No debate about the greatest Olympic boxing teams in history would be credible without mentioning the squad America sent to Montreal for the country’s bicentennial in 1976. The team brought home five gold medals to go along with a silver and bronze each.
Yet while Sugar Ray Leonard and the Spinks brothers would go on to be more celebrated as professionals, it was lightweight representative and gold medalist Howard Davis Jr. who took home the prestigious Val Barker Trophy (for best boxer of the Olympic tournament).
Davis didn’t exactly walk onto the team: first he had to deal with Thomas Hearns and Aaron Pryor, defeating the latter twice by decision and earning his spot in the truest sense of the word.
The native of Glen Cove, N.Y., had a respectable pro career as well, remaining a top lightweight and junior welterweight contender for the majority of his nearly 20-year career. Three times he would challenge for a world title, coming up just short in his first two attempts against Jim Watt and Edwin Rosario, before being stopped in the first round by James “Buddy” McGirt late in his career.
Apart from the title bout setbacks, Davis handed Meldrick Taylor his first career blemish with a draw in 1986, and faced other world-class competition, such as Hector Camacho and Vilomar Fernandez, before he retired for good in 1996 with a record of 36-6-1 (14 knockouts).
Now 55, Davis Jr., has enjoyed considerable success outside of the ring as well. While living in Central New Jersey during the 1990s, he discovered a young cruiserweight prospect named Imamu Mayfield and guided him to the IBF cruiserweight title in 1997. In 2003, he relocated to Coconut Creek, Fla., to train mixed martial arts fighters in their striking technique. His most well-known MMA pupil? Former UFC light heavyweight champion Chuck Lidell.
Now retired from full-time training, Davis heads up his own MMA promotional outfit, Fight Time Promotions, in South Florida but still finds time to play in his jazz group Howard Davis Jr. and the 76ers. Davis plays four musical instruments: the bass, drums, guitar and keyboards.
While discussing his son Dyah Davis’ upcoming clash with Alfonso Lopez this Friday in the main event of ESPN2′s Friday Night Fights, Davis reminisced about his own career and the fighters that stuck out the most from his 43 trips to the professional ring.
Toughest fight: Larry Stanton/Norman Goins – I was very nervous, it was my first 10 rounder (vs. Stanton). We fought in an arena that had no air conditioning and after the first round I had nothing. I don’t know how I went 10 rounds. I almost collapsed after the fight. I had nothing, and when I say I had nothing left, there’s no way I could go another round. I felt like I was dying. I tried to KO him in the first round and he just kept coming for ten rounds. It was the most brutal fight for me, mentally. On top of that I had Bell’s palsy. Only my father had known about it. That was painful in itself. I had to deal with that while fighting.
Then my second ten rounder, (was against) Norman Goins. He had a lot of knockouts and he had lost his last 7 fights but for some reason when he found out he was fighting me, he hired a new trainer, went to train in Florida and got in terrific shape. He knocked me down in the first and in the fifth. I knocked him down in the ninth and it should have been a knockout. The referee Jay Edson let it go 13 seconds. I came to him afterwards and said, “You let the fight go a little longer.” He admitted it, he said, “Yeah, but you had the fight.” I guess he wanted to see it through. I didn’t realize it at the time but when I looked at the films, he stopped at (the count of) “8” when the guy got to his knees.
Best boxer: Vilomar Fernandez – One of the most technical fighters I ever fought. He was a consummate boxer, just came off a win over Alexis Arguello. It was an elimination fight to fight for the title. When you think of a slick, high intelligence boxer, that’s what he was about. He was one of those guys who was very smart, very difficult to hit at times. He just had a very high IQ for boxing and I admire that. I fought his brother Jose Fernandez, too. I think it was my second or third fight.”
Best Puncher: Tony Baltazar – I didn’t know anything about him, not even his record. They just told me, “Today you’re fighting this guy.” I usually make it easy for myself by not getting hit but at times I got hit by him and they were pretty powerful punches. If I wasn’t sick, he wouldn’t have hit me at all. I was so weak and ill, I don’t know how I went ten rounds because two days before that I couldn’t go two.”
Best Defense: Edwin Rosario – He was very difficult to hit the first three rounds. One of the things I had going for me was speed and once I find the range for my jab, it’s over for them. I could not hit him with my jab in the beginning. When I started feinting, I started hitting him with it. Even with all the movements, he was still difficult to hit for me.
Smartest: Edwin Rosario – You could tell he studied me. He had all my moves. I had to go into my bag of tricks for him. Boxing is a game of chess. I would make a certain move that would be setting something up down the line. He knew I was setting him up for something later so when I made a move, he made a move to counteract it. I had to make 2-3 moves so I could get him into position.
For that fight, a lot people don’t know that this was a short notice fight. I only trained I think two and a half three weeks. At the time I was contemplating retirement. I weighed 155 and I told my wife the same day that I found out that I think I’m going to retire and she was happy. As soon as I made that decision, my trainer pulled up at my house and said, “You got a title fight.” I said “No, I’m retired.” He said, “Well, here’s the money.” So I said “OK we’re out.”
Fastest hands: Hector Camacho – I think he had great timing and was great counter puncher. Not a hard puncher at all and I don’t think he cared about punching hard. I caught him a couple of times, I bloodied his nose in the fourth and fifth rounds. He was very tricky but he couldn’t do the things he wanted to do to me because I wouldn’t let him hit me. But he won the fight, no doubt about it. He didn’t shut me out. All the rounds were close in my opinion.
Best chin: Larry Stanton – I hit him with the kitchen sink. I’m not known to be a hard puncher, but I can punch hard when I set down and don’t move so much. I never cared about knocking somebody out, my thing was being a mad scientist, taking it to the bunson burners and beakers.
Fastest feet: Hector Camacho – He knows how to avoid with his feet. He’s not a guy who moves his head a lot, he avoids with his legs.
Strongest: Norman Goins – I was either 20 or 21, he was 27 or 28 and had his man strength. One of the strongest fighters I ever fought. I would have to say Baltazar also. I was sick but I could tell he was strong. He was very difficult to clinch.
Best jab: Edwin Rosario – I think the most I got hit by anyone’s jab happened to be Edwin Rosario. It wasn’t much, but I would say he hit me the most with the jab. If somebody hit me with a lot of jabs, it’d be very difficult for me to get my jab off. There were two reasons: he saw my jab, good fighters can figure out when you’re going to throw a punch because they study your movements. You could tell he had studied my jab because every time I would throw it, he would either slip it or block it. He’s a short guy and usually short guys don’t jab, but his timing was good. Mike Tyson was another short guy who had a great jab, his timing was impeccable. Edwin Rosario’s timing was very, very good.
Ryan Songalia is a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America (BWAA) and contributes to GMA News and the Filipino Reporter newspaper in New York City. He is also a member of The Ring ratings panel. He can be reached at email@example.com. An archive of his work can be found at www.ryansongalia.com. Follow him on Twitter: @RyanSongalia