Howard Davis II, better known to Olympic boxing fans as John-John, came on first. For his pro debut at the swank Aladdin Hotel in Las Vegas last Saturday afternoon, the shy 20-year-old gold-medal lightweight from Glen Cove. N.Y. had drawn José Resto, a Puerto Rican street fighter out of New York City, short of skills, surely, but with enough heart and stamina to go the distance against Leonidas' 300 Spartans. Then followed Leon Spinks, the 23-year-old ex-marine, his Olympic gold medal in storage, grown to heavyweight stature at 196 pounds and eager to dip into prizefighting's treasure house. For Spinks' pro debut they had imported Lightning Bob Smith, found in a butcher shop in Brooklyn, unskilled, unimpressed and unafraid.
To make the two six-round fight package more attractive, CBS brought in Sugar Ray Leonard, a third gold-medal Olympian, to do the color commentary. Leonard will make his pro debut against Luis Vega on Feb. 5 at Baltimore.
All three Olympians elected to pursue their pro careers under wholly diverse direction. After sifting countless offers, Davis decided to sign with Dennis Rappaport and Mike Jones, two young Long Island, N.Y. real-estate men whose pro boxing experience was limited to spectators' seats at the Nassau Coliseum. "We're boxing nuts." says Rappaport. "But I did once fight for the University of Miami."
"And I fought a lot in the streets," said Jones last week. "And I used to fight for the heavyweight championship every night when I went to bed. But, you know something. I always fell asleep before I got in the ring."
January 24, 1977
Davis signed for a bonus close to $85,000, and Rappaport and Jones gave him a lifetime guarantee of a career in real estate, starting at $125 a week until he learned the business. Howard Davis Sr., who guided his son to 120 victories in 125 amateur fights, four straight Golden Gloves titles, one world championship and the Olympic gold medal, remained as his trainer at $250 a week.
"I think the thing that really sold us was that Rappaport and Jones showed us they cared about John-John as a person," said Howard Sr., who as an amateur heavyweight won 27 of 35 fights. As a professional, he said he had a perfect record: 0-3.
"All I was, was strong," Howard Sr. said, "the direct opposite of John-John, who is just naturally gifted. He's speed; I was brute strength. He jabs and moves; I stood and bled."
Howard Sr. had his last pro fight eight years ago at the age of 32. He was running a small gym when he got a call from Philadelphia asking him to send over a heavyweight. The pay was $150. He went himself.
"John-John was 12 and showing a lot of talent for music," he said. "He needed a set of drums, but there was no money. The people in Philly told me the opponent was small and had lost two of his only three pro fights. I figured I could slip around for six rounds. Heck, I did it in the gym with the kids all the time. When I got there, the fellow was 6'5", weighed 245 and had just knocked out 11 straight guys. He cut open my eye, and they stopped it after five rounds. The drums cost $145."
He fingered a blackened right eye his son had given him in a recent sparring session and grinned. "I never did tell John-John where I got the money."
Discharged from the Marines in December, Spinks decided to cast his lot with Top Rank, the Bob Arum boxing promotion group. His manager of record is Mitt Barnes, who trained him as an amateur in St. Louis, but Butch Lewis, a Top Rank vice-president, will call all the shots. For a substantial bonus, Spinks gave Top Rank exclusive promotional rights for the next 4½ years. At the moment they are trying to coax Fidel Castro into letting Teo Stevenson, the Olympic heavyweight champion, fight Spinks at a neutral site.
Sugar Ray Leonard took a third route. First, his attorney Mike Trainer incorporated him, then he sold 21 short-term shares at $1,000 each. All that the shareholders were promised was that their money would be returned in four years, plus 8% interest. Then, said Trainer, "I'd like to open the closet door and let Angelo Dundee in." Dundee, who has trained or managed four world champions in addition to Muhammad Ali, agreed.
