by Arthur Drechsler

Donated by Mrs. Saul Esman (C 2000)

Reprinted from The Association of Oldetime Barbell & Strongmen Newsletter with permission of Vic Boff. Join the AOBS! See link in resources/Link section.

It has often been acknowledged that instances in which truth is stranger than fiction are not uncommon. However, it is rare indeed for a literal hero to outshine a well-established legend. Nevertheless, at least one American weightlifter has been able to accomplish such a feat. That athlete was one of the greatest lifters ever to step on a world weightlifting platform. His name was John Henry Davis.

John Davis was born on January 12, 1921, in Smithtown, NY. He grew up and rose to weightlifting fame in Brooklyn, NY. His mother named him, in an amazing stroke of foresight, after the mythical strongman John Henry (who was reputed to have outworked a powerful steam engine). Little did John Davis' mother know at the time that she had given life to a man who would actually become the strongest man in the world and dominate the sport of weightlifting for a period of nearly 15 years, thereby surpassing the feats of the legend for whom he was named.

From the very early years of John Davis' life, he was active in sports and athletic events of various kinds. He frequented Tompkins Park, a local playground where gymnastics was a popular activity. With practice, he became 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, and he immediately realized that this young athlete might have great potential in the sport of weightlifting. Wolsky invited Davis to his home gym to see what Davis could actually lift on a conventional set of weights. When Davis pressed 170 pounds during his first experience with the barbell, Wolsky knew he had a potential champion.

Davis entered his first competition shortly after meeting Wolsky. At the age of 16, he took second place with a total of approximately 600 lb. at a local weightlifting competition (there are no published records of this competition, but Davis recalled lifting approximately that much). Less than a year later, in the spring of 1938, he had improved his total to 810 lb., and he won the 82.5 kg class at the 1938 Junior National Championship (a competition that had no age limit at that time). In June of that year, Davis took second place at the US Nationals, and by September he had earned a spot on the US Team that was to lift at the World Championships in Vienna, Austria.

At that world championship, Davis literally shocked the weightlifting world by winning the 82.5 kg category in his first appearance on an international weightlifting platform. What amazed the world even more was that Davis won his championship at the tender age of 17. This win occurred in an era when there were no junior championships and when weightlifting was dominated by athletes in their 20s and 30s. John had made weightlifting history by becoming the youngest athlete ever to have won a world championship. It was 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 the total in Vienna. Most of those who saw Davis lift that day probably recognized this young American's great potential, but few, if any, could have predicted that they had witnessed the beginning of what was to become the longest winning streak in the history of international weightlifting.

When the last lifter had stepped off the platform at the Vienna competition, he marked the end of world champion competition for the duration of WWII. Eight years later, when the World Championships were resumed, Davis was the only winner from 1938 who came back to win again. And Davis accomplished this after serving a full tour of duty in the US military, during which he contracted a serious case of malaria.

But John was hardly inactive during the war years. Before the US went to war at the end of 1941, Davis had won 3 additional Nationals. He won in 1939 and 1940 at 82.5 kg. Then, in 1941, he made the move to heavyweight (in those 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 pounds in the three-lift total. Davis made 1005, breaking Steve Stanko's historic 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 200 lbs. Today's athlete's might want to ponder several facts that help to give a sense of just how wonderful an athlete Davis actually was. While John lifted roughly 50 lbs. less than America's best lifters today with similar bodyweights (e.g., Davis snatched just a little more than 142.5 kg on the day he totaled 1,005), he performed his lifts with no thigh brush (the bar was not permitted to touch the thighs or hips during the pull in those days), used a split style, employed no hook grip (John's hands were too small to hook comfortably), and lifted on equipment far poorer than today's (and John certainly used no banned substances). How many of today's lifters could equal Davis' performance under similar conditions? One can only speculate, 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 again to win the Nationals and to go on to win the first post-war World Championships in Paris. The following year, Davis won the Nationals and Worlds again (those World Championships were held in Philadelphia that year--the first 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 lbs. at the inaugural Pan American Games. That same year, at the 1951 Nationals, he made weightlifting history once again by becoming the first lifter to C&J 400 pounds under official conditions (Charles Rigoulot, the great French professional strongman, had done this some years earlier but on a specially designed bar that would not have satisfied the rules that were in effect in Davis' day). Continuing his fantastic string, Davis went on to win the 1952 Olympics.

In 1953, John injured his leg, which hampered his training significantly. Although he won the Nationals, Davis was defeated at the World Championships by Doug Hepburn. The Canadian strongman had ended the longest undefeated streak in World Weightlifting history--a record that remains to this day.

All told, when his victory string ended in 1953, Davis had won 6 consecutive World Championships and 2 consecutive Olympic Games. Since that time, only two other weightlifters have ever duplicated Davis' achievement--Tommy Kono and Vasili Alexseev (Naim Sulemanaglou won more World Championships than this 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 can on ly imagine how many championships Davis might have won had the war years not cut 7 years out of the prime of his career.

Davis did not retire in 1953. He struggled with injuries for the next two years, but by 1956 he was in the best shape of his life and fully expected to give the new US heavyweight phenomenon, Paul Anderson, a go at the Olympic Tryouts. After making the highest subtotal (press and snatch combined) of his career, John re-injured his leg during the C&J, and that effectively spelled the end of his great career.

I had the privilege of meeting John Davis on several occasions. He reminded me very much of another of America's greatest lifters, Tommy Kono--quiet, modest and unassuming, but with the confidence earned by true greatness.

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, a rookie at the 1952 Games, roomed with Davis. Those Games were to mark Davis' last international victory and Kono's first. After Kono had won, and he and Davis had returned to their room, Davis gave the young champion some sage advice. "Tommy," he said, "today you have become the Olympic Champion. That is a great accomplishment and a great honor. But you must remember that with the title of Olympic Champion comes great responsibility. From this point forward, you must always be prepared to perform at your best, no matter what the conditions."

With his spectacular lifting ability and tremendous perseverance, John Davis gave the weightlifting world an incredible number of gifts. Among those gifts were his great performances, his great attitude, and his comportment as a champion. John Henry Davis truly lived up to the name his mother, in an act of hope and love, bestowed on him at the beginning of his life. It is a name that will truly live forever in the annals of weightlifting history.


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