HIS nickname suggested he was something more than a fighter. Something more than tough. Something more than a man.
That’s what they called Aaron Davis in the ’80s and ’90s and when it was said – Aaron ‘Superman’ Davis – it would roll off the tongue with such ease it was permissible to believe it was the New Yorker’s given middle name from birth.
“I was called Superman because I used to spar anybody from middleweight to heavyweight,” Davis told Boxing News. “I was only a welterweight, but I didn’t care. I just wanted that work. And I did quite well, too. I’d try to hurt them just as they would try to hurt me.”
Today, 17 years after his final fight, there’s no need for Aaron Davis to be Superman but still the nickname sticks around. Davis, too, endures, existing in the old minds of those fortunate enough to see him fight and in the younger minds he now looks to mould at the Morris Park Boxing Club in the East Bronx. These days he patrols quieter, safer streets.
“Fighters today don’t fight no more,” said Superman. “They don’t fight very often and when they do they ain’t even fighting. When we were fighting, we didn’t want to leave anything behind. We actually wanted to knock people out. These fighters today just want to win on points and don’t want to get hit.
“Times change, man. The fighters today don’t have heart. It’s all a business to them.”
For Aaron Davis, boxing’s a family business he inherited from his father, Larry, a former pro who trained and cornered him. When introduced to it at the age of eight, Superman was just a boy, a New York Yankees fan with designs on throwing balls rather than punches. He had no idea boxing would later define him.
“I never took it serious,” he said. “I liked other sports. I was a good baseball player and put that over boxing.
“After spending a couple of months in the gym at eight, I got to 13 or 14 and went back and committed that time.
“I lost a fight when I was 16 and that’s when I took it serious. I hated that feeling of losing. I wanted to win so bad. I wanted to beat this guy. I blamed losing on baseball and didn’t want to make excuses no more.”
Though Davis spends his days encouraging kids in the Bronx to utilise boxing as a means of keeping them on the straight and narrow, he never had the same need to be saved when growing up. Unlike others, he had options. He had stability. He had a level of security, both at home and on the streets, most youngsters raised in the Bronx are without.
“I was never in trouble like that,” he said. “The Bronx, like anywhere, has its good and bad places and my part was a very good middle-class part. I would go to the other side and they’d have parts that were really bad, but where I grew up it was between middle class and poor. Everybody worked. They respected everybody else.
“If I didn’t become a boxer, I would have been okay. I would have gone into the military or been a cop. Those were the two things I wanted to do.”
According to his father, Aaron boxed 21 times as an amateur. He, though, believes the correct number is probably 17. Either way, the point remains: when Davis turned pro in 1986, he was raw, rough around the edges and resigned to learning on the job. Moreover, as a result of his inexperience, he was spared the softly-softly approach granted to America’s Olympic champions and would even spend a large part of his early pro career boxing in France.
“Christophe Tiozzo (the former WBA super-middleweight champion) was up here and we would spar when he came to Gleason’s (gym),” Davis explained. “His manager was looking for trainers and my father and Billy Giles started training him. That’s when his promoter wanted me to fight on his cards out there.
“I did pretty good. I was winning fights and it was a very good experience for me. The money was good out there and they treated you good. I’d fight on Canal Plus and they looked after you.”
In July 1990, with seven of his first 19 pro fights taking place in France, and with his record at 29-0, Davis landed the fight he is asked about more than any other. This one pitted Superman, the rough-and-ready pro with limited amateur experience, against Mark Breland, the gifted, well-schooled 1984 Olympic champion from the Los Angeles Games. At stake was Breland’s WBA welterweight title but just as important were New York bragging rights.
“It was a good night, one I’ll never forget because I won the world title,” Davis said. “It was a fight perfect for New York. He was from (Brooklyn) New York; I was from New York. He wanted to win bad and I wanted to win bad. Neither of us wanted to go home a loser. That’s why he fought as hard as he did, I think.
“If he would’ve fought anybody else that night he would’ve fought differently. If there was one person Breland didn’t want to lose against, it was me. He was fighting like he really wanted that.”
The fight at Harrah’s Hotel & Casino in Reno started out the way you might expect a set-to between an amateur star and a pro grafter to start out. One man wanted it clean, the other preferred dirty. One man invested everything in the jab and straight shots, the other looked to get close and hook away.
But then, with 15 seconds of the ninth round remaining, Davis, hurt and tired, somehow summoned the strength to finish Breland with a single right hand.
“I didn’t have a chance to see how talented he was because my whole plan was to be on him and make him fight hard,” Davis recalled. “I wanted to make the fight nasty.
“He had more experience than me and was a much better boxer than me. The only way I was going to win that fight was if I fight him and make him fight. I had to take him out of his zone and the way he usually fights by making it a gruelling kind of fight. It had to be a dog fight.”
