The ‘Golden’ Era

Golden Gloves, Golden ticket for Mount Holly boys

by Kathy Blake

In 1950s Mount Holly, boxing could make a world of difference for boys and many youth took part in Golden Gloves traditions. It meant traveling the country and the respect of the community. Nearly 60 years later, the Mount Holly Sports Hall of Fame is capturing the importance of the sport, the fighters and the draw it once held over the city. Courtesy of the Mount Holly Sports Hall of Fame

It was a simpler time, in the 1950s. People knew their neighbors’ names, a handshake could seal a deal and young, forbidden love had the power to last a lifetime.

In Mount Holly, the mills and hard work ruled, and children born and raised there tended to stay devoted and never leave.

“Everybody knew everybody back then, and I couldn’t do nothin’ without my daddy knowing about it,” said Max Davis, 73, who was born off Tuckaseegee Road on the south side of Mount Holly and has lived in the town his whole life. “I was a pretty good boy back then.”

Back then, Davis followed his three older brothers’ lead and did what young boys did – gather at night at a building on N.C. 27 and pursue the sport of boxing. The sport was so popular then that it lured elementary-age boys, still a scant 60-something pounds, into the cold building to learn to hook and jab in hopes of winning trophies.

Davis let the sport grab him when he was a 69-pound third-grader. He had 29 fights before he ever fought in a regular weight class.

“I didn’t have any choice. I had to fight; I had to box,” he said. “They (his brothers) didn’t say it like that, but I knew what they wanted. My brothers were pretty good to me.

“I had a fairly good childhood, because nobody ever wanted to jump on me, because I had older brothers and they all boxed.”

Davis’ brothers – Arthur (1926-1996), Wilburn (1931-2006) and Bearl – all excelled in the Golden Gloves program, and the four boys became well-known in the Carolinas and along the East Coast. Combined, they had a record of 551-37-5.

“It seemed like it come natural, you know?” Davis said.

The Davis brothers were inducted into the Mount Holly Sports Hall of Fame in 2008. Hall co-founder Ray Campbell, another boxer, was inducted in 2009 and this year’s class includes four more: T.L. McManus, the Mount Holly Golden Gloves coach from 1948-74; Jim McManus, a Golden Gloves and AAU boxer from 1940-60 who was the 1956 Carolinas welterweight champion; Samuel “Dink” McManus, a seven-time Carolinas Golden Gloves champion from 1951-62; and Perry Toomey, a Golden Gloves boxer and founding member of the Hall of Fame.

“There wasn’t nothing else to do back when I was 10 years old, so I started going up there and working out with the boxers,” said Bearl Davis, 76, who, like his brother, was born off Tuckaseegee Road and still lives in town. “I fought for the high school team when I was in the third and fourth grade. They had weight classes all the way down to 75 pounds, and that’s what I weighed. We enjoyed it. I won a bunch of trophies; I can’t tell you how many.”

The Golden Gloves program gave the boys a chance to travel, to see places they otherwise wouldn’t.
From October or November through February, the club would box other clubs in the region, then have a tournament in which the winner could represent North Carolina in the Eastern Finals in New York City.

Ray Campbell, 77, who was born in Belmont and has lived in Mount Holly since age 3, made it to New York twice. An 18-year-old can bring back stories from such a place.

“We got to be friends with the guy who worked in the restaurant downstairs in the hotel, and he got to talking about the snowstorm they were having,” Campbell said. “It was raining. I asked him why they said they were having a big snowstorm in New York when it was just raining, and he said the heat from the city, with all the buildings and all the people, was making the heat rise and melting the snow before it hit the ground.

“One year, we went to the ‘Ed Sullivan Show.’ I learned something by watching it. They showed this scene where there was this campfire, but it was nothing but paper that made it look like flames, and that caught my attention. I guess things like that fascinated me.”

Campbell fought in the Golden Gloves program until he joined the U.S. Army, then fought three years in the service. “Then, when I come out, I said I wasn’t going to fight no more,” he said. “But when the heavyweight fights come on (television), I said, hey, I need to start back.”

He worked out two weeks, “got lucky,” and made the trip to New York.

