Gervonta Davis is a real live ‘Wire’
Baltimore-born Gervonta Davis, 17-0 (16), is racking up some unexpected accomplishments, for some, at the start of his career. Already a world titleholder before his 20th fight, the IBF junior lightweight champion is doing what few Americans have done in recent memory. Davis is traveling overseas to defend his title against mandatory challenger Liam Walsh, 21-0 (14), which would be an accomplishment few American champions can claim, much less the youngest current American titleholder. Whether that is a good or bad sign for him promotionally is debatable but traveling to hostile English (the Copper Box Arena in London, to be exact) territory for a big atmosphere fight will make Davis a more complete boxer mentally. Team Davis said his best asset is a steely mentality, while British tabloids focus on Davis being born and raised in the section of Baltimore in which the famous HBO TV series “The Wire” was based. The Davis-Walsh fight will have to be fantastic to deliver as much drama (today, Showtime, 6 p.m. ET/ 3 p.m. PT) but legendary movie directors claim boxing is the one sport that has the power and depth of emotion to mirror real life.
I was an early backer of now 22-year-old Gervonta Davis, who endured orphanages and Baltimore street life because of drug dependent parents before finding refuge with his grandmothers, confident that he would unseat then-undefeated Jose Pedraza, despite his lack of pro experience. Davis first made a name for himself in sparring circles, giving as good as he got against Adrien Broner and shared the ring with Floyd Mayweather Jr. on multiple occasions. He is blessed with speed that translates to fight-stopping power and everything is amplified to higher degree, given it is delivered from a southpaw stance. I also appreciated that Davis worked hard on himself outside the ring, going out of his way to return to high school and earn a diploma. It shows Davis is doing his best to become a complete man in and out of the ring.
An ebullient Davis, which was interpreted by some as brash or cocksure on the other side of the Atlantic, is not daunted by this away game in the heart of England. Davis views this as early career fortune instead of an unnecessary obstacle, “I’m actually excited to fight in the U.K. I believe that I will have a crowd over there and I’m excited to put on a show for the U.K. fans. I believe it was the right business move, as far as getting me to the U.K. in my early career, and giving the fans what they want to see,” quickly adding that this is not the first time he has been out of the country for a fight, “It’s good for me to fight in the U.K. I fought overseas when I was an amateur, so, now, I’m going as a pro and I feel like it’s a great opportunity.”
Facing a mandatory challenger out of the gate can be a curse or blessing. If Davis emerges victorious, he and manager Al Haymon can plot a chart toward big-money fights without being hamstrung by sanctioning body politics for a year. A distinct bonus, given a potential big-money foe like WBO titlist Vasyl Lomachenko currently sits atop the junior lightweight division. That is the best case scenario future for Davis, who is not looking beyond hometown hero Liam Walsh for now. Davis said of Walsh, “He’s a good fighter. I can’t take that away from him. He’s my mandatory, so I’m taking him seriously. I’ve actually looked at a couple of his fights. He’s a decent fighter but I’m just on another level. My mind, my skills, I’m on another level than what he’s saying – and what his fans are saying too.”
Since Davis chose to sign with Floyd Mayweather’s Mayweather Promotions, comparisons and questions about Mayweather were addressed at press conferences this week. Davis took the questions, in a country where newspapers still matter, in stride and never seemed flustered at any stage of the promotion. A focus of questioning was what Davis has learned from Mayweather and if there is a mentorship between the two beyond their promotional venture. Davis answered affirmatively, “When I got back to Vegas, Floyd Mayweather was hands on, more than usual, working with me in the gym late nights. I have one of the best in the business backing me. It means a lot. It makes me work harder. I’m working extra hard. Having him back in the gym gives me that extra push and has my mind on another level.”
Despite entering the fight with a kayo puncher reputation, the nickname “Tank” is apt, given his muscularly stocky physique. Davis is not looking for an early night, “I don’t think I have to make a statement by knocking him out. I would rather beat him in 12 rounds. We’re going to look for the knockout and if it comes, it comes but I would rather go on 12 rounds.” Oddsmakers, even ones in England, see the reigning champion as a 4-to-1 favorite to make successful first defense of his title. Davis has reveled in the attention, “A real champ can fight anywhere. I’m coming out on top and keeping my world title. No worries. Walsh is a great fighter but I believe I’m on another level. I’m not overlooking him but it is what it is.”
Liam Walsh, whom the majority view as the lesser value of this equation, did not see himself as an “opponent” when talking about Davis at the pre-fight presser, “He certainly has potential and star quality. That was clear to see when he beat Jose Pedraza but he has to come through me first. I don’t see any other way than me winning. If he’s going to be a star in the future, it’s going to have to be with a loss after fighting me.” Walsh says fighting at home can be a mixed blessing but definitely a beneficial boost. “I thank Frank Warren for that and giving me that advantage. I think it all depends on his mental capacity. (Davis)’s coming to a foreign country. Provided that he adapts to the environment and change of scenery, then we’ll find out that night.”
