mid-to-late 90s. His head movement largely disappeared, as did his jab. He tended to load up, looking for a big power shot. When an opponent could handle his power and give it back, he would frustrate and wilt. Even in his prime, he could be put off his game by a spolier using movement and a good jab. James Tillis, Mitch Green, James Smith, and Tony Tucker all lasted the distance, and Bruno hurt him early in their first fight. Tillis caught a still-developing Tyson, but he gave him fits during their 10 rounds, and a handful of observers thought a draw or a narrow win for Tillis wasn’t unreasonable. Mike could be very destructive when in a rhythm, but fans tend to forget his less-impressive moments.
And then, after his prison sentence, he came back still looking the part, but was really a spent force. He walked over three overmatched foes in 1995 and 1996 before running into the brick wall of Evander Holyfield. Those fights have been discussed ad nauseam, but suffice to say, in those fights, an opponent with a good game plan, durability, and patience was able to handle Mike’s initial attack, wear him out, and put him away late. It also proved there was more than one way to beat Tyson, as Buster Douglas did something similar, but using different tactics.
Tyson would win a few more, although he looked bad against Botha, and would eventually be battered by Lennox Lewis, then lose two more relatively meaningless fights to end his career.
This sounds more critical than I mean it to be. Mike Tyson really was a great, powerful, and scary fighter. At his best, he would be a handful for any heavyweight in history. But I see him ranked in people’s top 5 or 10. I also see people claim he would be the best ever, head-to-head… and that really isn’t the case.
I’m not done with my top 200 list, and I don’t want to spoil it, but I can safely say that Mike’s resume doesn’t get him into the top ten. And head-to-head, I think Evander Holyfield beats any version of Mike. So does Muhammad Ali, George Foreman, Sonny Liston, and Vitali Klitschko. In addition, I think it’s possible (though less certain) Lennox Lewis, Riddick Bowe, David Tua, Harry Wills, and Wladimir Klitschko all could have beaten even a prime Tyson. I would be happy to explain why, to those who wish to debate any of those matchups.
It’s a shame that Mike Tyson didn’t face his greatest opponents until he was past his prime. It’s possible that the version of Tyson that dominated the division in the late 80s could have defeated Douglas, Holyfield, and Lewis. But based on his behavior when frustrated by lesser foes, I doubt it. Mike was never a quitter, but he could be demoralized, and frustrated into poor tactics. As much as he could look like a monster against intimidated or outgunned opponents, those who could take it and dish it back eventually found themselves with a significant edge.
Jerry Quarry – This one is directed more at the older crowd and hardcore fans. There is a tendency among certain people to romanticize Quarry’s accomplishments. “If only he fought in a different era, he would have been a great champion!” Ehhh…
Jerry Quarry was a good boxer, with a solid chin, good counterpunching skills, and some power. He also cut easily, could be sloppy and lose focus. He was inconsistent, even in his prime. Quarry’s best performances were excellent. But he mixed them with surprisingly poor showings. Early in his career, Jerry lost a wide decision to a past-prime Eddie Machen, beat Brian London and Alex Miteff (also past it), scored a draw and a win against an old Floyd Patterson – and arguably deserved to lose both fights. He beat Thad Spencer when Spencer was intriguing some fight fans, lost a close one to Jimmy Ellis, and was knocked out (albeit controversially) by George Chuvalo. He also beat Buster Mathis and gave Joe Frazier a good fight, but was ultimately battered. In the 70s, he upset the applecart a few times, winning upsets against sluggers Mac Foster, Ron Lyle, and Earnie Shavers, proving he matched up well against aggressive opponents who relied on power. But he also lost again to Frazier, twice to Ali, and once to Norton – all by knockout. Quarry was good, and sometimes brilliant, but he wasn’t consistently great. Maybe he could have won more fights in another era, but it’s also possible that a 6’0”, 190 pound man with a 72” reach, thin skin, and inconsistent focus also fails to break through in other eras. No shame in that. It should be enough that Quarry was very good in a great era. There’s no need to inflate him or assume he could have beaten (fill in the blank).
