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Baltimore Boxer Gervonta Davis' Journey to Glory

January 15, 2016
A week before Christmas in a boisterous Las Vegas casino showroom, West Baltimore boxer Gervonta Davis had his hands full while he was also getting an earful. In front of him, the undefeated 21-year-old from the Upton Gym on Pennsylvania Avenue had a little-known but stubborn Mexican fighter who was making the nationally televised bout a lot more competitive than anyone expected.

Meanwhile, a few feet away at ringside, a far more recognizable boxing figure -- Floyd Mayweather Jr. -- was on his feet yelling instructions to Davis, as the scheduled 10-round bout moved into the late stages.

Davis, fighting at 131 pounds, had never gone past the sixth round of any of his previous 13 professional bouts. He never had to. He had finished off 10 of his previous victims in two rounds or less. Just one opponent had managed to go the distance, six rounds, in a unanimous decision win for Davis.

Last year, the baby-faced Davis, with the nickname "Tank," caught the attention of Mayweather, the holder of numerous championship belts, one of the world's richest athletes and the owner of one of boxing's most influential promotion companies. Now under contract to the Las Vegas-based Mayweather, Davis is both client and prodigy to the world's most accomplished and best-known fighter.

Issue 217: Gervonta Davis
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Mayweather Promotions
Televised live on Spike TV as the first fight of a full card of bouts Dec. 18, 2015 at the Palms Casino Resort, the match against Luis Sanchez was intended to be another stepping stone for Davis, as well as his introduction to a broader audience. But Sanchez, with a 17-4-1 record, wasn't content to be merely a foil. He had shown up to fight, and he even won a round, the fourth, likely marking the first time Davis had ever lost a round as a pro fighter.

During the bout, ringside TV announcers reported the animated Mayweather had shouted at Davis that he had "enough rounds," meaning the workout was finished and it was time to put away Sanchez.

In the eighth round, Davis did knock down Sanchez. But it was in the ninth round that Davis demonstrated what Mayweather -- what everyone who knew of Davis or had seen him fight -- was waiting for. After Sanchez led with an ineffective left, Davis uncorked a twisting left hand that caught his opponent flush in the face. The punch sent the scrappy Sanchez to the canvas dazed, bloodied and finished for the night. A TV commentator said the devastating punch "drove [Sanchez's] nose right through his face," and the left-handed coup de grace that raised Davis' record to 14-0 had even Mayweather shaking his head.

"I was just listening to my corner, Coach Calvin [Ford], Coach Kenny [Ellis] and Floyd. ... I was baiting [Sanchez] in," Davis said later.

More recently, Davis explained Mayweather's ringside advice.

"Sometimes a young fighter will over-do it and not protect himself," Davis said. "So Floyd was telling me to break him down, to stay calm, to stay relaxed."

After the fight, Mayweather seemed a bit more relaxed himself, saying, "It's always good to go out there and get the W."

Davis' camp learned a great deal about its fighter during that bout. For one, Davis doesn't have a glass jaw. Sanchez landed some hard shots, but they didn't slow down Davis. And Davis proved that not only does he have the stamina to go the distance in longer fights, but he also has enough pop left in his punches to knock out an opponent late in a fight.

In analyzing the bout, Mayweather was sparse in his praise for his young fighter. 

"He's young. He's still learning. We're looking forward to him being a world champion someday," Mayweather said on TV.

"I Was Good At Something"

If Baltimore's next world championship is to come in the ring rather than on the diamond or the gridiron, the journey will have started in the Upton Rec Center, a boxing training ground where boxers as young as 8 years old go to learn the discipline of boxing often under the guidance of "Coach Calvin" Ford.

When Ford talks to the youngsters who come into Upton, his words ring true. He admits to having wrestled with his own problems; he served 10 years in a federal prison. But the gym is a refuge from the streets, and boxing is a way for many of the kids who go there to express themselves, to have some order imposed on often-chaotic lives, and to experience the satisfaction of earned accomplishment.

Davis was one of those kids. His parents were both drug users and spent time in jail. As a child and teenager, Davis was shuttled from home to home, sometimes in foster care, and sometimes with relatives. But through the years, there was one constant in his life, and that has been Ford.

"He was about 7 years old when one of his uncles brought him into the gym," Ford said. 

Ford saw a reflection of himself in the little boy who didn't have a real home outside the gym, but found one inside it.

"As a little kid, when he got into trouble, no one wanted him around," Ford said. "He was just looking for some attention, and everyone was always pushing him away. I was training a lot of kids, but [Gervonta] was always there. Every time I turned around, he was just there. He's become like my son."

Davis had something else that made him stand out.

"He was very talented, and he listened," Ford said. "I didn't have to tell him twice what to do."

Davis' childhood was the type that often doesn't result in happy outcomes. 

"I was taken from my mother and father when I was 4 or 5 years old," Davis said. 

After that, he lived alternately with other relatives, as well as one parent or the other. However, his real home was the Upton Gym.

"I was in the gym by the time I was 7, and I was there all the time, so I didn't have time to run the streets," he said.

Almost immediately, Davis became an outstanding amateur fighter and started winning Silver Gloves competitions. When he was 10, Davis won his first USA Boxing Junior Olympic Tournament, also known as the Silver Gloves, in the 65-pound division. The next year, he lost in the finals of the Silver Gloves in the 70-pound division. At 13, Davis was back for another Silver Gloves title and won at 80 pounds.

