REVISITED - JOHN DAVIS: HERO & LEGEND
by Arthur Drechsler
Donated by Mrs. Saul Esman (C 2000)
Reprinted from The Association of Oldetime Barbell & Strongmen
with permission of Vic Boff. Join the AOBS! See link in resources/Link
It has often been acknowledged that instances in which truth is
fiction are not uncommon. However, it is rare indeed for a literal hero
outshine a well-established legend. Nevertheless, at least one American
weightlifter has been able to accomplish such a feat. That athlete was
of the greatest lifters ever to step on a world weightlifting platform.
name was John Henry Davis.
John Davis was born on January 12, 1921, in Smithtown, NY. He grew up
rose to weightlifting fame in Brooklyn, NY. His mother named him, in
amazing stroke of foresight, after the mythical strongman John Henry
reputed to have outworked a powerful steam engine). Little did John
mother know at the time that she had given life to a man who would
become the strongest man in the world and dominate the sport of
for a period of nearly 15 years, thereby surpassing the feats of the
for whom he was named.
From the very early years of John Davis' life, he was active in sports
athletic events of various kinds. He frequented Tompkins Park, a local
playground where gymnastics was a popular activity. With practice, he
very skilled on both the horizontal bar and the rings. He was also an
outstanding handball player.
Davis' weightlifting career began when he met a man named Steve Wolsky.
Wolsky had witnessed Davis lifting a cement block at the playground,
immediately realized that this young athlete might have great potential
the sport of weightlifting. Wolsky invited Davis to his home gym to
Davis could actually lift on a conventional set of weights. When Davis
pressed 170 pounds during his first experience with the barbell, Wolsky
he had a potential champion.
Davis entered his first competition shortly after meeting Wolsky. At
of 16, he took second place with a total of approximately 600 lb. at a
weightlifting competition (there are no published records of this
competition, but Davis recalled lifting approximately that much). Less
a year later, in the spring of 1938, he had improved his total to 810
and he won the 82.5 kg class at the 1938 Junior National Championship
competition that had no age limit at that time). In June of that year,
took second place at the US Nationals, and by September he had earned a
on the US Team that was to lift at the World Championships in Vienna,
At that world championship, Davis literally shocked the weightlifting
by winning the 82.5 kg category in his first appearance on an
weightlifting platform. What amazed the world even more was that Davis
his championship at the tender age of 17. This win occurred in an era
there were no junior championships and when weightlifting was dominated
athletes in their 20s and 30s. John had made weightlifting history by
becoming the youngest athlete ever to have won a world championship.
a distinction he was to enjoy for nearly 50 years.
As if that record was not impressive enough, Davis also proved that his
victory was not attributable to luck by establishing a world record in
total in Vienna. Most of those who saw Davis lift that day probably
recognized this young American's great potential, but few, if any,
predicted that they had witnessed the beginning of what was to become
longest winning streak in the history of international weightlifting.
When the last lifter had stepped off the platform at the Vienna
he marked the end of world champion competition for the duration of
Eight years later, when the World Championships were resumed, Davis was
only winner from 1938 who came back to win again. And Davis
this after serving a full tour of duty in the US military, during which
contracted a serious case of malaria.
But John was hardly inactive during the war years. Before the US went
at the end of 1941, Davis had won 3 additional Nationals. He won in
1940 at 82.5 kg. Then, in 1941, he made the move to heavyweight (in
days the unlimited bodyweight class began above 82.5 kg.). The young
phenomenon progressed spectacularly with his new bodyweight and at the
Nationals of 1941 he became the first man in history to exceed 1,000
in the three-lift total. Davis made 1005, breaking Steve Stanko's
1,000-pound American total record that had been set in April of 1941.
It should be noted that Davis' bodyweight at this time hovered around
lbs. Today's athlete's might want to ponder several facts that help to
a sense of just how wonderful an athlete Davis actually was. While
lifted roughly 50 lbs. less than America's best lifters today with
bodyweights (e.g., Davis snatched just a little more than 142.5 kg on
he totaled 1,005), he performed his lifts with no thigh brush (the bar
not permitted to touch the thighs or hips during the pull in those
used a split style, employed no hook grip (John's hands were too small
hook comfortably), and lifted on equipment far poorer than today's (and
certainly used no banned substances). How many of today's lifters
equal Davis' performance under similar conditions? One can only
but the number would undoubtedly be very small.
Davis won the Nationals again in 1942 and 1943, but was prevented from
competing in 1944 and 1945 by his war service. In 1946 he was back
win the Nationals and to go on to win the first post-war World
in Paris. The following year, Davis won the Nationals and Worlds again
(those World Championships were held in Philadelphia that year--the
time the US had hosted the Championships).
In 1948, he won the Olympic Games, and in 1949 and 1950 the World
Championships. In 1951 he made his highest lifetime total of 1,063
the inaugural Pan American Games. That same year, at the 1951
made weightlifting history once again by becoming the first lifter to
pounds under official conditions (Charles Rigoulot, the great French
professional strongman, had done this some years earlier but on a
designed bar that would not have satisfied the rules that were in
Davis' day). Continuing his fantastic string, Davis went on to win the
In 1953, John injured his leg, which hampered his training
Although he won the Nationals, Davis was defeated at the World
by Doug Hepburn. The Canadian strongman had ended the longest
streak in World Weightlifting history--a record that remains to this
All told, when his victory string ended in 1953, Davis had won 6
World Championships and 2 consecutive Olympic Games. Since that time,
two other weightlifters have ever duplicated Davis' achievement--Tommy
and Vasili Alexseev (Naim Sulemanaglou won more World Championships
legendary trio and one more Olympic Games, but his victories were not
consecutive, and Naim's record was set up 43 years after Davis'). One
ly imagine how many championships Davis might have won had the war
cut 7 years out of the prime of his career.
Davis did not retire in 1953. He struggled with injuries for the next
years, but by 1956 he was in the best shape of his life and fully
give the new US heavyweight phenomenon, Paul Anderson, a go at the
Tryouts. After making the highest subtotal (press and snatch combined)
his career, John re-injured his leg during the C&J, and that
spelled the end of his great career.
I had the privilege of meeting John Davis on several occasions. He
me very much of another of America's greatest lifters, Tommy
modest and unassuming, but with the confidence earned by true
As it turned out, in more ways than one, Davis had passed the torch of
American Weightlifting to Tommy Kono at the 1952 Olympic Games. Kono,
rookie at the 1952 Games, roomed with Davis. Those Games were to mark
last international victory and Kono's first. After Kono had won, and
Davis had returned to their room, Davis gave the young champion some
advice. "Tommy," he said, "today you have become the Olympic Champion.
is a great accomplishment and a great honor. But you must remember
the title of Olympic Champion comes great responsibility. From this
forward, you must always be prepared to perform at your best, no matter
With his spectacular lifting ability and tremendous perseverance, John
gave the weightlifting world an incredible number of gifts. Among
gifts were his great performances, his great attitude, and his
a champion. John Henry Davis truly lived up to the name his mother, in
act of hope and love, bestowed on him at the beginning of his life. It
name that will truly live forever in the annals of weightlifting