Like many others, Walsh thought he would be facing Jose Pedraza when the time for his title shot arose. Walsh admitted that because how Davis defeated Pedraza, Davis gained his respect and special focus. “My prediction was Pedraza to win on points. I thought Pedraza had all the attributes and tools to get the job done. But then on the night watching the fight, I was surprised by the way Pedraza went about his work. I thought Gervonta looked brilliant and mature beyond his years. I think he put on a really good show but I thought Pedraza could have gone about it a little bit better.”
As with any confident boxer Walsh backs himself for the win and rattled off a list of reasons why that will be the case. Walsh focused on Davis initially, “First and foremost, I don’t think he’s completely overrated but I think there are still a lot of questions to be asked of him. He looked very good and brilliant against Pedraza. The only other reputable fighter on his record is Cristobal Cruz.” Walsh also laid out the reasons he should be favored. “I feel like I’ve been in tougher fights than him. He’s very powerful, very physical and very fast but we haven’t seen him in a long fight or a dog fight or a grueling fight though. I feel like I’ve been in longer fights. I think I have a better boxing I.Q. than him. I will certainly ask all these questions.”
What both men have in common is they anticipate a challenging evening. Davis and Walsh both cited a key to victory is adjusting to what the other is doing. Walsh thinks his maturity, a strong but lithe 31 years old, is a factor. “We all have game plans but good fighters have to adapt. There’s going to be ebbs and flows in this fight but I think the better fighter will prevail and I think that’s me.” Walsh pointed out an obvious advantage Davis gave up for financial benefits, “When you’re the home fighter, you feel more obliged to dig a little bit deeper for your home fans who are cheering for you, so that’s what I’ll do. One thing is factually certain: I’ll give my absolute all.”
Hall of Fame promoter Frank Warren gave a historical comparison as a warning for the Davis-Walsh clash. “The atmosphere is going to be fantastic and it’s going to be a sellout. In some ways, this fight reminds me a lot of when Joe Calzaghe fought against Jeff Lacy (in 2006). The Americans were saying that Lacy was the next Mike Tyson and Joe took him to school.” Warren was willing to pay extra to give his man the best chance of victory. “I think it’s always best to have the home advantage. You got your fans there and your home support. The British boxing fans are passionate fans and they are going to get behind their man. Everyone is looking for the next big thing. Is Gervonta overrated? We will find out. I know one thing is for sure: Liam is underrated. And that’s going to be the difference.”
It is not a deciding difference betting shops think much of and Walsh was astonished to learn he was judged a rank outsider. An incredulous Walsh told London’s Daily Mail newspaper, “I don’t think I’m the favorite but I’m not a 3-to-1 underdog. When I was told that, I thought I must be fighting three people. I’ve never been a 3-to-1 underdog. I’m a big underdog apparently but certainly not in my eyes. The U.S. fans think it will be a walkover but that couldn’t be more further from the truth. I can understand him being the favorite with all the hype and Mayweather behind him but I’m baffled by being that much of an underdog.” Walsh uses it as incentive, “It’s extra motivation. My friends are betting on me and, when I win, they’ll have a great night. I am prepared for anything he wants to do but, come weigh-in time, I strictly advise him to stay at arm’s length. You can only push me so far before you overstep the boundary.”
Mayweather Promotions CEO Leonard Ellerbe made his way to England, along with Floyd Mayweather Jr., to ensure everything ran smoothly for his fighter, “We are looking forward to promoting our first event on foreign soil. We expect a sold-out crowd and this is going to be a very, very exciting fight. We think this is a wonderful opportunity and a tremendous platform for Gervonta to be able to showcase his skills across the world.” Like Warren, Ellerbe referenced boxing history to boost his protégé. “This is similar to back in 2005 when Floyd went into Atlantic City and beat Arturo Gatti. With him being a young champion, I think he has an advantage and, working alongside someone like Floyd, someone who can explain to him what it’s like to go into hostile territory and what to expect coming into a big fight.”
If Davis is to reach his full potential, he will have to imbue the fighting spirit of Baltimore without succumbing to its violent side. Judging from Davis’ pre-fight statements, that is happening, “I’m actually staying level-headed, staying focused. Getting the world title is a step closer to where I want to be. Having a belt is cool but I’m trying to do more in the sport. I want to be the next star of boxing.” Through boxing, Davis is reaching out to help others as a positive role model, “It was really hard, growing up in Baltimore. There was a lot of killing and things like that, a lot of distractions. It was, ‘I’m in the gym or I’m in the streets,’ and I chose the gym. I believe that, as I continue to keep winning and crowning myself, a lot of young kids will look up to me and it will help get them on the right track.”