Gervonta Davis glided over the canvas to a thudding hip-hop beat, pumping his gloved fists in rapid-fire patterns.
Despite ponderous July heat that choked the air in the main room of the Upton Boxing Center, admirers crowded toward the ring apron, shooting cell-phone video of the WBA super featherweight champion. He worked against the backdrop of a massive rectangular banner, touting his upcoming title defense against Ricardo Nunez at Royal Farms Arena.
One of Davis’ nicknames is “The One,” and at age 24, he moves like a man who believes he should be at the center of every room. But it’s not hard for him to flash back and look through the eyes of a 7-year-old boy who raced to this same West Baltimore gym every afternoon it was open. That kid was not fueled by fantasies of world titles, violent knockouts or adoring crowds. He would not have believed this scene, with all the attendant hoopla. The Upton Boxing Center drew him like a magnet because it was the one place he consistently felt loved, by his longtime trainer Calvin Ford and many others.
“I was taken away from my family when I was young, so just having that atmosphere, being around that crowd, it helped me a lot,” Davis said after his public workout on Thursday evening. “That’s why I was passionate to come to the gym. It was boxing, but it wasn’t really boxing. It was the love.”
From a pure boxing standpoint, the July 27 fight against Nunez is hardly the most tantalizing on Davis’ horizon. The heavy-handed Panamanian is his mandatory title challenger, but Davis is favored to dispatch him quickly. In the greater arc of his life, however, this hometown title defense means a great deal.
“I’ve fought in London. I’ve fought in Los Angeles. I’ve fought in New York,” Davis said. “It’s time to bring one back home. Now is the perfect time.”
Because the undefeated Davis is a rising star, Showtime will broadcast a fight card from Baltimore for the first time in the network’s 33 years in boxing. Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young has hailed Davis’ homecoming as “huge” for the city. Tickets have sold briskly, though some remain available.
Six years ago, as Davis prepared for his fourth professional fight in the gym at Coppin State, he was already saying, “I just want to bring happiness back to Baltimore.” But that was the last time he fought in his hometown. Fans had to travel or watch from afar to catch his steady rise to the top of the sport, built on a succession of thrilling knockouts.
Mayweather Promotions CEO Leonard Ellerbe recalled Davis asking to fight in Baltimore almost as soon as he signed with the Las Vegas-based company. “That’s all he talked about,” Ellerbe said. “Wanting to be the guy to help these young fighters and show them that there’s a way out, no matter how bleak and dim things might seem.”
He said the young champion’s grin stretched from ear to ear when he was told a Baltimore fight was next after he knocked out Hugo Ruiz in February.
Davis yearns to be a beacon for the boxers springing from the same neighborhood that shaped him. When he was asked recently to describe his five-year plan, he listed helping those fighters right beside glitzier goals such as unifying titles and captivating pay-per-view audiences. He’s already put a spotlight on friends such as Malik “Iceman” Hawkins, who will fight on the undercard July 27.
“We grew up together, coming through the amateurs, so for me to be on the card when he’s fighting as a world champion, I’m thankful to him,” said Hawkins, who’s known Davis since he was in second grade.
Davis sees his story and that of the city as one and the same — a tale of resilience shot through with pain but also warmed by moments of genuine human caring.
He didn’t have a Baltimore-raised world champion to look up to when he first pulled on the gloves (though heavyweight Hasim Rahman had only recently lost his titles). But he didn’t much care. As a kid who’d spent time in foster care while addictions dragged both of his parents low, he depended more on the older boxers and trainers he saw every day.
Davis ticked off the names recently: Ronald “Rock” Gibbs, Angelo Ward, Ford’s son, Qaadir. “All of them got killed,” he said, evoking the grim calculus that’s always been part of his context.
Davis is old enough now that he’s also mourned contemporaries such as Montell “Telly” Pridgett, who’ve been consumed by the perpetual whirl of violence.
“It’s carrying pain,” he explained of growing up in Baltimore, “but trying to build off of it.”
Ford remembers the early days as clearly as Davis. He had recently completed a 10-year prison stint thanks to his time as a lieutenant in a West Baltimore drug gang. He was trying to keep his own life straight in addition to tending the young boxers around him.
“Being a drug dealer is just like a habit too,” he said. “So as I was trying to make that transition to being a productive citizen, [Gervonta] really helped me. Keeping him straight helped keep me straight.”
Ford maintained a network of friendships with police officers, who’d call if they saw one of his young charges misbehaving on the corners.
He laughed, recalling the young Davis’ shrill calls of “Coach Calvin! Coach Calvin!” He told the grade schooler that once he started punching in his dreams, he’d know boxing had truly hooked him. Sure enough, Davis reported one day that he’d dreamed of striding down an arena aisle with television cameras shining in his face. Now, that’s his reality.
“We’ve done a lot together,” Ford said softly.
Davis knows that to achieve his goals, not just as a championship fighter but as a role model for his hometown, he needs to avoid the missteps that have derailed him at times. Those have included several arrests for fighting (the latest connected to an alleged Feb. 17 scuffle at a Northern Virginia mall) and the humiliating loss of his first title when he failed to make weight for a 2017 fight with Francisco Fonseca.
There are jagged edges to Davis, and he often alludes to them on his unfiltered Twitter feed, where he mixes boasts about women and money with pained ruminations about the friends he’s lost and the difficulties he navigates even within his own family.
“He’s made tremendous progress,” Ellerbe said. “When you’re as young as he is, sometimes success comes at such a rapid pace that you’re going to face adversity, you’re going to face challenges with people coming out of nowhere. You learn from your mistakes.”
Davis’ team has sought to keep him sharp for the Baltimore fight by reminding him of the upsets other boxers have endured in homecoming appearances — most recently super welterweight Jarrett Hurd, a Prince George’s County fighter who dropped his world titles on May 11 in Northern Virginia.
For his part, Davis promised he’s “more focused than I’ve ever been.” He began his 10-week training camp in Atlanta, but Ford said he’s worked in Baltimore for most of the last two months, sparring in the familiar ring at Upton and pounding out long east-to-west runs along North Avenue.
Ford joked that they’ve had to “move like ghosts” to avoid being overwhelmed by well-wishers. But both men felt it was important to train at home for a hometown fight.
“I always believed that if I was in arm’s reach of the kids, it would mean more than doing it from away,” Davis said. “I always wanted to give back and show them anything is possible. I came from the same projects, the same block.”
World Boxing Association super-featherweight title bout
GERVONTA DAVIS VS. RICARDO NUNEZ
Saturday, 9 p.m.
Royal Farms Arena