Like my overrated list, this is not necessarily a claim that these guys are the greatest ever or anything like that. It’s simply that the general consensus of their accomplishments is either unfairly harsh, or just not sufficient. Here you will find greats with flaws, relatively unknown legends, and unfairly maligned, but still very good, fighters. Here we go…
Harry Wills – There was a group of black heavyweights that roamed the division between around 1905 and 1920ish, that were all capable of competing in later and larger eras, and all kept from title shots by racial and economic politics. Sam Langford, Joe Jeannette, Sam McVey, and Harry Wills were all good enough to be a serious threat to the title reigns of Jack Johnson, Jess Willard, and Jack Dempsey. But Johnson consciously avoided most black contenders during his reign, preferring the larger paydays he could receive against white challengers (and possibly having remembered the hell some of these guys gave him before he became champion). Jess Willard was inactive as champion, and only defended his title twice in four years, losing to Dempsey in his second bout. Dempsey himself came along near the end of the era of the heavyweight black foursome, with only Wills as a likely opponent during his reign. Dempsey payed some lip service to fighting Wills, but his promoter wasn’t enthused by the idea, and the fight never came off.
Of those four, Sam Langford was probably the best, but he was not a natural heavyweight, and he is generally recognized as one of the greats by the hardcore fans and experts. Jeanette and McVey were very good, but spent many years fighting mostly each other (and Langford), and didn’t get the opportunity to fight for the world title. Harry Wills came along a little later, reaching his prime in the late 1910s, and posted winning records against all three of them, beating Jeannette once (and drawing twice) while Joe was still a top contender, beating Langford 13 times while he was still viable, and McVey 3 times. Beyond besting his toughest opponents, Wills was also dominant in wins against other heavyweight contenders, beating Jeff Clark, Jim Johnson, Fred Fulton, Luis Firpo, and Charley Weinert. The Ring Magazine didn’t start ranking fighters until 1924, and formal ranking systems weren’t really developed until that point, so a clear record against top ten opponents isn’t possible. However, a thorough analysis of that era allows me to make what I believe is a pretty good estimate. Harry Wills went 22-6-5(5) against fighters who would likely be ranked in the top 10, and 18-5-5(4) against Hall-of -Famers, as part of an incredible 87-10-6-5(54) overall record during a very deep era. Many considered him the best heavyweight in the world after the various champions, for nearly a decade. His 22 top ten wins rank him 4th all time, counting other top fighters before 1924. The politics that kept him from the heavyweight title at least allowed Wills to build his legend against some genuinely great opposition, although it leaves him historically neglected.
Wills, also known as the Black Panther, stood 6’2” and fought around 220 pounds, making him as a big as modern heavyweights. He possessed uncommon physical strength, crushing power, long arms, and good skills. He wasn’t particularly fast, but he had a good sense of timing and distance that allowed him to land on faster opponents.
In a different world, Wills could have been champion as early as 1916… having lost a few in 1915 while still developing, but then bounced back and won revenge bouts the next year. He was arguably Jess Williard’s best contender, and would likely have won, had they fought somewhere between 1916 and 1919. Wills developed into a massive, athletic fighter, outclassing everyone in front of him. After a 19th round knockout loss to the great Sam Langford in February 1916, until October 1926, Wills would compile a record of 58-2-3-3(34), with the only two losses being a fluke injury stoppage and a disqualification that was rematched four days later. He could arguably have remained champion for a decade, had the chance arisen.
To me, it’s a travesty that Wills isn’t included on every single Greatest Heavyweights top ten list – or even top 5.
Floyd Patterson – Floyd Patterson isn’t entirely underrated. He was the first two-time linear heavyweight champion, and helped bridge the gap between the Marciano and Ali eras. But he often doesn’t receive the historical respect he deserves. Patterson is best known among boxing circles as having a terrible punch resistance. Indeed, he did hit the canvass more than any other linear champion. But he also picked himself back up. Every. Single. Time. His recuperative abilities were underrated, and his fighting heart should be unquestioned. But his chin, and his two losses to Sonny Liston are what most people seem to remember. But Floyd Patterson was a lot better than that.
