AL ‘BUMMY’ DAVIS’ path was destined to feature more violent stretches than most.
From the mean streets of Brownsville in Brooklyn, a neighbourhood responsible for reams of fighters and gangsters, Bummy walked the same sidewalks as Murder Inc. and had various run-ins with the Mafia’s Jewish hitmen, many of which are chronicled beautifully in Ron Ross’ Bummy Davis vs Murder Inc.
His oldest brother Willie, or ‘Little Gangy’, was already on the fringes of Murder Inc. when little Bummy was growing up, while his other brother, Harry, would also become a boxer.
As a schoolboy during Prohibition, Bummy was a lookout at his father’s candy store-cum-speakeasy and then, before he was even a teenager, he had his own pushcart selling fruit and vegetables on Blake Avenue. This was both where he honed his fabled left hook and where competition was fierce, his rivals territorial. Bummy, because of this, often had to fight for his spot.
In the end, to monetise his raw talent the teenage Al turned to bootleg amateur boxing and, in an attempt to conceal his identity from his parents, would borrow another kid’s AAU card, his nom de guerre becoming Giovanni Pesconi.
Bummy, though, was actually born Albert Abraham Davidoff in Brownsville – the ‘Jerusalem of America’ at the time – on January 26, 1920. (By 1930 there were an estimated half a million Jews living in Brooklyn.) His mother called him by his middle name, using the Yiddish pronunciation, Avroom, which became Vroomeleh, but, among kids, Vroomy became Boomy.
Boomy then changed to Bummy when, at the age of 17, he turned professional with Brooklyn fight figure Johnny Attell and Lew Burston. Scanning the card for his fight with Frankie Reese, he realised his name had been changed to Al ‘Bummy’ Davis.
He wasn’t happy about this at first, but it was catchy, and it stuck. As did Bummy, a big drawer from the start, who, something of a Prohibition Arturo Gatti with the street-hardened scowl of Roberto Duran, possessed a dynamite left hook which kept him undefeated through 33 fights and led him to a main event spot against the battle-hardened living legend Tony Canzoneri.
Canzoneri was a three-weight world champion and the darling of the Madison Square Garden faithful, yet, though only 30, was at the end of a 175-fight career. The fight, due to Canzoneri’s prior ring damage, did nothing for 19-year-old Bummy’s popularity.
He did what he did best, blasting out the over-the-hill ex-champion in three rounds and applying to his record the only stoppage defeat he ever suffered. But Bummy received zero credit for the victory and was instead immediately cast as the enemy. For beating their hero, the fans never forgave him.
They didn’t have to wait long for retribution, however, because next, after knocking out future champ Tippy Larkin, Bummy was matched with world lightweight champion and Henry Armstrong-conqueror Lou Ambers in a non-title fight at the Garden.
It was around this time Bummy’s fiery temper got him into trouble in a candy store in Brooklyn after a guy called Mersky threw a jellybean at him. This didn’t go down too well with Bummy who proceeded to bounce the fellow all over the store before the cops were called.
After a delay, the Ambers fight was rescheduled, and Ambers went on to hand Davis his first loss with a painful boxing lesson. Mersky, thrower of the jellybean, was ringside and loved every minute of it. Bummy, the boxer they now loved to hate, had got his comeuppance.
Still, it didn’t take him long to lick his wounds and work his way back into contention. By November 1940, in fact, he had been matched with another Armstrong conqueror, the world welterweight champion and one of the dirtiest fighters in history, Fritzie Zivic.
Zivic, as was his custom, gave Bummy the works: thumbs, laces, head; everything but the kitchen sink. So much so that after the first clinch Davis’ eyes were red and the crowd had already begun booing Zivic. “He’s trying to blind me,” said Bummy in his corner.
When they resumed hostilities in the second round, Bummy went ballistic. He sent a stream of blows below the belt and Zivic winced in pain. Soon enough, paper cups, cigar butts and newspapers were raining into the ring and Bummy was reacting to being disqualified by kicking out at the referee.
Fight over, Bummy and Zivic then tore back at each other before Zivic’s manager joined the melee. It took six of NYPD’s finest to restore order.
“That Zivic is a quittin’ bum,” a fuming Bummy said. “He gave me the works and then deliberately stepped into my body punches to make them appear foul. I hit him in the belly and he quit.”
The NYSAC didn’t see it that way and banned Bummy for life. The ruling meant not only would he never again be able to box in New York but also that Bummy Davis had finally lived up to everyone’s expectations.
In response, his managers enlisted him in the US Army, and he was packed off to Texas until the storm blew over. This went as well as one would imagine for a tough street-smart Jewish kid under Army discipline. He was soon scrubbing the latrine with his toothbrush.
