John Davis: An American Weightlifting Legend

When I first started competing in Olympic Weightlifting in 1981, I wanted to learn about the sport’s history and the men who made it great. I read all the lifting magazines I could find, and one of the first lifters I read about was John Davis. 

Davis’ weightlifting career spanned from 1937 to 1956, and his accomplishments are beyond impressive. Davis was born on Jan 12, 1921, in Smithtown, New York, but grew up in Brooklyn. Davis began competing in 1937 in some local meets.

One year later, he shocked the weightlifting world by winning the gold medal at the 1938 World Weightlifting Championships in Vienna, Austria, at just 17 years old in the 82.5 kilo/181.8 lbs weight class. At the time, he was the youngest weightlifter ever to win a world title. 

Outbreak of World War II

With the outbreak of World War ll in 1939, most international competitions were canceled, but Davis was able to compete in the National Championships in York, Pa., where he won the gold medal.

In 1940, he again won the Nationals in York, breaking the world record in the snatch, lifting 125 kilos/275 lbs in the light heavyweight class. In 1941, he won his third National Championship in a row, this time as a heavyweight. 

Like most patriotic Americans, Davis enlisted for service after the bombing of Pearl Harbor and served in the Army. He was allowed to return home to compete in the Nationals in 1942 and 1943, where he won his fourth and fifth National Championship in a row, before returning to the Army.

Due to the war and his inability to train while serving, Davis was unable to compete in 1944 and 1945, not to mention he contracted a severe case of malaria. He came back to win the National title again in 1946. Fittingly, the competition took place in Davis’ native Brooklyn. 

John Davis
Olympic Weightlifter John Davis

With the war finally over, Davis also competed at the 1946 World Championships in Paris, where he won the gold medal. He won his seventh National Championship in 1947 and his third World Championship, which took place in Philadelphia.

Davis broke three World Records in this competition, snatching 140 kg/308 lbs, lifting 175 kg/385 lbs in the clean & jerk, and totaling 455 kilos/1003 lbs (snatch, clean & jerk, and press combined).

Olympic Competition

In 1948, he again won the National Championship and finally competed in the Olympics, held in London, where he won the gold medal in the heavyweight class. As if that weren’t enough, Davis also broke five World Records during the year.

He broke the World Record in the snatch three times, lifting 140.5 kilos in February, then topping that in May with 141 kilos, and finally snatching 142.5 kg/314 lbs in August at the Olympics. He broke the press record in February with a lift of 151.5 kilos and then increased it to 152 kg/335 lbs in May.

John Davis at 1952 Summer Olympics
John Davis at 1952 Summer Olympics

In 1949, Davis won his fourth World Championship and broke another World Record, this time in the clean & jerk, lifting 177.5 kilos/391 lbs.

Davis moved up in bodyweight and won his ninth National Championship in 1950, breaking the World Record in the snatch with a lift of 148 kilos/326 lbs. He won the gold medal again at the 1950 World Championship in Paris and broke the World Record with a total of 462.5 kg/1,020 lbs.

The unstoppable John Davis was once again unbeatable in 1951, winning the Nationals, the Pan American Games, and the World Championship while breaking four World Records. He snatched 150 kg/330 pounds, totaled 1,061 pounds, and became the first man to clean & jerk over 400 pounds.

Davis won his 11th National Championship in 1952 before winning his second Olympic gold medal at the 1952 Summer Games in Helsinki, Sweden.

In 1953, Davis won his 12th and final National Championship, but at 32 years old, he was finally showing signs of slowing down. He placed second at the World Championships in Stockholm. 

Although no longer the dominant lifter he once was, Davis continued competing and qualified for the 1956 Olympic Games. He did well in the press and the snatch and was in position to win his third Olympic gold medal, but he tore a ligament in his knee during the clean & jerk, which ended his career.

What Could Have Been

With all that Davis accomplished in his career, one can only imagine how many more medals he could have won if international competitions had not been canceled during the war. It’s possible that Davis could have won four Olympic gold medals and fifteen World Championship titles.

If you think his lifts weren’t that impressive compared to today’s standards, think again. While I can’t say with 100% certainty that lifters of that era were not using steroids, it is unlikely, considering that their usage didn’t become commonplace until the 1960s. 

Davis also lifted during an era when “brushing the thighs” (allowing the bar to make contact with the thighs) was illegal. Furthermore, when Davis first began competing, any lifter who weighed more than 82.5 kilos/182 lbs was considered a heavyweight.

They eventually changed it to anyone weighing over 90 kilos/198 lbs. Davis, who was only 5’8″, typically weighed between 91 and 100 kilos/ 200–220 lbs. He often competed against competitors who weighed over 136 kilos/300 pounds and beat them.

John Davis completing a 402-pound clean and jerk at the Nationals in Los Angeles.
John Davis completing a 402-pound clean and jerk at the Nationals in Los Angeles.

John Davis' Accomplishments

Here is a list of some of John Davis’ other notable accomplishments. 

1- He competed in the 1941 Mr. America bodybuilding contest, winning an award for best back development. He entered the contest on a whim and didn’t do any bodybuilding exercises in his training.

2- Although he rarely did deadlifts in training, he could routinely deadlift 700 pounds easily.

3- His best back squat was 585 pounds for eight reps. These were full rock-bottom squats.

4- He once did a standing broad jump of 11 feet and four inches.

5- He once vaulted over a 7-foot, 8-inch high bar.

6- He would routinely do back flips and one-arm chin-ups.

7- He could pinch grip a 75-pound plate.

8- Perhaps his most impressive feat was completing a 166 kilo/366 lbs clean & jerk with the Apollon Railway Wheels. The bar was twice as thick as a regular Olympic bar, making it impossible to use a standard grip.

As if all of this weren’t impressive enough, consider what Davis had to overcome. He never knew his father and had to drop out of high school to help support his family. Like other black athletes of his era, Davis encountered bigotry.

Despite his service to his country in war and winning gold medals for Team USA in international competitions, Davis was often denied entry into restaurants and hotels.
After retiring from competitive weightlifting, Davis worked as a corrections officer for 25 years. He died of cancer in 1984 at age 63. He was given full military honors.

Mark Morthier competing at the 1987 John Davis Memorial
Photo Courtesy Mark Morthier of Mark competing at the 1987 John Davis Memorial weightlifting competition on May 9, 1987.

In 1987, I competed in the John Davis Memorial Weightlifting Contest in Albany, New York. What an honor!

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Mark Morthier is the host of Yesterday’s Sports, a podcast dedicated to reliving memorable sports moments from his childhood days and beyond.  He grew up in New Jersey just across from New York City, so many of his episodes revolve around the great sport’s teams of the 70s for the New York area. 

He is also an author of No Nonsense, Old School Weight Training (Second Edition): A Guide for People with Limited Time and Running Wild: (Growing Up in the 1970s)

Mark Morthier headshot - host of Yesterday's Sports podcast on the Sports History Network
Photo Courtesy: Mark Morthier
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