Maybe it really is true that only the good die young.
Howard Davis Jr., the best boxer on what many believe to be the best U.S. Olympic boxing team ever, was a master at evading big punches from opponents intent on knocking him out. But Davis, the lightweight gold medalist who received the Val Barker Award as the Most Outstanding Boxer at the 1976 Montreal Olympics, had no defense against the ravenous cancer cells that ate away at his lungs and other internal organs to the point that he was literally a shell of his former self. Diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer in February, Davis was just 59 when he succumbed to the dread disease on Dec. 30.
In a cruel twist of fate, the clean-living Davis never smoked or drank alcohol. According to Cancer.Net, the average age of patients who contract lung cancer is 71, with the vast majority of those heavy smokers whose tobacco habit tends to court disaster. But the Big C is a random destroyer of health and of lives, as Davis’ untimely passing again demonstrates.
“I spoke to him just last week,” Davis’ Olympic teammate and fellow gold medalist, Sugar Ray Leonard, said from his office in Pacific Palisades, Calif. “Here’s a guy who did everything the right way. For this to happen … it’s so disturbing.
“Every time we talked, it was special. We were close, like brothers. I called him `John-John.’ We’d talk about anything, sometimes everything except boxing.
“The last conversation that we had, he said, `Ray, I’m going to beat this thing.’ He really believed that. Or maybe not. Maybe he was saying that for my benefit. I told him, `Man, you’re a fighter. If anybody can do it, you can.’ But I knew. The thing that stands out in my mind was that his voice was so calm. Reassuring.”
The eldest of 10 children, Davis never attained the sort of professional success he enjoyed while fighting for trophies and medals. After going 125-5 in the amateurs (with victories over, among others, Aaron Pryor and Thomas Hearns), winning National AAU championships in 1973 and ’76, and a 1974 World Amateur title in addition to Olympic gold, Davis was a highly competent but not-quite-top-tier pro, going 36-6-1 with 14 wins inside the distance. Three of his losses came with world titles on the line as he came up short on decisions against WBC lightweight champions Jim Watt and Edwin Rosario, and by first-round knockout to IBF junior welterweight titlist Buddy McGirt.
But regardless of whatever ups and downs he experienced throughout his career, Davis was always regarded as a champion in life, a class act who was admired by everyone who had the privilege of knowing him well. Among those who held the native of Glen Cove, N.Y., in high esteem is Randy Gordon, the former head of the New York State Athletic Commission and former editor of The Ring magazine.
“He was a loyal friend and devoted husband, father and brother,” Gordon told Kevin Iole of YahooSports.com. “To know Howard Davis was to love him. Heaven is gaining one very special angel.”
There are those who would say that Davis, at least as a pro, was something of an underachiever, and others who are of the opinion that the vast potential he flashed in Montreal during that charmed summer of 1976 was an illusion. But for a moment in time he was a national hero and an international sensation, a golden god of the Olympic ring.
It is a matter of endless debate whether the 1976 U.S. Olympic boxing team, which amassed five gold medals, a silver and a bronze, was better than the 1984 American squad that competed in Los Angeles and came away with nine golds, a silver and a bronze. The fields for each of those Olympiads was thinned by a boycott. In ’76 28 black African nations stayed away in protest of the participation of New Zealand, which had flouted international sanctions by welcoming a touring rugby team from South Africa, whose white ruling class had an official policy of apartheid. The ’84 Games were skipped by 13 Soviet Bloc countries and Cuba in response to the United States having boycotted the 1980 Moscow Olympics following the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan.
“I may be biased, but I consider my team better than any other team,” said Leonard, who, along with fellow International Boxing Hall of Fame inductee Michael Spinks, went on to enjoy the most professional success among the 1976 U.S. Olympians. “We went to Montreal favored to win only one gold medal, and that was by Howard Davis.
“But we surprised a lot of people, didn’t we? We showed the world that we had a sensational, incredible team. All of our matches were against Cuba, against Russia. To win, we had to beat the best of the best.”
Leonard’s opinion is shared by Ed Schuyler Jr., the retired boxing writer for The Associated Press who covered both the 1976 and ’84 Olympics.
“That was by far the best team the United States has ever produced. Hands down,” Schuyler said of the 1976 squad whose other gold medalists were Leon Spinks and Leo Randolph, with Charles Mooney taking a silver and John Tate a bronze. “It’s not even fair to compare that bunch with any other.
“Leo Randolph beat a Cuban. Leon Spinks beat a Cuban. Sugar Ray beat a Cuban. I mean, come on. Yeah, there was a boycott by some of the African countries, but they weren’t medal threats in boxing for the most part. The Russians and the East Germans and especially the Cubans were.”
Despite the enormous pressure of being the sole pre-event U.S. favorite to take gold, Davis dazzled in beating Japan’s Yukio Segawa, Colombia’s Leonidas Asprilla, Bulgaria’s Tzvetan Tzvetkov, Yugoslavia’s Ace Rusevski and Romania’s Simion Cutov, with TKO wins over Asprilla and Tzvetkov. Writing for Sports Illustrated, Pat Putnam was effusive in his praise for Davis.
“Howard Davis is even more skilled as a fighter than Leonard,” Putnam wrote. “A remarkably clever boxer, he thinks people who can take a punch to deliver one are foolish.”
Davis agreed, saying, “I’m no brawler. The Europeans take a lot of punches. They get cut up and looking ugly is just part of the day’s work. But I don’t want to be ugly. I’m not crazy.”
There is little doubt that any assessment of Howard Davis Jr. as a boxer would be at least somewhat elevated had he won just one of the three title bouts he engaged in as a pro. As the challenger, he was obliged to meet Watt (in Glasgow, Scotland) and Rosario (in San Juan, Puerto Rico) on their home turf, but he performed admirably in each instance. The first-round knockout by McGirt at the time seemed an anomaly, but it could have been a signal that Davis – the extraordinarily fast-handed and fast-footed version that had been on display in Montreal eight years earlier – was already well on the downhill side. And when Davis was knocked out in two rounds by middleweight Dana Rosenblatt on April 13, 1996 – when he was 38 and nearly 30 pounds over his Olympic weight – it was, finally, time for him to step away as an active fighter.
But there would be a prominent second act for Davis, who relocated to South Florida, as a trainer in mixed martial arts. He founded his own MMA promotional company, Fight Time Promotions, and served as a coach for American Top Team. One of his pupils was UFC Hall of Famer and former light heavyweight champ Chuck Liddell.
Funeral arrangements are pending.