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“[John Davis] was undefeated in weightlifting competition from 1938 to 1953—giving him the longest winning streak of anyone in the history of elite international Olympic weightlifting competition.” Bill Hinbern, weight training historian (www.superstrengthtraining.com )
“[John Davis], more than anyone else, set the standard for me to follow in the sport of weightlifting.” Tommy Kono, twice Olympic champion and six times world champion
BLACK IRON: The John Davis Story
Author Brooks Kubik begins—and ends—The John Davis Story in the garden of an Albuquerque nursing home. The book begins with a cub reporter asking a cancer stricken Davis, “Tell me what you want the world to know.” It ends ten days later with Davis taking his last breath in the same garden.
At the end of the book, Frank, the young reporter, tells a nurse who wanted to take Davis back to his room, “No—let him stay here. It will be better. He’s not going back to his room. This is—this is his last night. He’s had good memories here. He shared a lifetime of them over the past ten days.”
The 450-page BLACK IRON: The John Davis Story is the historically based, but fictional reporter’s account of the memories of a legendary figure in American and international weightlifting.
Carol and I were moved—I cried—by Kubik’s touching depiction of the garden scenes. The garden, you see, isn't fictional; it is quite real.
We helped Brooks tell the story of the garden. We knew first hand that John Davis spent his last days in Albuquerque's St. Francis Gardens Nursing Home, where he passed away on July 13, 1984. I had an opportunity to visit Davis, but decided that he wouldn’t appreciate being seen in his debilitated state by a stranger. I thought he would prefer to be remembered as the champion of champions I read about in Strength & Health magazine in my teens.
Kubik asked us to provide a photograph of the garden. We drove to what was formerly called the St. Francis Gardens Nursing Home, about 10 minutes from the Ripped Enterprises office/gym, on a blustery fall day and found the nursing home locked up. Carol took the photo that appears in the book through a locked gate on the far side of the area where the scenes in the book would have taken place. Considering the circumstances, her snapshot turned out very well; it helped the garden scenes in the book come to life.
Outside of sport historians, few modern-day iron gamers know the story that begins on a January day in 1937, when a 16-year-old black boy from Brooklyn touched a barbell for the first time. (It was the year I was born.)
The First Medal
Davis’s first “medal” was a penny he won by lifting a concrete slab over his head, when only one other boy in Tompkins Park (Brooklyn) could lift it clear of the ground. (Kubik estimates that the slab weighed about 125 pounds.) As it turned out, that was the only money Davis ever won in weightlifting. As required by the rules of the day, he was a true amateur.
That impressive feat brought Davis into contact with another boy in the neighborhood who owned a barbell. Davis did a two-arm clean and press with roughly bodyweight (170 pounds) in his first workout. He told his mother that evening that his new friend, Steve, said he’d never seen or heard of anyone lifting that much in their first workout. Steve said that champion lifters he’d read about lifted far less on their first try.
“John’s mother [he never knew his father] had no idea how heavy a 170-pound barbell was, or how difficult it was to lift overhead,” Kubik writes. “But she knew her son—and she heard something in his voice that she had never heard before. She heard a sense of pride, a sense of satisfaction, and a sense of self-worth, self-value and self-confidence. It was as if the simple act of lifting a 170-pound barbell overhead had somehow changed his entire perception of himself.”
“He was no longer one of the thousands of young black men in New York City, scrambling to make a living and struggling to stay off the streets and out of jail,” Kubik continues. “He had found himself. He had done what young men strive to do (and what most fail to do). He had discovered the one activity where he had a chance to become truly remarkable.”
Against all odds, Davis’ early promise was realized in almost super-human fashion. His rise to the top was perhaps the fastest in weightlifting history—and he was just getting started.
Two weeks after turning 17, Davis won his first lifting contest, having improved his three-lift total by 140 pounds in a matter of months. His two-arm press moved up to 225, and he tacked on a 230-pound snatch and a clean & jerk of 280. He weighed 182, one pound over the light-heavyweight class limit.
A short while later (on March 4, 1938) he won the Junior New York City Weightlifting championship in the 181-pound class, becoming the youngest lifter in history (at that time) to clean & jerk over 300 pounds; having spectacular day, he did 308.
