A great stramash in Glasgow

The pipes, the drums, the thousands of voices raised in song bestirred Jim Watt, the WBC lightweight titleholder, to victory over former Olympic champ Howard Davis
June 15, 1980

At the end of 15 long, hard rounds last Saturday night, the heart and soul of gray, workaday old Glasgow was there for Jim Watt to take. "O, flower of Scotland," the crowd sang, breaking into a patriotic favorite, a sad-happy ballad commemorating battles of long ago, "when will we see your like again?"

And Watt himself, the blue-and-white flag of his nation held high over him, sang along with his people. "I'm going to pull it out for Scotland," he'd said a couple of days earlier. And he'd done just that, despite the misgivings of the hometown bookies, the only Glaswegians to doubt him when they set the odds at 7-4 in favor of Howard Davis Jr., the former Olympic champion from New York, who was challenging Watt for his WBC lightweight title.

It was a great night for Glasgow; in the local view, it was also a great stramash, which is a word the Scots have for a Donnybrook, a swinging fight. And for days before that, they'd been able to enjoy, as an hors d'oeuvre, a verbal stramash that went beyond the normal discourtesies exchanged between fighters.

The 24-year-old Davis—John-John, his family calls him—probably had little idea of what he was starting when he came to town and mentioned that he could beat Watt with his arms and legs cut off and a cigarette in his mouth. Just a formal insult. Indeed, Davis had used almost the same words against Termite Watkins last September. How was he to know Watt would take them seriously?

But Watt did. When the fighters met last Wednesday at a somewhat contrived media event, he was plainly and genuinely angry. "You are fighting the fastest body in the world," Davis said for openers. "You're so fast?" Watt snarled back. "So how come you've landed on your butt so often. You've only been in against 10-round club fighters." Now he was moving into the real stramash stuff. "I saw you on the tape against [Larry] Stanton. You didn't go down; you jumped on the floor to avoid a punch. We'll see just how much courage you have on Saturday night."

Howard fell back onto the verbal ropes, seemingly a little startled at this violence. But at least he wasn't bored. Since his arrival in Scotland a week earlier, boredom had been his worst enemy. In the summer of '76, many experts regarded him as the brightest prospect among the five U.S. gold medalists, including Leon Spinks and Sugar Ray Leonard, and his chief asset seemed to be the speed of his punching. Although his pro record was 13-0, his fists were more flashy than flattening: he had but five knockouts.

And there was talk that Davis wasn't deeply in love with the fight game; in fact, it seemed of late that the main use to which he put his speed was to keep out of range of punches, while attempting to score with his long reach. And in Scotland last Friday, rumors of his disenchantment with boxing had gotten so strong that the wire services put out a story that he was packing his bags and leaving town. "If he does that," said Mickey Duff, the fight's promoter, who had signed Davis for a reported $300,000 and Watt for an estimated $500,000, "I'm going to sue him for the whole million dollars he says he's earned so far."

It wasn't necessary, of course. Davis showed up on schedule, but in the days leading up to the fight he seemed bored and restless. However, he had plenty to say about Watt: "Sure, I know he's consistent. Consistent like a robot, like R2-D2, like somebody in his corner is moving him on a radio beam—'Go to your left hand. Move to your right.' He's a very slow starter. I could end him early. All the same, I like to feel my opponent out before I start throwing my bombs."

But wouldn't he feel the pressure of fighting in Scotland? There might be as many as 30,000 of the most fanatical sports fans in the world crammed into Ibrox Park Stadium, the home of the Glasgow Rangers soccer team.

Davis was inclined to shrug that off. And he retold the story of his mother's death on the eve of his gold-medal fight in Montreal. "Could there be worse pressure than that?" he asked.

All the same, whether by happenstance or Scots guile, it had been arranged that Davis would have to walk more than 100 yards across the field to the ring—and the same distance to return to his dressing room. Mike Jones, his co-manager, put one fear succinctly: "If Howard gets a narrow points decision," he said, "I'll need a helicopter to get him out of there."

Jones was not being overly theatrical. In the soccer world, they still remember the 1972 battle of Barcelona when thousands of Rangers fans invaded the field in that Spanish city after their team had beaten Moscow Dinamo in a momentous game there. The police had charged. With Geronimo-like cunning, the Glaswegians first retreated and then surrounded the cops, putting them to ignominious rout. And only last month, at a game between the Rangers and their archrivals, Glasgow Celtic, there had been 153 arrests and more than 200 hurt in a bottle-throwing melee. And it would be Rangers and Celtic fans, in the main, who would be out Saturday to watch and back their idol.

