Over a boxing career that spanned nearly 40 years, rare were the losses Howard Davis Jr. couldn’t fight his way back from.
The Broward County Sports Hall of Famer suffered one of his most devastating setbacks on the eve of his greatest triumph, when his mother died of a heart attack in 1976, just days before the 20-year-old lightweight won gold at the Montreal Olympics.
Now, at 59, Davis is facing the fight of his life after recently learning he has incurable, late-stage lung cancer.
The disease has spread beyond his lungs, rendering it inoperable; surgery would not remove all the tumors. Since February, when he was diagnosed, Davis, who says he has never smoked or had a drink in his life, has dropped 42 pounds, down from 195. A port has been punched into his chest; like a brawler going for a thin-skinned opponent’s eyes, it’s the quickest route to drawing blood, a mean way to give a man his medicine.
The prognosis doctors gave Davis was grim — he had less than a year to live.
“I have stage-four cancer, which is the worst cancer,” he said. “Normally, it is a death sentence, but for me, it’s fight time.”
‘Champions don’t quit’
A decorated fighter who went 120-5 as an amateur, Davis defeated the likes of Aaron Pryor, Thomas Hearns and Soviet gold-medalist Boris Kuznetsov before winning the gold medal in Montreal. But three days before the Games opened, he called home only to learn his mother, 37-year-old Catherine Davis, was dead.
His first impulse, rather than fight, was flight — Davis bolted out the door of his apartment and out into Olympic Village, running and running, like Forrest Gump, away from the shock and pain. Then, just as he did most days, he headed to the gym.
“For some reason I wanted to hit the bag,” Davis recalled. “I was crying so hard. I was hitting that bag like a demon.”
The oldest of his parents’ 10 children, Davis wanted to leave Canada and go home, and so went to his coaches.
One of them, Tom “Sarge” Johnson, took Davis by the shoulder.
“Sarge looked me dead in the eye, and said, ‘Are you sure you want to leave?'” Davis said.
He called his father, Howard Davis Sr., and said he was staying put.
“You know what my mother’s last words to me were? ‘Good luck and you better bring back that gold,” Davis said. “I won that medal for her.”
Nearly 40 years later, he is filled with that same gutsy determination.
“I never ask why I got (cancer). I just started fighting. If you are a champion, champions don’t quit.”
‘How do you prepare for cancer?’
Inside his doctor’s office in Boca Raton, Davis is about to undergo another round of chemotherapy. Though gaunt and sapped of energy, Davis is as affable as ever.
“How do you get all of that blood out of my finger?” he teases the attending nurse. “What are you, a vampire?”
His outlook for recovery, however, doesn’t look good.
A recent PET scan showed the cancer had spread throughout his lungs and to his liver, lower back, right shoulder and right hip.
Still, Davis and his wife, Karla Guadamuz-Davis, are giving it their best shot in hopes of extending his life.
Initially, Davis went the conventional treatment route, with high doses of chemotherapy. But after the second session, he told the oncologist he couldn’t continue.
“I said, ‘I feel like I am dying,'” Davis said. “I got up and went to the bathroom and my wife had an honest moment with the doctor. She asked him, ‘Be honest with me, how long does he have to live?’ He said, ‘With chemo, maybe a year.’ I said to myself, ‘We are out of here.'”
Since then, for the past three months, in three-hour sessions three times per week, Davis and his wife have driven from their home in Plantation to Advanced Medical Therapeutics in Boca, where he is under the care of cancer specialist Dr. Mark Rosenberg, the clinic’s medical director and president.
Rosenberg, who as a child watched Davis fight in the Olympics, says he’s hoping for a miracle.
“With the amount of disease he has, that might be a little generous,” he said. “I am worried about Howard.”
Advocating what he calls “non-conventional means” for treating cancer, Rosenberg is critical of the standard approach to treating advanced cancer, especially the use of maximum doses of chemotherapy.
“It doesn’t work,” said Rosenberg, who instead uses low-dose chemo combined with off-label medicines, supplements and other alternative measures.
So far, sessions have cost the Davises up to $1,900 a week. Should Davis need to shift to more aggressive options, such as immunotherapy and radiofrequency ablation — using electrical energy to destroy cancer cells that can’t be reached through surgery — such procedures could top $20,000 each.
“We are fighters,” Guadamuz-Davis said. “(But) how do you prepare for cancer? You don’t. … This isn’t going to be a couple of sessions and Howard is going to go home and get on a heavy bag and start boxing or anything like that. He is going to have to live with this for his entire life.”
‘Always shooting for the stars’
After a 17-year pro career, which featured three title fights, Davis moved in the 1990s from fighting to training, from boxing to mixed martial arts, and in 2003 from New York to South Florida. Davis later became an MMA promoter and five years ago founded Fight Time Promotions.
Davis and his wife have hosted more than 110 amateur events and 26 pro MMA fight cards through Fight Time and recently landed a deal to air events on CBS Sports Network. Fight Time has three more events scheduled for this year, including a July 17 show at Fort Lauderdale’s War Memorial Auditorium.
Parents of a 5-year-old daughter, the couple also recently established the Howard Davis Jr. Foundation to assist in financing Davis’ medical expenses and to help other families experiencing similar circumstances.
Davis’ grit and energy, however tested by his condition, is an inspiration to those close to him.
“I cried when I heard the news. It was like being in a fight and getting a shot to the liver. You either stand up and keep fighting or stay down and get counted out,” said Rhadi Ferguson, a 2004 Olympian and former MMA light heavyweight who trained under Davis. “I know Howard Davis, and he is one of the greatest fighters to ever walk the planet.”
Ferguson, now an author and motivational speaker with a Ph.D. in education, isn’t the only former protege of Davis who remains in his corner.
Rich Attonito, like Ferguson, worked with Davis at the American Top Team gym in Coconut Creek. The 38-year-old Deerfield Beach resident thrived for 10 years as a UFC welterweight under Davis’ tutelage.
“I know how tough and mentally strong Coach is,” Attonito said, “and I knew that if there is anybody who can battle this thing and if not turn it around, will live as long as he can live, it’s Howard Davis.”
Experts say the average five-year survival rate for those with stage-4 lung cancer is around 1 percent.
“This is probably going to be the hardest fight of my life,” Davis acknowledges. “Now you are dealing with life. I’m not dealing with metaphors, where you get ‘knocked down,’ that kind of stuff. I am dealing with real-life issues here.”
In recent weeks, his trips to the doctor’s office for chemotherapy and other testing and treatment have increased from three days a week to five.
This week, Davis will undergo his fifth session of low-dose chemo. His second PET scan, to check the progress of his cancer, is slated for next week.
His health, his wife prays, is “very steady.”
Davis calls Karla his anchor, saying, “Without her, honestly, I would have been dead a couple of months ago.”
And yet, there’s that word — the “D” word. All too often following on the heels of the “Big C.”
Howard Davis Jr. being Howard Davis Jr., he seems at once itching for the fight and perfectly at peace.
“For some strange reason, I am not scared of death. If it happens to come, I’m ready,” Davis said, but added, “I am always shooting for the stars, and hopefully I’ll land on the moon.”