“The young, self-coached athlete was suddenly one of the top lifters in the United States—less than one year after he first touched a barbell!” Kubik writes.
In his first national competition, the Junior National championship (open to anyone who had not won a Senior Championship) held on May 15, 1938, in Cleveland, Ohio, Davis won the 181-pound class with lifts of 240-245-325.
Later that year, Davis placed second in the Senior National Championship in Woonsocket, Rhode Island, beating the famous John Grimek, but losing by 5 pounds to four-time U.S. middleweight champion Stanley Kratkowski, who pulled out the victory with a final lift of 330.
In a rematch of the three lifters, Kratkowski had an off day, and Grimek edged Davis by 15 pounds with an improved C & J of 325. Grimek’s 830 total was the highest in the world that year for a light heavyweight. With Davis only 15 pounds back, and improving faster than anyone else on the international scene, both were picked to represent the United States in the world championship in Vienna, Austria. American officials expected the two men to place first and second. That prediction proved to be only slightly off mark.
Due to circumstances detailed in the book, Grimek acquitted himself well, but fell back to fourth place. Davis, however, stunned the lifting world by taking first place with a world record 852½ total.
Kubik summed up what Davis had accomplished: “Seventeen-year-old John Davis, not yet the Senior National Champion of his own country, had overcome the adversity of a difficult ocean journey, the lack of training on board ship, and the home-town rulings of the judges to defeat the reigning World champion in his first meet on European soil. It was a remarkable accomplishment. He was the youngest World champion in history, the third American World champion, and the first Negro to win the World weightlifting championship.” (Davis called himself a Negro and a Black man; more about this in the book.)
The Race Issue
Although Davis apparently never made an issue if it, being black made his success all the more remarkable. “This was America in 1938,” Davis told Frank, the reporter, in the garden. “I never slept in a hotel room, not once during my entire career,” he continued. “Not in the United States. In Europe, yes…But in the United States, I would sleep in the truck—or stay with friends—or maybe, if the hotel clerk and the house detective were feeling kindly toward a tired weightlifter, I could sleep in a chair in the lobby. But not upstairs. Not in a bed. Not in a room.”
It was the same with finding a place to eat. “Sometimes I missed meals because I was trying to make weight, and sometimes I missed meals because I had no money. But most of the time when I missed a meal it was because the only place to eat that was open wouldn’t let me in. There were plenty of times I would have traded a nice medal for a good steak.”
The race issue prevented Davis from training in the York Barbell Company gym, in York, Pennsylvania, the home of Strength & Health magazine and the center of U.S. lifting at the time. “Many of the visitors were openly hostile to black lifters,” Kubik writes, “and some…even complained that they were using the same barbells and other equipment that [Davis] used.”
Amazingly, the racism became even worse after Davis won the World championship.
“One day, John was training at the York gym, and someone—he never knew who—threw a barbell plate at him while he was lifting.” Kubik writes. “For John, that was the last straw. He refused to train there any more.”
Bob Hoffman, publisher of Strength & Health and coach of the U.S. weightlifting team, arranged for Davis to train at the YMCA in Philadelphia, another hotbed of lifting activity—and close to York. Hoffman also paid his tuition at a private high school and sent him a small check each week for living expenses, according to Kubik.
In Kubik’s historically based, fictional dialogue, Davis insisted that Frank, the reporter, drop the subject of race.
Davis then continued telling his story.
Due to World War II, John Davis did not appear on the international lifting platform again for eight long years—two Olympic Games and five World championships were cancelled during the prime of his competitive lifting career—until the 1946 World Championship in Paris, France. But what a coming out it was!
The Lost Years
Following his victory in Vienna, Davis continued to lift in this country until he was drafted into the Army several years later.
At age 19, he totaled 995 while weighing 196 pounds, which made him the best lifter in the world on a pound for pound basis. His total was also more than anyone of any weight had lifted. He was also the first man to total 1000; it was unofficial, but he was the first. Steve Stanko was the first to total 1000 officially.
On May 24, 1941, two weeks after Stanko made the first official 1000 pound total, Davis defeated Stanko and Louis Abele to win his first Senior National Championship as a heavyweight. Davis totaled 1005, for a new world record. Abele, weighing 218, was second with a 975 total. Stanko weighed in at 223, and placed third, with 970. It was a battle of Titans, but Davis was the clear winner.
