Olympic champion boxer Howard Davis Jr., who won the 1976 gold medal and was named over teammate Sugar Ray Leonard as the most outstanding fighter in the Montreal Games, has died of cancer, his wife said Friday.
Davis, 59, died Wednesday at his Plantation home, surrounded by family, said Karla Guadamuz-Davis.
His diagnosis of stage 4 lung cancer in February just before his birthday came as a shock because he had never smoked, she said. The cancer spread to his liver, and the family chose to discontinue treatment in a hospital this week.
“We decided to bring him home,” Guadamuz-Davis said. “He was in my arms.”
In the 1976 Olympics, Davis was voted the outstanding boxer, out-polling his teammates Leonard and Michael and Leon Spinks.
His mother had died three days before the Montreal Games began, and he considered withdrawing from competition. Instead he stayed, and he dedicated his lightweight gold medal win to his mother's memory.
“It was devastating,” Davis told the New York Post in August. “But I remembered her pointing her finger in my face and telling me, `You'd better win the gold medal.’ I wasn't going to be denied. There was no way I was going to lose.”
Davis was considered by many to be better than Leonard on the star-studded 1976 team. As a pro, however, his career never matched his Olympic exploits.
The gold medal awarded to Davis was a story unto itself. According to Olympic historian David Wallechinsky, the medal was stolen in 1981 from Davis' Long Island home but the robber apparently tossed it from his car while fleeing police.
Ten years later, a highway landscaper came across a piece of metal while at work. He cleaned it up and used it for a paperweight for the next four years. In 1991, a visitor to the landscaper's home recognized the paperweight for what it was. The landscaper, Jake Fiesel, tracked down Davis and called him. The boxer was finally reunited with his medal.
Davis retired from boxing in 1996 with a professional record of 36-6-1 with 14 knockouts, according to his biography on the Howard Davis Jr. Foundation's website.
Davis went on to train mixed martial arts fighters, including Chuck Liddell, who posted an image of an undated Polaroid showing him with Davis on his Instagram account Thursday. “A great coach and good friend. Rest in peace my brother,” Liddell wrote. Davis had signed the picture and added, “Hard work always pays off!”
He and his wife promoted mixed martial arts fights through their Florida-based company, Fight Time Promotions.
Davis continued to offer coaching advice even as a promoter, heading into the locker room after a bout in his suit to sit with a bloodied fighter and talk about boxing technique, Guadamuz-Davis said.
“I could hear him saying, `You've got to keep your hands up,' or, `Listen, this is your last fight.’ Promoters don't usually do that,” she said. “He thought it was his duty to make sure the fighters take care of themselves.”
Davis was born Feb. 14, 1956, in Glen Cove, N.Y. He was the eldest of 10 children, and his father ran a local youth center and trained amateur and professional boxers.
According to his foundation, Davis was inspired to become a boxer after seeing the documentary “AKA Cassius Clay” as a teenager. Davis' family has scheduled a public memorial service in Fort Lauderdale on Jan. 7.
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