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JOHN DAVIS: A Tribute To Super Athlete

by Osmo Kiiha, The Iron Master, 1993

From Lift Up: The interview below has never been conduced actually - it was written almost 10 years after John Davis passed away and was constructed by Osmo Kiiha from many sources, interviews with Davis' friends, books, magazines, newspapers and films. It seems to be a very interesting and creative journalistic approach. The article has been published in the Iron Master Magazine in April 1993.

The complete collection of the Iron Master Magazine was donated to the Lift Up to Neil Wasserman, NYC, USA. Neil passed away in August 2006. Every time I look at the Iron Master set in my library, I think about one of the finest student and historians of Olympic weightlifting and a very special friend of the Lift Up project.

More information on John Davis including his bio, archival footage of lifts, pictorial gallery and complete career stats is available in the John Davis, Hall of Fame @ Lift Up. Back to the conversation with John Davis, the Super Athlete of Olympic Weightlifting.

When and where were you born?

I was born on January 12, 1921 at Smithtown, Long Island, N.Y. I was raised in Brooklyn, N.Y. by my mother. I was named after John Henry, the legendary black river strongman. I never knew my father. I didn't finish school. I was just another black in New York trying to stay out of trouble.

What type of sports did you enjoy when you were growing up?

I excelled at gymnastics and track. I hated football, basketball and baseball as a youth. Even now, the only sports I watch on TV are gymnastics, track and weightlifting.

Could you elaborate on your early sport history?

Almost as soon as I could walk I made use of the playground just two blocks from my hane (Tompkins Park -Brooklyn) .I played boy's games at first, but it wasn't long before I noticed the things that the bigger boys did upon the apparatus in this Brooklyn playground. When they were not there I tried to do what I had seen them doing. And as time passed, as years passed, I became proficient on the rings and the horizontal bars. That's where my chinning ability came from. You may remember the account of my repeated chinning with one hand, holding twenty pounds in the other, the night before the Junior National Championships in Cleveland, Ohio 1938. I might add also that I did three consecutive one arm chins while holding a 25 LB. plate in the other hand at a 190 BWT. in 1940. In 1941 I did five consecutive chins with my left arm while weighing 205 pounds. And in 1938, when weighing 177 pounds, I chinned with both arms with 171 pounds extra weight, a total of 348 pounds. I guess all that gymnastic work paid off. I also learned to play and enjoy hand ball. I was one of the best at the single wall game as played at the playgrounds.

How did you get started in weightlifting?

Steve Wolsky amateur weightlifter saw me fooling around lifting a cement block at the playground and he must have seen something great about my form, anyway he invited me to his home gym to train and I was on my way to a career with the barbells.

Another event that boosted my interest in the weight game was a Strength Show at Paterson, N.J. around the spring of 1937, there I saw strong men and lifters in action for the first time, I also met Bob Hoffman. Before very long I entered the open contest at the French Sporting Club and finished second to Tony Dellis of Paterson.

Tell me about your ear1y training?

I trained long and hard, I had the strength, the endurance and the ambition to train for hours. I usually trained five days a week. Monday through Thursday, then a rest day and back to training on Saturday followed by a rest day on Sunday. I tried to work all the three lifts with equal amounts of activity. Sometimes working up to a hundred reps, performed in a series of five each with heavy weights. In the early days I did no full squats.

Why no squats?

Up until that time, I had received satisfactory results without the use of the squat and was inclined to doubt its merits. Another thing, Bob Hoffman at the time was totally against using the squat, that had sane influence on me.

Why did you change your mind about the squat?

After the 1938 World's Championships, I realized that I could use more power and leg development. By then, no one, more than myself recognized the unparalleled efficiency of the squat. It is the key movement to all of weightlifting and should never be neglected. Without it our chances of ever achieving success would be rather small. It is in a class by itself as far as all-around development and individual potentialities are concerned.

I went on an intense leg workout program. I followed a squatting routine of from sixty to eighty squats in sets of over 15 each with weights above 400 LBS. This squatting practice brought my power up enormously along with a 2 inch gain in my thighs.

I put on an exhibition at the 1942 JR. Nationals held at Bristol, Connecticut and at this exhibition I performed "jumping squats". In doing these I used a barbell weighing 400 LBS. and would lower into a squat and arising from this I would leap at least a foot or more into the air and the lower into a squat again.

