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Gervonta Davis’ homecoming fight brings attention to Baltimore’s overlooked boxing history

The greatest boxer produced by Baltimore was also one of the earliest in the city’s recorded history with the sport.

They called Joe Gans, who grew up cleaning fish and shucking oysters at a Baltimore market, the “Old Master.” Some boxing historians considered him the greatest lightweight of all time, famed for his 1902 world-title victory and his 42-round showdown with Oscar “Battling” Nelson in 1906 (which Gans won on a foul).

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Gans, like many of the fighters in Baltimore’s lively history with the sport, is largely forgotten by modern fans. But he’s part of the story this week as homegrown Gervonta Davis prepares to bring world championship boxing back to Baltimore for the first time in almost 50 years.

“These guys from the past really motivate me, much respect to the guys before me and the ones after me,” Davis said. “But right now I’m laying the foundation to make history. It's the people that I see every day in Baltimore that motivate me.”

Like so many of the Baltimore fighters who came before, Davis ducked into a neighborhood gym hoping to find stability in a world that often felt chaotic outside the doors.

But for all the gifted athletes who sought refuge in the sport, Baltimore has not produced a steady parade of champions on par with those from larger neighbors such as Philadelphia and New York. Its self-image as a fight town isn’t well understood by fans in other places.

“It’s a rich history but a stagnant one,” said Vincent Pettway, who grew up in East Baltimore and won the International Boxing Federation super welterweight title in 1994.

Vincent Pettway, the light middleweight from Randallstown (pictured at left coaching his daughter Ashley) won the International Boxing Federation title in 1994 and kept it for 11 months. He won 43 of 51 bouts in his career.
Vincent Pettway, the light middleweight from Randallstown (pictured at left coaching his daughter Ashley) won the International Boxing Federation title in 1994 and kept it for 11 months. He won 43 of 51 bouts in his career. (Dylan Wilson, Patuxent Publishing)

The Saturday fight card headlined by Davis’ title defense will be the first Baltimore-based broadcast for Showtime in the network’s 33 years in boxing. Stephen Espinoza, president of Showtime Sports, said it’s a treat to expose fans to an under-recognized fight culture.

“We all love the glitz and glamour of a fight in New York City or Las Vegas,” he said. “But being able to go into a new market and share the electricity of a live event with people who maybe have never been to a live fight or haven’t been to a high-level fight in a long time, is really exciting.”

It was sadly predictive, perhaps, that Gans, an urbane figure and pioneering African American champion, fell into relative anonymity after he was cut down by tuberculosis at the age of 35. He came home to die in his foster mother’s home on Argyle Ave. and is buried in Mount Auburn Cemetery.

The city’s boxing culture thrived in his wake, with fighters such as the 5-foot-1 Kid Williams, hard-punching George “K.O.” Chaney and Harry Jeffra building Hall of Fame careers. They often served as heroes to the immigrant communities from which they hailed. And venues such as the Coliseum on North Monroe St. were well-known to the city’s sports fans. But the flow of champions waned in the middle part of last century.

The next fighter to make a massive splash in Baltimore was not actually from the city.

As the calendar turned from 1976 to 1977, Muhammad Ali — who fought in an exhibition at the Civic Center against four opponents Aug. 24, 1972 — neared the end of his long run as the sport’s signature champion. The heir to his throne was a 20-year-old from Prince George’s County who’d recently wowed Olympic viewers with his sensational hand speed and telegenic smile.

Sugar Ray Leonard, right, fights Luis Vega, left, in a scheduled six-round welterweight fight February 5, 1977 at the Civic Center in Baltimore, Maryland. Leonard won the fight with a unanimous decision.
Sugar Ray Leonard, right, fights Luis Vega, left, in a scheduled six-round welterweight fight February 5, 1977 at the Civic Center in Baltimore, Maryland. Leonard won the fight with a unanimous decision. (Focus On Sport)

Sugar Ray Leonard originally said he would attend the University of Maryland rather than fight professionally, but economic reality prevailed for the recently minted gold medalist. He prepared to make his debut on Feb. 5 1977, and Baltimore used a $10,000 purse sweetener arranged by Lou Grasmick to attract him to the Civic Center for that anticipated showcase against Luis Vega.

