Sugar Ray Robinson is still considered the greatest pound-for-pound fighter of all time by many boxing historians.
Robinson was nigh unbeatable at welterweight (147 pounds) and middleweight (160 pounds), losing just once in his first 131 professional fights. On June 25, 1952, he challenged Joey Maxim for the light heavyweight (175-pound) title on a 103-degree night at Yankee Stadium. Using his superior speed and skill, Robinson built a lead on the scorecards. But all that dazzling motion, required to outbox the bigger Maxim, caught up with him in the oppressive heat. The best in the world ran out of gas, failing to rise from his stool to start the 14th round.
Since boxing’s golden age, stories such as Robinson’s have stood as cautionary tales for fighters who would chase glory against taller, heavier opponents. At the same time, many of the greatest — from Henry Armstrong to Sugar Ray Leonard to Manny Pacquiao — have burnished their resumes by winning championships and superfights across a wide spectrum of weight classes.
As a student of boxing legacies, Gervonta Davis is well aware of this. It’s why the Baltimore-born Davis will risk his undefeated record (24-0, 23 knockouts) Saturday night by moving up to the 140-pound weight class to fight undefeated Mario Barrios.
“They criticized ‘Tank’ for fighting a little guy in his last fight,” said Calvin Ford, Davis’ trainer and mentor since childhood. “So going into a new weight class against an undefeated guy, he’s just doing things that most guys at 130 and 135 aren’t doing, to make himself a household name. He’s chasing greatness.”
If the 26-year-old Davis needs a reminder of how well this approach can work, he need only look to his promoter, Floyd Mayweather Jr., who won titles all the way from 130 to 154 pounds. No one has ever made more money in the sport, and Mayweather never met the man who could make him pay for moving up.
There is risk, however. Davis has won his biggest fights and scored his most devastating knockouts — including his most recent last Halloween against Leo Santa Cruz — in the 130-pound class. The one time he fought for a title at 135 pounds, he struggled to finish wily veteran Yuriorkis Gamboa. Now, he’s moving up two classes from his familiar hunting ground.
That’s the attraction of this Showtime pay-per-view main event for those who’ve followed the arc of Davis’ career. Barrios doesn’t bring the name appeal or stylistic flair of other potential opponents such as Teofimo Lopez, Ryan Garcia or Devin Haney, but he does offer Davis a chance to stake out new ground.
“What makes this fight intriguing is that he jumped all the way up and is taking on a definitely good 140-pounder,” said Showtime analyst Al Bernstein, who will help call the pay-per-view. “Davis is a terrific fighter. If you just put them side by side and ask who do you think is a better fighter, more people would pick ‘Tank’ Davis, but what creates the element of doubt is that Barrios is taller, bigger and has been fighting at a higher weight class. That part could be a little daunting.”
Bernstein doesn’t see jumping weight classes as a substitute for fighting the best opposition, but in this era of boxing, when major fights are difficult to make for business reasons, it’s often the alternative top fighters such as Davis choose.
“It is the way of now,” Bernstein said.
A move up in weight can present several hurdles for a gifted boxer. His opponent’s greater height and reach might make it difficult for him to wade into striking range. He might find that when he does land power punches, they don’t produce as much damage as they did against lighter foes. The bulkier man might wear him down by holding and leaning on him.
“I have the physical stature to create a lot of problems he’s never faced before,” said Barrios, who towered over Davis at the final pre-fight news conference in Atlanta, where the four-bout pay-per-view card will kick off at 9 p.m. Saturday.
Davis called his challenge for Barrios’ World Boxing Association super lightweight title one of the greatest he’s faced on paper.
“If they don’t give me the respect after this,” he said, “I don’t know what I have to do.”
Bernstein does not believe Barrios will overpower Davis with pressure. In fact, he expects Davis to be the “bully” in the matchup. But he does foresee Barrios, counseled by an accomplished trainer in Virgil Hunter, trying to use his greater length to give Davis an awkward night.
“That’s the plan for him,” Bernstein said. “He wants to fight on the outside, use his jab.”
The Showtime analyst is eager to see whether Davis’ stalking style, which has earned him comparisons to a miniature Mike Tyson, will produce a knockout against such an opponent.
“‘Tank’ Davis is a hard puncher; there’s no doubt about that,” Bernstein said. “We just don’t know what that does at 135 or 140 pounds. We just don’t know that. He hasn’t even faced a 135-pounder who we know is used to being hit by 135-pound fighters, and 140 is obviously even more of a challenge, to know whether his power will translate.”
If Davis does drop Barrios, “he will have made a bit of a statement,” Bernstein said.
Ford said Davis won’t chase a stoppage against Barrios at the expense of his tactical plan. “I don’t train ‘Tank’ just for knockout power; I train ‘Tank’ to win,” he said. “You can’t knock everybody out.”
Davis and Ford arrived in Atlanta on Sunday after holding training camp in Las Vegas. Davis prefers to work away from his hometown at this point, avoiding the distractions that arise when he’s based at the Upton Boxing Center in West Baltimore. Five days after he knocked out Santa Cruz on Halloween night, he was allegedly involved in a hit-and-run crash in downtown Baltimore that left four drivers in another car injured and led the boxer to be indicted on 14 misdemeanor charges ranging from failure to remain at the scene to driving on a suspended license. That case is scheduled to go to trial in Baltimore City Circuit Court in October.
Ford didn’t alter their methods to account for Barrios’ greater stature.
“He’s fought tall guys in the gym, heavier guys, before,” he said. “I’m not going to change anything.”
The 5-foot-5 Davis said those gym matchups with larger men have always inspired him to fight past any limitations presented by his stature. He was more aggressive than his trainer in saying he will take Barrios out if the opportunity arises.
“You know I’m coming,” he said, grinning broadly.
World Boxing Association super lightweight championship
GERVONTA DAVIS VS. MARIO BARRIOS
State Farm Arena, Atlanta
Saturday, 9 p.m.
TV: Showtime (pay-per-view)