By Lyle Fitzsimmons
Boxing fans of a certain age still remember the 1976 U.S. Olympic team.
Those Americans took Montreal by storm over two weeks in late July, winning seven medals in 11 weight classes -- besting Cubans and Russians along the way -- including golds that ultimately helped launch the championship-level pro careers of Michael Spinks, Leon Spinks and Ray Leonard.
But what many don’t recall is the U.S. fighter who was named the tournament’s best.
That was Howard Davis Jr., a Long Island native who earned both his gold and the Val Barker Trophy just days after the death of his mother, and went on to enjoy a pro career that spanned 19 years and yielded 36 wins in 43 fights before ending in 1996.
He’s remained in close contact with the sports world for the two decades since his retirement, initially as a boxing trainer for mixed martial arts fighters and later as owner of Fight Time Promotions -- a Florida-based organization whose MMA events have been televised nationally by CBS Sports Network.
The headlines Davis has earned lately, however, are ones he’d just as soon do without.
Now 59 and a life-long non-smoker, he was diagnosed just days before his birthday with Stage IV lung cancer, which, according to the American Society of Clinical Oncology, means the disease has spread to more than one area in the other lung, the fluid surrounding the lung or the heart or distant parts of the body through the bloodstream. Once released in the blood, it can spread anywhere in the body, but is most likely to spread to the brain, bones, liver and adrenal glands.
Since receiving the news, Davis and his wife, Karla, have been a picture of perpetual motion. They launched the Howard Davis Jr. Foundation in the summer with an aim toward helping others with similar diagnoses ease the financial burdens created by non-traditional therapies not covered by insurance.
The foundation has a pair of events scheduled this month, including a VIP dinner on Aug. 15 at the Tower Club in Fort Lauderdale, as well as a comedy fundraiser on Aug. 19 in Westbury, N.Y. Information about both is available at the foundation’s website -- www.howarddavisjrfoundation.org .
“My career speaks for itself. I won the gold medal a few days after my mother passed away and it resonates with me every day,” Davis said. “I've fought hard for everything that I have and I'll continue to fight. Cancer has knocked me down, but I'm not out.”
Davis and I got together recently to discuss his initial reaction to the cancer news, the challenges he’s facing with treatment and the aims he’s got as he continues his battle with the disease.
Fitzbitz: First off, how are you feeling these days? What sorts of challenges are you facing now?
Howard Davis Jr.: I'm fighting every day. I have my good days and my bad ones. I don't have the same energy that I've had my entire life. It's been very difficult getting used to not being able to do what I'd like to do -- physically -- but my spirit and mind are as strong as ever.
Fitzbitz: A lot of people talk about how they reacted when they’ve gotten a cancer diagnosis, or when friends or loved ones got them. What was your first reaction? How difficult was it to begin sharing the information with those close to you?
Davis: At first, I was shocked. I've never smoked in my life. I've never been around smokers. In fact, I never even touched a sip of alcohol. I've lived a clean life and have stayed fairly active in the gym when I was training fighters. When I was first told cancer, I couldn't believe it. I cried for a moment and then I shook it off and told myself that it was fight time. My wife was the first one to find out and she hugged me tight. She told me that she was going to fight with me and she has. Telling my family and close friends was very difficult because they couldn't believe that this was happening to me.
Fitzbitz: You were a championship-level athlete who’s done the right things health-wise along the way. Does the situation these days leave you feeling at all cheated? Angry? Something else?
Davis: I have no anger in me whatsoever. I don't have the time or energy to be angry. Anger is a waste of energy and I choose to keep my emotions in check and focus on the positives.
Fitzbitz: What is the prognosis? What have you been told? What is treatment like? How, if at all, has it changed your day-to-day life?
Davis: It has metastasized to my liver, lower back bones, right shoulder and right hip. I did what most people would do when they hear this diagnosis and started traditional chemo treatment. After two treatments, I honestly thought I was going to die. I had no energy, felt horrible and told my wife that I'd rather die than to live like that. My wife went into action and did some research. Being married to a former journalist came in handy because she really did her homework. We found an excellent doctor in Boca Raton, who is doing both traditional and non-traditional treatments to reduce the tumors and eventually kill the cancer. My life revolves around my doctor visits. I go to my doctor five days a week and I fight this disease with a good diet, strong natural medications and some low-dose chemo. Right now, I'm stable and my doctor is doing everything he can to save my life.
Fitzbitz: How have you felt about the support you’ve received since your condition was made public? Surprising? Comforting? Have you heard from past boxing friends, opponents?
Davis: I've been diagnosed since February of this year. I wasn't ready to go public until recently because I feel more comfortable talking about what I'm doing to fight cancer. My friends have been amazing. I've talked to Sugar Ray Leonard and he has been great. Steve Farhood has also been amazing to me and the most amazing thing is how strangers have showed their love and affection during this time.
Fitzbitz: Does receiving news like this automatically set a person to saying “OK, these are the things I want to accomplish,” etc.? What sorts of priorities do you have? How are you going to go about beating this or at least dealing with it?
Davis: I'm very content with what I've accomplished. I truly believe that I was stricken with this disease for a reason. I'm not focusing on what I want to do, but what I have to do to speak out about cancer and help others. This is truly the biggest fight of my life and I don't plan on losing.