A Boxing Memory: Howard Davis Jr
The 1976 American Olympic boxing team was arguably their greatest ever selection of talent they chose for any Olympic games. It was so good that the likes of Aaron Pryor and Thomas Hearns didn’t make the cut.
The American team of gold consisted of Louis Curtis, Leo Randolph, Charles Mooney, Davey Lee Armstrong, Howard Davis, Ray Leonard, Clint Jackson, Charles Walker Jr, Michael Spinks, Leon Spinks and John Tate. The Spinks brothers came home with gold medals, as did Randolph and Leonard. So to did the Long Island native Howard Davis Jr.
Sugar Ray Leonard was the star of the show, the American Golden Boy who went on to become one of the greatest fighters in boxing history. But it was Davis Jr who took home the Val Barker Trophy for the most outstanding fighter of those Montreal Olympic Games. Davis really was that good.
Davis was only 20 when he dazzled in Canada, he was also still in mourning following the death of his mother from a heart attack aged just 37, just three days before the Olympics began. A triumph with mixed emotions, joy and tragedy. The greatest moment in his boxing career overshadowed by the sudden personal grief he had to deal with. Davis wanted to run from those games, his teammates and words from his mother persuaded him to stay. Winning gold while processing such unimaginable grief, adds plenty to his already incredible achievement.
In 1981 Davis had his gold medal stolen from his home. The police gave chase and the robber threw it from his car. The medal looked lost forever. But a highway landscaper found it, he cleaned it up and unaware of what the piece of metal actually was, used it as a paperweight for four years until he was told what it really was. Davis was tracked down and was reunited with his gold medal. That medal meant so much in many ways. It deserved to be and stay where it belonged.
The boxing journey began in 1970 after seeing a documentary on Muhammad Ali. Davis had dabbled in music, he played four different instruments, he had initial thoughts of a career in medicine. But seeing Ali on the big screen changed his life.
Davis had 130 amateur fights losing only five times, he won four Golden Gloves and a gold medal at the 1974 world amateur championships in Cuba. In qualifying for the Olympics, Davis had to go through the likes of Pryor and Hearns. Many potential gold medal winners stayed at home that year.
A world champion seemingly in waiting, Davis turned pro with much fanfare, being paid $185,000 per fight was some statement. He was meant to win world titles, and plenty of them. Out of that star-studded array of talent from the American team, Davis appeared to have the brightest future.
But while others from that legendary Olympic squad went on to world title glory, Davis failed, twice he came close, another attempt when he was past his prime, ended predictably.
Mike Rappaport and Mike Jones took charge of his professional career. Easy wins, a padded record didn’t prepare him for what lay ahead. There are many similar stories.
Jim Watt, a tough Scottish lightweight who had overcome disappointment, and plenty of it, to win the WBC lightweight title, lay in wait in 1980. Watt had been scheduled to go 15 rounds thirteen times. Davis with only thirteen professional fights behind him, which included four trips to the canvas, had to overcome plenty on that cold wet evening.
Davis travelled to the Ibrox stadium in Glasgow, the typical Scottish weather dampened many things. Davis was outpointed, the feeling he could have done more, left hope his day would still come with a little more experience behind him. It didn’t. Davis cited depression, his mind elsewhere, for his loss to Watt. Excuses or reasons are easy to find. The resolve of Montreal had already gone.
Davis tried again, but after the loss to Watt, Davis said he felt lost in the shuffle, always a reluctant fighter, conflicted by the realities of the sport, he contemplated retirement. Management woes added to his problems, a struggle to accept being owned and losing control of his own destiny, Davis was drifting.
After thirteen more wins Davis earned another world title opportunity. He travelled to enemy territory in San Juan, Puerto Rico in 1984 to challenge the big punching and undefeated Edwin Rosario for the WBC title he had failed to lift in 1980.
Seven seconds from the end, Davis was fighting well and winning. He had overcome an earlier knockdown to turn the tide. Rosario struggled with his opponents reach and lead left hand. The excellent jab piled up the points, Rosario went into his shell. In round 12, he came out of it. One left hook saved his title.
Davis couldn’t overcome a second trip to the canvas with seconds left in the fight. By way of a split-decision, 115-114, 117-113, 113-114, Davis had failed again. On the brink of victory, one punch left him on the brink of something else.
A career that once promised everything now was sliding into very little. In 1986 Joe Manley beat him, but in his next fight, Meldrick Taylor couldn’t. Davis earned a draw with the Olympic champion from another great American team. One last sign of what could have been. The fight with Taylor offered hope, a fight a year later with Hector Camacho practically ended it.
Now very much the opponent, Davis kept trying. One final attempt for a world title, this time at super-lightweight, ended with Davis being stopped inside a round by Buddy McGirt in 1988. Ironically all three world title attempts were in Olympic years.
Davis said he would retire after his loss to McGirt, sadly he didn’t. He was only 32, another old fighter long before his time. There are far too many similar stories in boxing history. Chasing shadows Davis carried on, on that long road to nowhere. It ended in 1996, but in reality, it had ended many years ago.
Davis found MMA, acting as a striking coach to the likes of former UFC light-heavyweight champion Chuck Liddell and spending time with American Top Team. Davis and his wife also promoted MMA fights through their Florida-based company, Fight Time Promotions. But tragedy would again hit the Davis family.
In 2015 Davis was diagnosed with incurable late-stage lung cancer and died later that year aged just 59.
“If you look back, you stay back,” Davis said after he had retired. He said he had no regrets, and despite not winning a world title as a professional, his impressive amateur accolades stand head and shoulders above virtually every fighter that came before or after. Unquestionably one of the greatest amateur boxers America ever produced.
Davis didn’t want to be remembered as the only failure from the 1976 Olympic Games. The career of Davis deserves to be remembered for many things. Despite a pro career that didn’t live up to all the promise, a failure he most certainly wasn’t.