Davis also won the Senior Nationals in 1942. Showing the effect of the war years (his weight had dropped to 192, down almost 10 pounds from the previous year), he did 305-275-350, for a total of 930. “Not his best lifting by any mean, but enough to win by a comfortable margin,” Kubik writes.
He also won the Senior Nats in 1943, with 290-290-360 for a total of 940. “It was tremendous lifting for a man who had virtually no opportunity for regular training,” Kubik writes. Davis had been drafted earlier that year, but had saved enough leave time to head out ten days before the contest and get in a few days of serious training.
For Davis, everything stopped there. He missed the 1944 and 1945 Senior Nationals. There were no world championships; the last one was in 1938. The 1940 and 1944 Olympic Games were also cancelled.
“I lost the best years of my career,” Davis told Frank, the reporter. “The very best years. No lifting contests and no training. The army didn’t give two cents about weightlifters, only football and baseball players. I didn’t get to train at all back then.”
Odds are that Davis would’ve won five world championships and two Olympic Gold medals during the lost years.
That’s the way it was until shortly before the 1946 World Championship in Paris, which was initially called off, and then rescheduled on short notice. Bob Hoffman, the U.S. weightlifting coach, had to scramble to select a team on short notice. The selection process is a story in itself, which you can read about in the book. The key point, for our purposes, is that Hoffman believed the team title would turn on victory in the heavyweight class.
Victory in Paris
The war was over and Davis was living in Brooklyn with his mother. With only a few weeks of training, Davis lifted as an extra lifter in the New York City Senior championship. Weighing only 208, he pressed 257, snatched 262, and clean & jerked 347 for a total of 866, far below his best. A few weeks later, he entered the Senior Nationals in Detroit.
Davis was broke and had no job. Hoffman paid his expenses so he could make the trip to Detroit. Kubik tells us that he did the same for 21 other lifters.
With three more weeks of training and his mother’s home cooking, Davis weighed in at 215, and increased his total to 917, with lifts of 282-282-353. It was a substantial improvement over his last outing and Davis won by a margin of 86 pounds. Steve Stanko and Louis Abele were no longer competing. In fact, Davis and John Terpak were the only former World Championships who were still competing. It would be a new team going to Paris.
Hoffman saw Russia and Egypt as the number one and two teams in the world, with the USA in third. Hoffman, nevertheless, thought the U.S. team had an outside chance to win the team title. As Hoffman saw it, the 1946 world team title would depend on Davis beating two Russians.
Russia’s number one heavyweight was Kutsenko, who had totaled 917 earlier in the year—the same as Davis’ winning total at the U.S. Nationals. “[Kutsenko] stood 6’2” tall and weighed 250 pounds—which gave him six inches in height and 25 pounds over John in weight,” Kubik tells us. “His best official lifts were 291.5 in the press, 293 pounds in the snatch, and 381 in the clean & jerk. That was a total of 965.5 if he could put those lifts together at the World Championship.”
The second Russian, Ambarzumian, was even bigger and more muscular, at 6’4” and 270 pounds. He was reported to have pressed 299, snatched 291.5, and totaled 953.
As Hoffman had predicted, the team title came down to a battle of the heavyweights—Davis against the two Russians.
Back to the garden, John takes up the story from there. “I broke them both with that one press,” Davis told the reporter with great satisfaction 40 years later. “They had no answer for it.” (The following details are based on accounts by Bob Hoffman in Strength & Health magazine.)
The heavyweight class started lifting at 1:00 o’clock in the morning, but no one in the crowd left their seats. The big Russian, Ambarzumian, began pressing with 253, made it and moved on to 264, also a success. Kutsenko open with the same weight and then jumped to 275, for another good lift.
Davis had yet to step on the platform. He was resting quietly in the warm-up room waiting for his turn to lift.
“Over the years, John had developed his powers of concentration to an almost uncanny level,” Kubik explains. “He was able to lie down—and actually fall asleep—in the middle of a World or Olympic championship, and then get up, stretch himself, shake the sleep out of his powerful frame, step onto the platform—and transform himself instantly into an unbeatable lifting machine. No one had ever seen anything like it.”
