The 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal almost didn’t happen. November of 1974 saw over 1,200 iron workers go on strike, demanding wage increases to meet the rising cost of living in “The Fight City.” The following January a deal was reached for workers to finish the construction of the Olympic stadium, allowing the Games to move forward. It was the Maurice Richard Arena down the block however, that hosted the boxing. Of the five eventual gold medal winners on the U.S. team that year, only one was favored to win gold from the outset: Howard Davis, Jr.
In the waning hours of 2015, the boxing community lost Howard Davis Jr. to cancer.
Davis was often unfairly relegated to the background following an unforgettable Olympic run as attention shifted toward another gold medalist from his team, the eminently likable Ray Leonard, and to Michael and Leon Spinks, the boxing brothers from the infamous Pruitt-Igoe housing projects in St. Louis; they had better stories. And all of the gold medalists from that 1976 U.S. team went on to win world titles — all but Davis.
“I was destined to be a [world] champion,” Davis said early in his pro career. “I’ve known that since I was 16 years old.” Alas, it was not to be.
Through his first 27 matches, Davis had one defeat, to Jim Watt who defended his WBC lightweight belt against the favoured challenger when the American failed to fight with urgency. Davis then got a second crack at the belt against Edwin Rosario in 1984. Ahead on two cards going into the final round, Davis was floored by Rosario’s vaunted left hook in the final seconds of the match and as a result lost a split decision. Four years later, Davis failed to survive the opening round against IBF super lightweight champion James “Buddy” McGirt, losing his third and final title bid.
William Nack of Sports Illustrated wrote, “[Davis] doesn’t want to be remembered as the only failure of the ’76 Games.” But before the end, Davis had become so much more than his shortcomings as a professional fighter.
It was Davis who defeated 1972 Olympic featherweight gold medalist Boris Kuznetzov to win the 1974 World Championships. He then outpointed Thomas Hearns in the 1976 National AAU finals to qualify for the Olympic Trials. And it was Davis who defeated top-ranked American amateur lightweight Aaron Pryor, twice, to make the team. It was perhaps the best Olympic boxing team the U.S. has ever had, and Davis was voted the outstanding boxer of the entire tournament in Montreal, just days after learning his mother had passed away.
Leonard later would sing Davis’ praises when recalling those Olympic bouts: “All of our final matches were against Cuba, against Russia. To win, we had to beat the best of the best. We went to Montreal favored to win only one gold medal, and that was by Howard Davis. … I consider my team better than any other team.”
Davis dedicated the gold medal victory to his deceased mother, who wanted nothing more than for her son to triumph. Despite an inability to procure a professional world championship, Davis handed Tony Baltazar his first defeat and later, when long past his prime, he held 1984 Olympic gold medalist Meldrick Taylor to a draw.
Outside the ropes, Davis became a prominent part of the fight community by joining American Top Team, one of mixed martial arts’ most impressive stables, as a boxing coach. That in turn led to establishing his own MMA promotions, a project he was actively pursuing when he learned lung cancer had spread throughout his body.
The Montreal iron workers made it possible for Davis to emerge as a star in 1976 and when he was recently asked about his fight with cancer he mentioned that he was receiving “iron treatments intravenously.” Where gold sustains the memory of Davis, iron had once more given him life.
“For some strange reason, I’m not scared of death. If it happens to come, I’m ready,” Davis said only a few months ago. “I’m always shooting for the stars, and hopefully I land on the moon if I fall short of the stars.”
Howard Davis Jr. leaves behind a young daughter and wife, in addition to son and current professional boxer Dyah Davis. All can be proud of a man willing to face his own end unafraid: “I have stage four cancer, which is the worst. Normally it’s a death sentence, but it’s fight time.” — Patrick Connor