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Baltimore’s Gervonta Davis prepares for third fight of 2019 with hopes of cementing status as top attraction

IBF world junior lightweight champion Gervonta "Tank" Davis talks about his path to becoming a world champion and his love for his hometown Baltimore. (Baltimore Sun video)

As 2019 dawned, Gervonta Davis harbored massive ambitions for the 12 months ahead.

The boxing prodigy from West Baltimore had fought just once since August 2017 and faced questions about whether he could avoid out-of-ring troubles. But he believed that by fighting three times in 2019, one of those a long-anticipated homecoming at Royal Farms Arena, he would remind everyone why he’d won so many admirers in the first place.

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With another new year looming, Davis is preparing to finish off that agenda Saturday in Atlanta, where he’ll face Yuriorkis Gamboa for the World Boxing Association lightweight title. The fight will indeed be Davis’ third of this year, and he has asserted himself as one of the top young attractions in boxing. He drew a sellout crowd for the promised Baltimore fight in July and is close to drawing another at State Farm Arena in Atlanta, Showtime officials said. Neither market had hosted championship-level boxing in recent years.

“There’s an in-ring performance still to go, but from a career perspective and a business perspective, I don’t see how 2019 could have gone much better for him,” Showtime Sports president Stephen Espinoza said.

Davis’ knockout-hungry style and unvarnished presence on social media have earned him a following in his hometown but also among fight fans and celebrities (Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson, the rapper Drake, Cleveland Browns wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr.) from all over.

“For me on my end, [the year] definitely went as planned,” Davis said last week, as he prepared to wrap his training at the Upton Boxing Center in West Baltimore and travel to Atlanta for fight week. “My team discussed that we would fight three times this year. I definitely am going to fight three times this year, so I’m happy. Hopefully, 2020 will be a better year, but I’m happy with my career right now.”

From a pure boxing standpoint, the story has been more complicated as Davis awaits a high-profile matchup that could vault him into the sport’s pound-for-pound elite.

He’s fought a grand total of three rounds this year against a pair of badly overmatched opponents. The lack of competition wasn’t Davis’ fault. His Feb. 9 opponent, Hugo Ruiz, was a late replacement for the more accomplished Abner Mares, who had to pull out because of a detached retina. His July 27 opponent, Ricardo Nunez, was the challenger mandated by the WBA for Davis’ super featherweight title.

It was a credit to Davis’ power and ruthlessness that he wasted no time dispatching such foes. But the fact remains he has not met an opponent who could come close to matching his speed or technique. Until he does, skeptical fans will take digs at him on social media, where the 25-year-old Davis actively participates in the discourse around his career.

He describes himself as one of the five best pound-for-pound fighters in boxing, but few analysts rate him that highly because he has not faced sufficient competition. On ESPN.com, for example, none of the site’s 13 panelists included Davis in their most recent rankings of the top 10 fighters in the sport.

He and his longtime trainer, Calvin Ford, say they’re eager for tougher opponents and the lucrative headlining slots — potentially on pay-per-view — that would come with such matchups. Ford insists we have not seen the best of Davis, who is nicknamed “Tank,” and will not until he’s challenged by an equal or near-equal.

“We’re looking to start fighting these name guys the public wants to see,” Ford said. “I’m still looking for that guy that’s going to bring out the best in ‘Tank,’ because I know ‘Tank’s’ capabilities.”

After Davis’ fight in Baltimore, he and his promoter, Floyd Mayweather, said they wanted a showdown with Tevin Farmer, a skilled 130-pound champion from Philadelphia. Farmer and Davis have built a lively rivalry on social media but have not come close to meeting in the ring because of the political difficulties of making fights across promotional brands.

Instead, Davis will move up in weight to face Gamboa, whom he described as his most difficult opponent since he knocked out Jose Pedraza for his first world title in January 2017. The Saturday night fight will be his third headlining appearance on Showtime this year, an indication of the network’s faith in him as a future superstar.

