Olympic boxing champion Howard Davis Jr., who won the gold medal and was named the most outstanding fighter in the Montreal Games, died of cancer last Wednesday. He was 59.
Famous for his stellar amateur boxing career, which featured wins over future world champs Tommy Hearns and Aaron Pryor, Davis compiled an astounding 125-5 record. But the highlight of his career was winning the gold in the lightweight division at the 1976 Summer Games. He dedicated the medal to his beloved mother, Catherine, who passed away just three days before the opening ceremonies.
“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’ hard-earned gold medal had been in his possession for only five years when a skittish burglar — with an eye for jewelry and gold — set in motion a bizarre series of events.
According to Olympic historian David Wallechinsky, the medal along with jewelry valued at $15,000 were stolen from Davis’ Dix Hills, N.Y., home on Long Island in 1981. The robber apparently panicked while fleeing on the Long Island Expressway and tossed the medal from his car. Fortunately, the medal ended up on the grassy median and not on the pavement.
Ten years later, the Olympic treasure — which features a design by Florentine artist Giuseppe Cassioli and is clad in six grams of pure gold — was found on the side of the busy eight-lane roadway during a beautification project by a highway landscaper name Jake Fiesel.
Failing to understand the significance of his new possession, Fiesel used the 60mm wide Olympic medal as a paperweight for four years. In 1995, a visitor to Fiesel’s home pointed out that what he had was an authentic Olympic medal. The engraving at the bottom of the medal revealed that it was awarded for boxing.
Fiesel was able to connect the dots and arranged to reunite the Long Island boxer with this hard-fought medal — the one dedicated to his mother’s memory — 14 years after it was taken from his home. It’s been a part of Davis’ prized possessions ever since.
The soft-spoken boxer, who never drank alcohol or smoked cigarettes, was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer in February of 2014. In an interview with Ringsiderreport.com, Davis vowed to beat it.
“When the doctors told me — I’m not going to lie to you — I started crying,” Davis said. “But then the fighter in me came out and I said to my wife, ‘I’m going to fight this and I’m going to beat it.’”
Sadly, his battle ended last week, but the memory of his Olympic triumphs and his gold medal will continue to live on. A public memorial service will be held in Fort Lauderdale on Thursday.
Medal photo by Cliff via Wikimedia Commons. Howard Davis photos via Facebook/HowardDavis.