September Friday nights in Houston belong to a Texas frenzy called high school football, so it was not surprising that there were plenty of empty seats last week in the Summit where lightweight Howard Davis, one of the U.S. heroes of the 1976 Olympics, was scoring a bloody 10-round decision over highly ranked Termite Watkins. This didn't bother Davis. He has played to half-empty arenas before.
Overshadowed by the more flamboyant exploits of Olympic teammates Leon Spinks, Sugar Ray Leonard and, lately, John Tate, Davis' development as a professional has been steady yet relatively unspectacular. Though that approach has been rewarding both financially and in terms of his maturation as a fighter, it has cost him in celebrity.
People expect more of their heroes, especially Olympic gold-medal winners who have $1.5-million contracts with CBS. It is not enough that Davis wins. Knights must fight great big dragons—little dragons don't count. Nor has it helped that Davis has chosen to be less active than Leonard, who has had 24 fights. Davis turned pro on Jan. 1, 1977 and the Watkins fight was only his 12th.
Davis has had his brilliant moments. In his fourth bout he knocked out Dom Monaco, a tough club fighter who hadn't been stopped in his previous 33 fights. His next match was against Arturo Pineda, who had fought Ishimatsu Suzuki of Japan, then the WBC lightweight champion, to a draw in a world-title bout. Davis stopped Pineda in three.
Giancarlo Usai was the Italian lightweight champion and was ranked No. 2 in the world by The Ring magazine when he met Davis. In more than 40 fights Usai had been knocked out only once, by Ken Buchanan, the former world lightweight titleholder, in 12 rounds. Davis stopped him in the third round. And in the bout before the one with Watkins, Davis knocked out Jose Hernandez, the Mexican lightweight champion.
"Heck," says Hank Kaplan, a noted boxing historian from Miami. "If Davis had been fighting in the pretelevision days, the experts would have hung his managers for throwing him to the wolves. Compared to the great fighters from that era, Davis' progress has been nothing short of spectacular."
In making Watkins his 12th victim, Davis was beating the WBA's No. 4 lightweight contender and the WBC's No. 6. According to both the WBA and WBC Davis was No. 9.
Davis was paid $225,000 for the Watkins fight—$185,000 by CBS and $40,000 by the Houston promoters. He has three more fights remaining with CBS, each calling for $185,000, on a contract that runs until September of 1980.
CBS gave Davis $50,000 just for signing with it in 1977. The contract also called for him to receive $40,000 for each of three six-rounders; $50,000 for each of six eight-rounders, and $185,000 per fight for six 10-rounders.
After Davis' sixth fight it was decided that he was ready to move up to 10-rounders ahead of schedule, and the contract was rewritten, giving him $100,000 for each of his first three 10-round fights. And there was a clause stipulating that, should Davis be injured either in or out of the ring, CBS would pay him $4,000 a month for the life of the contract. But after some pressure from a House subcommittee that was examining television's growing involvement in boxing, CBS dropped its exclusive rights to Davis' fights, leaving him free to box on any network. Obviously, Howard Davis is a wealthy young fighter with a lot of earning potential, considering that he has had only 12 pro fights.
By contrast, Beau Jack, one of the more lustrous lightweight champions, fought an unknown named Ritchie Jones in his 12th fight and beat him in three rounds. He didn't fight a 10-rounder until his 38th fight, against a nonentity named Carmelo Fenoy.
In his 12th bout, Ike Williams, another great lightweight champ, fought Joe Genovese and beat him in five rounds. Twenty-six fights later Williams had his first 10-rounder, against Ray Brown, an ordinary club fighter. He didn't box a world-rated fighter, Bob Montgomery, until 10 fights after that. Of course, boxing was a vastly different—and much less lucrative—game in Jack's and Williams' day.
Davis didn't arrive in Houston until four days before his fight with Watkins. The previous week he had been thumbed in his right eye during a sparring session with Aaron Pryor, and there was immediate fear that the Watkins fight would have to be called off. "The eye slammed shut," Davis said. "Then one morning I woke up and it was fine."