Gamboa once generated the kind of buzz that surrounds Davis now. He won an Olympic gold medal for Cuba in 2004 and blitzed through his first 23 professional fights, using his fast hands to pick up two featherweight world titles. But he fell into a period of relative inactivity after Terence Crawford knocked him out in 2014, the last time Gamboa fought for a world championship.

He’ll be 38 on fight day, and though he’s perhaps the most accomplished fighter Davis has faced, most analysts see him as well past his prime.

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Gamboa (30-2 with 18 knockouts) called for the Davis fight as soon as he finished knocking out Roman “Rocky” Martinez on July 27 in Baltimore. For him, it could be a final shot at glory.

“Obviously the nod has to go for me for experience, just because of the mere fact of my record and who I’ve faced,” Gamboa said through a translator. “I definitely think I’ve faced the better opponents and the better quality of opponents than Gervonta has, with all due respect to him. At the same time, the last fight that I had against Martinez … goes to indicate that there’s a lot left for me to give in this sport.”

Espinoza said Gamboa’s desire for the fight was an early indication of how Davis’ economic clout will bring well-known names his way.

“Earlier this year, we noticed there were guys starting to call ‘Tank’ out, and at first, we were all a little puzzled,” the Showtime Sports president said. “He doesn’t seem to have any major flaws in his game. So the question was: ‘Why are these guys calling him out? What do they see?’ And then it became clear it’s not that they see anything technical they can take advantage of in the ring. They see a business opportunity.”

Davis will come in with a significant speed advantage and a sensational knockout record: 21 in 22 career fights. But all of his important fights have come in the 130-pound class, and power does not always translate as a boxer moves up to face larger opponents.

Though Davis lost his first world title when he failed to make weight for an August 2017 fight against Francisco Fonseca, he easily made the 130-pound limit for his most recent fight in Baltimore. Why then did he relinquish his super featherweight title to face Gamboa at lightweight?

“If the right opportunity comes, I’d definitely come back to 130,” Davis said. “It was just a game plan for me and my team. We came to 135 to snatch a belt, and I felt like I definitely wanted to do that. I’d be a two division, three-time world champion. So I thought it was a great idea to do, so we did it.”

He’s comfortable at the new weight and rounded into shape more quickly than he did before previous bouts, when he was cutting to 130 pounds.

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“It’s possible I’m at a better weight class,” he said, adding that he won’t really know until he’s in the ring against Gamboa.

Davis’ team and Espinoza would like to move aggressively if the fighter performs as well as expected Saturday.

Those around Davis believe he’s a better fighter and happier person when he’s busy.

Davis has faced legal trouble in the past. In 2017, the state of Maryland dropped a misdemeanor second-degree assault charge after the accuser, Davis’ childhood friend Anthony Wheeler, said he did not want to pursue the matter. In September 2018, Davis was charged with disorderly affray after an alleged late-night squabble outside a Washington D.C. lounge; a civil case related to that incident remains open, according to court records. In February, just a few weeks after the Ruiz fight, Davis was charged with misdemeanor assault in connection with an alleged incident at a Virginia mall. That charge was dismissed.

In the interest of keeping Davis occupied, his team hopes to schedule another three fights in 2020. The first of those could come against Mexican star Leo Santa Cruz (37-1-1), who recently won the WBA super featherweight title Davis vacated. That matchup would be the most difficult and anticipated of Davis’ career.

“We’re very much of the mind that you strike while the iron is hot,” Espinoza said. “‘Tank’ has generated a tremendous amount of momentum. … I think this is not the point when ‘Tank’ will slow down in either his match-making or career trajectory. I know he wants to keep that momentum going, as do we.”

WBA lightweight title

Gervonta Davis vs. Yuriorkis Gamboa

State Farm Arena, Atlanta

Saturday, 9 p.m.

TV: Showtime

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