In the 1956 film biography of boxer Rocky Graziano, middleweight "Cowboy" Ruben Shank is mentioned, a detail for which Shank would receive a small royalty. In his later years, Shank would appreciate the monetary gesture.
Raised in a family of Germans who emigrated from Russia, sons Adam, Ruben and Emil Shank were all capable boxers, but it was young Ruben surprised the boxing world in 1942 when he easily won a match with Fritzie Zivic, a brawler who was noted for "thumbing" the eyes of his opponent. A win over triple-crown titleholder Henry Armstrong at the Denver Auditorium was much closer, causing some critics to complain of hometown bias.
Shank's continued success over former champions catapulted the 20-year-old newcomer to a bout with Sugar Ray Robinson in Madison Square Garden on August 22, 1942, one of the most important competitions in Shank's career.
The underdog Shank started fast, pummeling Robinson. But Robinson came back in Round 2 to drop his opponent four times and finish him. For several years, the scrappy Globeville resident continued to challenge big-name competitors, losing twice to former middleweight champ Fred Apostoli in 1946. However, it was a match with Melvin Brown in Minneapolis that resulted in Shank's knockout loss and damage so severe that he nearly lost his life. Although he slowly recovered, the National Boxing Association ruled that Shank couldn't fight again and his manager, Chris Dundee, agreed.
Shank challenged the decree in Denver District Court and Judge Henry Lindsley ruled in 1952 that the boxer could resume his career. Armed with the ruling, the 31-year-old Shank fought a dozen more times, possibly the cause of his labored speech during his later years.
For 28 years, he worked for the Denver Public Works Department and moonlighted at the Mile High Kennel Club. Ruben Shank passed away at age 74 in December 1995. Friend and former boxer Ray Schoeninger remembered, "Reuben was the nicest and most honest person you'd ever want to meet."
"Ex-boxer Shank Dies at 74", Denver Post, December 14, 1995. by Alan Katz.
Photo of "Cowboy" Reuben Shank with Roy Rogers, courtesy of Betty Reed.