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Three takeaways from Baltimore boxer Gervonta Davis’ knockout victory over Leo Santa Cruz

Baltimore’s Gervonta Davis made a spectacular debut as a pay-per-view headliner with his sixth-round knockout of Leo Santa Cruz on Saturday night in San Antonio. This is what we learned from his star turn:

Davis could not have scripted a better pay-per-view debut.

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For years, Davis had talked of his ambition to become not just a world champion but boxing’s next major star. He proved himself as a ticket seller last year, but to reach the top tier, he needed to enter the pay-per-view realm once dominated by his promoter, Floyd Mayweather Jr.

After the coronavirus pandemic paralyzed big-time boxing for much of the year, Davis finally got his shot against Santa Cruz on Halloween night.

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His promoters matched him astutely; Santa Cruz was a four-division champion who would produce action with his high-pressure style but likely could not match Davis' power or hand speed. Davis was favored to win, but the fight projected as enough of a test that no one could dismiss it.

Santa Cruz more than held up his end Saturday. He did not look smaller than Davis in the ring and pushed the lightweight champion against the ropes several times with his steady attack. His knees did not wobble when he absorbed Davis' power shots, and he landed enough left hooks to produce swelling under Davis' right eye. Santa Cruz trailed by just one point on all three judges' cards entering the sixth round.

Davis fought patiently, waiting to time a left uppercut to the jaw of his incoming opponent. That punch loomed like an executioner’s sword, and when Davis landed it against the ropes in the sixth, Santa Cruz’s body seemed to short circuit. The fight was over as soon as he crumpled to the canvas.

Davis checked every box with his performance. He entered the ring in excellent shape after making the 130-pound weight limit with no difficulty. He maintained his composure through a rugged, competitive fight against an excellent opponent. And he ended the night with a spectacular punch that attracted laudatory tweets from LeBron James and Magic Johnson.

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Showtime and Mayweather Promotions have spent four years building Davis into a headline attraction, and he made good on all the hype. From his ring entrance with rapper Lil Uzi Vert to his knockout-of-the-year uppercut, he came across as the star that was promised.

Gervonta Davis
Gervonta Davis (Ronald Cortes/AP)

Davis' power separates him from the rest of the fighters in the 130- and 135-pound classes.

Fans love a genuine knockout artist. It’s why Mike Tyson (an avowed Davis admirer) still looms larger in the public imagination than more accomplished champions such as Larry Holmes and Lennox Lewis.

With 23 knockouts in 24 fights, Davis is a pocket Tyson. You can’t look away when he’s fighting, because the deciding punch is one blink away.

The Baltimore-born champion is an able boxer with a sharp (if underused) jab and sound enough defense that he can wade into a firefight without eating too many clean punches. If he had ground out a workmanlike, 12-round decision against Santa Cruz, his ascent in the sport would have continued.

But would such a result have prompted the social-media attaboys from LeBron and Magic? Davis understands entertainment is as much a part of boxing as pugilistic craft. He kept that left hand cocked all night, waiting for the split second when he could unleash dynamite. His uppercut will appear on highlight reels for years to come.

Davis is not the clear No. 1 fighter in either the super featherweight or lightweight division. He might not be the betting favorite in matchups with Teofimo Lopez or Vasiliy Lomachenko. But as long as he’s capable of such a punch, fans will watch.

Davis has many options for his next chapter.

For months, boxing observers have assumed Davis will leave the super featherweight division, and his anxious trips to the scale, in the rearview. But he made the 130-pound limit without draining his body to an unhealthy point and after the fight, he said he wants to defend his championship belts in both the super featherweight and lightweight classes.

He did not call out a specific fighter, instead saying he’ll take on all comers. “There ain’t no safety on this Glock,” he said with a big grin.

The tastiest options — Lopez, Lomachenko, Devin Haney, Ryan Garcia — reside at lightweight, but don’t be surprised if Davis takes an intermediate step before pursuing a major fight in the second half of next year.

A showdown with Lopez, the former Olympian from Brooklyn who upset Lomachenko last month, could be a rare superfight between young Americans with enthusiastic fan bases. Garcia is another charismatic young knockout puncher who has called out Davis on social media. Both matchups could probably stand to marinate for a year as interest grows in this rising generation of Americans.

Davis, who will turn 26 this week, often says he’s the only person who can undermine his rise to stardom. In the past, he’s lost focus when not training for fights. He still faces a misdemeanor battery charge in Florida stemming from a public altercation in February with the mother of his daughter. Davis has said he’ll never repeat his mistakes from that incident, that he’ll surround himself only with people who care about his best interests. But he has to prove it if he’s to capitalize on the chances he created for himself against Santa Cruz.

“I’m a pay-per-view star," he said after the fight. "Everybody knows I’m No. 1 and I showed it tonight. I’m going to continue to show people all over the world that I’m the best. I don’t have to call anybody else out. I’m the top dog. Just line them up and I’ll knock them out.”

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