Leonard was a hot enough name that he attracted hundreds of spectators even to his public workouts at the Civic Center. More than 10,000 people stuffed the arena on fight day as CBS cameras captured the scene. Leonard walked out to the Olympic theme song, and though he did not drop his sturdy opponent, he carved Vega up over six tidy rounds.

Leonard would fight at the Civic Center six more times before moving on to his destiny as a multi-division world champion and one of the greatest box-office attractions in boxing history.

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Pettway was 11-years-old when Leonard made his Baltimore star turn. Three years earlier, a neighbor had observed him lurking behind a light pole with a led pipe as he prepared to ambush a boy who’d stolen one of his toys. “With an attitude like that, you’re headed straight for trouble,” the man told him. He steered Pettway to Mack Lewis’ gym at the corner of Eager Street and Broadway.

“When I walked in, it was like a kid in a candy store,” Pettway recalled. “It was instant love.”

The trainer known as Mr. Mack was already a legend in East Baltimore. He’d devoted his life to pulling hard cases off the streets and transforming them into disciplined, responsible athletes. Often, he ferried them to fights in his battered Ford station wagon, dispensing life advice in his understated way.

Lewis trained a series of top-10 contenders, from welterweight Vernon Mason to junior middleweight Alvin Anderson to heavyweight Larry Middleton. But none of them won a world title.

As Pettway — often teased by older fighters for being Mr. Mack’s pet — cut through the amateur ranks and his early professional opponents, it seemed he might get that chance. On March 4, 1994, he fought IBF super welterweight champion Gianfranco Rosi to a draw in Las Vegas. Six months later in the rematch, he knocked Rosi out in the fourth round.

“The greatest achievement to me wasn’t even about winning the world title,” Pettway said. “It was more that I finally got this man, Mr. Mack, what he deserved.”

Pettway chuckled, recalling Lewis’ muted reaction. The grizzled trainer had already moved on to fretting about Pettway’s first title defense (he’d knock out Simon Brown before dropping his title to Paul Vaden).

Pettway’s one regret was that he never defended his world title in Baltimore. He fought in his hometown many times, with several of those bouts at the Baltimore Arena, but never for the sport’s greatest prize.

Lewis worked with several more generations of Baltimore fighters before he died in 2010, at the age of 92.

One of those he trained for a time was the last Baltimore-raised world champion before Davis came along.

A two-time heavyweight champion, Hasim Rahman stunned the boxing world when, as a 20-to-1 underdog, he floored Lennox Lewis, the champ, with one punch in 2001. Seven months later, the Baltimore-born Rahman lost the crown, then regained it briefly in 2005.
A two-time heavyweight champion, Hasim Rahman stunned the boxing world when, as a 20-to-1 underdog, he floored Lennox Lewis, the champ, with one punch in 2001. Seven months later, the Baltimore-born Rahman lost the crown, then regained it briefly in 2005. (Associated Press)

Few gave Hasim Rahman much chance of upending the great Lennox Lexis when they fought for Lewis’ heavyweight titles in South Africa on April 22, 2001. But all it took was one well-placed right hand for Rahman to spring the 20-1 upset.

His title win was part of a golden spring for Baltimore sports as the city celebrated the Ravens’ first world championship and Maryland basketball’s trip to the Final Four. Lewis turned the tables on Rahman with an even more fearsome knockout later in the year. But no one could take away those seven months when Rahman reigned as the lineal heavyweight champion, even as his wife, Crystal, managed the family’s clothing store at Mondawmin Mall.

Rahman would win another version of the heavyweight title in 2005 before retiring in 2014 with 50 wins on his resume.

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The city could not claim another champion until Davis won his first world title in 2017. Those around the West Baltimore native hope his example can fuel a broader renaissance for the city’s fight scene.

“Is it going to be that same spread or are we going to make another champion after another champion after another champion coming out of the city of Baltimore?” wondered Davis’ longtime trainer, Calvin Ford. “That’s the goal.”

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