John Davis Revisited

John Davis belongs in the top three ath­letes for his weight class.

One man who is often over­looked in our sport is its first post-​​war super­star and the first man to win eight world or Olympic gold medals who worked as a hum­ble guard at New York’s Riker’s Island Prison for many years.

This man was John Henry Davis, named after the leg­endary black steel dri­ver. Born on Jan­u­ary 12, 1921 in Brook­lyn, New York, he would grow up a wor­thy fac­sim­ile of his name­sake. He did this in the fore– and after-​​shadow of World War II, of which he was an army vet­eran. That war inter­rupted his and all of weightlifting’s progress for many years. And it is because of this time frame that Davis’ legacy is the sub­ject of some con­tro­versy in regard to just how he would com­pare to other greats, par­tic­u­larly those oth­ers that have also won mul­ti­ple titles in sub­se­quent years. This is often debated since, while he com­peted mostly in the heavy­weight cat­e­gory (over 82.5 kg for most of his career), he stood only 5’8’’ and weighed from 90 to 107 kg, sig­nif­i­cantly shorter and lighter than the men who would suc­ceed him. Since his lifts do not look so impres­sive com­pared to mod­ern per­for­mances, many might dis­miss him as just an old-​​timer who was lucky to com­pete when he did. But is this fair to the man?

Art Drech­sler of New York wrote a paper enti­tled “How Good Was John Davis?” some time ago, where he sang the praises of the man. I myself remem­ber when Davis died (from can­cer on July 13, 1984), just a few days before the start of the LA Olympics. I was the Cana­dian team leader then and remem­ber the dis­cus­sion among the peo­ple there who remem­bered him, among them Mor­ris Weiss­brot, Tommy Kono, John Ter­pak and Rudy Sablo. In this paper, I will attempt to illu­mi­nate the debate so that read­ers may come to their own con­clu­sions just as I came to mine.

I will start this dis­cus­sion by quot­ing a the­sis sub­mit­ted to the State Uni­ver­sity of New York Empire State Col­lege, by Mark Kodya. In it is the fol­low­ing passage:

Gen­der and Racial Equality

The 1952 Olympics were John Davis’s final suc­cess on the inter­na­tional plat­form. How good was John Davis? Drech­sler (2000, p. 2–3) notes “He per­formed his lifts with no thigh brush (the bar was not per­mit­ted to touch the thighs or hips dur­ing the pull in those days), used a split style, employed no hook grip (John’s hands were too small to hook com­fort­ably), and lifted on equip­ment far poorer than today’s (and John cer­tainly used no banned sub­stances)… Davis had won 6 con­sec­u­tive World Cham­pi­onships and 2 con­sec­u­tive Olympic Games. Since that time, only two other weightlifters have ever dupli­cated Davis’ achieve­ment — Tommy Kono and Vasili Alexseev (Naim Sule­m­ana­glou has won more World Cham­pi­onships than this leg­endary trio and one more Olympic Games, but his vic­to­ries were not con­sec­u­tive and Naim’s record was set up 43 years after Davis’). One can only imag­ine how many cham­pi­onships Davis might have won had the war years not cut 7 years out of the prime of his career.”

It is only on this final point that I dis­agree. Davis was unde­feated for a fifteen-​​year period, encom­pass­ing the war years, so it is log­i­cal that he would have won the 5 world and 2 Olympic cham­pi­onships not held, giv­ing him 4 Olympic and 11 world cham­pi­onships, had it not been for the war — a tally unap­proached in the inter­ven­ing fifty years, mak­ing a very strong case that John Davis was the great­est weightlifter of all time. Wil­helm (1996, p. 5) notes that “In 1992.[Kono] was acclaimed by… [Inter­na­tional Weightlift­ing Fed­er­a­tion] vote to be the great­est weightlifter of all time”. Kono’s obvi­ous achieve­ments notwith­stand­ing, the selec­tion of any­one other than John Davis for that hon­our demon­strates that he remains under­rated and one has to won­der to what extent that is race-​​based. Per­haps the great­est mea­sure of his abil­ity is that rec­og­niz­ing Davis as an eight-​​time world and Olympic cham­pion does not give him suf­fi­cient credit for longevity.

Before we get too far I must ques­tion the idea that the choice of Kono over Davis as the great­est of all time as being “race-​​based”. That may be true with some but I don’t think that it would be accu­rate for a major­ity of the judges. For starters, Davis was very pop­u­lar with most who knew him in his prime. He had few seri­ous detrac­tors. Most of the judges were born later and never knew him, espe­cially since most prob­a­bly were from Europe and so may not be quite so informed by anti-​​black sen­ti­ment in the first place. And this sup­po­si­tion also does not take into account the qual­i­ties of the other can­di­dates. There is lit­tle to choose from when you men­tion names like Davis, Kono, Alex­eev, Sulie­manuglu, Rigert and oth­ers. No slouches, any of them. You could name any­one of them as the “great­est” and still have much to sup­port your choice. So I don’t think racism can be con­sid­ered the obvi­ous rea­son Davis was not cho­sen. A pos­si­ble one but not an obvi­ous one.