I believe that i t was this intense squatting program that made i t possible for me to clean over 400 LBS. and snatch 317 for a New American Record in 1941.

During the years 1938 through 1941, I squatted three repetitions with 550 pounds, eight with 525, and ten with 500 at a bodyweight of 193 LBS. (ED. NOTE) John always squatted with a 2 X 4 under his feet, his feet were held very close together, almost a close stance squat. It's no telling what heights Davis would have hit between the years 1941 -45 if the war had not taken place.

What was your best snatch and clean & jerk in training?

I made it a point to never to try myself out in training on the snatch and clean and jerk, and when I tell people that my best practice clean and jerk is 370, my best snatch 280, they are quite surprised. I explain that these lifts, well below my best in contests, are because my individual temperament will not allow me to get into a competitive mood in practice.

Were you able to make heavy presses in training?

Yes, at a bodyweight of only 183, I pressed 343 in the continental style (Fast start and back bend allowed) .I also cleaned and pressed 375 in reasonably good style, my bodyweight was 228.

How often should a lifter try his limit?

Try yourself out once a month .Get as much rest the night before and warm yourself up thoroughly. Proceed along the lines of a contest and make only three attempts in each lift. Only make a fourth attempt when trying to break a personal record. I have never been in favor of weekly tryouts because I do not feel that the human body can bring itself to productive peak this often.

How do you keep making gains in training?

I have always felt that you must use extremely heavy poundages to make satisfactory gains, and that you cannot concern yourself with what kind of form you use in training. Here I must caution everyone on an extremely important point. You must exercise terrific control in lifting. You must control bad lifting to the point where i t no longer can run away with you. If you do incorrect lifts in training, you must control them S0 that you won't do them in a contest.

Can you give us an example of the above philosophy?

When I plan my lifting schedule for ten weeks in advance, I make up my mind from the very beginning that I will not go below the poundages I have selected for any reason whatsoever. Lets use the press, I will never do less than 8 series of presses, regardless of how sloppy my form may become. I try to advance my training poundages every second workout by 2 1/2 to 10 LBS. If I don't feel that I can advance after this time, I am not ashamed to work with the same poundage for another workout or until I can advance. This type of system builds "fight and guts" -something so necessary in the struggle to get heavy weights through the sticking area without losing control.

I like to sum it all up in three points:

I. The use of basic fundamentals of the type of work concerned.
2. Experimentation. Test or change of routine on reaching sticking point.
3. Devote your energies principally and exclusively to the lift with which you are concerned.

How do you train?

My routine is pretty much the same as that of any other lifter. Possible the only factor about my own training method that would not be suitable for many lifters is the following: I train on each lift for a week; i.e., I train four days a week and I spend 4 days training on the Press. The second week I work on the Snatch and the third week on the Clean. Sometimes I double up, working on two lifts for a week. In addition to the lifting movements I include power building exercises such as the squat and the bench press Here is my training schedule for the Press, followed Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. Warm up: Press 135 2 X 6 Press 185 3 reps Press 205 3 reps Press 255 2 X 3 reps Press 280 1 rep Then eight sets of two presses with 300 pounds, a total of 16. In addition, I bench press 330 for five sets of three reps, and squat with 450 for five sets of five reps. Sometimes to break the monotony I include the press while seated. This exercise builds tremendous power at the sticking point and plenty of finishing drive. It is almost impossible to cheat, bend back or heave the barbell when seated. Another point I would like to make is, once you develop a style of pressing, stick to it .The sty le I use is: I start with the lower abdomen pushed to the front and with a bend in the lower back. As the press arrives at and passes through the sticking point, there is no need to bend the back because it is already in that position and is kept that way throughout the lift. Drive and follow through are essential to a successful press. One more point to remember, minimum of energy must be expanded in the clean .I pull the bell in using a split-even though a slight one- and pull the bell in high so that it canes to rest in the "ready for pressing position". There is no secret to training on the press or any other lift, for that matter. It merely requires a little patience, a little imagination and a good deal of sweat (above all else) with as heavy weight as you can handle.

Did you ever change your reps around when training on the press?