Jimmy Watt had gained the crown at a propitious time. In 1978, Scotland had had high hopes of winning soccer's World Cup, but had suffered a humiliating defeat in the first round. Then, eight months later, Roberto Duran gave up his lightweight championship; Watt fought Alfredo Pitalua of Colombia for the vacant title, and Scotland had a new hero to help it forget its athletic woes. "When I walked down the streets," Watt says, "they didn't say, 'Congratulations.' They said, 'Thank you, Jim, thank you.' I'd done it for Scotland."

Watt's outburst on Wednesday had been uncharacteristic, as he admitted the next morning. He could have taken a gibe from somebody of stature, he said—Alexis Arguello, for instance—but not from Davis. "I'm not kidding myself into thinking Davis isn't a good fighter," he said. "And if this was to be an eight-round fight, I'd be worried. But he's only been as far as 12 once. And even on the offensive, half his mind is on getting away. He'll be fast in the early rounds, but sometime he'll have to slow down."

On Saturday afternoon, heavy black clouds came billowing up the Clyde, and hopes for a sellout dwindled as the rain started in earnest early that evening. The showers, it was thought, would help Davis by diminishing the crowd and dampening the fervor of those who did show up.

That forecast was about 50% right. Only 20,000 fans came to Ibrox Park, but the rain failed to douse their wild chauvinistic flame. An hour before the 10 p.m. fight, the singing started—"We'll support ye evermore," to the tune of the old hymn Bread of Heaven. A little later a roar rocked the stadium. The champion, arriving early? No, Margaret Watt, his wife, had just come in. And there was the Glaswegian gent who asked, in a city that is almost as polarized on religion as Belfast, "Is this Davis fellow a Catholic or a Protestant?" "No, man," a neighbor said dryly, "a vegetarian."

Not all the T-bone steaks in the world, supposing Davis would touch one, could have fortified him against the reception Watt got. Davis' own welcome was unprepossessing—just ritual booing—and he responded to it neatly, blowing sarcastic kisses to the crowd. But Watt's appearance was a Roman emperor's triumphal procession, replete with drums, kilts, banners and pipes.

During the referee's instructions, Watt and Davis glared at one another, and drew ever closer until their noses were no more than a millimeter apart. For a long moment they stayed like that, with neither man backing down, until the referee intervened.

Watt will be 32 next month and he had had 43 pro fights, but before meeting Davis he said, "I haven't worn my body out. I've picked up strength with maturity. I've been a lightweight for 15 years and my body is strong at the weight."

That seemed to be confirmed in Round 1, when Watt, a lefty, caught Davis with two stinging right jabs. As he was to do throughout the fight, Davis showed speed, but it was a wild, inaccurate speed, typically used to throw roundhouse rights that Watt ducked with ease and confidence. In the third, for instance, Davis threw no fewer than eight of them, and all whistled harmlessly off target. He was having trouble, much more than he had expected, dealing with Watt.

All through the early rounds, the crowd had given voice. Now, in the fifth, as Watt hit Davis in the body with a series of clubbing rights, it sensed the way things would go and moved into a terrible, derisive chanting of "Ea-sy, ea-sy," the way Scottish soccer fans chant when they sense a victory.

By the seventh round the pattern was plain. Watt was taking the fight to Davis, calmly and clinically punishing him, easily weaving away from his ill-directed counterattacks. In the ninth, it seemed, the speed had gone out of Davis, almost as if he were conceding the truth of Watt's gibe that he couldn't go the full 15, that he was a short-distance fighter.

But then, in the 10th, Davis suddenly came back, perhaps heeding the calls from his father in the corner, urging him to keep low, to jab, jab. He opened a cut under Watt's left eye. In the 11th he went after that cut. He did more of the same in the 12th. But he was still wild, and he left himself open. With about a minute to go in Round 12, Watt scored with a right that cut Davis' left brow.

You could see the difference in their styles in their faces: a visible tightening of determination on Watt's visage, a tigerish snarl on Davis'. It became hard to tell who was the older man. By the 14th, it was Davis who was lagging. Watt pinned him in a corner, hammering him with furious combinations to the body and then sliding away with no trouble when Davis tried to come back. "Ea-sy, ea-sy," the chant came out of the darkness. And then it was over; there was no real doubt and O, Flower of Scotland was filling the air even before the official scoring was announced. Referee Carlos Padilla of the Philippines had it just 145-144 in Watt's favor, but the Mexican judge scored it 149-142 and the Venezuelan 147-144.

Meanwhile, at Davis' hotel, they had laid on a banquet for, they reckoned, the new champion. As it turned out, someone just slipped upstairs with a platter of fruit for Davis, and surprised late drinkers at the hotel bar were invited to help themselves to food that had been left untouched on the buffet table.

Now Davis has it all to think about again. "I'm still the best lightweight in the world," he had said defiantly in his dressing room after the fight.

It would be hard to convince them of that in Glasgow.

PHOTOWatt was right on target, scoring a unanimous decision.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)