"If this kid can't bring people back to boxing, I don't know who can," says Lira, signing as he speaks to include Davis in the conversation. "This is what America stands for—a deaf kid who went out and educated himself [after graduating from high school, Davis spent a year in a course for the hearing impaired conducted by Northern Illinois University]. A guy who is working hard to make something of himself."
Davis's most recent bout was on Aug. 11 in Chicago, at the bottom of the Edwin Rosario-Juan Nazario card. Fighting lackadaisically, he lost the first three rounds to Sammy Matos (11-11-1). Davis knew Lira had KO'd Matos in the ninth round in 1983 and probably had figured that if an old man could do it in nine, he could do it at will. Matos surprised him. When Davis returned to his corner after the third round, Lira gave him a sign-lashing. "I kept telling him Sammy was tough, but David figured that if I beat him, he could knock him out like that," Lira says, snapping his fingers. "So in the corner I said, 'You've been giving the fight away, now you got to get rid of him!' Well, left hook, right hand, uppercut, overhand right, left hook to the body, right uppercut—David knocks him out in the fourth. He stole the show."
Sitting in his mother-in-law's living room after working out, Davis holds hands with his wife, Bridgette, who is also deaf. Asked if she worries when her husband fights, she laughs and signs. "My baby!" Bridgette, 22, knew Davis as one of the best athletes at Chicago's Whitney Young Magnet High, where they were classmates and sweethearts. "I get excited when he fights," she signs. "I want to help him punch. The only time I worry is when he stops moving. I want him to keep out of the way." When asked her husband's best feature as a boxer, she signs, "It's defense—because he moves fast, and he's smart."
When Davis is asked the same question, he pounds the left side of his chest with his fist, as if his heart were about to burst from his chest.
Later, upon arriving at the gym for a sparring session, Davis warms up by stretching, jabbing and dancing. Lira signs a set of instructions. Smooth. Fast. Relax. Davis, chomping down on his mouthpiece, gives Lira the universal son-to-father look—I've heard this a million times. Then his right hand shoots out at Lira's nose. The trainer takes a step back. The fighter laughs. "Old man," he signs. Lira retorts with a gesture that it doesn't take familiarity with sign language to understand.
Davis steps in against his sparring partner, a hungry-looking middleweight who seems not to mind being called Crazy Sam. The bell rings. Other fighters hear the bell; Davis has to feel it resonate through his feet. Just to make sure, Lira pounds the mat. Around the ring, slouched over gym bags or on folding chairs, Fuller Park's veterans watch Davis and Crazy Sam feel each other out.
" Davis is a fine prospect," says trainer Arthur Moore, who has spent 45 of his 65 years around rings like this one. "He needs more FEE-nesse, but he looks good. Got the punch of a Hagler."
Trainer Gene Kelly, also 65, says Davis reminds him of Bob Satterfield, the Chicago heavyweight knockout artist of the 1940s and '50s. " Davis can get better," says Kelly. "Right now he's a slow starter, tends to wait. But he's learning all the time. He can punch, and that's exciting."
Tony Arvia, 70, the dean of Fuller Park trainers, says Davis is like "the old 'screw you' fighters. He's a nice boy, but in the ring he's got that meanness—"Screw you, here I come!' He's got power and he's got heart. It's a long, tough road from here, but if John can communicate with him, Davis could go a long way."
In the ring, Crazy Sam grunts. He grunts every time he throws a punch. He launches a roundhouse right that starts at the floor and winds up somewhere north of Davis's head. Davis bobs and pops a left. His eyes widen when he throws a punch. His glove hits Crazy Sam's ribs with the sound of a fastball slamming into a catcher's mitt. Crazy Sam hits Davis with a left and a right, but Davis picks off the next four punches, bulls Crazy Sam to the ropes and pummels him. The bell sounds. Lira pounds the mat.