I have found that on sane nights, as little as 20 reps will be sufficient while on other nights as many as fifty reps will not be enough. It just depended how I felt on the training day. I have personally used thirty reps in ten series of three reps with a poundage of 280.

Was the bench press help to you, in increasing your olympic press?

It has been my experience that additional work with the bench press is an excellent power builder. The fact that one can handle heavier weights with the arms alone in this position develops tremendous power to drive and fight heavy poundages through the sticking point.

How did you train the two hands snatch?

It is my opinion that considerable attention must be given to form in the snatch. I spend about 50 percent of my workout periods improving, or at least working on, form in all of its phases. Speed and balance are of premier importance and these qualities can only be obtained by constant and devoted practices. Also I advocate the constant practice of the snatch from the hang because of the strengthening qualities it has for the lower back.

That is, apart from hang snatches, I spend equal amount of time and work on coordination, speed and balance. I have used the split style for most of my career and I consider it a superior way of doing the snatch.

My schedule for snatching is the same as I train for the press. I choose a weight I can handle fairly easily and perform 8- 10 sets of two repetitions. I train on the snatch four nights a week and, aside from this, the only other work I do are the exercises to build power and form. The power exercises are the squat and bench press and the movement for form is the hang snatch.

In the hang snatch (which I use in conjunction with my clean workout) the bar is not permitted to go any lower than the knees. This way the lifter must depend on speed and technique to get the bar to arm's length.

My schedule for the snatch
Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday.

135- 6 reps
135- 6 reps
150- 3 reps
205- 1 rep
250- 1 rep
250- 8 X 2 reps
Bench Press
330- 5 X 3 reps
450 -5 X 5 reps

Did you ever use the squat style for the snatch?

I have used the squat snatch with a small degree of success, and once snatched 267 1/2 pounds using a style similar to that of Pete George. I was a lightheavyweight at the time and had spent about three months trying to perfect the style of snatch. I feel that the split is a superior way of doing the snatch, I never felt comfortable using the squat style. I am not entirely against the squat style of snatching, but would suggest that anyone wishing to use this method should investigate it thoroughly before deciding on it.

Can you give us a sample of your clean workout?

I use the split style for my cleans and my own method of training goes like this:

205- 6 reps
205- 6 reps
255- 3 reps
275- 3 reps
300- 1 rep
315 1 rep
325- 8 X 2 reps
Hang Snatch Warmup 135- 6 reps
150- 6 reps
190- 5 X 5 reps
Sometime working up to 250 for 5 -8 sets of 2 reps.

In addition I do three sets of five squats with 450 and five sets of three bench presses with 340. This routine is done on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday.

Did you change your routine prior to a contest?

About three weeks before a contest, I change over my repetitions to single attempts. By so doing I can handle heavier weights, thereby gaining additional strength. I also make the same practice on the squat and bench press as well.

Assuming I was to compete in contest the last Saturday of the month , my workout would go something like this:

135- 6
135- 6
205- 3
205- 3
Limit poundage for 6 -10 singles with 280 -310 pounds.

- same as press except that my limit poundage would be considerable less. Most likely I would use about 275 for six single attempts.

205 X 6, 255 X 3, 350 X 6 singles. I repeat the workout as outlined above on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday. During the latter part of the third week I discontinue the two power exercises, the bench press and squat. I take my last workout on Tuesday or Wednesday of the last week and take a complete rest from all lifts three or four days before contest time.

How much rest did you take between exercises in training?

I always worked out by the clock. I do a lift or exercise every five minutes. In the case of the squat I take 15 minutes rest between attempts.

How did you arrive at your first attempts for a contest?

I never tried myself out as stated before, however, I attempted my starting poundages at least 4 or 5 times under different conditions. Once without a warm up, once after a workout and at other times under the most impossible conditions. In this way you can be sure of your starting poundage if nothing else. Also my last week of training before a contest, I would always take substantial poundage and make 6 -10 single attempts with it. June of 1941, I made ten singles with 310 and at the Seniors that year I made a fair press with 322 LBS.

Could you comment on warm ups at a contest?

To work very heavy when warming up is a mistake I see lifters make quite often. As a result, when they make their first attempts it goes hard and they don't understand why. Instead of warming up they leave their best lifts in the warm up roan. For example in my opinion if a man presses more than 250 LBS. he should never go above 135 LBS. in his warm up routine. After all, warm-ups are merely to get the blood circulating through out the body, not to produce your best lifts in the warm-up roan.

