Phil Rice
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When Losing is Winning: Tony Baltazar vs. Howard Davis Jr.

The mid-1980s represented something of a golden age for televised boxing. ESPN and USA had weekly boxing shows that often included all of the preliminary matches as well as the main events, so fans got a chance to see the up-and-coming fighters alongside the hard-working clubfighters who might never get beyond four- or six-round status. HBO and Showtime programs featured big name attractions, and if a fan watched the cable listings closely, other boxing shows could be found on more obscure channels. But cable television was new and, though the technology was spreading at an enormous rate, as late as 1984 the majority of homes in the United States still picked up their television signal via antennae, which meant their viewing options consisted of ABC, NBC, CBS, and sometimes PBS.

The good news for the boxing fans without cable was that some of the sports’ biggest match-ups were still shown live on network telecasts for free, though the viewer was usually forced to wait through various competitions, such as figure skating or skeet shooting, to get to the boxing match. And this is why Sunday, February 22, 1983 found me sitting in front of the television with CBS Sports Sunday on the screen. The telecast featured an indoor track meet, which was not something that would have normally appealed to my tastes but I was willing to keep the show on in anticipation of the intriguing boxing match being offered afterwards. Howard Davis, Jr. was set to box Tony Baltazar in a lightweight match-up.

Davis was a well-known athlete even to the casual sports fan because he had won a gold medal in the 1976 Olympics and had received the Val Barker Award as the outstanding boxer at those games. Afterwards he was considered a star-in-the-making and accordingly signed a huge contract with CBS Sports, but unlike his teammates Ray Leonard, John Tate, Leo Randolph, and brothers Leon and Michael Spinks, as of 1983 Davis had yet to fulfill his promise by winning a professional world championship. Not that he hadn’t tried. In 1980 he traveled to Scotland to wrest the WBC crown from Jim Watt, but Watt retained the title with a unanimous decision.

Following his loss to Watt, Davis fought sporadically against good but carefully chosen opponents. With his record stalled at 21-1, he was now looking to drum up interest in a title shot against Ray Mancini, who had won the WBA title from Arturo Frias in an exciting one-round donnybrook. Mancini, a power puncher with a tough chin and enormous heart, was a popular champion and a television favorite, but most boxing insiders gave the slick boxing Davis a comfortable edge in the match-up. Conventional wisdom suggested that Mancini’s only chance would be to land a knockout punch, and Davis’s skills were considered more than up to the task of keeping him out of harm’s way while he piled up the points with combinations from the outside.

In the midst of the build-up to a possible Davis-Mancini battle stepped Tony “The Tiger” Baltazar. According to the pre-fight commentary, the fundamental elements of a classic boxer versus puncher encounter were present: a highly skilled defensive master with quick feet and fast hands against a powerful and presumably plodding tough guy with a big punch. The fact that the flashy boxer had shown a questionable chin in previous fights added the necessary element of suspense to the match-up, but the odds still heavily favored the supremely-skilled boxing master over the rugged slugger.

On paper Baltazar was an obvious choice as a tune-up for Davis because he brought many of the same weapons into the ring as Mancini—he was a tough power puncher with an excellent left hook who could be expected to last the distance in a losing effort. To again borrow an old boxing cliché, he only had a puncher’s chance in the contest. At least that is what the boxing pundits suggested going into the bout. But, unbeknownst to most of the television viewers, “The Tiger” was much more than a rough brawler. The first clue came when commentator Gil Clancy mentioned that Baltazar “had a great amateur background. He was the National AAU champion . . . .”

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Tony Baltazar (L) poses with brother and fellow contender Frankie Baltazar

Once the bell for round one rang, the Olympic champion began to discover what patrons of the Olympic Auditorium in Los Angeles had known for years—that Tony Baltazar was a well-trained, fine-tuned fighting machine with good defensive skills. And, as advertised, he also had power to spare.

My casual round-by-round summary of the fight:

Rd 1: Baltazar wins the round by confidently coming after Davis and landing a few punches. Davis moves around but does little offensively, apparently content to use the opening round to size up his opponent.
Baltazar’s round, 5-4.

Rd 2: Davis comes out more assertive, throwing combinations and trying to take control of the fight while keeping the action on the outside. Baltazar is aggressive but seems to be impatient and anxious.
Davis’s round, 5-4.

Rd 3: Davis is moving, throwing double and triple jabs followed by a right hand, using the ring; Baltazar is throwing a good jab but it’s obvious that he’s no match for Davis on the outside. He lands a good hook towards the end of the round but not much else.
Davis’s round, 5-4.

Rd 4: Baltazar does not seem frustrated by Davis’s speed and movement. Davis stays in command for the first minute and a half of the round, but then Baltazar lands a combination that changes the tenor. Suddenly Davis is not moving as much and Baltazar is able to get inside more effectively. With fifteen seconds to go in the round, Baltazar lands a thudding left hook to the body that gets everybody’s attention.
Baltazar’s round, 5-4.

