By Lyle Fitzsimmons
Many people might not remember.
Though the 1976 Summer Olympics highlight reels are crammed with footage of all-time great Ray Leonard and future heavyweight champs Leon and Michael Spinks, it was a lanky native of Glen Cove, N.Y. who actually made the biggest in-ring impact in Montreal.
That man was Howard Davis Jr.
Then just 20 years old and already a two-time national AAU champion, Davis reeled off five straight points victories to capture both the gold medal in the 132-pound weight class and the Val Barker Trophy as the most outstanding boxer of the games.
The wins north of the border closed a 120-5 amateur career that had also included defeats of Thomas Hearns and Aaron Pryor, and launched Davis on a path that looked likely to include world championship recognition alongside his celebrated U.S. teammates.
Instead, the subsequent 19-year pro run saw him go 0-for-4 when it came to world title bouts before eventually finishing up at 36-6-1 with 14 knockouts. Nonetheless, he parlayed the success into an eight-year position as a boxing trainer for mixed martial arts fighters in Coconut Creek, Fla.
These days, he’s crossed over to become a full-fledged MMA promoter in his new home state, operating Fight Time Promotions with his wife/business partner, Karla Guadamuz-Davis. The company’s “Fight Time” series includes five events per year at the War Memorial Auditorium in Fort Lauderdale.
We caught up with Davis to reminisce about the Olympics, discuss the peaks and valleys of his pro career and get an insider’s view on the rivalry between boxing and MMA.
Fitzbitz: All of a sudden, it’s been 37 years since your summer in Montreal. How often do you daydream about what happened at those Olympics? Is it still the No. 1 icebreaker people have when they approach you?
Davis: I do think about the Olympics. Not every day, but often enough. Sometimes it is an icebreaker when people recognize me and don’t know what else to say. People will approach me about my professional boxing career and if they’re a little older, they’ll remember the ’76 Olympics.
Fitzbitz: Most casual fans, when asked about boxing at those Olympics, will probably mention Ray Leonard and perhaps Leon and Michael Spinks before remembering your role. As a competitor, did that or does that frustrate you at all?
Davis: Not necessarily true. When someone approaches me about the ’76 Olympics it's because they recognize me from those Olympics. And if I don't get recognized by the public, it's OK.
Fitzbitz: You had a 19-year career that 99.99 percent of pro fighters would envy. Looking back, are you satisfied with what you accomplished? Did you do everything you set out to do when you started?
Davis: Great question. No, I didn’t complete all that I set to do, and that is winning a world championship belt. But there’s one thing that I don’t do, and that’s live in the past. If I do look back, I only use it as a reference, a guide and a learning tool.
Fitzbitz: The one thing glaringly absent from such a long run is a world title belt. You got cracks against memorable fighters – Watt, Rosario and McGirt. What do you instantly recall about those fights? Are any of them more memorable than the others?
Davis: Believe it or not, for each title fight there was a reason not to fight. My first title fight against Jim Watt, I really didn't want to fight at all because my father and managers weren’t getting along at the time. Timing is everything for me and it was not the right time. I was a real sensitive kid at the time and I loved my father. I also liked my managers a lot. I felt like I was caught in the middle. I didn't enjoy training at all and I was consumed with negative feelings throughout the whole training camp as I got ready to fight Jim Watt. It was a close fight and I thought the fight could have gone either way. Unfortunately for me, it went Jim Watt's way.
My second chance at the title was against Edwin Rosario. I was at home contemplating retirement in my living room when my trainer at the time – Craig Gibson – showed up at my house and said he got a call about me fighting Edwin Rosario for WBC title. I asked him how much time I had for training camp and he said two weeks. That’s all of the time that I had to train for one of the hardest-hitting lightweights in the world. On top of that I had to lose 15 pounds. I went 12 hard rounds with Edwin and lost by split decision. Most of the boxing pundits thought I won the fight.
My next title fight was against Buddy McGirt. Same thing, short notice. I had a little over two weeks of training and at the time I needed the money. It was a first-round stoppage. He hit me with a right hand and down I went. I wasn't really hurt, if you watch me getting up you will notice me getting up real slow. Not because I was hurt from the hard right hand that Buddy hit me with. The reason I got up so slow was that I was extremely weak from losing so much weight prior to the fight. But I want you to understand that I made these decisions to go out and fight.
My last title fight was against a hard-hitting southpaw by name of Dana Rosenblatt. I had broken my wrist a week before being asked to fight Dana. I went to my doctor, who put the cast on my left wrist. I asked him if he could take the cast off and show me how to wrap my hand and wrist in a way where I wouldn't feel the pain. We tried everything, but nothing worked. This was my last fight and I needed the money and it was also a short-notice fight, too. He stopped me in the second round.
