Tuesday, July 15, 2008

John "Hercules" Davis - Alan Carse


Josef Manger





John “Hercules” Davis
by Alan Carse (1938)


Were you ever down at Coney Island, the great New York City amusement sport and summer resort during the summer season? If you were, then you remember the mob. Yes, I mean mob, that congregates there on Sunday. There is nothing like it anywhere else in the world. The beach for miles is covered with a vast multitude of people, so crowded that there is scarcely standing room for all who seek a position of the sand.

Recently a story appeared in one of the daily newspapers, as follows: A stout young man was lying upon the sand, soaking up his share or more of the beneficial vitamin D found even in the sunlight of congested New York beaches. As he lay there dreaming perhaps os the morrow of the happenings of the day before, suddenly he was tramped upon, stepped upon, feet were in his face, his stomach, his limbs. “Ouch,” he shouted. “Can’t you see this space is occupied?” One of the young crowd who were standing upon him said, “Don’t mind us, we’re just standing in line waiting our turn to sit on the beach.”

Perhaps it took place one hot day recently when something occurred which stirred even the sentiment of the blasé New Yorkers and Brooklynites who sought rest, relaxation, health and exercise at Coney Island’s beautiful beaches. You’ve noticed the psychology of the crowd. If a few move over to get a better view, a crowd rushes after them, they think it’s a fight or something equally exciting. One day recently there was such a shifting of the crowds that, had it been a fight which caused the excitement and the running, it must have been a broil which compared favorably with the Battle of Gettysburg fought by the original cast.

Well, the hero of this story, the center of attraction, was saved only from bodily harm, by the forceful and rapid intervention of some of New York’s finest, their police department which is made up of mighty men. You must have read in the paper about the fractured ribs the crowd inflicted innocently enough upon the transatlantic flyer, Corrigan, the man who said with his tongue in cheek and mischief in his eye that he had made a mistake, that he flew the wrong way. The crowd wanted to see him and they rushed to him with such force that he came close to losing his life.

An ebony Hercules had strolled blithely and nonchalantly upon Coney Island’s beaches, expecting an afternoon of healthful pleasure. So striking was his figure that those nearby turned, some moved over, and soon hundreds rushed to see what the attraction was. And our mighty man was nearly smashed by the mob until rescued by police officers.

That’s one of the penalties of having a back broad as a barn door and a waist which tapers wasp-like from tremendously wide shoulders. A curve to the latissimus great enough to build a good sized shanty on. A pair of deltoids which remind one of a cocoanut cut in the middle, a column-like neck, mighty trapezius, great depth imparted by the tremendous spinae erector development and powerful arms, a shapely chest and round, thick pectorals, a smiling devil-may-care sort of look and a swaggering walk as if the man who was this great physical specimen knew the world was his oyster and he was about to open it.

OK then.

All of this great flow of rhetoric, this use or misuse of the 450,000 words in the English language, concerns a seventeen-year old lad who has startled the weightlifting world, a man who has climbed from absolute lifting obscurity, from a nobody through the winning of the State championship, the National championship, and perhaps soon the World championship. He has what it takes to win, and. barring an upset, should win. I’m writing about John Davis. One of the greatest sensations of this year’s new lifting crop.

There have been a few great colored strongmen. Wesley Williams was the first of these. A man who clean & jerked 315 pounds many years ago, when it was far higher than the accepted national record. A man who applied loyalty, service, physical and mental power to his job so well that that while not yet forty, he has been promoted from captain of the New York City fire department to Battalion chief. There is John Terry, world’s record holder and this year’s national champion. And now there is John Davis, who gives great promise to outshine his illustrious predecessors.

John Davis’ story is a tale of rapid improvement which is nothing less than astonishing. Steve Stanko’s rise to fame, senior national lifting champion is his third ever contest, is the only one that compares with it favorably. It’s far less than a year since Davis “Hercules” Davis, as he is called by his friends, entered his first lifting contest. His beginning was mediocre, that is, as compared to the heights he reached in a few months. Just under a 600 total on the three lifts, but successive contests saw him gaining to 695, 754, 803 ½ , 810 and then he won the junior national contest in Cleveland. You must be wondering how this powerful and marvelously built young man got that way. Well, let me start at the beginning.


John Davis was born just outside of Brooklyn in January of 1921. The Great War had been over three full years, and here the short years have passed and this 1921 baby is a champion, the youngest man in the world to clean & jerk 300 pounds, a 320 clean & jerk before his 17th birthday.

Davis had an average-sized father, and a highly intelligent, powerful mother, larger in size than the average woman, the same sort of combination of powerful Amazon-like mother and ordinary father which produced the great John L. Sullivan. Davis’ mother was a wise, as great in intelligence as she was mighty in body. She encouraged John to study, to strive for physical improvement, to be ambitious, to enjoy and appreciate the finer things of life.

A visitor to 52 N. Broad St. recently, upon meeting John Davis, was surprised to hear him whistling a well known opera, surprised that he knew the name of it and even more surprised that he had a passion for the opera.