Rd 5: Baltazar comes out in the fifth and lands a tremendous hook that sends Davis sprawling on the canvas. He struggles to his feet on unsteady legs as the referee counts. Baltazar comes right after him, and Davis immediately shows his world class sprinting ability. At first Baltazar seems a little overanxious, then he calms down—but he calms down a little too much. Davis is able to move around the ring and by mid round his head seems clear and he is throwing combinations again. As the round winds down Baltazar shows his own boxing skills with a powerful jab followed by precise combinations.
Baltazar’s round, 5-3.

TonyBaltazarwalksawayafterdeckingHowardDavisjR

Rd 6: The first half of the round is evenly contested with Baltazar continuing to come forward and Davis skillfully moving. In the final minute of the round Baltazar slows down slightly and Davis flashes several combinations to gain an edge in scoring.
Davis’s round, 5-4.

Rd 7: Another evenly contested round in the opening minute, but this time it’s Baltazar who lands the more effective combinations to close the round. He bulls Davis in the corner on occasion and uses his superior strength on the inside.
Balatzar’s round, 5-4.

Rd 8: Davis starts the round looking determined to take back control of the fight. He moves less and keeps his hands busy. Baltazar doesn’t keep up the pace but he does land some solid punches to the body. In the final minute a perfect left hook drops Davis on his seat.
Baltazar’s round, 5-3.

Rd 9: Sensing the fight slip away, Davis comes out aggressively looking to trade, but Baltazar is ready for him. It’s a spirited round with Davis taking a very slight edge thanks to his speed and quantity of punches.
Davis’s round, 5-4.

Rd 10: Davis continues to be aggressive, and he again gains a very slight edge in an exciting round.
Davis’s round, 5-4.

The fight was officially scored on the round system with a supplemental points system to be used in the event of a draw. Because I was, as a fan, pulling for Baltazar, my scoring gives Davis the benefit of the doubt on the close rounds to offset my favoritism. My scorecard shows the fight even at 5 rounds apiece. Using the supplemental scoring system, Baltazar wins 45-43, thanks to the two knockdowns. But the official scorecards were 7-3, 8-2, and 5-4-1 for Davis, thus rendering the supplemental scoring system moot. The Olympic champion was still on course for a title shot.

Baltazar shook his head when he heard the lopsided scoring as if he sensed what was about to happen. When the final verdict in favor of Davis was announced he looked over at Frank Baltazar, his father and chief second, who flashed a cynical and resigned expression that seemed to say, “well son, we knew you’d have to knock him out to get the win.”

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Howard Davis, Jr

Despite being on the victorious end of a highly debatable verdict (most observers felt Baltazar earned the victory), Howard Davis, Jr. proved that he was not only a brilliant boxer but that he possessed a champion’s heart. He received more than he bargained for in his opponent that day—Baltazar was clearly a more complete fighter than Mancini—and he had weathered the storm admirably. He had also showed a willingness to get into the trenches and trade punches if necessary, though that was certainly not his preference.

His flawed performance made a fight with Mancini even more intriguing, but it never happened. When he did get another title shot it was against Edwin Rosario for the WBC title. Rosario was a skillful boxer-puncher with good power, and he was at the peak of what would prove to be his athletic prime. Davis lost a split decision, with two knockdowns—both from left hooks—making the difference in the scoring. He retired in 1996 with his goal of becoming a World Champion in the pro ranks unfulfilled, but his legacy of being one of the finest amateur boxers ever to lace up the gloves remains untarnished.

Stepping in against Howard Davis marked the big-time debut for Tony Baltazar, and his outstanding performance instantly elevated him to genuine contender status. As he would further demonstrate in subsequent fights, Baltazar possessed a professional demeanor, a sturdy chin, a tremendous heart, great power, and one of the best left hooks in the sport. Just five months after the Davis fight he was in the ring with Robin Blake, a tall power puncher who was receiving tons of media exposure. Baltazar and Blake traded bombs back and forth in one of the most exciting fights of the year. Once again Baltazar raised his stock in a losing effort, this time by ninth round technical knockout.

Unfortunately, like Davis, Baltazar never brought home a world title, but his resume is littered with victories over world-class opponents, most notably a decision victory over Roger Mayweather in 1984. Regardless of such baubles, “Tony the Tiger” proved that he was one of the best lightweights of his generation. Howard Davis, one must assume, would agree with that assessment.

More so than probably any other sport, assessing a boxer’s career by looking at the final tally of wins and losses barely provides even a clue as to the athlete’s true worth. Perhaps that’s a point for the rest of us—that simple two dimensional analyses are ultimately superficial and deceptive. On February 22, 1983, Howard Davis, Jr. was awarded a victory, and from that day forward Tony Baltazar carried an “L10” on his record. But the story is much deeper and richer than those simple facts illustrate. The story is one of growth and fortitude, of living and breathing. And so it is that a single boxing match in the career of two legendary pugilists can stand as a definitive moment for each, regardless of whose hand was raised after the final bell.

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