Gervonta Davis knows why the arrangement of balloons is tied to the light pole on the corner of Pennsylvania Ave. and Mosher St.
They're birthday balloons, commemorating a 21st birthday that never happened.
"I know that dude. Me and him, we were just talking about boxing like a couple weeks ago," Davis says inside Upton Boxing Center, five blocks northwest of the balloons. "His name is Gervontae, too, but it's spelled with an 'A' and an 'E'."
Gervontae Burgess, 20, was gunned down June 22 in a double shooting. Joyce Alston, 49, was also killed, a block southeast of the helium-filled memorial.
"All them dudes that have been dying around here, I know them," Davis says.
Davis, 18, has avoided a similar fate. He turned pro in boxing after winning the 2012 Golden Gloves, finishing with a 206-15 amateur record. He's 3-0 professionally in the featherweight division, each win via knockout.
His first professional fight in his hometown is Saturday night at Coppin State against Rafael Casias (4-7), a mile and a half from where Davis (Digital Harbor) grew up along Pennsylvania Ave., where headlining a pro boxing card seems more Disney than reality.
Gone too soon
Inside his Upton Boxing Center office, Calvin Ford, 48, discusses legacies — specifically how his appears increasingly intertwined with Davis'.
The more success Davis has in the ring, the further behind Ford's past seems. He was a lieutenant in the group that ran the notorious Lexington Terrace drug trade during the 1980s and was the inspiration for the character Dennis "Cutty" Wise on "The Wire."
Ford wants to be remembered for his post-prison work as head boxing coach at the recreation center, not as one of Baltimore's most famous drug kingpins. He has long envisioned an Upton boxer winning a world championship, providing neighborhood youth a road map off the streets.
"Shorty's making it happen," a choked up Ford says of Davis as a few tears run down his face.
Davis is Ford's hope. He isn't Ford's first.
Ford twists around in his chair, reminiscing about once-promising Upton boxers. He points out bulletin board newspaper clippings like a parent showing off their kids' high school athletic achievements.
Except these boxers' stories don't have happy endings.
There's Andre Lowery, currently serving an 18-month sentence for attempted robbery. There's Ford's son Qaadir Ford, who was once shot five times. There's Angelo Ward, shot to death last December.
"We came from God, we go back to God," Ford says.
And then there's Ronald Gibbs.
Gibbs was stabbed to death two years ago at 17 while defending his sister in an argument.
Nicknamed "Rock," Gibbs was once a top-10-ranked amateur boxer and reached the semifinals in the 2010 National PAL Championship. He was the original promised one.
"We need that somebody in Baltimore," Ford says, fighting back tears. "Rock, he was that person."
The lessons Davis learned on the street from the elder Upton boxers trumped anything they ever taught him in the ring.
"They were hanging out outside the gym on the streets and stuff, just like how I was. I saw what they were doing and I just stopped," Davis says. "I was like, 'I got to do something better and do something different,' because that's what happens to people when they got one foot in the gym and one foot out the gym."
Davis, however, didn't always have both feet in the gym.
The bullets whizzed past a 15-year-old Davis, fleeing with friends from a car full of individuals shooting at the group after a dispute.
A few rounded corners later, Davis had escaped unscathed. That was his closest encounter with death, but it wasn't the only one.
There was the time a year later when Davis watched from inside his mother's house as an argument between two males escalated, resulting in a deadly shooting. Or the time Davis, then 11, stood down the street, just yards away from a shootout between one of his brother's friends and another individual.
Davis first smoked marijuana when he was 8 years old, with his older brother, Demetris Fenwick.
"Anything he was doing, I was just trying to be like him," Davis recalls. "I acted like I was high and then it really hit me, and when it hit me I was like, 'Whoa.' It wasn't for me, so I never smoked again."
The gym provided a safe haven for Davis, who used to run from his locker to the rec center once school let out for the day, prompting Ford to open the gym an hour earlier.
But the street is never more than a few steps away. Davis wasn't the only one the gym kept out of trouble.
"It's hard coming in here, beating your body up, but it saves your life. It keeps you out of prison," Ford says. "It's saving me – I'm alive. Dealing with the street life, it's like a habit."
Davis broke Ford's habit.
"He did," Ford says as he looks to the ceiling, again teary eyed. "That kid's amazing."
Ford was going to quit boxing — the heartbreak had become overwhelming. But Davis shared Ford's vision, that one day he could be more than just a neighborhood superstar.
That he could put Baltimore on the boxing map as a nationally ranked boxer, attracting the likes of HBO and Showtime to showcase the talent in the area.
It's the only area Davis' family knows.
Guilt and regret are the first two words that come to mind when Kenya Brown thinks of her son's upbringing.
"He always told me not to feel bad, but being a mother I did feel bad about the things he's experienced in his life," Brown says. "I don't want him to go through what I went through."
Admittedly, Brown wasn't a model mother. Her sons were taken from her and placed in foster care, as she was in and out of legal trouble battling drug problems. Davis remembers sneaking into his mother's room and finding pill bottles.
Davis briefly lived with his father, Garrin Davis, following his release from prison. But Davis says his father had drug problems, too. Marijuana smoked in the house sapped Davis' endurance in the ring.
Davis rarely sees either of his brothers. His mother and grandmother don't have a good relationship, Brown says.
"My family's messed up, for real." Davis says. "It motivated me to take it to another level. I don't want to do what they did."
Davis maintains a healthy relationship with Brown, who says she has turned her life around in recent years.
With his first "big paycheck," Davis plans to move Brown out of her Upton house — she rarely leaves, afraid of the gun violence on the streets.
"She's never really been out of Baltimore," Davis says. "I just want to show my mother what's out there."
The hope is that his boxing career paves an avenue out of Baltimore's troubled neighborhoods for others, too.
Gary "Digital" Williams, manager of the "Boxing Along the Beltway" website and a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America, believes Baltimore has never had a franchise boxer.
"What that means is someone who can be at home, draw a good crowd, and eventually bring other networks and other people in," Williams says. "And I think Gervonta has the capability to be that type of franchise boxer."
That type of galvanizing impact is exactly what Davis and Ford are striving for.
"We're just trying to make some positive energy to give people some type of direction and hope to say 'Hey, I watched this kid, this kid grew up in the neighborhood, got his haircut in the same place, got his snowballs in the same place, and he's known for all the goodness that's out there,'" Ford says.
Tavon Austin, the former Dunbar star and first-round NFL Draft pick of the St. Louis Rams, is a close friend and model for Davis.
"He's more mature than a lot of people his age," Austin says of Davis. "In Baltimore you got to grow up fast, have the right mindset and work hard and when the time comes, you'll be able to handle everything.
"It boils down to him being smart, staying out of trouble just like I did. I made it out. I know with the same mindset, he will too."
On Saturday night, the Upton boxer who has made it the farthest will be on display for the city to see.
"It's really big for me, but it's also big for the people of Baltimore, too," Davis says. "They've seen me train since I was really little and working hard, and now my dream's come true here in Baltimore.
"Dudes are stealing lives faster than they're stealing cars. I'm still alive and asking and praying I don't fall. I'm from a city where the tears never end and the pain never stops. I just want to bring happiness back to Baltimore."
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