The ninth-round knockout was even more startling because Breland was for much of the round the fresher of the two and in the ascendency, whereas Davis, wilting and peeping through slits, had by now stopped using his right hand, something mentioned by the commentary team moments before he proved them wrong, and seemingly run out of ideas.
“I was tired,” he conceded almost 30 years later. “I think I over-trained for that fight. I had a lot of anxiety, too, because it was a big fight for me. But I did hurt my arm as well. The commentators were right about that. I overextended my elbow in camp but had to fight.”
Most men would have pulled out. But Aaron Davis wasn’t most men. He didn’t pull out with an elbow injury ahead of his first world title shot and he didn’t pull out of a fight against Meldrick Taylor, either, despite breaking his hand in training two and a half weeks before his scheduled first defence.
“This is the truth,” he said, “and I’ve never told people this story before.” He paused for breath. “When I fought Meldrick Taylor my left hand was broken two and a half weeks before the fight. But I couldn’t pull out. It was a big fight for big money.
“The doctor told me I may never be able to fight again, but that was going to be true whether I fought or not. If I take the fight, and don’t ever fight again after, at least I’ve got that money. If I don’t take the fight and then find out the damage is too bad to fight again, what do I have to show for it? I miss out on a payday.
“The best thing to do was just go fight him and that’s what I did. I went into that fight with my hand broken in three places.”
That defence against Taylor in January 1991 turned out the way many expected Davis’ fight against Breland to turn out. For 12 rounds the champion, operating without his jabbing and hooking hand, succumbed to the 1984 Olympic gold medallist’s speed and sharpness and was outboxed rather than beaten up, a frustrating experience soothed only by the payday received at its conclusion.
“Meldrick was kind of quick,” Davis accepted, stating the obvious. “He beat me to the punch and beat me with experience. He didn’t beat me up, though. I lost the fight, yeah, but he didn’t beat me up.
“At first I thought I won the fight and got robbed. But then I went back and watched it and realised I was wrong.
“Look, I got 1.2 million dollars for that fight. I couldn’t turn that down. Suppose they said I could never fight again. I’m out of 1.2 million f**king dollars. Certain fights you have to take.
“I bought a big house for 290 thousand dollars after that. That same house right now would be worth 850 thousand dollars.”
Davis’ final world title shot came against Julio Cesar Vasquez, the WBA super-welterweight champion, in August 1993. He was paid handsomely for that one, too, only this time insists he should have won a fight he ultimately lost.
“I won that fight and they robbed me,” he said. “We looked at the scorecards and they said I won. Our promoter goes to Bobby Goodman and Bobby Goodman says, ‘Okay, I’ll take care of this. You go back to New York and I’ll sort it for you.’
“We get back home and he tells us some bulls**t about how they couldn’t find the scorecards or something. They lost them apparently and those scorecards said I won the fight by three points.
In a 16-year pro career Davis was never stopped, much less disgraced, and even the fights he lost tended to be of a contentious nature. Perhaps, because of this, the only way he was ever going to stop was to be stopped, not by an opponent but by the limitations of his ageing body.
That moment arrived in 2002 when Davis, 49-6 (31), was no longer super but struck down by the sort of injuries that affect most 35-year-old mortals.
“A lot of fighters never quit until they’re told to,” he said. “I had a detached retina and they told me I couldn’t fight no more. They stopped me from fighting but I never got stopped in my career. I like that.
“I think I went down once. I never got seriously hurt aside from in my last fight, against Ross Thompson, when I was hit around the back of the ear. But I was all right. I still beat him up.”
Upon retiring Davis’ first plan was to release a brand of boxing equipment and open his own gym in the Bronx. It wasn’t the thought of coaching others that appealed, nor of living vicariously through a young fighter with better eyes and fresher legs. Instead, what appealed to Davis was the thought of remaining close to an old friend – his longest and dearest friend. He yearned to stick around, to not be disowned and forgotten the way so many former fighters are. He wanted to remain attached to the very thing that had damaged him.
“That’s the only thing I really knew how to do – box,” he explained. “When you lose that, you’re like, ‘Wow, now I can’t do it no more.’
“It bothered me for a while, and I took things out on other people. It wasn’t even about the money or fame. It was just something I loved to do and it was taken away from me.
“But I had to face the reality that once it’s over, it’s over. If I carried on, I could lose my eyesight. I had to pull back for my own good.”
So, he did. Davis, the fighter who once prided himself on not pulling out of fights, pulled back. He pulled back in order to see – clearly, properly, through two working eyes – and he pulled back because he knew staying close had its dangers. Most of all, though, he pulled back to realise how, as a boxing coach guiding Bronx boys and girls in search of direction, Superman could save more people in retirement than he ever could in active duty.