Later, they managed to get Bummy permission for leave for a rematch with Zivic at the Polo Grounds for the Army Emergency Relief in 1941. One problem though: Davis, the welterweight, returned from Texas close to 200 pounds.
The legendary Ray Arcel worked hard to get Bummy back in fighting shape but could do nothing about the fact he was rusty and soft. Zivic, on the other hand, was sharp, having stayed busy and beaten the likes of Armstrong by stoppage.
On the night of the fight, Bummy, typically brave, was powerless as Zivic went to town on him before ending the torture in the 10th.
Turned loose by the army and still barred in New York, Bummy got himself back in shape and scored a string of knockouts across the Atlantic Seaboard. No grudges held, Zivic then put a good word in with the NYSAC (“maybe I egged him on a little”) and Bummy got his licence back, a breakthrough which led to a catchweight fight at The Garden against world lightweight champion Bob Montgomery.
Bummy’s best chance with the classy Philadelphian was to get him early – and boy did he get him. In a huge upset, Bummy uncorked a magical left hook and – boom! – the lightweight king was down twice and out in the fastest knockout in a main event at Madison Square Garden since it opened in 1925.
It was a defining performance. Montgomery had never been stopped in his 70-odd fight career, but, more importantly, Bummy had won the crowd. Eighteen thousand were cheering his name as they filtered out into Manhattan.
Davis fought on, packing them in and knocking out most, but suffered some heavy defeats along the way. Beau Jack outpointed him, Armstrong whipped him in two and a bigger, fresher Rocky Graziano got off the floor to blast him out in four rounds.
Even so, Bummy the crowd pleaser, newlywed with an infant son, had earned well (an estimated quarter of a million dollars). He bought a bar in Canarsie, Brooklyn and was thinking about life after boxing. To this end, he invested in a couple of racehorses down in Florida and sold the bar, Dudy’s Tavern, to a pal, Arthur Polansky.
A potential all-Brooklyn fight with up and coming Morris Reif was being mooted when, on November 21, 1945, he had business to discuss with Polansky, so stopped by the bar that evening. By 2.30am it was raining, and the bar had emptied, leaving only Davis, Polansky, a bartender and an off-duty cop, Eddie Fritz.
It was then, as they relaxed in each other’s company, the door suddenly opened and in burst four pistol-toting bandits fixing to complete their seventh hold-up of the night.
Their guns trained on Bummy and the others, one of the robbers emptied the cash register as Bummy pleaded with them to think twice about what they were doing. “Hey,” he said, “why don’t you leave him alone? The guy just bought this place. Give him a break.”
Upon hearing this, one of the gang thrust his gun towards him and replied: “Why the hell don’t you mind your own business?”
Bummy then saw red – before the thug could cock his pistol a left hook sailed through the air and broke his jaw, sending him sprawling out into the wet night. After that, all hell broke loose and the bandits opened fire.
Guns blazed and bullets whistled wildly in the bar as everybody except Bummy dived for cover. Bull-headed courage versus four armed goons, Bummy received a bullet through his right arm, rendering it useless, and another in the throat.
The shocked outlaws then made for the door with Bummy, wounded and debilitated, still in pursuit. This wasn’t like their previous robberies, they were quick to realise, nor was this man, Bummy, like the rest. He wasn’t to be intimidated by the mere sight of weapons.
When he went down, which he inevitably did, Bummy got up with blood pouring from his throat and stuffed a handkerchief against the wound to enable him to race after the fleeing hoods. However, they opened up again, this time firing from inside their getaway car, and a bullet caught Bummy in a lung.
By now the cop had drawn his pistol and was close behind Bummy when he took the final shot. Dazed and blinded, the fighter staggered towards his own car, apparently to give chase, but never made it.
Bummy Davis collapsed face down in the mud and died were he fell. He was two months shy of his twenty-sixth birthday.
Fritz had fired at the fleeing vehicle and managed to wound two of the assailants, one fatally. The remaining three were picked up in Kansas City and brought to justice. They called themselves the Flatbush Cowboys.
Following the trial the Associated Press reported: “Mrs Barbara Davis, 23, wife of slain boxer Al ‘Bummy’ Davis, held the fate of the trio in her hand after Kings County Court Judge Samuel S. Leibowitz, preparing to sentence the youths, told her: ‘Mrs Davis, I have the power to send these men to the chair. What are your wishes?’ Then, with head bowed, Mrs Davis said: ‘I do not believe in capital punishment. Whatever you do will be all right with me.’”
The remaining three were sent away for life.