Jefferson Davis: The last charge of boxing’s knitting buccaneer

By Pete Ehrmann on March 24, 2017
Jefferson Davis: The last charge of boxing’s knitting buccaneer
Doc Kearns was Davis’ manager to the end — Kearns’ end, that is, on July 17, 1963.

I have a strong hunch that if Jefferson Davis were fighting today a lot of so-called elite heavyweights would meet their Appomattox…

Every time the raging tsunami of political correctness topples a public monument to something or someone identified with the Confederate States of America, it puts me in mind of Jefferson Davis.

Not the president of the Confederacy, but the Jefferson Davis who fought Muhammad Ali in the amateurs and had a decent career as a journeyman heavyweight in the 1960s.

BoxRec says he was born Jeffrey Errol Davis, but when the native of Mobile, Alabama lost a decision to Ali, née Cassius Clay, in the 175-pound finals of the 1959 National Golden Gloves Tournament in Chicago he was Jefferson Davis.

Harlan Haas, Texas boxing maven and longtime Lone Star State correspondent for The Ring magazine, saw the match on TV and later remembered “telling everyone within distance that I’d seen a future champion — Jeff Davis — in action the night before. He looked that good… Clay, well, I don’t know, but to me he didn’t look like a champ.”

The year after that Davis won the national Golden Gloves light heavyweight title, turned pro and won 11 fights in a row. His first loss was by 10-round decision to undefeated Tony Alongi in Las Vegas on October 16, 1961. In an interview about 20 years ago Alongi recalled that the 6’4” Davis had no trouble spearing him with a long left jab in the first half of the 10 round bout. “I was so frustrated,” said Tony. “I was getting hit with a left jab and I didn’t know why. It was a very uncomfortable feeling.”

He solved the problem by going into a clinch and sinking his teeth into Davis’s left shoulder. “He seemed to stop jabbing after that,” Tony said, “and I won the fight.”

Later that night Alongi was paged at the Aladdin Hotel. He was wanted at the front entrance. When he went outside, the door of a Cadillac limousine idling there swung open. Inside were Jefferson Davis and two women. “C’mon, Tony,” called Davis, “let’s go out and party!”

Nobody liked a party more than Alongi (he was down on his luck when we talked, and when asked the first thing he would do if he came into big dough he said, “I’d like to throw a party and invite all the guys I fought”), but under the circumstances he thought it best to decline Davis’s invitation. “I thought,” he explained, “this guy was gonna suck me in and then six guys were gonna beat the shit out of me.”

A month later both Davis and Alongi fought at Madison Square Garden, but not each other. Alongi beat George Logan in 10 rounds, and Jeff lost a unanimous decision to Billy Daniels in what the New York Times dismissed as a “slow, mild bout.”

Davis fought six more years but never climbed much above the middle in the rankings of the 50 best heavyweights in the world compiled each month by Boxing Illustrated. He beat plenty other middle-of-the-packers, but lost to Top Tenners Thad Spencer, Zora Folley, Henry Cooper, Ernie Terrell and, in the last fight of his 29-12-1 career, Joe Frazier.

Cooper, who knocked out Davis in less than two minutes, put it best in his autobiography: “Although Jefferson Davis wasn’t quite good enough to beat the best, it took something to beat him…”

Maybe it would have turned out differently had Jack Kearns not died. The wily buccaneer known as “Doc” since he steered Jack Dempsey to the heavyweight title in 1919 was Davis’ manager to the end — Kearns’ end, that is, on July 17, 1963. Big Jeff was the last of a long line of Doc Kearns fighters that also included Mickey Walker, Joey Maxim and Archie Moore, all of whom benefited from what Moore once famously extolled as Kearns’ ability to take 200 pounds of steel wool and knit a stove. Kearns regarded other managers as “lingerie salesmen,” and called himself “a dealer in adult fairy tales.”

Though he was past 80 when he took Davis in tow, Kearns’ knitting needles clicked away dexterously. Bill Miller, whose own long career in boxing included managing, promoting and press agentry, later colorfully reported the California news for The Ring, and in the October ’63 issue he related:

“Only a few months before he died Kearns phoned me at my home to tell me about his sensational young heavyweight Jefferson Davis. It was after ten p.m., and I’m an early-to-bed kid. However, when the telephone jangled I knew it was Kearns, a friend of more than 30 years.

“I picked up the receiver and said, ‘Hello, Doctor.’

