A look back at a fallen fighter
By John J. Raspanti
Some people are born to fight.
Al Davis was one of them. He boxed in the ring and brawled in the streets, usually for some unknown underdog. Tough, tenacious, and soft-hearted, Davis made no excuses for his failings and took no bull from his enemies.
Born Abraham Davidoff on January 26, 1920, he grew up in a rough and tumble section of Brooklyn called Brownsville.
Davis learned the ropes early.
During prohibition, Davis was a lookout for his father who ran a candy store, and an illegitimate liquor store, in the same location. His job was to tell his pops if any cops were in the neighborhood.
Davis figured out at a young age that his brothers hung out with a dangerous crowd, working as collectors for a group of gangsters called Murder Inc. - who answered to the crime syndicate.
The hoods could intimidate most of the young men in the neighborhood, except Davis, who had no problem standing up to goons like Abe “Kid Twist” Reles, who killed for a living. Big brother Willie had enough power to keep the hitman away from his little brother, but Reles found another way to hurt Davis. He obstructed his boxing career.
Davis’s rise as a boxer actually started as a kid on the streets of Brownsville, where at the age of eight he was in charge of a push cart. Any attempt to steal it was met by a barrage of blows. Davis began boxing professionally as a teenager after a successful amateur career. He often used aliases in the ring, like Giovanni Pasconi. He was blessed with a beautiful left hook that could knock the head off of most of his opponents.
With an aggressive style and pulverizing hook, Davis was soon drawing huge crowds. His manager came up with the idea of calling him “Bummy.” Davis hated it. He wasn’t a bum and didn’t like being booed. Showbiz said his manager. The name stuck.
On November 1, 1939, during his fight with popular ex-champion Tony Canzoneri things got of control. Davis destroyed Canzoneri inside of three rounds. The boxing crowd wasn’t impressed. The booing was louder. Davis had graduated from unpopular to outright villain.
The catcalls hurt, the insults stung deep, and Davis began to get a little cynical about professional boxing. But he soldiered on, fighting all the top-rated boxers and maintaining a protective friendship with a disabled young man named Charlie.
Davis won his first thirty-three pro bouts. The streak ended when he fought future “Hall of Famer” Lou Ambers. The taunting of the crowd was so demoralizing that Davis retired for a spell. He was not only a villain but a demon with a left hook. A demon most everyone hated.
In Brownsville, he was celebrated as an example of a generous young man who had pulled himself out of his murderous surroundings. Everyone who knew him recognized this version as closer to the truth.
Davis returned to the ring in 1940 and fought Fritzie Zivic, known for dirty tactics. Zivic lived up to his reputation. He thumbed Davis repeatedly in the eyes. Davis lost his temper and retaliated. He walked up to Zivic and started hitting him low, stopping when he was disqualified.
After the fight, the New York State Boxing Commission banned Davis for life. Many protested on his behalf. What about what Zivic had done? Davis didn’t care. He joined the military, and got hitched.
A few months later, after hearing witnesses from the Zivic fight, who told the complete story of what went down that night, the boxing commission re-instated Davis. Zivic apologized to Davis, who received a leave from the Army, and fought Zivic again. He lost, but donated his entire purse to charity. Davis kept fighting, even though his desire to box was waning.
He won four of his next five fights before taking on former and future lightweight champ Bob Montgomery. The fight figured to be easy pickings for Montgomery as word had leaked out that Davis had lost his edge.
Montgomery entered the match a 10-1 favorite. He exited it a loser, in a little over a minute, courtesy of Davis’ left hook. The upset shocked the boxing community.
Davis fought for another two years, losing to the great Henry Armstrong, and being stopped by Rocky Graziano. Though still known as "Bummy," the booing had lessened, if not completely stopped.
At home, the slugger was now a daddy, welcoming his son into the world in early 1945.
Sadly, Davis didn’t have much longer to live. He opened a bar and grill that didn’t do very well. He ended up back in the ring, out of shape, and fifteen pounds over his prime weight. He still managed to win most of his bouts.
On November 21, 1945, he was hanging out at his former business, shooting the bull with friends. Davis noticed four men with guns enter the bar. Unarmed, he walked right over to the four. One of them called him a bum, Davis knocked him out, but was shot in the gut. The other three high-tailed it out of the bar with Davis in pursuit. They kept firing and Davis kept coming. He was finally felled by a fatal shot in the neck, but his heroics had allowed the police to nab the robbers.
Davis was 25 years old.
"Bummy" was now a hero. His redemption was complete, but what a price he had to pay.