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)
Baltimore boxing star Gervonta Davis had grand plans to showcase his sensational knockout skills for a new audience on the undercard of Saturday's Floyd Mayweather-Conor McGregor megafight.
But those ambitions took an unwanted detour Friday afternoon in Las Vegas, when Davis failed to make the 130-pound weight limit for his International Boxing Federation super featherweight title defense. Davis, who weighed in at 132 pounds, will forfeit the title he won in January even if he beats Francisco Fonseca. If Fonseca upsets Davis, he would win the title. If Davis wins, the title would be vacant.
The 22-year-old Davis quickly took to Twitter to apologize to fans.
"I'm young. I'm growing," he wrote. "I had a chance to make the weight. I knew I couldn't make it & that's that. I will have a belt again. I lost the belt, not a fight."
He had already spoken of moving up to the 135-pound lightweight class in the near future.
It's unusual but not unprecedented for a champion to fail to make weight on a major card. Davis will still have his chance to seek an 18th knockout in 19 fights in front of a potential record pay-per-view audience, packed with casual fans.
"It is very important to have this kind of opportunity on a big stage like this," he said earlier in the week. "I plan to put on a great show."
Long before Mayweather anointed him a future star, really before anyone outside West Baltimore knew his name, Davis thought big.
When Davis spoke of what he would become, he did not brag about how many title belts he'd win or the violent, fight-of-the-year spectacles he'd author. Sure, he expected to achieve those feats along the way. But his real goal was to become the next fighter capable of selling enormous pay-per-view events to an eager public.
Davis believes that, to get where he wants to go, he must deliver a spectacular knockout before the biggest audience of his young career. If he looks good enough, maybe some of those casual fans will pay attention the next time he fights.
"You can't be a PPV star if you don't put on an exciting performance," Davis said. "Fans want knockouts, and I'm going to work for that on Saturday night."
There's potential danger in that line of thinking. Plenty of promising fighters have been upset because they abandoned their basic craft in search of one spectacular shot. But Davis, a natural combination puncher, doesn't fear that trap. He's drilled for too many years at the Upton Boxing Center under the eye of his mentor and trainer, Calvin Ford.
"My coach … tells me not to focus on a knockout, and to follow the team game plan," he said. "If an opportunity comes to knock out my opponent, I'm going to take it."
Davis (18-0 with 17 knockouts) has already had quite a year. He won his title in January with a furious seven-round assault on Jose Pedraza at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn. In May, he traveled to London for his first title defense and destroyed previously undefeated Brit Liam Walsh with a barrage of left hands in the third round. Now, he's co-headlining a card that some believe could break the all-time pay-per-view record (4.6 million buys) Mayweather set with his fight against Manny Pacquiao two years ago.
Mayweather has said he will retire again after the McGregor fight, but in addition to making at least $100 million, he hopes to use this last great spectacle to boost the career of Davis, whom he promotes.
"A lot of eyes are going to see Gervonta Davis," Leonard Ellerbe, the CEO of Mayweather Promotions, told BoxingScene.com earlier this month. "There are going to be a lot of eyes on Gervonta Davis and he will be the next superstar in boxing."
Davis has already won over one of the most important figures in the boxing business, Showtime Sports executive vice president Stephen Espinoza, who called the Baltimore fighter one of his "personal favorites" on a recent conference call.
As the best fighter of his generation, Mayweather is a model for Davis in the ring. But he's perhaps even more of an aspirational figure outside of it, where he's made himself the most bankable name in combat sports.
The art of becoming a boxing superstar only begins with winning fights. You also have to attract an audience without help from an established league. The only way to hit it really big is to crack the tiny circle of fighters who regularly headline pay-per-view cards. Even for Mayweather, that ascent took many years. Like Davis, he started out fighting in supporting spots on cards headlined by more established stars.
He ultimately made the leap by crafting his persona as sharply as he had his boxing skills. Sometimes, Mayweather sells his fights by explicitly playing the villain. But he never fails to sell them.
Davis tried to do the same in the run-up to Saturday's event. On Twitter, he began talking up the fact he would be on the undercard more than a month before he had an opponent. He has also become a more visible figure in Baltimore in recent months, with Under Armour putting up large billboards of him at several locations around town.
Beyond his own fights, Davis is a boxing fan who often tweets his thoughts about televised bouts as they're going on. He's intrigued by the Mayweather-McGregor carnival, just like everyone else.
"I'm interested in seeing how it all plays out," he said.
After his big showcase, he hopes to fight once more in 2017, preferably in Baltimore, where he's been dreaming of headlining a show for years. He split his training for the Fonseca fight between his familiar environs in Upton and Mayweather's gym in Las Vegas. But he knows that even if he achieves the superstardom he covets, his hometown will remain his strongest base.