Floyd turned pro in 1952, at age 17, just months after winning the Gold Medal as a middleweight in the 1952 Olympics. He fought his early career as a middleweight, and then light heavyweight, exhibiting incredible hand speed and surprising power. He developed a solid defense, working behind a high guard and good head movement.
In 1954, he lost his first fight, a controversial 8 round decision against the great Joey Maxim, in a fight most observers scored for Patterson.
By the end of 1955, he was dipping his toe in the heavyweight waters, knocking out contender Jimmy Slade in seven. He would narrowly edge Tommy “Hurricane” Jackson in 1956, setting up a fight that November against Archie Moore for the vacant heavyweight title. Patterson won quickly and decisively, blasting out his more experienced foe in 5 one-sided rounds. It was after this point that the criticism started to arrive from the critics. Patterson’s manager/trainer, Cus D’Amato, was notoriously protective of his charge’s career, and often arranged fights against less-than-stellar opposition. Patterson’s first title defense was legit, albeit uninspiring. Floyd took on prior victim Tommy Jackson, and won more decisively this time around.
His second defense was considered a joke by most, coming against 1956 Olympic Heavyweight gold medalist Pete Rademacher, who was making his professional debut. It was derided as a gimmick as soon as it was announced, and almost resulted in disaster, as Rademacher managed to drop the champion in the 2nd round. Floyd turned it around, however, and put Rademacher on the canvas 7 times before the fight was stopped in the 6th.
Patterson would score knockouts over Roy Harris and Brian London, both good, but not great fighters, all while his biggest challenge loomed in the background. By 1959, Sonny Liston was considered the number 1 contender, and many were pushing for him to get his shot. Instead, in June 1959, Patterson would lose the title in a surprise three round stoppage loss to Swedish contender Ingemar Johansson. Patterson would regain the title the next year, and win the rubber match in 1961, capping an entertaining trilogy, but also tying up the championship for nearly two years. One more successful defense against Tom McNeely followed.
By this point, the consensus was that Patterson was ducking Sonny Liston. The truth was more complicated, but his manager was definitely trying to avoid the feared fighter from St. Louis. Patterson was a prideful man, however, and eventually insisted on accepting the challenge of Liston. In September 1962, Patterson was blasted out in one quick and painful round. Ten months later, embarrassed by his capitulation to the much larger man, he tried it again, and only lasted a few seconds longer.
For many, this is where Patterson’s legacy ends. A protected fighter with a weak chin, presiding over a bridge between two stronger eras, losing badly to his first real challenge.
But there’s much more to the Patterson story.
Floyd was humiliated by his losses. He sought therapy. He spent time in seclusion. He felt lost. But at this point, something changed… he stopped having a title to defend. And he actually got better. Just six months after his second loss to Liston, Patterson hit the comeback trail. Only 29 years old, he flew to Stockholm, where he enjoyed popularity thanks to his wars with Swedish hero Johansson, and blasted out Italian fringe contender Santo Amonti, in a reasonably tough comeback fight. Then he stepped up the competition, and outclassed longtime contender Eddie Machen over twelve. He beat tough gatekeeper Charlie Powell in six, outclassed up-and-comer George Chuvalo over twelve, and knocked out Swedish prospect Tod Herring in three.
This surge gave Floyd a shot at the new champion, Muhammad Ali. There was a great deal of animosity between the two, and the trash talk led to a surprisingly brutal fight between two men who ordinarily relied on speed to outbox opponents. Unfortunately for Patterson, Ali did everything a little better. He was bigger, stronger, faster, younger, and was in his absolute prime. Patterson fought well, and bravely, but was stopped on his feet in the 12th round. But the new Patterson wasn’t finished. This loss didn’t ruin him, like Liston almost did.
