Monday, August 18, 2008

John Davis - Bob Nealy

John Davis by Bob Nealy (1947)

Weightlifting, as most of you know, is a specialized sport, a demanding pastime, like carrying ice, wrestling a gorilla or learning to dance ballet, in that even the spectator had to be something of an expert to watch it understandingly. It is the one sport left in the world wherein the female cannot hope to compete with the male.

The average neophyte concentrating on his own total will not pay much, if any attention to the experts and champions lifting in the same contest with him – except, that is, in one particular instance. The lifter and fan alike – for that matter every person at a contest – will fight one another in order to get close enough to the platform to see John Davis lift. This man, who is a Negro, is so marvelously endowed that at the age of 17 he won the light-heavyweight weightlifting championship of the world. Recently in Paris, he won the heavyweight championship – and is, according to some, the greatest (Joseph Manger and Steve Stanko not exempted) weightlifter that ever lived. John Davis, himself, is quiet and so modest that it is next to impossible to make a hero out of him. He has no inclination whatever to show off or show up anyone – and it is a characteristic of his that he will lift just enough to win – but he always wins. There is not a man in the world today – and since he has been in his prime – there has never been a man in recorded history who could outlift John Davis in the three so-called Olympic lifts. Absolutely no one.

There are some who say that great athletes like Davis are “born that way.” The truth of the matter, however, is that beyond mere family characteristic, heredity is a myth.

A broad, heavy, very muscular person, big John can handle weights in excess of 300 pounds, about as easily as the average lifter can manage weights of 200 pounds, give and take a few pounds.

John Davis has cleaned and pressed 320-pounds, which is, so far as I can recall at the moment, as much as has ever been handled in that manner. True, if is rumored that Josef Manger has pressed more on certain occasions – however, Davis’ 320 press is a fact, not rumor. One or two of the members of the old Vienna “beef trust” were able to press in excess of 320 pounds, but only after they had continentalled the weight to the chest. Using a specially constructed barbell, that great French lifter, Charles Rigoulot (he also one-arm snatched the enormous weight of 264 pounds, give and take a pound or two) was able some years ago, to snatch 315 pounds. Davis has snatched 317 on a standard revolving barbell. Using the same “pet” barbell, Rigoulot has clean and jerked 402 pounds, which is the most ever handled in that manner up to this writing. I do believe, however, that Davis could and would handle 400 pounds in the jerk if forced to do so in order to win. He has totaled in excess of 1,000 pounds and has under official conditions totaled more on the three Olympic lifts than any other man, living or dead. These lifts speak for themselves.

The bell that Rigoulot used, by the way, had a very limber bar that was some ten feet long, and I predict that as soon as some daring manufacturer of barbells models a bar under like specifications, weightlifting records immediately soar. And why not permit out lifters – and all lifters – to use such a bar? After all, the idea is to manufacture and use the best equipment possible. This ten foot bar is M. Rigoulot’s brainchild, but undoubtedly somebody in time will manufacture one similar to it, and after some phenomenal lifting is done on it, the manufacturer will claim the idea is original with him, but that is neither here nor there – as long as the bar is manufactured. That time will eventually come.

I’ve personally seen an undertrained, half-hearted John Davis press and snatch 290 pounds and clean and jerk 355 pounds as if these enormous poundages were matchsticks. In fact, unless people had seen John Davis mass his tremendous three-lift total of over 1,000 pounds, no one would believe it. Even when I watch the ease and perfection and finesse with which Davis handles his poundages I am tempted to disbelieve my very eyes – and I’ve seen some fair-to-middling lifters during my twenty-two years in the iron game – Henry Steinborn and Steve Stanko and Josef Manger included. I want to state, here, that Steve Stanko was a wonderful lifter and a wonderful man – but I honestly do not think he was ever Davis’ equal, all things considered. One must remember that Stanko was an “emotional” lifter and had the sort of fighting spirit that could be stirred into superhuman action. On the other hand, John Davis is about as emotional as Joe Louis, for John is a very intelligent young man and looks upon lifting and lifters and hobbies and friends, rather than as a business with business associates. That is to say, as long as he wins important matches he doesn’t care by how many pounds they are won.

There are some, of course, who cannot and will not understand why John Davis does not try to make a world record every time he lifts. To such men, self-confidence is the know-all and be-all of life. Personally, I think overwhelming self-confidence can be awfully tiresome, and that there are weightlifting fans, who, like myself, resent hammy heroics – who are bored unto tears by these blowhard braggarts who think they know and can do everything and anything. Nobody can ever accuse John Davis of being a musclehead.

Without question, Davis is the best drawing card in weightlifting at present. This is true because he brings championship ability and championship personality to the fundamentally dull business of picking up a weight and setting it down. Most all other hallowed masters face their public with a predetermined attitude of mind, but modest John just remains himself. Weightlifter and fan alike will have to take him on that premise.

He is quiet and always in the background, and often as not, does not even put in an appearance after a contest to accept his winning medal. The sport of weightlifting has a right to be proud of this truly self-effacing champion. His lifting style is faultless, but never have I known him to protest a decision made against him by the referee and judges. For one thing, Davis can tell from long practice whether he has “started” a lift correctly – and if he has it will be good; and if he hasn’t, he knows it won’t be good.

