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Against the ropes, champ Gervonta Davis comes out fighting after friend’s murder

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)

Again and again, Gervonta Davis lifted his torso from the exercise bench, fighting the resistance offered by his trainer and grimacing with each exertion.

After 60 sit-ups on this mid-March afternoon, he rose from the bench and ambled through Upton Boxing Center, the West Baltimore gym he's put on the map. He clutched the two smart phones on which he maintains a hyperactive social-media existence, tapping away at each touch screen. "You've got to do 60 more," someone from his team called.

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"Hell I do," said the IBF junior lightweight champion of the world, a grin spreading across his still-youthful features.

Sixty-eight days earlier in Brooklyn, N.Y., Davis had established himself as an ascendant star in boxing with a fusillade of violent lefts and rights that earned him a championship belt at the tender age of 22. Now, the time for celebration and rest was over, and Davis needed to get back to the hard business of preparing his body for another evening of combat. The fighter known as "Tank" will travel to London to defend his title against undefeated Englishman Liam Walsh on May 20.

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In addition to the physical toil that lay ahead, Davis' mind was clouded by the recent murder of his friend and fellow boxer Montell "Telly" Pridgett. Pridgett was shot on March 15 in the 1500 block of Pennsylvania Ave. — just blocks from his Upton home — after a fight on the street, police said. Officers found him at a local hospital with a gunshot wound to the torso and he was pronounced dead a short time later.

It wasn't the first time Davis had watched a comrade fall to violence in the neighborhood where he'd grown up. But this tragedy seemed to hit him deeper because he had been working to help Pridgett. Again he wondered if it was time to get out of Baltimore, the city that shaped him and loves him like no other.

Baltimore police said a 24-year-old man was shot and killed in Upton early Wednesday morning.

"It was the first time, out of everything we've ever talked about, that he boarded up," said Davis' trainer and mentor, Calvin Ford. "I think because he was trying to help the kid. He came back from all the other situations to say, 'Nah, I'm going to stay here and try to do my best.' But it gets to a point when stuff like that happens, when it makes you say, 'Dang, should shorty stay here?' At the end of the day, I'm going to let him make that decision."

Regardless of where he settles, Davis intends to follow his promoter, Floyd Mayweather Jr., and become that rarest of creatures — an American-born fighter capable of attracting hundreds of thousands of fans to order pay-per-view superfights.

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He refuses to dwell on his title win in January because he regards it as a small step in a much larger plan. "It was what I was supposed to do," he said. "Just winning a belt, it doesn't mean anything to me. It's about taking that step forward. There are a lot of belts I want to win, not just one."

After referee Ricky Gonzalez hugged Jose Pedraza to prevent him from eating another shattering right hook like the one that had just dumped him on the canvas, Davis leaped to the second rope and pounded his chest with both gloves. He was letting the New York crowd know he had arrived as a man in full.

Baltimore's Gervonta Davis landed a furious series of power punches to stop Jose Pedraza in the seventh round and win the IBF junior lightweight title on

"I was just in that moment," he recalled. "Everything that I worked hard for and my team worked hard for was coming true."

He had done more than earn the right to slip the red-and-gold IBF junior lightweight belt around his waist. He had paid off thousands of anonymous, sweat-soaked nights spent at the Upton Boxing Center. It was the place Davis went to hone his craft but just as importantly, to avoid the perils of the city around him.

That night in New York, Davis' phone buzzed with messages from people wanting to party with the new champion. He opted to stay in his hotel room with a small group of his closest friends, reflecting on all they'd done to get there.

Asked if he took his crew on a celebratory trip in the days after, Davis shook his head.

"Not yet," he said. "We still got that grinding to do. Hopefully one day, we'll take that big vacation. Not yet."

Ford had been there for most of those anonymous nights at Upton, using Davis' progress as his own motivation to avoid the neighborhood's deadly corners. He had never trained a fighter on anything like the stage created by a world championship bout. After Davis ended the fight in the seventh round, Ford remained on the floor, exhausted.

"I had an out-of-body experience," he said on a recent afternoon at Upton, where he teaches dozens of young boxers from the surrounding neighborhood. "It was like I was sitting at home, watching him on TV and watching myself on TV in a championship fight."

But the news of Pridgett's murder, eight weeks later, pulled Davis and Ford back to a reality that had been with them much longer than a championship belt: It's both painful and unsettling to grow up in a city haunted by death.

"When I look at Telly, he was a kid who was cheerful. He joked a lot. He didn't bother nobody," Ford said. "Real respectful, especially to me. To see that happen to him, just out the blue …"

Baltimore boxer Gervonta "Tank" Davis will challenge Jose Pedraza for a 130-pound world title on Saturday night in a bout broadcast on Showtime.

It reminded him eerily of Ronald "Rock" Gibbs, another promising fighter from Upton who was stabbed to death while trying to defend his sister in 2011.

"Kids ... on a straight path and something tragic happens to them," Ford said quietly.

Davis had hoped to promote Pridgett as a professional fighter one day. He took him on trips to New York to show him a wider world outside Baltimore. Whenever they were out of town, it seemed something bad happened in their old neighborhood.

"You're escaping a lot of things that people around you aren't escaping," Davis told Pridgett in those moments.

He could just as easily have been talking about a younger version of himself.

At times, Davis says he's outgrown Baltimore and is ready to move to Los Angeles or some other shiny promised land. But then he'll turn around and say he feels a powerful sense of mission in his hometown, especially after Pridgett's death.

"Now that he died and I was so close to him, I want to put my hands on a lot of fighters that's in the city, trying to do something," he said. "That's my main goal now. To try to get them on my level."

His message will be more powerful, he added, if he's here to deliver it in person.

That's part of the reason Ford and Davis are so eager to arrange a title defense at Royal Farms Arena. They want to show that a Baltimore boxer can inspire a robust local following.

"I think the city of Baltimore deserves to have that after all the work the Department of Parks and Recreation has done with the kids over the years," Ford said. "The city needs something like that. It opens it up for the other kids coming behind him to get a chance to want to do the same thing. That's where it starts from. They see one kid doing it, the other kids want to do it."

First, Davis must go overseas to fight in his challenger's hometown. It's an unusual situation — a champion making his first defense in an arena where he's likely to be booed by a raucous British crowd. And Walsh is an accomplished boxer, like Davis a southpaw with punching power.

Ford, who will obtain his first passport for the occasion, said he'll train Davis as if he's still the challenger. He doesn't want him to be daunted by the crowd or to leave anything to chance with the judges.

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"You're not the champ," he keeps telling his prize pupil, trying to stir Davis' hunger.

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That won't be a problem, the fighter said. He thrives on the notoriety he earned with his victory over Pedraza and has no plans to squander his newfound stature.

"I think the whole boxing world was sleeping on me. They were sleeping on me hard," Davis said. "And January 14, we woke them up big."

childs.walker@baltsun.com

twitter.com/ChildsWalker

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