Floyd fought on, and continued facing top opponents. There were a couple journeymen following a brutal and impressive knockout win over Henry Cooper, and then he took on rising contender Jerry Quarry. It was a close, tactical affair, with most observers scoring the fight for Patterson. But the judges disagreed, and Floyd settled for a draw against his younger foe. Three months later, he would get a rematch, this time facing Quarry in the first round of the WBA Heavyweight Elimination Tournament. Quarry started well, knocking Patterson down twice early on, but Patterson warmed up and closed strong, arguably doing enough to nick the fight on the cards. But again, the judges liked Quarry’s work a bit more, and Jerry would win a majority decision.
Nearly a year later, the hard-luck Patterson was denied victory again, appearing to outbox and outfight the eventual winner of the WBA tourney, Jimmy Ellis, but losing a close decision. That decision was decided solely by the referee.
Patterson was still a top contender, and arguably deserved to be 3-0 in his last three fights. He took two years off, and returned against Charley Green in September 1970. Over the next 14 months, he would win seven straight over journeymen and clubfighters, culminating in a February 1972 match against his first contender in years – Oscar Bonavena. The powerful Argentine was difficult early, and dropped Floyd in the 4th. But the former champ rallied hard, and took the close decision after 10 tough rounds. Some disputed the decision, but it was close and certainly not a robbery. The 37 year old with the weak chin held his own against the 29 year old slugger. Floyd would beat up tough prospect Pedro Agosto over six rounds, and then face his final opponent, old rival Muhammad Ali. This time, the two were more respectful, and Floyd actually fought better than their first fight, landing some shots and making Ali work. But Patterson was cut badly in the 6th, and his eye shut in the 7th, and he was ruled to be unable to continue after that. Floyd would hang up the gloves after this point.
What I want to highlight is how much good work Patterson did after losing his title to Liston. He was written off as a spent force by many, but would compile a record of 17-4-1(11) after the Liston loss, with two of those losses coming to Muhammad Ali, and the other two being fights he likely deserved to win. He could easily have been 20-2(11) during that span. In total, Floyd Patterson would finish his career 55-8-1(40), going 11-7-1(7) against the top ten (14-5 could have been fair), 3-5(3) against Hall-of-Famers, and 8-4(8) in fights for the heavyweight title. He came back after two devastating losses, and remained a viable contender for several years, despite being consistently outsized, losing clearly only to the greatest of all time.
Yeah, Floyd Patterson is underrated.
John Ruiz – Okay, before anyone complains, I’m not saying that John Ruiz was great by any means. He wasn’t particularly athletic, he didn’t have sublime skills, and he was often unbearable to watch. He also started to reach title contention at the end of a good era, and reached his prime in the beginning of a pretty weak one. Against the best, he lost as much as he won.
And yet… John Ruiz is often mentioned as being a downright bad fighter. When discussions of the “worst heavyweight titleholders” happen, Ruiz is almost always included. But the facts don’t bear this out. His dull persona and ugly style helped perpetuate the myth of Ruiz as a lousy or at least mediocre heavyweight contender. The thing is, he wasn’t. Not at all. If anything, he was very good. After a couple close decision losses early in his career against fellow prospects, he was considered a bit of an also-ran in the heavyweight prospect scene. Then in March 1996, live on HBO, Ruiz was caught by a wicked left hook and obliterated by David Tua in just 19 seconds. The loss was physically devastating, but Ruiz didn’t let it ruin him. He worked his way back, first beating clubfighters, then fringe contender Jimmy Thunder, and former contender Tony Tucker. Four and a half years and 11 wins after the Tua debacle, Ruiz challenged Evander Holyfield for the vacant WBA title. This is where Ruiz made his mark. He lost a narrow (and slightly controversial) decision in their first fight, which was close enough to warrant a rematch. Ruiz then edged Holyfield in the second fight (in which he was arguably knocked out by a body shot, but convinced the referee that the legal punch was below the belt), and held Holyfield to an also-controversial draw in fight number 3. All three fights were ugly, and arguments could be made that Ruiz deserved to lose all of them (though many argued the opposite). But he held his own, and fought evenly with Evander Holyfield for 36 rounds, solidifying him as a top contender, and giving him an alphabet strap – which allowed Ruiz to hold some leverage in getting big fights.
