The four older boys eventually turned pro—Jimmy, 15, is still an amateur—but not before they tore up the amateur ranks in Canada, with the oldest three winning three Golden Gloves titles apiece. They had phenomenal amateur records: Davey Jr. was 130-2, Alex 103-1, Matthew 106-0, and Stewart 90-6. Jimmy is currently 11-1.
To be sure, Davey Sr. was living out the unfulfilled dreams of his own life through his sons. Not that Hilton wanted for chances as a fighter when he was young. His own father was an itinerant steeplejack from west Montreal. "A tough area, where the Forum is," Davey says. "I was a rough kid, a pretty good street fighter." In the winters of Davey Sr.'s youth, his father, looking for work, would take the family south across the border in a 35-foot house trailer. The boy learned to box in American gyms filled with young talent. One year he won a Golden Gloves title in Chattanooga, another year in Dallas and a third year in Louisville, where he worked out of the Columbia Gym and sparred with two future heavyweight champions.
One of them was a light heavyweight named Cassius Clay, who was still six years away from being Muhammad Ali, and the other was Clay's good pal Jimmy Ellis. "Davey was a good fighter, man," says Ellis, who now works Matthew's corner with Davey. "He was a hitter, a good banger."
Hilton was 72-1 as an amateur, with 59 KOs. At the close of his Louisville days the Hilton family packed up and went back to Canada. "The next thing I know," says Ellis, "Davey was the Canadian featherweight champion."
That was where the glory ended. Davey would make occasional forays to New York, but most of his bouts were in small Canadian venues, where he fought for everything from rubber checks to $500. He often faced larger men because Canadian featherweights ducked him and there was nowhere to go in weight but up.
So he languished in the clubs, and after a few years he started drinking. "I used the excuse—and I call it an excuse—that I was discouraged," Hilton says. "I was beating everybody at the time. I was fighting 10 rounds and ending up with $50." He sometimes fought when he was drunk. One of his earliest and most vivid memories of fighting under the influence was the night he whipped Hector Rodriguez in Saint John, New Brunswick, in July 1965.
Hilton had been on a binge, and he could barely walk when he got home the morning of the fight. Jeannie and Hilton's mother changed his clothes and put him on a flight to New Brunswick out of Montreal. They stuffed his pockets with notes, all of which said: "You're fighting Hector Rodriguez tonight in Saint John." They further directed him to his hotel.
Hilton woke up on the plane. Lord knows, he was surprised. "I thought it was a joke," he says. After all, one minute he was sitting in a bar outside Montreal, and the next thing he knew, he was wearing a different suit and sitting in an airplane heading east. Fumbling in his breast pocket, he found one of the notes, and immediately went back into training: "I ordered two double rye and ginger ales. Then I was ready to fight Rodriguez. I was ready to fight anyone."
He threw up in his corner after Round 2, but eventually won a 10-round decision, thereby establishing the legend—feisty ring scrapper and bar fighter extraordinaire, the little man with the big left hook that he unloaded in rings from Boston to Quebec and in bars from one end of Montreal to the other.
"A very, very lovable person," says Tim Clahane, a Montreal restaurateur, who knew Hilton in those early days. "Sober, he would never say boo to anyone. You couldn't talk him into a fight. Being very shy, when he had a drink in him he became outward. If someone ignored him or talked down to him, it hurt him."