“He chuckled. ‘How did you guess?’

“’Well, all my honest friends call me before nine o’clock. What’s doing, Jack?’

“He swung into an enthusiastic pitch about his amazing new champ, Jefferson Davis. I let him roll along. Finally, a pause.

“‘Where did you get that name?’ I asked him.

“‘Why, that’s his real tag,’ he replied.

“’It was also the name of the first president of the Confederate States of America, back in 1861,’ I told him. ‘He was a graduate of West Point, a U.S. Senator, and Secretary of War in the cabinet of President Franklin Pierce.’

“There was a pause for at least a minute.

“‘How do you know all that?’ he asked, admiringly. ‘Well, this here kid is a descendant of that guy. A direct descendant.’

“‘That’s a swell trick, Doc,’ I remarked. ‘You see, the original Jefferson Davis had no male offspring. Just one daughter.’

“’So who’s gonna know that?’ Kearns demanded. ‘Only a screwball like you that reads books.’”

I’m an old screwball myself now, with a strong hunch that if Jefferson Davis, who died on June 17, 2012 at 71, were fighting today a lot of so-called elite heavyweights would meet their Appomattox.

He’d just have to change his name.

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  1. Henry Campbell 08:04am, 04/17/2018

    Jeff Davis was a friend of my fathers they grew up in Alabama together later in life he Jeff lived in Houston my dad Henry owned some nightclubs and Jeff whould be at them my father told me a story about Jeff and Ali they became really good friends they were on the America team together and Jeff and Ali went to get something to eat at a restaurant they whould not serve Ali and Jeff said he was going to tear the place apart if they didn’t so they served Ali and Jeff that’s how they became friends he was a good friend

  2. Robby Robertson 07:34pm, 11/18/2017

    So grateful to see this article.  I’m Jeff’s nephew and my dad told me lot’s of good stories about how good a fighter Jeff was.  Funny thing, my dad and his two other brothers, Edgar and Lee, could all whip Jeff LOL…they were easy going but all Much of a Man!

  3. peter 02:40pm, 04/07/2017

    Good article! There’s also a book out about Jefferson Davis called, ‘About Jefferson’, by Verdan Carbon. It’s a short entertaining read, well worth the price.

  4. Bill Angresano 12:42pm, 03/27/2017

    BTW @ Bob , Tony Alongi talented and tough , great story about his presence at the gravesite of Mike Quarry !

  5. Bill Angresano 09:39am, 03/27/2017

    Great article Pete ! TOUGH era to be a heavyweight !

  6. oldschool 07:51am, 03/26/2017

    I thoroughly enjoyed your article. Davis was an outstanding amateur but fell short twice to Cassius Clay. Mar 11, 1959, he lost on points to Clay in the finals of Chicago Tournament of Champions; April 9, 1960 , he lost by TKO 2 (1.25) of the 2nd round in the National AAU finals held in Toledo, OH.

  7. Captain MAGA 06:48am, 03/25/2017

    Leroy, what’s happening, bro. Lets do lunch sometimes. Ya like stone crab? I better take you to Mons Venus afterwards. Sounds like ya need a woman. Catch ya later, playa.

  8. Bob 04:25am, 03/25/2017

    Wonderful piece, Pete. Embarrassed to say I was unaware of Big Jeff despite his unique and colorful story. I have loved all of your stuff over the years, but this is one of my favorites. Great read. On a side note, I believe when Mike Quarry died, it was reported that Tony Alongi (who had a ring history with Jerry and was from California), was the only fighter at the burial. He sounds like a standup guy. You know how to churn out good copy. Old school all the way.

  9. Leroy 07:59pm, 03/24/2017

    Eric, now know as captain MAGA is always ready to give an inane comment. How come you keep changing your screen name? Florida authorities after you or just afraid everyone was getting sick of you?

  10. Captain MAGA 04:21pm, 03/24/2017

    Most followers of the religion of political correctness don’t know the difference between Jefferson Davis, Thomas Jefferson or George Jefferson. One thing a lot of people don’t know, especially the historically challenged, is that the American Civil War nearly became a global war involving Great Britian, France and Russia. Britian & France sympathized with the American South while Russia was backing the Union. I don’t see a lot of these guys from back in the day bothering many of today’s heavyweights. For all of his greatness, Smokin’ Joe was a pretty small guy, and Henry Cooper was barely more than a light heavyweight.

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