William Dettloff

Speed isn’t everything: Watt vs. Davis 30 years later

Probably in part because the two best fighters in the world — Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Manny Pacquiao — are almost preternaturally fast, we have come these days to value speed over almost any other quality a fighter can possess.

But speed isn’t everything. Ask Jim Watt.

Thirty years ago today, Watt, a tough, durable Scotsman took the much flashier, much more celebrated and much faster Howard Davis Jr. to school over 15 rounds to defend the WBC lightweight title in front of 20,000 fans in Glasgow.

It wasn’t a home-country decision. It wasn’t a slam-bang affair that had everybody talking for weeks afterward. In Watt’s own estimation it wasn’t a great fight — though he does allow that it was a good one.

It was a clear demonstration that all the speed in the world won’t help you if you’re in over your head with a guy who is just a better fighter, even if he‘s slower. And that’s what Watt was: slower than Davis and better than Davis.

Few recognized it at the time, and you could excuse those who missed it. Davis not only won gold along on that brilliant 1976 United States Olympic boxing team, he also won the Val Barker Trophy as the games’ outstanding fighter.

Not Ray Leonard, not one of the Spinks brothers, not Leo Randolph. Howard Davis Jr. won it. So like his Olympic teammates, he signed a big network television contract when he turned pro. And 14 straight wins later he was deemed more than ready for Watt even though Watt was far more experienced.

“It was his 14th fight and my ninth 15-round fight,” Watt recently told Ringtv.com. “So there was a huge gulf in experience.”

That didn’t impress the oddsmakers, who installed Davis as a 7-4 favorite even though Watt held the title and was fighting in his home country. There was such an aura of invincibility around that Olympic team that most saw Davis as a shoe-in for the title.

Also, many saw Watt as little more than an average fighter. He’d won the vacant title against Alfred Pitalua and defended twice, against Robert Vasquez and Charlie Nash. That hardly prepared him for the likes of Howard Davis Jr.

“They didn’t have the highest opinion of me; I believe they underestimated us,” Watt said. “They didn’t think I was much. But I was well conditioned, I was strong, and I was clever.”

As far as anyone else knew, he also was a mere place holder.

“I had come to America a couple times and all I heard about was Howard Davis. It was assumed I was just holding the title until Howard Davis came to pick up his title,” Watt said. “I remember having that feeling.”

Davis assumed the same. Shortly after arriving in Glasgow, he told the press he could beat Watt with his arms and legs cut off and a cigarette in his mouth. At a press conference shortly before the fight, Davis said to Watt, “You are fighting the fastest body in the world.”

The insults continued as the fight approached.

“Sure, I know he's consistent,” Davis said. “Consistent like a robot, like R2-D2, like somebody in his corner is moving him on a radio beam—‘Go to your left hand. Move to your right.’ He's a very slow starter. I could end him early. All the same, I like to feel my opponent out before I start throwing my bombs.”

Bombs? Davis had just five stoppages in his 14 wins and already had gotten a reputation as a guy who liked to hit and get out of the way at the same time. And he found out fairly quickly that Watt wasn’t going anywhere.

“I expected to be down on points after the first half of the fight but it didn’t turn out that way,“ said Watt, a southpaw. He had no trouble catching Davis early with stinging right jabs and easily ducking or slipping Davis’ wild overhand rights.

By the fifth, the crowd had broken into chants of “Ea-sy, ea-sy,” they way they did when their beloved soccer teams closed in on a victory. And as the fight wore on Davis’ vaunted speed dissipated, as Watt, clever, conditioned, and slower, wore him down by beating his body and outfighting him.

When Watt was awarded the decision — by scores of 145-144, 149-142 and 147-144 — the crowd erupted.

“It was a huge event and a huge fight for me to win,” said Watt, who is now a respected broadcaster with Sky Sports in the United Kingdom. “It’s a fantastic memory, just fantastic.”

It’s a memory we would do well to recall, too, when we think automatically that the faster guy will always win. Speed may kill, but knowing how to fight still goes a long way, too.

Some random observations from last week:

It’s hard to say whether Miguel Cotto remains as good as he ever was or Yuri Foreman didn’t have enough pop to make Cotto ask himself whether he still wanted to be a fighter. Either way, despite the beatings he’s taken Cotto is still an elite-level fighter and apparently will be until he meets someone again who can back him up…

Wish I had noticed beforehand that Foreman wears a brace on his knee. I would have heeded the advice THE RING editor Nigel Collins gave me long ago: never pick the guy who goes into the ring wearing one of those things. They never win…

When Foreman got up and started hobbling all over the place I thought I was watching one of those nature shows where some rabid lion is walking down a baby antelope or gimpy wildebeest or some other such furry snack. The end result was about the same…

It was surprisingly nice to hear Roy Jones back behind the microphone. He was better than I remember him being, maybe because, excepting a lapse here and there, his commentary wasn’t so infused with arrogance anymore. (See what middle age and a couple concussions can do for a guy?) Jones was light years better than Lennox Lewis and is a natural to replace Lewis on Boxing After Dark. I don‘t know what the suits at HBO are waiting for…

Speaking of HBO, you have to hand it to their segment producers. Jim Lampley introduces the topic of how much trouble Vanes Martirosyan had with Kassim Ouma, and almost every clip they run shows Martirosyan cleaning Ouma’s clock…

I still don’t know entirely what to make of Arthur Mercante’s refusal to stop the fight when Foreman’s corner threw in the towel in the eighth round. If he didn’t know who threw it, as he claimed afterward, why didn’t he just ask walk over to Foreman’s corner and ask them?

Watch, like this: “Hey guys — did you throw this here towel?” Instead, as far as I could tell, he started the fight again and then waited until the round ended before he asked. What, did he take the over?…

One more note to Arthur: You might consider switching to decaf. Seriously.

I was all ready to blast the German judges who scored the Sebastian Sylvester-Roman Karmazin fight a draw by scores of 118-111, 111-117 and 114-114 and guess what? The two judges with the lopsided and opposing scores were Matt Podgorski and John Lawson — a pair of Americans. Criminy. How bad have American schools gotten?

And before you ask, no, I have not watched the fight on YouTube.com. My life has an expiration date on it too, you know, and if I want to spend it watching talentless bores I’ll put on the Glenn Beck show…

Do you think Emanuel Steward decided to train Cotto because he’s sick of everyone saying Freddie Roach is the best trainer going?…

Bill Dettloff, THE RING magazine’s Senior Writer, is the co-author, along with Joe Frazier, of “Box Like the Pros.” He is currently working on a biography of Ezzard Charles.

Bill can be contacted at dettloff@ptd.net

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