The next year, Davis discovered another type of learning experience apart from the hard knocks lessons of the gym -- travel. Traveling to amateur boxing competitions opened Davis' eyes to the realization that there was a world beyond his West Baltimore neighborhood, places such as Augusta, Ga., and Kansas City and Orlando. At the Upton Gym, there's a map of the United States that's dotted with markers showing the places Davis has visited.

"When I was young, I was always being punished most of the time," he said. "But when I was in the gym and when we were traveling, I was getting all the attention because I was good at something."

Davis said traveling gave him an appreciation of the world that many kids in his situation never experience.

"I always loved to travel, right from the beginning. Some people are afraid to travel, to get on an airplane, to leave home. Not me," he said. "I saw things, and I did things that other kids didn't see. I did things that they'll never do."

In a video about the Upton Gym made in 2012, Davis said boxing gave him direction and that his life's ambition began to take shape when he was 14 years old.

"Before that, I didn't have any goals," he said at the time. "I had a dream that I was pro and that I was coming out and I was fighting for a belt. It was a good thing. I always wanted that."

Help From A Legend 

Turning professional for Davis was a decision dictated by the calendar. He was too young, just 17, to box in the 2012 Olympics in London, but Davis didn't want to put his pro boxing career on hold for four years waiting for another Olympic Games to roll around in 2016. Early in 2013, Davis won his first professional fight in a first-round knockout at the (Washington) DC Armory.

While Davis was enjoying a promising amateur boxing career -- his wins outpaced losses at a clip of better than 10-to-1 as he won numerous medals -- that didn't mean he totally escaped the problems that dog young people in tough urban circumstances.

Davis' best friend, Justin "Fiddle" Carter, said he met Davis in the sixth grade when the two attended an alternative school.

"He was rough," Carter said of Davis. "He liked fighting everybody. He had a lot of anger built up inside of him."

Davis was befriended by the Carter family, and the developing boxer benefited from an extended family he was developing, especially from the training and mentorship of Coach Ford.

"He used to be a cocky fighter and talk trash to his opponents," Carter said. "Now, he shows respect to his opponents, and he interacts with the fans."

Unquestionably, Davis' big break came when he caught the eye of Mayweather, who has been fighting for more than 20 years, during which he has won titles in five weight classes and compiled a 49-0 record.

The two first met at a press event in Washington, D.C., when Mayweather was promoting one of his own fights, but the breakthrough for Davis came when he showed up at Mayweather's Las Vegas boxing gym last year. Hearing that the young phenom whom he had heard so much about was around, Mayweather challenged him to put on the gloves and demonstrate what he could do. Davis was so impressive that Mayweather brought him into his stable of fighters, which means Davis is primarily living and training in Las Vegas these days.

Being included in Mayweather's boxing circle certainly comes with some perks, but also a few challenges.

Last year, Mayweather surprised Davis with a gift of a new Jeep Rubicon. Meanwhile, there was a training session at Mayweather's gym -- where brutal sparring workouts are dubbed "The Doghouse" -- when Mayweather had a different kind of surprise for Davis. It was a sparring session against Yuriorkis Gamboa, a veteran Cuban fighter with a resume that includes Olympic gold medals and a handful of professional world championships.

"Floyd wanted to give me someone a little harder to see where I was at, and I proved that I was pretty good," a smiling Davis said on a YouTube video of the sparring workout with Gamboa.

"I Want To Better Myself"

It remains to be seen what Mayweather has planned next for Davis. One possibility is a title fight, and if so, it could be at 130 pounds, the super featherweight class in the World Boxing Association, where Javier Fortuna currently owns the belt. Regardless of whether Davis' next fight is for a championship, he likely will be in the ring again by the end of January or in early February.

Issue 217: Gervonta Davis (with opponent)
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Mayweather Promotions
"Since I've signed with Floyd, it seems like it's going fast, but I like it," Davis said of his career's trajectory. "I'm getting the right exposure I need as an up-and-coming fighter. It's not too fast, and it's not too slow."

These days, some people in Davis' personal orbit are able to not only find pride in his accomplishments, but even a measure of redemption.

"I carry a lot of guilt for what I've done and the mistakes I've made," said Davis' mother, Kenya Brown. "But I see a brighter future, and I feel like a dark cloud has lifted, and I have a new sense of freedom. Gervonta has seen a lot of people fall to gun violence or wind up in jail. So when you have children who are still healthy and living their dreams, you have to be grateful to God."

Davis' father, Garrin Davis, credits his son with helping him mend his life.

"When Gervonta started getting national attention, he was actually an inspiration to me, and I felt that if I could get my life on track, with all the problems I had, that for him, the sky is the limit," Garrin Davis said. "When I marked my three-year anniversary of being clean and my son looked me in the eye and told me that he was proud of what I had done, that was the best feeling in the world."

As Davis enjoys a new life that has him living in a neat sun-splashed suburb of Las Vegas while training with boxers from all over the world, and all of it far from the often troubled streets of West Baltimore, Davis always gives credit to the person to whom it is due, Calvin Ford.

"He was like a father figure to me. He was the only person looking out for me, because I was so bad, because I had so much anger. … My coach took care of me and told me to focus on the main goal," Davis said in a YouTube video, recalling those not-so-long-ago days in Baltimore.

Then echoing a lesson he learned from his coach, Davis added, "[I want] to better myself [in order] to better those around me."

Meanwhile, Ford said it was that little kid hanging around the Upton Gym who may have kept him from relapsing into the problems that had swept him into prison as a younger man.

"I think we needed each other," Ford said. "In a sense, we saved each other. I may have been looking out for him, but by being there, he kept me out of trouble, too.

"It's been a long climb for all of us. And we still have a long ways to go. We'll get there."  

Issue 217: January 2016