Do you think warm ups are essential ?

Yes, I spent a great deal of time warming up, getting blood to circulate through the muscles. This is especially important to prevent the tearing and straining of muscles, tissues, and tendons.

In Milan Italy, at the 1951 World's you suffered a thigh injury, what happened ?

In Milan, despite my efforts at warming up, the auditorium was so cold I cooled off before I could get to the platform to make my second attempt snatch with 297 1/2 and suffered a thigh injury.

In a 1952 issue of Iron Man magazine they stated, if you had been a squat style lifter, you probably would have avoided you thigh injury, any comment?

Injuries can occur in both the split and squat style when we least expect them. I have suffered similar leg injuries while doing the squat as an exercise and was saved from a more severe injury only because I felt a slight tear .One would think that dislocated shoulders would be an earmark of the squat snatch, due to the peculiar position of the shoulders in relation to the torso when in the squat position. I have, however, seen dislocations in both styles of lifting.

Did you use the hook grip for your olympic lifts?

No, my short fingers prevented me from "hooking" .My best snatch of 330~ and 402 clean & jerk were made without a hook grip. (ED. NOTE) Davis had remarkably small hands, they were scarcely long enough to encircle an Olympic bar (7.1 inches by 3.5 inches).

How did you place your grip for presses and jerk?

I always used the open grip, with the thumbs in the back of the bar.

What was your favorite lift?

I really have no favorite lift, but worked mostly on the press because it builds power.

(ED.NOTE) You have probably noticed Davis very seldan worked the jerk portion on the clean & jerk lift, relying mostly on the press to build power to hold heavy jerks.

Did you ever train the deadlift?

I have never at anytime in my lifting career trained on the deadlift. I have never been in favor of the deadlift used along with canpetitive training for the olympic lifts. I was capable of a 705 deadlift without any specialization.

How long did a workout usually take you?

Oh, about a hour and a half to two hours. I usually trained four days a week.

Do you follow any special diet. Did you eat anything special before a contest?

I never eat anything special. Just an ordinary simple meal of a wholesome diet. I never eat anything before a contest, but always entered the contest empty. The last time I usually ate was the noon time meal just before the contest.

How much sleep did you get while preparing for a contest?

I usually slept around ten hours a day.

What style of pull did you use on the lifts?

Early in my career I used the dive style and later around 1940 I changed from the dive style to the "get set" style.

How long did you spend in the Armed Forces?

I spent nearly 3~ years in the Army, with little or no training at all. I was drafted in 1942 and returned to civilian life early 1946. The last two years were spent serving in the Pacific Theatre of Operations. The Army didn't give two cents for weight lifters in those days. The only athletes they cared about were football and baseball players.

Do you think World War II put a damper on your lifting career?

If it hadn't been for World War II, I would have won four Olympics. I would have been in a class wi th Al Oerter the discus thrower. Say nothing of the World titles between the Olympics (39 - 41 -42 -43 -45) I could have won.

Was the 400 pound clean & jerk your ultimate goal in weightlifting?

No, the goal I wanted to reach more than anything else, was a 1100 pound total on the three Olympic lifts. Which unfortunately do to my leg injury, I was never able to attain.

(ED.NOTE) Just for the sake of argument, if Davis had not injured his leg at the 1956 Olympic tryouts, I believe he could have totaled 1100 or more and won the Olympic gold medal that year, especially with the balance problems Paul Anderson was experiencing. Davis was probably capable of a 360 press, 335 snatch and at least a 410 clean and jerk.

What about steroids?

Steroids started around 1950 and it caught on fast. I wasn't into Steroids myself. I was asked to take steroids by my coach, but I said there was no way I was going to take them because I didn't know what they would do to my body.

What is your favorite hobby besides weightlifting?

Classical music and Opera.

How did you get interested in the Opera ?

I've always liked the opera, but I became really interested in it after I was discharged out of the Army in 1946. I started to study voice in 1951, and took a lesson a week in voice culture and one in sight reading. I had a professional singing engagement with Pete George, when we sang for a week at the China Variety Theatre in Stockholm, Sweden. My career in opera singing was, ruined by chronic hiccups from which I suffered for 15 years.