John has an encyclopedic memory for records, dates, total and incidental drama of every weightlifting meet he has ever been in, or read about, but his mind goes blank when it comes to remembering the names of the great lifters he has defeated. He really loves the iron game – make no mistake about that. He was in the Army during the war and has a fine military record, but will not permit me to boast about it for him. There are very few aspects of his career that he will boast about, if, indeed, there are any. To anyone who has encountered some of the conceited hams that swagger about our sport, Davis’ coyness is more than refreshing – it’s a relief.

As a youth, John Davis was, explicitly, a hustler. By that I mean that he was an ambitious and hard worker beyond the bounds of most youths. He has one of the finest mothers any man could ever hope to have, but in the old days there was never an excess of funds in the family, and John, although large of bone and frame for his age, was thin and weak looking in those now fairly distant days of a decade or so ago. He didn’t look strong enough to pick up an empty revolving bar, and his general attitude of anemia was enhanced by a happy mouthful of white, glistening teeth that was such a broad expanse as to make the rest of his face seem pinched and small. Every lifter who volunteered to show John a thing of two in those days, probably was a well-meaning soul determined to teach the enthusiastic youth a stern lesson having to do with the superiority of age, dignity and other character-building qualifications.

What a surprise those teachers were in for. At that age of sixteen and hardly more than an overgrown middleweight, John Davis could chin himself with either hand, clean even more weight than most men could deadlift, and do other stunts in proportion. In fact, Davis was and is good on any of the officially listed lifts – and many of those not officially listed.

Davis weighs 215 pounds at present, and at his 5’8” height, that makes him all man and a yard wide. If there are any muscles with long Latin names that he does not posses, I wish somebody would tell me what they are.

It should be conceded by all that John Davis knows the difference between a good snatch, a press and a clean an jerk – and it’s quite interesting to know what he has to say about these lifts – how he trains to gain maximum efficiency in them and how best to perform them in a meet when the chips are on the table.

Davis believes that basically, all training methods are the same, that is to say, all standard training routines. But, barring the exceptions, no two men can follow the same program and expect equal or even acceptable results. In other words, there are just so many standard exercises and lifting motions, but it is the manner in which the individual maps out his own program which gauges the results – all other things considered equal.

For example, to reach a really high total in the Olympic lifts, Davis believes you must specialize in lifting heavy poundages and heavy poundages alone. He claims you cannot mix bodybuilding with lifting and expect to reach your peak as a lifter – this maxim might also apply in reverse. He even goes further with this question of specialization by stating that if you want to improve the press, you must work out a press program suitable to your individual case and then do that one lift alone – don’t even practice the snatch or the jerk.

In the case of the press, Davis advises from 20 to 50 reps. In the former, and always using as much weight as can be handled correctly, he advises 2 reps done 10 times. Usually the weight to use is about 60 to 80% of the best press you have ever made. John will specialize on one lift at a time, for as long as a week at a time, working out four to five times. When his best press was 310 he exercises with 280!

Davis uses a minimum of energy in cleaning for the press. The bar usually lands on the breastbone or a little lower; his upper arms rest against his torso with the elbows held lightly in upon the abdominals. His thumbs are “free” or under the bar. At the signal to start, he takes a deep breath, and “breathing up” the bar, presses strongly and steadily. As the press starts, his back is slightly arched (it never changes position throughout the lift) and his buttocks pulled in tightly. His style is very smooth and pretty to watch, and it would do well to copy it – especially if you are a poor presser – for his leverage ideas are sound.

The snatch, Davis states, needs more technical attention than the press – consequently, one has to train harder to learn the proper positions to get into. Having lifted myself, and been an official at lifting meets from Maine to Pennsylvania for nearly a quarter of a century, I can tell you that I have seen about as many snatching styles as lifters – wide handspacings, narrow grips, men who split one leg to the rear, one leg to the front, or both legs evenly, the squat snatch – and, well, most of you are acquainted with the many variations. The point to remember here is – John Davis has snatched more weight than any other man in the world, living or dead – how, then, does he do it?

If you dive, you usually get the best momentum, but regardless of dive or get-set, space your hands comfortably. If long-armed, have hands nearly against the inside collars; if short-armed, place hands just about at the beginning of the inside knurling on the bar. Keep head up slightly, with arms relaxed and slightly bent at elbows, back flat; breathe deeply and start the pull getting bar as high as possible before splitting; throw head back as you pull up weight; then drop straight down – not forward – and move legs only. Do not split with one leg directly behind the other, as this is bad balance – keep your feet a foot or so apart, at least. At the finish of a Davis split, the bar is directly over the crown of his head. His forward knee (the right) projects beyond the toe of that foot. His hips are not swung forward; his back is perfectly straight. He gets up into a standing position very quickly.

Davis advises to train for proper position in the snatch. Do not handle heavy weights while learning to do this. If your best snatch is, let us say 150 pounds, then 75 pounds is plenty to learn and improve technique with. The things to practice are (a) pull as high as possible, (b) drop straight down at the hips while splitting. Do countless reps until it becomes second nature to get the body into these positions – then later on practice “dead hang” snatches with as much weight as you can correctly handle in a program worked out by yourself.

Apparently, Davis doesn’t give much individual attention to the clean and jerk – except an occasional session on the clean.

The world, on the whole, does not look to weightlifting for displays of character and integrity, but our John Davis has established a record in this department. He definitely is the greatest weightlifter of all time and worth going a country mile to witness in action.

And there are many who will second that motion.

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