The first thing the 23-year-old from Glen Cove, N.Y., did after arriving in Texas was to search for a health-food store. He is a dedicated and almost fanatical vegetarian.
Davis began experimenting with his diet more than a year ago, but it wasn't until last April that he became really serious. He then went on a two-week fast, during which he consumed nothing but water, shed 20 pounds, dropping to 119.
"I couldn't believe it. He got younger looking and thinner, and I aged five years," says Davis' co-manager, Mike Jones.
The fast, Davis explained, was designed to clean out his system. Since that time he has eaten nothing except raw vegetables, fruits and nuts. For Watkins he weighed 133¾.
"The difference from eating bad, from eating dead flesh, to eating right is fantastic," Davis said. "I feel more serene, more peaceful. I don't get mad anymore. If anything, I am stronger and faster."
Watkins had done some fasting of his own, but for a more conventional reason. For his last two fights he had weighed 140½ making him a small welterweight. For Davis he had to get down to 135—or pay a penalty of $10,000 for evey pound over that weight. He hit the mark exactly.
The Houston fight was as important to Watkins as it was to Davis. Watkins had just turned down a $25,000 offer—plus $2,000 for expenses—to fight Scotland's Jim Watt, the WBC lightweight champion, on Nov. 3 in Glasgow. He had agreed to the title bout on June 20 but later decided against it.
"How can you beat a Scotsman in Scotland?" asks Pete Ashlock, who co-manages Watkins. Also, London-based promoter Mickey Duff had stipulated that Watkins, if he won, would have to fight his first three defenses for Duff.
"Options have to be taken out of the boxing world," Ashlock says. "If a man wins a title, he should be allowed to fight for whom and where he wants."
Gil Clancy, the Madison Square Garden, matchmaker, had told both Davis and Watkins that the winner of their bout would be offered a fight against Ernesto Espana, the WBA champion, most likely in November. Espana, Clancy said, had agreed.
With that foremost in mind, Watkins promised at the weigh-in that he would do whatever it took to defeat Davis.
Davis glared at him coldly. "The only way you could beat me," he said, "would be if I had both arms and both legs cut off, and if I lost my vision."
Watkins, who once considered becoming a minister, looked at Davis, shrugged and said, "If that's what it takes...." He hadn't amassed a 46-2-1 record by being timid once he put on the gloves.
Outside of the ring Watkins is soft-spoken and gentlemanly. "It's like fighting Donny Osmond," says Dennis Rappaport, another of Davis' managers. Inside the ring. Termite, who's so nicknamed because his father was an exterminator, becomes a brawler. Trying to brake Davis' blinding speed, his plan was to lunge in behind a busy jab, slam a right to the body and grab.
Davis expected Watkins to come at him, so his plan was to back Termite up, mostly with a jab. "We've studied him on film," Davis said. "He can't fight going back."
Davis began slowly. He lost the first round, pushing and mugging, hitting and hugging. Then he went to work, swiftly and cooly. In the fifth round he took total command, stinging Watkins with jabs from afar and at one point ripping him with a right uppercut in close. In the eighth, throwing a stiff right in the midst of a furious flurry, Davis opened a deep cut under Watkins' left eye.
The last round was a slugging match between two tired fighters, both flatfooted, hitting and being hit, neither taking a step backward. Referee Carlos Padilla scored the round even. Judge Duane Ford gave it to Watkins, 10-9. Judge Richard Steele gave it to Davis, 10-9. No matter. The final numbers were all Davis'—Ford 97-94, Steele 98-93, Padilla 100-95.
Moments later, Davis, poking at a bruise under his right eye with ice wrapped in a washcloth, assessed the man who had assaulted him so primitively.
"He thumbed me five or six times," Davis said without malice. "He held a lot, and butted a lot. It's just a habit. I've seen him do the same thing every fight. He's aggressive, a world-class fighter. He was my toughest fight."
Then Davis smiled. It was the smile of a man who had just made nearly a quarter of a million dollars and whose next fight would be for the lightweight championship of the world. The vegetarian was serene. His time against one of the great big dragons is coming.