Resto and Smith, the two opponents, were flown to Las Vegas on Friday morning. Davis got $17,500; Resto $1,000. First offered $5,000, Spinks received $10,000; Smith got $800.
A short, squat man with the neck of a weight lifter, Resto has a 12-58-7 record. "When I saw that 12-58 I thought it was his birth date," said CBS publicist Beano Cook.
"Don't sell the little guy short." said Teddy Brenner of Madison Square Garden. "The last time he was in a gym, it was by accident. Most of his fights were taken on one-day notice. He'll be there at the end."
Resto thought so, too. In fact, he predicted he would knock out Davis. "He's an amateur. There's no way he's going to beat a pro like me," said Resto. But he almost didn't make the fight. At the weigh-in, 24 hours beforehand, he came in 1½ pounds over the 136-pound limit, and rushed off to a downtown gym where he sweated off the extra weight. Then he became so intrigued by his first contact with Keno that he was still up at 3 a.m. Saturday, staring in wonderment at the numbers board.
"Don't worry about my weight," Smith, who weighed in at 185, confided mysteriously. "I'll have it down to 180 by tomorrow. I didn't know I was fighting until three days ago, when they found me where I was, helping this guy at his butcher shop in Brooklyn, but I'm always in good shape. I saw Spinks fight on TV. He's crazy, he's wild. He's not developed like me. I'm really a tough guy and I've whupped them all—22 out of 25—and if he whups me, he'll go all the way. But he can't knock me out; he's just an amateur. He's got to go up to Joe Frazier's gym and learn to fight."
The closest anyone could get to an official record for Smith was 6-1-1, spread over almost as many years. "Is that what the book says?" said Smith frowning. "Well, I took a couple of years off when I got married and lost my power punch."
For both Olympians the only worry they professed was being able to go six rounds after years of fighting no more than three. Davis had confidence in his flashy moves; Spinks was certain no one could stand up to his firepower.
As it turned out, except as a stage for the Olympians, the fights were not terribly exciting. Resto was durable, but no match for the blinding speed of Davis who soon was raining blows on Resto's stubborn and unbowed head. It is impossible to determine which are quicker: Davis' hands or feet. When he wills, both become blurs. Together they make his jab seem eight feet long.
"Everybody says he is a thinking fighter," said his father, "but he doesn't think any better than me or you. It's just when he thinks of something he has the ability and the reflexes to do it. You and me, we'd think of the same thing; only thing is, we couldn't do nothing with what we thought about."
When the fight was over, Resto was still in there swatting at flies, and the three officials all scored it 30-24 for Davis. "He no hit hard enough," said Resto, who has been stopped only twice, both times on cuts. "All he does is tap, tap, tap." Then he was off to play some more Keno.
Smiling, Davis watched Resto leave and decided they must have poured the little Puerto Rican from concrete. "Man, he's tough. But I'm glad it went the six rounds. I needed the boxing. It was a mental thing. I wanted to get that three-round habit out of my mind."
Now it was Spinks' turn. And Smith's. "You're going to see a combination Henry Armstrong and Joe Brown with a little Sugar Ray Robinson," said Smith. All anybody saw was Spinks' gloves—in combinations. While Davis is pure finesse, Spinks fights with ferocious abandon. For a big man, he is exceedingly quick, and he punches not so much to score points as to decapitate. Relentless from the opening bell, Spinks staggered Smith in the first two rounds, had him down in the third and fourth and had drilled his mouthpiece into the crowd when the referee stopped the bout with 20 seconds gone in the fifth round.
"That Smith would have made a hell of a marine," said Spinks.
Sugar Ray Leonard was asked his impressions of the two fights.
"John-John was superb," he said, "and Leon has that great killer instinct. All he needs is to learn to slow down and be more accurate. People forget. Doing something for the first time puts a lot of extra pressure on you. You try harder than you should. And I learned one very important thing: I enjoy it much more being outside of the ring talking than I do inside."