In the Fuller Park gym on Chicago's South Side, 23-year-old unbeaten middleweight David Davis intently watches his trainer's right fist. It shoots under Davis's gloves and drives upward—stopping just short of Davis's chin. Davis grins.
The fist unclenches. The fingers flutter. The fingers say, in American Sign Language, "That's what you do when it's time to put the guy away."
"Yeah," Davis says aloud. He says it perfectly, but "yeah" is the only word he will utter in the presence of strangers.
"He talks more when we're alone," says the owner of the fist, former U.S. lightweight champ Johnny Lira, who serves as both Davis's trainer and interpreter. "In public, David's afraid he'll sound bad."
November 16, 1987
Davis became deaf at age four, after spinal meningitis nearly killed him. He began his amateur fighting career as a child on Chicago's playgrounds, defending himself against the taunts of "regular" kids. "People are prejudiced against deaf people," he says, through Lira. "They don't look at you the way they look at regular people. I want to show everybody that disabled people can be champions."
Lira, 35, who retired in 1984 with a 30-6-1 record, along with a mashed nose that angles toward his right shoulder, got his first glimpse of Davis at the Windy City Boxing Club last year. "I saw him working on the bag. I didn't know he was deaf or anything—I just liked his foundation. He had a good basic stance, good balance, good hand speed, good power. I saw him fight a few guys who had much more experience than he had. They would put it to him, then he'd come back and—bang! bang!—pull out the fight. I thought, This kid could be a champion."
In August 1986 Lira and his partner, Jack Rimland, a Chicago lawyer, bought Davis's contract from Rick Colbert, a local trainer. Lira took a crash course in sign language, and he and Rimland reorganized Davis's training program, lined up tough but beatable opponents and slowly persuaded Davis that a title was within his reach.
"He's a good fighter now, but he's still learning," says Rimland. "We haven't wanted to get him overpowered. We want to let him mature, and we want to provide some security for him. We want to make sure David never has to sign his life away to anybody in the boxing business. He's a fine man; we don't want him exploited."
"Before we got him, he was making $50 or $100 a fight, if he was lucky," says Lira. "We give him training expenses, equipment, medical expenses. We're supposed to split his purses 50-50, but to give him an incentive, I might offer him a $100 bonus if he looks good in a fight, maybe $100 more if he knocks the guy out. So he ends up getting all the money. Who cares? There ain't no money to split now, anyway."
Davis, 13-0 with eight knockouts, won less than $5,000 in his first year as a pro. He rides around in Lira's battered station wagon, and has named himself the Silent Bomber, an allusion to his hero, Joe Louis. The Brown Bomber "knocked 'em out quick, like I do," he signs; indeed, all eight of his knockouts have come in six rounds or less. Whose mantle is he after? David grins and rubs his head as if to shave it—boxing sign language for Marvelous Marvin Hagler.
"If this kid can't bring people back to boxing, I don't know who can," says Lira, signing as he speaks to include Davis in the conversation. "This is what America stands for—a deaf kid who went out and educated himself [after graduating from high school, Davis spent a year in a course for the hearing impaired conducted by Northern Illinois University]. A guy who is working hard to make something of himself."
Davis's most recent bout was on Aug. 11 in Chicago, at the bottom of the Edwin Rosario-Juan Nazario card. Fighting lackadaisically, he lost the first three rounds to Sammy Matos (11-11-1). Davis knew Lira had KO'd Matos in the ninth round in 1983 and probably had figured that if an old man could do it in nine, he could do it at will. Matos surprised him. When Davis returned to his corner after the third round, Lira gave him a sign-lashing. "I kept telling him Sammy was tough, but David figured that if I beat him, he could knock him out like that," Lira says, snapping his fingers. "So in the corner I said, 'You've been giving the fight away, now you got to get rid of him!' Well, left hook, right hand, uppercut, overhand right, left hook to the body, right uppercut—David knocks him out in the fourth. He stole the show."
Sitting in his mother-in-law's living room after working out, Davis holds hands with his wife, Bridgette, who is also deaf. Asked if she worries when her husband fights, she laughs and signs. "My baby!" Bridgette, 22, knew Davis as one of the best athletes at Chicago's Whitney Young Magnet High, where they were classmates and sweethearts. "I get excited when he fights," she signs. "I want to help him punch. The only time I worry is when he stops moving. I want him to keep out of the way." When asked her husband's best feature as a boxer, she signs, "It's defense—because he moves fast, and he's smart."
When Davis is asked the same question, he pounds the left side of his chest with his fist, as if his heart were about to burst from his chest.
Later, upon arriving at the gym for a sparring session, Davis warms up by stretching, jabbing and dancing. Lira signs a set of instructions. Smooth. Fast. Relax. Davis, chomping down on his mouthpiece, gives Lira the universal son-to-father look—I've heard this a million times. Then his right hand shoots out at Lira's nose. The trainer takes a step back. The fighter laughs. "Old man," he signs. Lira retorts with a gesture that it doesn't take familiarity with sign language to understand.
Davis steps in against his sparring partner, a hungry-looking middleweight who seems not to mind being called Crazy Sam. The bell rings. Other fighters hear the bell; Davis has to feel it resonate through his feet. Just to make sure, Lira pounds the mat. Around the ring, slouched over gym bags or on folding chairs, Fuller Park's veterans watch Davis and Crazy Sam feel each other out.
"Davis is a fine prospect," says trainer Arthur Moore, who has spent 45 of his 65 years around rings like this one. "He needs more FEE-nesse, but he looks good. Got the punch of a Hagler."
Trainer Gene Kelly, also 65, says Davis reminds him of Bob Satterfield, the Chicago heavyweight knockout artist of the 1940s and '50s. "Davis can get better," says Kelly. "Right now he's a slow starter, tends to wait. But he's learning all the time. He can punch, and that's exciting."
Tony Arvia, 70, the dean of Fuller Park trainers, says Davis is like "the old 'screw you' fighters. He's a nice boy, but in the ring he's got that meanness—"Screw you, here I come!' He's got power and he's got heart. It's a long, tough road from here, but if John can communicate with him, Davis could go a long way."
In the ring, Crazy Sam grunts. He grunts every time he throws a punch. He launches a roundhouse right that starts at the floor and winds up somewhere north of Davis's head. Davis bobs and pops a left. His eyes widen when he throws a punch. His glove hits Crazy Sam's ribs with the sound of a fastball slamming into a catcher's mitt. Crazy Sam hits Davis with a left and a right, but Davis picks off the next four punches, bulls Crazy Sam to the ropes and pummels him. The bell sounds. Lira pounds the mat.
In his corner, Davis is tense. He rolls his neck. Lira signs, "Smooth, fast, relax." Davis stretches and looks at the ceiling. At the bell, Lira pounds the mat. Davis pounces. Lira shakes his head—universal boxing language for "The kid didn't hear a word I said."
Davis jabs, shifts his weight, unleashes an uppercut that rattles Crazy Sam and another punch that knocks off his head protector. Crazy Sam comes on again, and his left finds Davis's chin. Davis clinches, shoves; Crazy Sam shoves back, and Davis trips and lands on the back pocket of his pastel-patterned jams. He looks to his corner. Lira laughs and pounds the mat, pretends to count him out: "Eight! Nine!"
Davis grins and points to his ear, as if saying, "I can't hear you." Both men are laughing as Davis gets up to resume his career.
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