Howard Davis Jr. had no idea how close, how so very close, he was to winning the world lightweight championship that had eluded him for so long. There he was, standing in his corner with the title within easy reach. All he had to do in this final round was what he had always done best—stick and move, feint and slip, keep that jab popping and scoring and the feet dancing. And, yes, Edwin (Chapo) Rosario's WBC lightweight title would be Davis's at last, the same title so many had been so certain he would one day claim for his own.
"I was destined to be a champion," he once said. "I've known that since I was 16 years old."
It was Davis, not Sugar Ray Leonard, who had led the U.S. Olympic boxing team to its "Golden Games" in Montreal in 1976, back in the days when the quick, smooth, jab-throwing young man out of Glen Cove, N.Y. was regarded as the best amateur boxer in the world. After he won the Olympic gold—along with teammates Leonard, Leon and Michael Spinks and Leo Randolph—a panel of Olympic boxing officials voted Davis the Val Barker Cup as the Games' outstanding boxer.
But with his career compromised by excessive caution in the ring, his will and desire to fight eroded by years of mental anguish and his personal and financial affairs ultimately plunging into disarray, Davis became the only '76 gold medalist not to win a world championship. Before facing Rosario, he had had only one shot, against Jim Watt, a Scotsman, in Glasgow on June 7, 1980, but he fought indifferently and lost by a decision, the only defeat in his 27 pro bouts.
Davis's second chance came last Saturday night, against the 21-year-old Rosario in the Coliseo Roberto Clemente in San Juan, and he had a vision of himself taking the green championship belt back to Long Island. "I dream it every night," Davis, now 28, said the day before the fight. "All I can see is my hands raised. Things are much better now. A lot of things didn't happen that should have happened. But I'll be fulfilled tomorrow night.... You'll see the real me now."
All he had to do was win the last round. One judge, Angel Tovar of Venezuela, had Davis so far behind that he would have had to knock Rosario out. But the other two judges, who were actually watching the same fight, had it so close that all Davis had to do was win the final round to take the title. After 11 rounds, Jose Guerra of Mexico had Davis ahead 106-103, and Sid Nathan of Great Britain had the bout even, 105-105.
"I don't keep score during a fight," Davis said, "so I didn't know. I just listened to my corner."
His corner was his father, Howard Sr., who sensed the fight was in the balance. Knowing that Davis was fighting on Rosario's home turf—the champ was born and raised in Puerto Rico—and that judges lean toward champions in making decisions in close fights, father told son, "You've got to beat this guy the last round!" On the other side of the ring, Rosario also sensed that his title was out there twisting in the wind. "I believe the fight was even then," he said.
But instead of boxing and scoring, Davis moved in and mixed it up. He won perhaps the first two minutes of the round, but in the final minute Rosario tagged him with a hard right that staggered him and cut his left eyelid. A thin trail of blood coursed down his left cheek. He covered up against the ropes. Rosario nailed him with another right, but Davis slipped away. Desperate now, Davis tried feebly to flurry, but he was clearly running out of steam. Suddenly, Davis dropped his right hand. He had done the same thing in the second round, and Rosario had made him pay for it by flooring him with a quick left hook.
Rosario saw the same opening and let fly with another hook. The punch caught Davis flush on the button and dropped him. "I couldn't believe it," Davis said. "I thought, 'How did I get down here again?' " Dazed, he looked up and saw the clock on the coliseum wall. "The clock said 12 seconds left. Then I got up and the bell rang and I thought, 'Thank God!' I was hurt. I was hurt more in that round than in the whole fight."
That knockdown was more than enough to break the tie on Nathan's card and give Rosario a split decision.
On the eve of the bout he had said, "Along the way, there were always brick walls, but I finally got through. It took a longtime."
Early in the fight, Davis didn't look as though he'd survive very long against Rosario, who entered the ring with a 27-0 record, including 25 KOs. Davis lost the first two rounds, having been knocked down in the second, and then seemed out of it. But he turned the fight around with one blow—a hard right hand that stunned Rosario and buckled his leg in the third—and then stood up to nine rib-crunching rights to the body in the fourth. Davis won most of the middle rounds as Rosario backed away, with Davis stalking him into the corners.
"I wasn't going to chase him," Rosario said. "I'm the champ. He's got to chase me."
So Davis chased. "I thought, 'The only way I'm going to beat this man is to come at him,' " he said. He withstood another Rosario righthanded body assault in the 10th, wincing in pain each time Rosario hammered his ribs, but he fought back with hooks of his own and kept Rosario's attention with the jab.
And Davis almost pulled it off. Afterward, Jimmy Jacobs, Rosario's manager, mentioned the possibility of a rematch. Davis shrugged when he heard about it. He has been having increasing trouble making the 135-pound limit—he shed 18 pounds in 3½ weeks to make the weight in Puerto Rico—and has been talking about moving up to the junior welterweight division, at 140 pounds.
Whatever the weight, Davis just wants a championship. He doesn't want to be remembered as the only failure of the '76 Games.