Davis attended the public schools of Brooklyn. Almost as soon as he could walk he made use of the playground two blocks from his home. He played boys’ games at first, but it wasn’t long before he noticed things that the bigger boys did on the apparatus in this playground. When they were not there, he tried to do what he had seen done, and as time passed, as years passed, he became proficient on the rings and the horizontal bars. That’s where his chinning ability came from. You may remember the account of his repeated chinning with one hand while holding 20 pounds in the other the night before the junior national championships. In spite of a bodyweight of 181 he can chin 30 times, and is one of the largest men to ever chin with one hand, especially with added weight.

John also learned to play and enjoy handball. He’s one of the best at the single-wall game as played in playgrounds. You should see the speed and power he discloses when in action. He learned a bit of handbalancing as well. In the summer during vacation he worked at farms on Long Island. Thus he spent the greatest part of his time in the open, breathing the good fresh air of the country when he could.

He inherited a sound body. While there were no actual strongmen, men who practiced strength feats, among his immediate ancestors, his people must have been mighty men. At least we know his mother was stronger than most men. John grew up to be a fairly big man, not so tall, 5’ 8”. Not so heavy, 183 pounds. He feels that he could weight over 200 pounds easily. Bob Hoffman does not believe he would look as attractive at that bodyweight as he does at present.

As the years passed with the life of exercise, good food, congenial home surroundings and culture, John developed a body like the untilled field of fertile soil we have written about before. One ready to respond with a big crop when the seed falls upon it.

The seed fell just a bit over a year ago. Several things occurred simultaneously. Strength & Health magazine was brought to the attention of John Davis. He visited the strength show at Paterson, N.J. a year ago this last spring, and there for the first time he saw strong men and lifters in action. That was the night that Tony Terlazzo and John Terpak gave an exhibition. Dave Mayor was there, displayed his mighty frame but did not participate in the lifting. John met Bob Hoffman and talked with him for some time. Later he found a friend who had a barbell. This young man had always desired to be strong, to excel physically. Now his opportunity had presented itself and he grasped it.

Before very long he entered open competition at the French sporting club. Davis proved his strength by finishing second to Tony Dellis of Paterson, who for some years has been one of the best lifters and strength athletes in the country. This was the only second place that John won until the nationals this year. He collected a nice loot of gold medals in contests he entered in and around New York City.

We heard things about the amazing power of this young man Davis, who was just a boy of sixteen at the time. The most amazing strongman and lifter of his age the world had seen perhaps since the day of the sixteen year old Appolon of France. But Davis was a normal sized lad although a very well developed one. Appolon was a giant. In a short time Davis progressed as mentioned previously and soon became one of the few men in this country to total 800. His form was not exceptional. He reached the heights principally through a tremendous pull. He dips only slightly when he cleans and snatches. In fact, after the second International contest in New York, at an exhibition at the German American Athletic Club, when Joseph Manger was unable to clean 332 pounds, Davis walked over to the bar, clothed as he was, without a warmup, and pulled the weight to his chest.

He’s a good presser too, having succeeded with 255 in nice style in practice. A weight which is, by the way, one pound higher than the world’s record held by Tony Gietl of Germany, who lifted here recently with the German team. Davis does not get low in the snatch, 245 being his official best. But he has no good excuse not to snatch at least 260 with the power he has. Remember that he has cleaned 340, and 260 is 80 pounds behind. Some of the champions come closer than that. It’s just a question of time and practice with resulting form before Davis will snatch 260. At Cleveland he cleaned 335 easily enough, jerking it to arm’s length but getting it a bit far back. He lacks skill on the jerk at present because like so many fellows he prefers to practice what he is best at rather than to practice to overcome deficiencies. He has a great pull and he likes to clean, clean and clean, for an hour or so.

He progressed amazingly. Now he is in line for a berth on the world’s championship team. It is well within Davis’ power to press 250, snatch 260 and clean & jerk 340. That’s a total of 850. And that would mean this seventeen year old lad would be World’s champion. Can he do it, will he do it? Only time will tell. But he is capable of all the lifts and Bob Hoffman has asked him to carry 250, 260, 340 around in his mind, to know that he can do it, and win a World’s championship for America.


Naturally you are interested in how John Davis trains. He trains long and hard, as would be expected of a man who has made such amazing progress. He has the strength, the endurance and the ambition to train for hours. To train at least five days a week. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, then a day of rest. Train Saturday and rest Sunday. He does a great deal of pressing, as many as 100 performed in series of 5 or less each with heavy weights. He snatches in much the same manner, series of five and less. Few of our older champions do much cleaning. Hardly more than once a week. On other nights they do a great deal of snatching, and exercises to improve the clean. Principally pulls and upright rowing motions. Once a week, they will handle a substantial poundage in the clean and jerk. But Davis is young enough that he can stand a lot of cleaning. He performs repetition dead hangs with as much as 275, but usually he handles not more than 255.

He does no full deep knee bends. He is like most other York lifters in this respect. I believe that his reluctance to perform full bends is because he prefers not to have too great a development above the knee in the Vastus muscles. He’s a lover of the perfect physique even more than that of strength. He does some deadlifting. I don’t know his record but we saw him handle 560 with ease on one training day recently.

You’ll hear more about this young man Davis. He’ll be world famous. It’s quite possible he will go to Vienna this year as a member of this year’s World’s championship team and one this is certain, what Davis does there will be he talk of the lifting world.

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