As a business, boxing rarely comes easy, even for the most gifted fighters.
Gervonta “Tank” Davis, the Baltimore-born and -raised WBA junior lightweight champion, had waited almost a year — his gnawing hunger deepening by the day — for a fight that could catapult him to the next level of recognition. On Feb. 9, he would finally have the chance to feast on Abner Mares, a genuinely accomplished opponent with an established fan base. It was a match-up that had hardcore boxing lovers buzzing, exactly as Davis had hoped.
So he could not help but feel let down when Mares pulled out 10 days before the main-event bout, initially blaming an elbow injury but later revealing that he’d undergone surgery for a detached retina. Shortly after he landed in Los Angeles to begin final preparations last week, Davis learned he would defend his title against a late substitute, Hugo Ruiz, whom he’d never heard of before that day.
“Very disappointing,” he said during a phone interview last week.
The fight would still headline the Showtime broadcast (10 p.m. Saturday) from Dignity Health Sports Park in Carson, Calif., but some of the sizzle was gone from his imagined showcase.
There was a time when Davis (20-0 with 19 knockouts) might have let such news distract from his preparations. But he says he’s grown past such immaturity. He knows the fight against Ruiz is another step in his high-stakes audition for the boxing powers-that-be, who believe in his talent but want to be convinced of his professionalism.
“It really doesn’t matter who I fight,” he said. “It’s about me putting on a good performance and just looking good overall that night. I want to show people that I can be a household name.”
Davis lives on a knife’s edge between the promise of fabulous success and the chaos that has periodically enveloped his life away from the ring.
He’s always known what to do in fights, where he stalks opponents with the killer instinct of a pocket-sized Mike Tyson and displays athletic creativity that reminds his trainer and mentor, Calvin Ford, of Michael Jordan.
But big-picture stability? That’s a trickier art for the 24-year-old Davis, who lost his first world title because he failed to make the 130-pound weight limit and who was arrested after an alleged wee-hours scuffle outside a Washington, D.C., lounge in September.
The good news, say Davis and those who care about him, is that he’s already beaten the odds by fighting his way out of West Baltimore, where he watched addictions derail family members and street violence steal the lives of friends and mentors.
Davis said he has no intention of squandering his progress. His incentive became that much more personal when his daughter, Gervanni, was born last summer. “That changed a lot,” he said. “It made me slow down and think before I do stuff, because I’m not only living for me. I’m living for both of us. I need to stay focused and try to give her a better life than I had.”
It’s a classic fighter’s story, a young man using the controlled violence of the sport to escape the chaotic violence of a rough upbringing. Combine that narrative with Davis’ rare hand speed and power, and it’s not hard to see why some of the most powerful people in the sport — manager Al Haymon, promoter Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Showtime Sports president Stephen Espinoza — are so invested in his future.
“I think the sky is the limit for Gervonta,” Espinoza said. “You put those two elements together — the likability and charisma outside the ring and the entertainment value inside the ring — and he has the potential, if he stays on this track, to be one of the biggest names in the sport.”
That “if” remains part of the story, however.
“There are some, we’ll call them yellow flags,” Espinoza said. “I wouldn’t call them red flags, quite yet. But there are a couple things where Gervonta didn’t meet his obligations as well as he should have, and that’s part of the learning experience for a young fighter. … Where those become a danger area is if they are repeated habits.”
Davis and his high-powered backers have acknowledged difficult relations at times. As Davis sat home for most of last year, waiting for a fight, he lashed out at Mayweather on social media, blaming his promoter for the months of inactivity. Haymon, meanwhile, called him in for a heart-to-heart talk after Davis behaved unprofessionally as a spectator at a Showtime card in September, the Los Angeles Times reported.
Davis said “everything’s cool” with Mayweather Promotions, which plans to put him in three fights this year, including a long-desired homecoming fight in Baltimore in July. But he knows it’s incumbent on him to hold up his end by remaining sharp in training and avoiding out-of-ring troubles.
“It’s actions,” said Mayweather Promotions CEO Leonard Ellerbe. “He knows first-hand that in 2018, a lot of things happened, and a lot of things people don’t know about and that those were personal things. Again, he’s a young man. He made a few mistakes, and he stepped up. He owned those mistakes, and he’s moved on.”
Davis believes he’s a better athlete, and a better person, when he’s looking forward to the next fight. An empty calendar is his enemy.
“That’s not a good look for a young fighter,” Ford said, referring to his pupil’s 10-month layoff. “And yet, I look at it as a learning experience for him. He knows he’s got to keep himself in order, and now he’s learning, he’s happy, he’s got his schedule. This is how things are supposed to be.”
Davis has promised to put on a show against Ruiz. He looked sensational in his last fight, a third-round knockout of Jesus Cuellar on April 21 in Brooklyn. He switched up his training routine for that title bout, traveling to Florida to escape the distractions of Baltimore and work with renowned disciplinarian Kevin Cunningham.
Davis again planned to train in Florida for his Feb. 9 fight but changed his mind, saying he missed Ford and the familiar environs of the Upton Boxing Center, where he’s worked since he was a child.
“I feel my coach brings the best out of me,” he said. “He’s known me for so long, since I was a baby.”
He also enjoys training around his stablemate, 18-year-old Lorenzo “Truck” Simpson, who’s like his boxing younger brother and will fight on the undercard in Carson on Saturday.
In recent weeks, Davis posted photos on Twitter of his lean physique, rippling with muscle, as if to silence any doubters who might question his training discipline.
He’ll walk to the ring heavily favored against Ruiz, who’s moving up in weight for this championship opportunity. But the Mexican challenger is four inches taller than Davis and has 33 knockouts in 39 career victories. He agreed to meet Davis on short notice, taking just one day of rest after his last fight on Jan. 19, so his hunger is not in question.
“He’s not coming to lay down,” Davis said.
If he handles Ruiz, there are many potentially appealing match-ups lurking in his weight class (Leo Santa Cruz or Gary Russell Jr.) and at lightweight (pound-for-pound No. 1 Vasiliy Lomachenko). But he’s thrown out more exotic ideas as well, including veteran welterweight star Manny Pacquiao and UFC fighter T.J. Dillashaw.
“I just want him to show people that he’s the real deal and that he’s ready for them big-name guys,” Ford said.
That’s what the men who hold the strings of his career want as well. Davis has already climbed higher than most, but can he take the last step — one that has tripped many a fighter as gifted as he — to become a dependable headliner?