“But this time, John was not asleep,” Kubik continued. “He lay with his eyes closed, resting, gathering his strength.”
John’s best press before leaving New York had been 275, and the most he had done in Paris was 286. He decided to start with 280.
“When the weight was loaded onto the bar, he stood up, stretched, and yawned—walked out into the lifting area—chalked his hands—stepped on the platform—closed his eyes,” Kubik writes. “He stood there for several seconds, summoning his strength—and then he approached the bar, crouched down, cleaned it to his shoulders—stood straight—and pressed it overhead.”
It was a perfect lift.
Kutsenko then tried 286—and missed. Davis took 297 for his second attempt, and made a good lift. He missed 302½ on his third attempt, but had a 22 pound lead and was the lighter man.
The Russians apparently never recovered from the shock of seeing the seemingly effortless press by a man who had been laying motionless, almost asleep, mere moments before. “They felt their own strength flow out of their bodies,” Kubik writes.
The Russians simply wilted.
It was basically Davis and Kutsenko from that point on. Kutsenko started the snatch at 275, and took two attempts to make it.
Davis had the bar loaded to 280, and succeeded easily. Hoffman later wrote in Strength & Health: He prepared to put all he had into the lift. Using the ‘get set’ style without the hook grip, he took his time, flattened his back, lowered his hips, and pulled hard and high. The weight went so high that he dipped only a little. It was a great lift.
It only got better after that. Kutsenko called for 286 and missed it. That left him with 275.
The program listed the official World record in the snatch at 297—held by Britain’s Ron Walker. Stanko and Davis had both done more—they had snatched 300 more than 100 times in contests and exhibitions—but with the war raging, the results from the United States never received official attention. Davis wanted to be sure to break Walker’s record, so he took 297 to tie the record—and made a good lift. That gave him a lead of 44 pounds.
Davis then called for 302½, which would be the first time anyone had snatched over 300 on European soil.
Hoffman wrote in Strength & Health: It was now 3:30 in the morning, a cruel time of the morning to be lifting world’s record and near world record poundages.
Nevertheless, that’s what Davis did. “It was a good lift—no room for any doubt—and they gave it three white lights, and it was a new official World record,” Davis told the reporter. “It weighed out at 303¼. The first American World record after the War. So I always thought it was the start of a new era.”
Davis coasted to victory after that, making 358¼ in the clean & jerk, after a scary miss on the first attempt. Kutsenko made 364, but it was over by then. Davis won 959 to 925 for Kutsenko.
“It was one of the best days ever,” Davis told the reported. “Bob [Hoffman] was like a little boy in a candy store. He kept holding and hugging the [team] trophy and wouldn’t let it go. He probably slept with it under his arm. I never saw a man so proud in my entire life. He earned it, though. He probably paid $20,000 out of his own pocket to send the team over to Europe and back.”
* * *
There’s more, much more. Davis continued his winning streak for seven more years, until 1953—giving him the longest winning streak in the history of elite international Olympic weightlifting competition. He is the only man to win World or Olympic championships in weightlifting in each of three decades (the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s).
You can read all about it in BLACK IRON: The John Davis Story. I hope I’ve whetted your appetite enough to read all 450 pages of Brooks Kubik’s book. It’s a story that needed to be told, and Brooks does it brilliantly. (I believe it's his best book.)
Davis is one of the true legends of American and world sports history. He is included among the 13 physical culture “Icons” whose larger-than-life images hang at the back of the largest room in the Stark Center of Physical Culture and Sports at The University of Texas in Austin. In addition to John Davis, the “Icons” are: Joe Weider, Boyd Epley, Arnold Schwarzenegger, David P. Webster, Dr. Kenneth Cooper, Pudgy Stockton, Steve Reeves, Eugen Sandow, Bob Hoffman, Katie Sandwina, Jack LaLanne, and John Grimek.
My guess is that Davis is one of the few people on that list that most of our readers know nothing about. To steal a phrase from Tommy Kono, you’ve got to be dead or dying not to want to learn more about John Davis. That’s tongue-in-cheek, of course, but the John Davis story is one the best in all of sport. (Kono's comment on Davis is at the top of this article.)
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