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Baltimore boxer Gervonta Davis prepares for long-awaited first bout as pay-per-view headliner

Gervonta Davis figures he was 14 or 15 years old when he grasped what it meant to be a pay-per-view fighter.

Boxing was more than a way for Davis to test his athletic ability and toughness. It was a potential vehicle to change his economic circumstances, to fight his way out of the Upton section of West Baltimore, where he’d seen too many friends and mentors lose their way or their lives.

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As a young Davis watched Floyd Mayweather Jr. trot to the ring with easy bravado, charging every household $55 for the privilege of watching him fight, he understood this was the pinnacle in his chosen sport. Before he ever boxed for a world title, Davis talked not of becoming a champion but of becoming a pay-per-view star.

Saturday night in San Antonio, the 25-year-old Baltimore native will reach that summit when he fights Leo Santa Cruz for the World Boxing Association super featherweight and lightweight titles on Showtime pay-per-view.

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“That was the ultimate goal,” he said during a recent phone interview from his training camp in Las Vegas.

It was the carrot his longtime trainer, Calvin Ford, and his promoter, Mayweather, dangled as they implored Davis to make the most of his immense gifts.

“We put that in his mind from the time he was little, when he first started winning national [tournaments],” Ford recalled. “Everything we talked about is manifesting. It’s actually happening.”

This milestone in Davis’ career comes near the end of another turbulent year marred by out-of-the-ring trouble. In February, Davis was charged with simple battery (a misdemeanor) after video emerged of a physical altercation between him and the mother of his child at a charity basketball game outside Miami. Charging documents said Davis “dragged the victim by her shirt to a separate room” where surveillance video showed him “pulling his arm back then forward towards the victim, which is consistent with a strike to the face where the victim sustained injuries to her lip and left jaw.”

The case is still pending, with no hearings scheduled, according to online court records.

Davis acknowledged that he’s struggled to keep his life on track when not training for fights.

“I’ve placed myself with better people,” he said. “I’m not around that environment no more. My main focus is boxing now. That’s what I want to surround myself with.”

He added that he’s working to mend relations with the mother of his 2-year-old daughter, Gervanni, who’s featured in Showtime’s “All Access” preview series for the Santa Cruz fight.

“She’s a great person,” he said of Gervanni’s mother. “We’re working on bettering our relationship and how to handle each other when it comes to the public eye and being there for our daughter. That’s the main goal, to give my daughter the best life she can possibly have.”

He referred to the public altercation in February as “a mistake I’ll never make again. I don’t want my daughter to see that on the internet. I want to be able to raise my child off of love.”

A Showtime Sports spokesperson declined comment on the February incident. At Thursday’s pre-fight press conference, Showtime Sports president Stephen Espinoza said of Davis and Santa Cruz: “We’ve seen them mature as fighters. We’ve seen them mature as young men.”

Davis has actually appeared on pay-per-view before, on the undercard of Mayweather’s 2017 fight against Conor McGregor, which was bought by more than 4 million people. It turned into one of the lowest nights of his career. He forfeited his title the day before when he failed to make the 130-pound weight limit, and fans booed as he clowned his way to a desultory victory against overmatched Francisco Fonseca.

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In the three years since, Davis has knocked out four opponents, won two world titles and established himself as a significant live attraction in several cities (including Baltimore, where he drew a sellout crowd at Royal Farms Arena for his July 2019 demolition of Ricardo Nunez).

His reward? A shot to headline his own pay-per-view against the battle-tested Santa Cruz.

Because he does not want to squander a long-awaited opportunity and because he respects Santa Cruz, a four-division champion capable of pressing the action for all 12 rounds, Davis said he’s trained more vigorously for this fight than for any of his previous 23. Thirteen weeks ago, he began his work at Mayweather’s gym in Las Vegas, where he’d encounter none of the distractions that arise in Baltimore. Ford relocated to be with him for the last three months. They set a goal for Davis to be under the 130-pound limit before he traveled to San Antonio for fight week. They hired a chef to feed him a spartan diet of tuna, salmon, vegetables and grains.

“I just wanted to challenge myself,” Davis said. “I know what I’m up against. … I want to be able to show them why I’m one of the best out there. For me to do that, I’ve got to train hard in the gym. I’ve got to make sure I’m running. I’ve got to make sure I’m up to par with everything, around all corners.”

Mayweather has showed up periodically to share his perspective on preparing for the big stage. “I’m always going to be hands-on when it comes to talking with him about life lessons … talking to him about not making the same mistakes I made,” he said. But Davis does not want anyone to think the former champion is his real trainer. That’s Ford, who raised him from a pup in the Upton Boxing Center on Pennsylvania Avenue.

“[Calvin] definitely gets looked over,” he said. “He’s building guys from scratch, and they’re doing well for themselves. … He’s got multiple fighters, and he’s not even looking for the recognition. He’s doing it out of love, out of care that he has for us. He deserves more recognition and credit, but when you know Calvin, you know he’s not doing it for those reasons. He’s doing it out of the kindness of his heart.”

Trainer and fighter have grown up in the sport together, sharing the same outsized ambitions. For his part, Ford said he appreciates Mayweather’s input and sees no reason to compete for credit.

“It makes me a better trainer because I’m with greatness,” he said. “[Floyd] has been in the ring doing it for 50-some fights. I’ve raised [Gervonta] from scratch. So you put them two minds together, it’s even better.”

Now that he’s reached his goal of headlining a pay-per-view, Davis said the real mission is to headline many. He’s studied Mayweather’s career; the “pay-per-view king” drew audiences of 365,000 and 375,000 for his first two pay-per-view fights. Not until his 2007 battle against Oscar De La Hoya did Mayweather’s market value explode. So Davis sees the Santa Cruz fight as an essential plank in a steady build. He must win but also entertain. It’s the only way to convince fans to pay $74.99 (prices vary but that’s the listing for a high-definition viewing on Baltimore’s leading cable providers) for the experience.

The Santa Cruz fight is designed to provide the requisite action. The 32-year-old Mexican champion (37-1-1, 19 knockouts) pushes opponents into sustained combat with his high-volume punching. Davis is known for his seek-and-destroy style, which has produced 22 knockouts in 23 career fights and won him the admiration of Mike Tyson, among other luminaries. Davis vs. Santa Cruz will be the first major U.S. boxing event before a live audience since the coronavirus pandemic began shutting down stadiums in March.

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It’s the scenario Davis has envisioned since he was a teenager.

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“It’s definitely on my mind,” he said. “But I’ve got to stay focused. This is just the first step. I want to continue to fight on pay-per-view, so I’ve got to stay focused and do what I do best. I can’t think about it too much.”

World Boxing Association super featherweight and lightweight title bout

GERVONTA DAVIS (23-0, 22 KOs) VS. LEO SANTA CRUZ (37-1-1, 19 KOs)

Saturday night, TBD

Alamodome, San Antonio

TV: Showtime pay-per-view (broadcast starts at 9 p.m. with three undercard fights)

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