Bearl Davis Courtesy of the Mount Holly Sports Hall of Fame

He said his idol was Joe Lewis, but today’s sport is a different game.

“Joe Lewis was a world champion, and he was good. I watched a movie about him, and he had a fast left jab, and in the movie, he went to this guy to learn to box. And there was this fly, and the guy said, ‘When you can reach out and catch him, come back.’ And he did it.

“The left jab was my favorite. It could keep a man off balance.”

Campbell will watch Olympic boxing now. “But it’s gotten professional, to where a man can get beat for seven or eight rounds, but when you hear the announcer say it’s a close fight, that means the man who’s losing is going to win. It’s a money game with them.”

Campbell likes the old way – no headgear, and playing honest.

“It was a good thing for young boys to get involved in, to learn respect for other people,” he said. “But a lot of them, they’d do it one night and not come back no more. They don’t realize, when they hit you, it hurt.”

Campbell was hurt, once. “I got knocked out, if you want to call that getting hurt,” he said. “We were having a team match with guys from Lincolnton, and the guy I was boxing that night was sitting out in the car drinking beer, and I never drank beer in my life. I knew I could knock him out – in 30 seconds, he’d be gone. But I learned that night, if he’s capable of climbing through the ropes to box you, he’s capable of hurting you.”

Bearl Davis, like Campbell, made it to New York and sometimes watches boxing on television, but his favorite was 1950s heavyweight champion Rocky Marciano, “because he was an ol’ country fellow, just like me.”

Bearl Davis, who spends his time now with his three children and seven grandchildren, can tell stories about riding the New York subway, but he’d rather talk about the lion.

“One night, me and Jim McManus was walking through up there in Hickory, and a buddy of mine says, ‘Don’t run! Don’t run!’ and a lion come running down through there, and he jumped on me and put his paws on my chest,” he said. “It scared the fire out of me. They had a zoo up there or something, but he just come loopin’ down there and jumped on me. I think he was a tame lion more than anything else, but he didn’t look like no tame lion.”

Memories like that stay on, long after the trophies have been put away.

“We got to go a lot of places and meet a lot of people,” said Max Davis, who retired at 62 and spends his days chasing grandkids. “I just liked the traveling part, goin’ here, goin’ there, meeting people and listening to them. I really enjoyed it. Now, if I got my ears pinned back a bunch of times, I might not have enjoyed it as much.”

He remembers one trip to Charleston. “We were going down there to fight, and our car broke down, and we spent the night in jail,” he said. “But they didn’t shut the door. Early the next morning, they had the car fixed and we went on down. It was the middle of the night and it was this little bitty town, and they didn’t have no hotel, so they let us sleep in the jail but they said they wouldn’t lock us in, and we was all right with that.”

Two of the Davis brothers, Arthur and Wilburn, went on to box at the University of Miami, and Max had a chance to attend college in New Orleans, but decided, no, it wasn’t for him.

Max got married before he was out of high school. He was a senior, and his bride was in ninth grade. Some friends took them to South Carolina, where they found a Justice of the Peace. “They were scared it wasn’t going to last; we was pretty young,” he said. “Everybody said it was going to be hard, but we stayed together. We had two girls and a boy, and now we have four grandchildren.”
His wife, Patsy, died last December. It was his only major loss.

“In boxing, I was lucky. I never got knocked down. I never really took a solid hit,” he said. “I never was knocked off my feet, never was counted on. I feel that was real lucky. Most people will give a punch to take a punch. I would give a punch, but I wouldn’t stand there and take it back from them.”

The Golden Gloves program is gone from Mount Holly now, though other states still offer it, but its fighters still see each other in passing.

“It was a lot of fun. It was a good thing, and it got to be habit-forming,” said Ray Campbell.
“There was a good many of us. People enjoyed it, I reckon,” said Bearl Davis.

“I just piddle around the house now, or my grandkids and I will go bowling, something like that,” said Max Davis.

“But I’d like to go back to the old days, when everybody knew everybody. It was a lot nicer then.”

Mount Holly Sports Hall of Fame Class of 2011 Induction Ceremony
Date: Aug. 20, Mount Holly Municipal Building
Tickets: $20, at Charlie’s Drug and Robert Black Insurance

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