In com­par­ing him to the other three mul­ti­ple win­ners men­tioned above it is inter­est­ing to note that all four were mem­bers of eth­nic minori­ties in their own coun­tries. Davis was an African Amer­i­can, Kono was Japan­ese in post war Hawaii, and Sule­manu­glou was a Turk, an his­tor­i­cally unpop­u­lar peo­ple, in Bul­garia. Since most weightlift­ing writ­ers who are in a posi­tion to grant immor­tal­ity to such ath­letes are Cau­casian some would won­der why one might sus­pect racial bias when many of the can­di­dates might be beyond the pale to a poten­tial bigot in their midst.

Bob Hoff­man cer­tainly had his share of human fail­ings. His detrac­tors have been as eager to point these out as he was to detail his ever peer­less bent press­ing, canoe­ing and polka danc­ing abil­i­ties. But eth­nic or racial ani­mos­ity was not one of these fail­ings. Even if he had held prej­u­diced views pri­vately (no such evi­dence), as a good busi­ness­man he at least never let any­thing like that pre­vent him from field­ing his best team pos­si­ble, as John D. Fair pointed this out very well in Mus­cle­town, USA. In an arti­cle in the Sep­tem­ber, 1966 Strength and Health, Hoff­man remarked that he and Davis were indeed refused ser­vice in many restau­rants in those pre-​​civil rights days.

It may be inter­est­ing to note that the pos­si­ble snub­bing of Davis was not lim­ited to those pun­dits of more Nordic ori­gins. Even Ebony mag­a­zine, a sort of com­peti­tor to Life in the African-​​American com­mu­nity, was unaware of his accom­plish­ments. They did a fea­ture on Black Olympians just prior to the 1996 Games in Atlanta. All of the sto­ried names like Jesse Owens, Rafer John­son, Wilma Rudolph and Cas­sius Clay were duly noted. But they missed Davis, who won not one but two gold medals. That can be blamed on our sport’s low pro­file I suppose.

Mov­ing to the issue of con­sec­u­tive vic­to­ries, I believe that Suliemanuglu’s per­for­mance should not be den­i­grated because his vic­to­ries were not con­sec­u­tive. The only rea­son they were not was due to the years he had to sit out due to his defec­tion and cit­i­zen­ship change. His vic­to­ries, although made decades after Davis’, were made when com­pe­ti­tion was much tougher and deeper. It should be remem­bered that he was never defeated in his years at the top. The only mark against him was his ill-​​fated come­back in the 2000 Olympics.

About Dresdin Archibald

Dresdin Archibald has been an IWF International Referee since 1970 (Category 1 since 1980). He was president of the Canadian Weightlifting Federation 1980-84 and 1997-2001 and was also on the IWF Audit Committee 1984-88. He was treasurer of the IWF Masters Committee for many years and is currently vice president of the Canadian Masters. He has served as referee or team leader at various international competitions such as the Olympics, Junior, Senior, Collegiate and Masters Worlds plus Commonwealth and Pan Am Games. He has also served as referee and other positions at most Canadian Senior Championships since 1968. He has written an "Officials Manual" for every Olympiad since 1972. This manual (usually nearly 200 pages) takes the IWF rules and explains their history, rational and how to apply them, and explains what the new official can expect when going to his first international meet. He takes a keen interest in our sport's history as well as many other issues. And he has met many of those in this world who have contributed to our sport over the past 50 years.
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4 responses to John Davis Revisited

  1. Pingback: Doug Hepburn and Paul Anderson: Compare and Contrast | Lost Battalion Hall Weightlifting

    […] often unath­letic and very overweight–good pressers, per­haps, but for­get the quick lifts. John Davis was the peren­nial World Heavy­weight Cham­pion. He stood 5’8” and weighed any­where from […]

  2. floyd tinsley says:

    Most of the pic­tures I see that are sup­posed to be John Davis , on this site and oth­ers on the internet

    are of Jim Brad­ford the other black lifter of that day.

  3. tom hughes says:

    I had this dis­cus­sion many times with Mor­ris (Kono vs Davis). One thing no one points out: the war dec­i­mated the euro­pean lifters much more than the Amer­i­cans. Some­one could have come along and beat John dur­ing those years and the Euro­peans were more con­cerned with sur­vival rather than sport. I still rate Davis sec­ond only to Kono.

  4. Dresdin Archibald says:

    Yes, I believe Kodya is naive on a few points. It is NOT log­i­cal that he would have won the 5 world and 2 Olympic cham­pi­onships not held in WWII. His­tory would have been way dif­fer­ent with­out an all-​​encompassing six year long world war. Ger­many, Aus­tria, Egypt and France would have con­tin­ued to pro­duce top lifters and maybe the USSR and their satel­lites would have entered com­pe­ti­tion sooner than they even­tu­ally did. Who knows if a cold war would have devel­oped? There are just too many “ifs” to assume a ceterus parabus sit­u­a­tion in weightlift­ing. This is not to den­i­grate Davis or any oth­ers of that time. It is just too hard to pre­dict what would have hap­pened. One also has to ask if Davis (and con­tem­po­raries) would have con­tin­ued on into the 1950s if they lifted through the 1940s. Their longevity might not have occurred with­out the moti­va­tion of those miss­ing years that might have kept lifters in the game longer than they nor­mally would compete.

    By the way, the pic­ture here IS of Davis, taken at the Lon­don Olympics, of which Brad­ford did not enter.

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