I do have some regrets, of course, and if I had it to do it all over again I would I have made some changes in my boxing career. Yes, some. But my life experiences have made me who I am today.
Fitzbitz: In today’s era, a significantly larger slice of fighters get shots and win titles. For a guy from a different era, is it difficult to see so many champions when you never got that opportunity?
Davis: No. It is what it is. It’s out of my system, so to speak. There are some regrets, of course, but we keep moving forward. It’s the era and time of the day.
Fitzbitz: In addition to the title fights, your record is littered with big names like Camacho and Taylor and others. In your view, who was the best fighter you ever shared a ring with? Were there any guys who, upon actually being in there with them, were better or worse than advertised?
Davis: Each fighter that I fought was advertised to their ability. Hector Camacho was the smartest fighter that I ever fought, Meldrick Taylor was the fastest and Edwin Rosario was the hardest puncher.
Fitzbitz: In your view, how would some of today’s perceived pound-for-pound elites – Mayweather, Pacquiao, Marquez – have fared against you or the other greats of your time? Are they as good as advertised, or particularly fortunate to be fighting when they are?
Davis: I think that I would have done well against all three in my prime. All three deserve the publicity that they’re receiving in this era.
Fitzbitz: Was there one fight in your career that you absolutely wish had been made that wasn’t? Why?
Davis: I wish that I would have fought Roberto Duran. I just thought that it would have been nice to have that notch on my resume.
Fitzbitz: Here in Florida, you’ve clearly established yourself on the MMA side in recent years. Describe your connection to the sport? Where did it come from? And how do you compare the high-end athletes in MMA to the high-end guys in boxing?
Davis: I started out as the boxing director of American Top Team in Coconut Creek, Fla., and that’s how I got to know many of the best MMA fighters in the world. Now, as an MMA promoter with my wife, it has been great getting to have some of my former students fight under my organization – Fight Time Promotions. MMA hasn’t caught up to boxing just yet in terms of finances. MMA fighters aren’t making the same kind of money like Pacquiao, Marquez and Mayweather. Once that happens, mixed martial arts will arrive.
Fitzbitz: There seems to be a rivalry, either real or perceived, between boxing fans and MMA fans. As a guy with obvious connections to both factions, what do you think of the divide? Can the sports peacefully co-exist, or will there always be a built-in tension?
Davis: I don’t think that there is a rivalry. Boxing isn’t MMA and MMA isn’t boxing. And what I mean by that is that a boxer cannot throw someone to the ground, a boxer can’t arm bar someone, choke someone out, etc. It’s like apples and oranges. To me, it’s perceived. The only similarity is the striking, which is about 15 percent, and 85 percent to the ground. There lies the difference – apples and oranges. Both sports can easily co-exist. They have no connection to one another.
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This week’s title-fight schedule:
IBF junior welterweight title – Washington, D.C.
Lamont Peterson (champion) vs. Kendall Holt (No. 3 contender)
Peterson (30-1-1, 15 KO): First title defense; Fourth fight in Washington (3-0)
Holt (28-5, 16 KO): Fifth title fight (2-2); Held WBO title at 140 (2008-09, one defense)
Fitzbitz says: “Holt has been dangerous for years, but seems a level down from where Peterson was against Khan. Unless the rust is an issue, the champ should retain.” Peterson by decision
IBF junior middleweight title – Detroit, Mich.
Cornelius Bundrage (champion) vs. Ishe Smith (No. 14 contender)
Bundrage (32-4, 19 KO): Third title defense; Unbeaten in Detroit (14-0)
Smith (24-5, 11 KO): First title fight; Second fight in Michigan (1-0)
Fitzbitz says: “Despite rankings, there doesn’t seem to be a big separation between the two. Still, it’s been a while, if ever, since Smith beat a fighter of Bundrage’s caliber.” Bundrage by decision
NOTE: Fights previewed are only those involving a sanctioning body's full- fledged title-holder – no interim, diamond, silver, etc. Fights for WBA "world championships" are only included if no "super champion" exists in the weight class.
Last week’s picks: 2-1
2013 picks record: 5-2 (71.4 percent)
Overall picks record: 378-123 (75.4 percent)
Lyle Fitzsimmons has covered professional boxing since 1995 and written a weekly column for Boxing Scene since 2008. He is a full voting member of the Boxing Writers Association of America. Reach him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter – @fitzbitz.