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In the Fuller Park gym on Chicago's South Side, 23-year-old unbeaten middleweight David Davis intently watches his trainer's right fist. It shoots under Davis's gloves and drives upward—stopping just short of Davis's chin. Davis grins.
The fist unclenches. The fingers flutter. The fingers say, in American Sign Language, "That's what you do when it's time to put the guy away."
"Yeah," Davis says aloud. He says it perfectly, but "yeah" is the only word he will utter in the presence of strangers.
"He talks more when we're alone," says the owner of the fist, former U.S. lightweight champ Johnny Lira, who serves as both Davis's trainer and interpreter. "In public, David's afraid he'll sound bad."
Davis became deaf at age four, after spinal meningitis nearly killed him. He began his amateur fighting career as a child on Chicago's playgrounds, defending himself against the taunts of "regular" kids. "People are prejudiced against deaf people," he says, through Lira. "They don't look at you the way they look at regular people. I want to show everybody that disabled people can be champions."
Lira, 35, who retired in 1984 with a 30-6-1 record, along with a mashed nose that angles toward his right shoulder, got his first glimpse of Davis at the Windy City Boxing Club last year. "I saw him working on the bag. I didn't know he was deaf or anything—I just liked his foundation. He had a good basic stance, good balance, good hand speed, good power. I saw him fight a few guys who had much more experience than he had. They would put it to him, then he'd come back and—bang! bang!—pull out the fight. I thought, This kid could be a champion."
In August 1986 Lira and his partner, Jack Rimland, a Chicago lawyer, bought Davis's contract from Rick Colbert, a local trainer. Lira took a crash course in sign language, and he and Rimland reorganized Davis's training program, lined up tough but beatable opponents and slowly persuaded Davis that a title was within his reach.
"He's a good fighter now, but he's still learning," says Rimland. "We haven't wanted to get him overpowered. We want to let him mature, and we want to provide some security for him. We want to make sure David never has to sign his life away to anybody in the boxing business. He's a fine man; we don't want him exploited."
"Before we got him, he was making $50 or $100 a fight, if he was lucky," says Lira. "We give him training expenses, equipment, medical expenses. We're supposed to split his purses 50-50, but to give him an incentive, I might offer him a $100 bonus if he looks good in a fight, maybe $100 more if he knocks the guy out. So he ends up getting all the money. Who cares? There ain't no money to split now, anyway."
Davis, 13-0 with eight knockouts, won less than $5,000 in his first year as a pro. He rides around in Lira's battered station wagon, and has named himself the Silent Bomber, an allusion to his hero, Joe Louis. The Brown Bomber "knocked 'em out quick, like I do," he signs; indeed, all eight of his knockouts have come in six rounds or less. Whose mantle is he after? David grins and rubs his head as if to shave it—boxing sign language for Marvelous Marvin Hagler.