Abdul Shkur had waited the better part of his life to watch a homegrown boxing talent the quality of Gervonta Davis fight in Baltimore.
So, Shkur got to his seat at Royal Farms Arena early Saturday, already charged with anticipation for Davis’ World Boxing Association super featherweight title defense against Ricardo Núñez.
“It’s a beautiful thing,” said the 48-year-old Shkur, who lives in Guilford and grew up in Sandtown-Winchester, just like Davis. “Hasim Rahman tried to bring a fight here, but it didn’t happen. And for this kid, not even a heavyweight, to make that happen, I think not only was it good for the city, but it’s inspiration for the kids coming up in the gym behind him.”
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Baltimore had not hosted a world championship fight in 49 years, since hard-punching light heavyweight Bob Foster knocked out Mark Tessman in June 1970 at the Civic Center.
Davis made it his mission to change that, pestering Mayweather Promotions to set up a homecoming fight almost as soon as he hooked on with the company five years ago. Despite training out of the Upton Boxing Center in West Baltimore, he’d fought in his hometown just once, a July 2013 bout at Coppin State.
Davis first stepped into the Upton gym when he was 7 years old, searching not for glory but for a place where he could feel loved and supported. He looked up not to the star boxers on television but to the older boys training around him every day — names like Ronald “Rock” Gibbs, Qaddir Ford and Angelo Ward. He lost all three of those mentors to street violence, giving him that much more motivation to stay the course.
Davis said he wanted to fight in Baltimore to show the young people in his neighborhood that someone really could make it out.
Mayweather Promotions CEO Leonard Ellerbe said Davis grinned from ear to ear when informed he’d finally defend his super featherweight title at Royal Farms Arena. He touted the event daily on social media, promising a party atmosphere in the building and reminding fans they could also watch on Showtime, which had never broadcast a fight from Baltimore in 33 years of carrying boxing.
“I never thought a fight in Baltimore would be this big,” Davis said in the run-up. “It gives me chills, but I’m ready for it.”
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The 10-fight undercard began at 4:30 p.m. and featured several Baltimore fighters who’ve known Davis since childhood. All week, he’d referred to them as his brothers, insisting they be photographed with him at his public appearances.
Super featherweight Malik Warren made his professional debut, stopping Davonte McCowen in the second round. In the fight before, Davis’ longtime friend and sparring partner, Malik “Iceman” Hawkins, beat Jonathan Steele by unanimous decision.
Hawkins’ mother, Charlene Morrison of West Baltimore, was among those in the stands for the undercard.
“We appreciate ‘Tank’ giving him the opportunity to fight on this card,” she said, referring to Davis by his nickname. “It means a lot to the city. They went to elementary school together. ‘Tank’ used to stay at my house sometimes.”
She steered Hawkins to the gym when he was 8 years old so he’d learn to stand up to bullies at school. She worries when Hawkins steps in the ring, but trusts his natural intelligence and calm. On occasion, she’s run to ringside to fuss at opponents who’ve landed low blows on her son.
“It’s good they’ve got me over here,” she said, laughing from her seat in the corner of the arena. “It’s going to be lit tonight. ‘Tank’ is a showman.”
Chinelle Livingston of Baltimore came to see Davis, but was also eager to watch Warren, the son of a coworker.
“It’s about time we’re putting Baltimore back on the map in the boxing world,” he said. “It’s a wonderful thing.”
Like many fans in the arena, Livingston has followed Davis since the champion was an adolescent, sparring at Upton and building his amateur record.
“It’s going to be on fire,” he said, anticipating Davis’ walk-out later in the evening. “Everybody’s going to go wild, guaranteed.”
[ For boxer Gervonta Davis, Baltimore homecoming fight is a chance to ‘show them anything is possible’ ]
He predicted a ninth-round knockout.
For Shkur, the meaning of Saturday’s card ran far deeper than a mere showcase for Davis’ sublime skills. He’s friendly with Davis’ trainer, Calvin Ford, and other local trainers such as Marvin McDowell at UMAR Boxing. And he felt proud to see their efforts celebrated on a national stage.
“They’ve become mentors, as well as coaches, for a lot of these kids,” he said. “They’ve given them an outlet for some of that negative energy. And for Calvin, this is something he’s so passionate about. These kids, he’s really saved a lot of their lives.”
Shkur was at Coppin for Davis’ last Baltimore fight, six years ago, and pegged him as a rare talent even then.
He could hardly wait to see the grown-up champion do his thing before a festive crowd at the arena.
“I think that tonight, he’s not only going to put on a great performance because that’s his job,” Shkur said. “But it’s personal for him, and I think that’s going to elevate his fanfare here with the average boxing fan here in the city. I think he’s going to establish a greater following in his hometown.”