Were you married?

I married Louise Morton in 1946, the marriage lasted some 15 years and eventually resulted in a separation and divorce.

Did you have any children?


Did you compete after your injury at the 1956 Olympic tryouts?

No, that was my last competition.

After Davis' unfortunate accident at the 1956 Olympic Tryouts, he spent the better part of 1957 rehabilitating himself.

Morris Weissbrot reports in a 1957 issue of Strength & Health: Davis had resumed training in a modified way. Can't as yet restart Olympic lifting for he has not completely recovered from his unfortunate leg injury. Is able to power clean 280 to 290 and press it. He was able to press a 300 LB. barbell after the barbell was cleaned for him. Also Davis has progessed to the stage where he can perform squats with approximately 200 LBS.

December 07, 1957 -Berks County Open -Reading, PA.
John Davis was on hand and served as an official.


When weighing 193 pounds (at 68.5 inches) Davis could correctly curl 210 pounds. This, in comparison with his lesser bodyweight, placed him in the same class as Doug Hepburn for "curling efficiency." Hepburn curled 260 LBS. at around 300 LBS. bodyweight.

John Davis performed a right hand lift of 8 pounds on a Weaver Stick in the Forward Lift style.

John made a correct military press of 295 LBS. for two reps at 200 pounds BWT. in 1941.

September 25, 1940 John started school at the Lincoln Preparatory School in Philadelphia, PA. He was to go for 2 years to prepare for college. Davis wanted to be a physical education teacher. School was paid by Bob Hoffman. Davis appears on the cover of the May issue of EBONY in 1952, holding a bathing beauty above his head.

Davis makes a statement in May 1952 EBONY magazine, "1 will never enter the A.A.U. Mr .America Contest because I believe a negro cannot win ." JET magazine May 07, 1984 an article about Davis appears in this popular magazine.


John was partially right about a negro not winning the A.A.U. Mr. America Contest. It was not until 1970 that Chris Dickerson won, becoming the first black A.A.U. Mr. America. However the I.F.B.B. was well ahead of the A.A.U. in this department. Harold Poole who had previously placed second in 1962 and 1963 at the A.A.U. Mr. America, easily won the I.F.B.B. version of the Mr. America in 1964, thus becoming the first black to hold the title of Mr. America.

John had a severe case of haemolytic jaundice acquired in the Pacific while serving with the Armed Forces. He sometimes had recurring effects of the condition.

Injury to his back prior to 1948 Olympic Games kept him fran serious traini for months, he was treated by Hy Schaffer with chiropractic adjustments . John made a pinch lift with a 75 pound smooth barbell plate using only fingers and a thumb.

John Davis appears in the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame series trading card set, Impel Marketing, Inc. Card No.41. (1991).

John was a heavy smoker, smoking a pack and a half of cigarettes daily for better part of his 63 years. Davis notes this is his reward: cancer of t brain, bone, lungs and pancreas, and a severe case of emphysema.

John Davis, was chosen as a member of the 1940 Olympic team to compete in London, England of that year. Olympics were canceled because of the war in Europe.

Davis had a physique that would turn heads on Muscle Beach. Here were hi measurements when he was an 18 year old -lightheavyweight: Height 5'8 1/2, weight 180, neck 17", bicep 16", forearm 133/4", wrist 7", chest 47", wais 31", thighs 24 1/2", knees 14", calf 16 1/2", ankle 9".

John Davis was the first amateur to clean & jerk 400 and the first to do it on a regulation Olympic set.

One of three to win six World Championships and two Olympic Gold Medals. Others are Vasily Alexeyev of the Soviet Union and Tommy Kono of Hawaii . John competed for the York Barbell Club in York, PA. but he trained on his allover New York city.

In 1979 someone broke into Davis' apartment and stole his Olympic medals, late they were recovered.

Marion Hampton helped to arrange for Albuquerque to proclaim John Davis Day on December 07th, 1983. Mayor Henry E. Kenney visited the St. Francis Garden Nursing Hane and presented Davis with a plaque naming him as the city's special representative at the 1984 Olympics.




Videos and Gallery of John Davis is available in his section of the Hall of Fame @ Lift Up.



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