Ruiz would go on to beat the talented (albeit inconsistent) Kirk Johnson via an ugly, mauling disqualification, lose a wide decision to a near-prime (and blazing-fast) Roy Jones, outpoint top-five heavyweight Hasim Rahman, stop awkward and underrated Fres Oquendo in 11, edge a close decision over a resurgent Andrew Golota, lose a decision to highly skilled (and still-quick) James Toney, only for it to be overturned as a no-decision, and then lose back-to-back super-close decisions to Nicolay Valuev and Ruslan Chagaev. I know, that was a hell of a run-on sentence. But it’s also the description of a very solid run. That would mark the end of an eleven fight streak where Ruiz would fight legitimate contenders in every bout. He would officially be 5-4-1-1(1) during that span. However, Ruiz only clearly lost two of those, and only one was upheld as a loss. Against the best of an admittedly weak division, John Ruiz would run through 11 fights against contenders and emerge with a winning record, despite most boxing pundits and fans mocking his abilities and decrying the depth of the division. Ruiz wasn’t pretty, but he was effective. After the two losses to the Eastern bloc, he would score one more good win, a clear decision over fringe contender Jameel McCline. He would lose a little more clearly to Nicolay Valuev, then two fights later, be stopped in 9 against David Haye. Haye was using Ruiz as a step up in class to test himself against heavyweights. This fairly-one-sided loss would end his career. Fight fans breathed a sigh of relief.
Ruiz’s style could charitably be described as “octopus,” where he would plod forward, throw a single jab, then clinch. He would wrestle inside, using his physical strength, and underrated infighting to maul his opponents and stifle their attack. Despite not being exceptionally tall or long-limbed, his opponents would find themselves enveloped in Ruiz’s arms again and again, and only opponents like Jones (who had the footspeed to stay out of range), could avoid the Ruiz tentacle attack. And then, once in a while, he would launch a sneaky right cross, which could do some damage. He was average sized for a heavyweight of his era, had average power, average speed, a solid (but not amazing) chin, and decent skills. But unless a fighter could overwhelm him with speed (Jones, Toney, Haye) or power (Tua), then he would almost always make for a close fight, win, lose, or draw. Ruiz would finish 5-6-1-1(1) against top ten heavyweights, with at least 4 of those 6 losses being somewhat debatable. In a different universe, Ruiz could have been 9-2-1-1(1) against top ten opponents, which would actually put him near the top 30 all-time (on my top 200 list), as painful as that sounds to boxing fans.
Ruiz wasn’t usually fun to watch, he was a bit of an actor anytime a punch strayed near his beltline, and had the world’s most obnoxious trainer through the first 2/3 of his career. But he was a top contender for almost a decade, and beat some legitimately decent opponents. Ruiz wasn’t great, but at his best, he was deceptively good.
Johnny Risko – Who the hell is Johnny Risko? I’m guessing that might be what a reader would be asking themselves right now. Even many boxing experts know little about the man. He was never champion, and he doesn’t come up on many lists of greatest fighters never to hold a title. Before I started my Greatest Heavyweight project back in 2011, I had only seen his name a few times, having heard almost nothing about him.
And yet, Risko is possibly the most underrated heavyweight ever.
The Cleveland Rubber Man turned pro in 1922, fighting as a fairly short (5’11”), stocky heavyweight. He had incredible punch resistance. He started 8-0-1(6), but as his competition improved, he begun mixing in losses with his wins, at a rate which would inspire most modern fans to wash their hands of him as a contender. Boxers fought much more often in those days, however, and a single loss could be shrugged off when they would be fighting again in two weeks. He would also tend to lose to his better opponents, and beat the weaker ones. Early losses were against good fighters like Quintin Rojas, Sully Montgomery, and Jack Renault. He was dominated by Young Stribling in his 23rd fight, and drop a decision to a young Jack Sharkey in his 27th. But all the while, Risko was learning his craft and honing his skills. He lost a wide, but fairly competitive decision to the great Gene Tunney in his 29th fight.
