Practicing the “sweet science” for decades, Howard Davis Jr. spent years using it to deliver more punches than his opponents could handle.
Retired from a life between the ropes and coaching full-time, Davis now spends his time attempting to give MMA fighters the opportunity to reach the level of success he once enjoyed.
Davis took some time to speak with Bleacher Report to share his experiences.
Born in 1956, the Glen Cove, N. Y. native didn’t experience the harsh upbringing that molds young men into fighters.
That’s not to say his family didn’t experience the rough times just as any family would, but Davis explained the dynamic of his hometown neighborhood.
“It was a lot different back then compared to now,” Davis said. “Everyone knew their neighbors. Our neighbors would come over and ask to borrow items like sugar and it wasn’t like now, where most people don’t even talk to their neighbors.”
Although the neighborhood was instilled with family values, that doesn’t mean fights between kids didn’t happen. It was in these childhood scrums that Davis would learn the true value of what has defined his career.
“We had honorable fights,” Davis said. “We would really get on people who would grab things like sticks or bats; anything less than using your bare fists.”
Davis’ sense of honor was no doubt instilled by his father, Howard Davis Sr. His father was well-known throughout the community.
Growing up in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the American way of life became rocked by the influence of heroin onto metropolitan streets.
While most of the country was searching for a way to get their next high, Davis never experienced the hardships of drugs.
“To this day, I haven’t had a drop of alcohol and never experimented with drugs of any kind,” Davis said.
The allure of drug addiction was driven off by Davis’ father. He shared a story that has resonated with him for years.
“There was this guy who asked my dad if he knew about acquiring some drugs,” Davis said. “My father took the guy and threw him down the stairwell.”
Davis’ uncle, a police officer in the area, came over the next day to inform Davis Sr. that he had in fact thrown an undercover cop down the stairwell.
Looking at his distinguished boxing career, one would assume Davis was working his jab soon after being born, but that was not the case.
“I started playing my father’s congas and eventually moved onto drums,” Davis said. “When I turned 12 years old I helped form a band.”
“We performed at amateur night at the Apollo Theater and opened for numerous bands in the area,” Davis said.
A major highlight of Davis’ musical career was a chance meeting of two legendary artists.
“I got to do a song with James Brown and Sammy Davis, Jr,” Davis said. “I thought that was the coolest thing to be that young and playing along with Sammy Davis, Jr.”
Charting on Billboard was not in the cards for Davis, as personal issues created a rift in the band.
“Our guitar player started taking drugs and would show up late or not at all sometimes,” Davis said.
Davis’ father, who managed the band, attempted to give the band mate numerous chances but it just never came together.
“I told my father I was burnt out and wanted to focus on my grades,” Davis said.
A good student, Davis’ grades had begun to slip and with college aspirations, the young student needed to maintain good academic standing.
Growing up, Davis actually wanted to pursue a career in the medical field as a surgeon; that is until one night changed his life forever.
“My father asked if I wanted to go to a movie,” Davis said. “For some reason, I didn’t ask what movie we were going to see and my father didn’t tell me.”
The movie was A.K.A. Cassius Clay, a documentary film about the career of Muhammad Ali.
Following the movie, Davis and his father shared a moment that would help define Davis’ boxing career.
“I told my father I wanted to box,” Davis said. “My father asked ‘Why?’ and I told him I felt I could do it.”
The phrase “go to bed early, train hard” was more than just a few words uttered by Davis Sr. to his son—it was guidance for how a professional boxer should handle his career.
Davis took the advice to heart and woke up the next day to run three miles, farther than he had ever ran before. He took a few boxing fights after training and would eventually try out for the New York Golden Gloves tournament.
Not only did Davis win the New York Golden Gloves, he set a new record by winning them four consecutive years in a row.
A simple question gave the the upstart boxer a new direction:
A question asked by his trainer, Davis’ father, set the boxer in a new path that would see him reach new heights. Qualifying for the Olympics, let alone winning, would be a tough task to overcome.
On the path to the 1976 Olympics, Davis squared off against two of boxing’s all-time greats in Tommy Hearns and Aaron Pryor.
As if defeating two future legends of the sport weren’t hard enough, Davis still had the actual Olympics to participate in.
The 1976 Summer Olympics saw Davis defeat five of the world’s best boxers en route to winning the gold medal for the United States.
A moment that should have been surrounded with triumph was instead almost overshadowed by a personal tragedy.
Three days before he was set to begin his path to the gold medal, Davis’ mother died.
“I remembered my family calling me and everyone was crying but didn’t tell me why,” Davis said. “Finally, after what seemed like five minutes, my neighbor told me that my mother had died three days ago.”
Rocked by the tragic death of his 37-year-old mother, Davis pondered as to what to do in regards to competing.
His first instinct was to go home.
A talk with one of his coaches would sway his mind in a different way.
Not giving the young man a chance to respond, Johnson walked away to leave Davis in thought.
He remembered the last words he and his mother shared before Davis left.
“She told me, ‘Good luck. You better bring home the gold medal’,” said Davis.
Choosing to stay, Davis entered a mental zone that few have experienced.
“I was willing to die before losing,” Davis said. “I was going to leave it all in the ring.”
En route to winning the gold medal, Davis was awarded the Val Barker Award.
The award, meant to go to the most outstanding performer in boxing, was given to Davis over distinguished boxers like “Sugar” Ray Leonard, Michael Spinks and Leon Spinks.
In a comical moment, Davis didn’t even know what he had won when the Olympic committee called him to inform him of their decision.
“I never really followed Olympic boxing and had no idea what it (the award) was when they called,” Davis said.
Following a successful Olympic campaign, Davis officially turned pro in 1977.
In the world of MMA, fighters are often matched up according to their experience. Such is not the case within the realm of boxing.
“For my first fight, I fought a guy who had 70 professional fights,” Davis said.
With the outcome already decided in his mind, Davis would emerge victorious but not before experiencing some pain in the weirdest way.
“This guy, he had no neck,” Davis said. “Every time I punched him it hurt my hand. Even with my jab, it hurt.”
His first handful of opponents were no cakewalks either. World title contenders and fighters with records like 52-2 with 38 knockout wins were commonplace among his earlier opponents.
Competing for multiple titles, Davis’ final boxing record would stand at 36-6-1 after finally retiring in 1996.
Although he had a successful boxing career, Davis would perhaps find his true calling in life after stepping outside the ropes.
Stay tuned to Bleacher Report MMA for the next part in the story of Howard Davis Jr.