Muscles of Iron

Looking Back at John Davis, World Champion

John Davis was the T-Rex of his day in the strength world. Born in 1921, John caught the barbell bug at age 16 after witnessing a weightlifting contest in New York City. From that day forward, the young man devoted himself to Olympic-style lifting and established himself as a strongman relatively quickly. John gained fame at the mere age of 17 after winning the light-heavyweight title in the 1938 World's Championship at Vienna.

Incredibly, John would compete undefeated for the next 14 years of his lifting career, setting numerous world records in the process. John's accomplishments as a lifter included two Olympic championships (1948 and 1952), and he was the national Heavyweight champion 10 times between 1941 and 1953 and the World Heavy weight champion every year between 1946 and 1952. The huge lifter also set 16 official world records between 1940 and 1951.

John Davis wearing an AAU tank top and flexing his mighty biceps
John Davis had a magnificent physique to match his Herculean strength.

John's 14-year winning streak remains among the most impressive achievements in the history of athletic competition. Few other athletes have been able to maintain international dominance in their specialty sport for this period of time. However, nobody can stay at the top forever, and during the World Championships of 1953 Davis was knocked into second place by a new strength phenomenon from Canada by the name of Doug Hepburn.

So, how strong was John Davis? For starters, let's take a look at John's numbers during the USA Senior Championships that were held on May 24, 1941. Competing as a light-heavyweight with a body weight of 20112 pounds, John pressed 32214 pounds, snatched 31712 pounds, and managed a 370-pound clean and jerk. This earned the strongman a victory with a whopping total of 100934 pounds, an incredible sum for a person who barely pushed the scale past the 200 mark.

Now, let's fast-forward to the 1951 Pan-American Olympic Games, which was held in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Competing at 220 pounds as a Heavyweight, John pressed a hefty 336 pounds and broke three of his own world records with a 33012-pound snatch, a 396-pound clean and jerk, and a 1,063-pound total. Bob Hoffman, the coach of the U.S. Olympic Weightlifting team, was so impressed with Davis's lifting at the Pan-American Games he declared his performance there “the greatest in the history of the sport.”

Still not convinced that John Davis ruled supreme in the strength world during his competitive years? Then, try this on for size: During sporadic moments in his training, John had been observed pulling a 705-pound deadlift, performing a 530-pound squat, curling a 205-pound barbell, and pushing a 400-pound bench press. With the exception of the squat, which was a staple movement in his training routine, John did not regularly perform these lifts. Thus, they were accomplished almost entirely by the incidental power Davis had acquired by specializing on the three Olympic lifts.

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

John Davis was not only a powerful weightlifter, he was a gifted athlete as well. He excelled as a sprinter, swimmer, handball player, and rope climber. Additionally, he once did a standing broad jump of over 11 feet.

Davis was also top notch on the chinning bar. In his book The Super Athletes, noted strength historian David P. Willoughby confirmed that the American weightlifting champion performed three consecutive one-arm chins while holding a 25 pounds in his free hand. This feat was accomplished at 190 pounds body weight, and in 1970 Willoughby ranked it among the 10 greatest chinning performances on record.

In addition to weightlifting, John Davis was an accomplished singer with a keen interest in classical music and opera. He often participated in public singing events, and his outstanding voice pleased many a crowd. His fine vocal ability, intelligent personality, and shapely muscles also landed him many spots and television and radio programs. He also was featured numerous times in national magazines. Reader's Digest declared Davis as the “strongest man in the world,” and the muscle magazines portrayed the champ as a reincarnation of Hercules.

Yes, John Davis was a true champion and one of the greatest weightlifters that America has ever produced. His lifting records are now surpassed by today's giants of muscle, but never forget that this American champ ruled the land of strength for 14 consecutive years. Wise would be today's strength athlete to learn all about this great man, how he lived, and how he trained.

Yours in strength and health,
Rob Drucker

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