January 1926, in his 31st fight, Risko finally broke through, beating his first top ten contender, Young Bob Fitzsimmons, via a 12 round decision. From then on, Risko became more competitive with the top contenders. He would lose to Jack Delaney, Young Stribling again, Mike McTigue, Tommy Loughran, and Harry Persson, while beating Rojas and Emilio Solomon. Risko finished 1926 with a number 10 ranking from The Ring, and a great deal of valuable experience.
1927 was a stronger year for Risko, with a draw against Jack DeMave, another loss to Tommy Loughran, wins over Sandy Seifert, Quintin Rojas, Jim Herman, Sully Montgomery, and a rematch win over Jack DeMave. After an October points loss to Tom Heeney, Risko would go on a tear, beating Paulino Uzcudun, Phil Scott, Jack Sharkey, and Johnny Squires, all by decision. He would drop decisions to Jim Maloney and Ernie Schaaf to end 1928, but would still enjoy a number 5 ranking at the end of ’27, and a number 7 ranking after ’28.
In February 1929, Risko would engage all-time-great Max Schmeling in the Ring Magazine fight of the year, brawling with the German future champion, and losing in a valiant effort, after being dropped 4 times, and stopped in the 9th.
Risko would beat Otto von Porat, but lose to Emmett Rocco by decision, then start an odd streak of losing 3 of his next 4 fights via disqualification. He would rebound, beating Jim Maloney and Ernie Schaaf, then lose to Tuffy Griffiths.
As I’m writing this, I realize that I’m still only up to 1930, and I’ve already devoted more than 500 words to less than half of Risko’s career. He seriously fought on relatively even terms with EVERYONE who mattered at heavyweight. A win and a draw against Victorio Campolo, another win over Uzcudun, another loss to Griffiths, a pair of losses to all-time-great Mickey Walker, another win over Jim Maloney, a loss to Stanley Poreda… the list goes on. Risko had a great run in 1931, beating Tom Heeney, King Levinsky, future champ Max Baer, Tony Galento, and KO Christner, before dropping decisions to Loughran and Baer in rematches. He’d go on another good run in ’32, outpointing Christner again, Mickey Walker for the first time, Tuffy Griffiths, and King Levinsky twice. Despite losses to Dick Daniels and Patsy Perroni, he would remain in contention throughout 1932 and 1933, finally getting a win over Loughran, and scoring a rare knockout of Big Boy Peterson.
Risko would begin to show some wear, and would start to fade in 1934. After a decision loss to Charley Retzlaff at the end of 1934, Risko would take almost 3 years off, heading home to work in the family bakery in Cleveland. Nearly 3 years of recuperation (and presumably plenty of delicious baked goods) would allow him to return to the ring in November 1937 against journeyman Bob Olin. He would fight several more times, alternating between upper and lower tier fighters, beating clubfighters, and losing to the likes of John Henry Lewis, Red Burman, and finally, in his last fight in 1940, Tony Musto.
Risko would finish with a less-than-stellar record of 80-53-8-1(22). He never demonstrated much power, and usually won his fights through pressure and activity. A shoulder dislocation early in his career never healed properly, and he never developed a good right hand as a result, mostly relying on a jab and strong left hook.
However, his limitations and record mask the fact that against top-ten rated opponents, he finished 17-18-2. He would go 2-4 against fighters who held the heavyweight title, and 6-11 against Hall-of-Famers. His 17 wins over top ten opponents tie him for 8th, all-time, at heavyweight. To fight on nearly even terms with the best of his division for a decade, despite being short, chunky, slow, pillow-fisted, and mostly one-armed is impressive. But to do it without any sort of modern recognition is borderline ludicrous. Johnny Risko almost never makes anybody’s list of all-time great heavyweights. That’s a shame, but also allows me to add him to this list over underrated heavyweights.