David Grayton IV stands before a bank of photographers and flexes his muscles, his smile illuminated by flashbulbs. It’s fight day, and the 25-year-old is about weigh in for the third professional fight of his young career.
A few locals shout encouragement. The lunchtime event is the climax of weeks of media appearances, public workouts, and press conferences. Grayton's fight will be on the undercard of a main event featuring local legend Lamont Peterson at the DC Armory. This moment has been years in the making.
Off to the side is a middle-aged man wearing glasses and a black stocking cap, standing stone-faced. He betrays no emotion, even as announcer Henry “Discombobulating” Jones calls Grayton's name and informs the small crowd that his four-round fight against Greg Coverson Jr. of Detroit will open the telecast on ESPN.
The man is Grayton’s father. He was a professional fighter himself, a
lightweight that fought locally in the 1980s. And for years he’s known this day would come: His son, stepping into the ring, reveling in the smell of blood and sweat and preparing to fight on national television.
“This is not what I wanted for him, as far as professional boxing, [given my] experience in it. I know how dirty the boxing game can get,” Grayton III said at the weigh-in. “I wanted him to have a very successful career, but not in the boxing game.”
There are few harder ways to earn a living than professional boxing. Gyms in the Washington area are filled with promising amateurs, but few can make the leap to the pros, and only a handful will reach the bright lights of HBO or Showtime. Grayton is one of them, hoping to follow in the footsteps of Peterson and challenge for world titles. But he must do so in a sport that favors those with big promoters or long amateur careers, neither of which he has. He must also weigh the doubts of his parents, who kept him out of the ring as a child.
The Friday night show at The DC Armory is the Washington area's biggest boxing event in over a year, but Grayton has been on big stages before. He won the national Golden Gloves title in 2010. Yet he is still a relative newcomer to the sport, having taken up boxing at age 18, while most great boxers start before puberty. His aggressive, fan-friendly style and amateur success have those around him predicting world championships. But this is professional boxing, where the punches are harder, and it can take years to recover from a single loss.
Few understand that better than Grayton’s father, known these days as Big Day Day. Grayton III knows firsthand why boxing is called the Cruelest Sport. His career was full of unfulfilled promise, and cut short by injury after another fighter thumbed him in the eye. Grayton’s mother cites that evening almost 20 years ago in explaining her decision to keep her only son ut of boxing until adulthood.
“I can remember leaving the match, going to Washington Hospital Center, then Baltimore Medical Center,” Linda Cunningham Grayton recalls. “I thought his eye would never be the same, but somehow they were able to save it.”
Grayton III said the injury left no permanent damage. Still, he never wished to see his son follow in his footsteps.
Indeed, David Grayton III, 51, took up boxing as a 10-year-old and fought amateur for a decade, before turning professional as a lightweight in the 1980s. He began training under Ham Johnson at Elliot Recreation Center, and remains passionate about the sport to this day.
“A lot of folks say my father was a great boxer, that he had the best jab as a southpaw back in the 80s,” Grayton IV said.
“His father was a good little fighter. I saw him fight at the Convention Center against Al Martino” in a fight he won, said Headbangers head trainer Barry Hunter, who trains both Peterson and Grayton IV.
Grayton III lost a close decision in his first professional fight before reeling off ten straight wins, including a decision over future world championship contender Darryl Tyson in his sixth professional fight. It would be the only loss Tyson sustained in his first 24 fights before challenging for a world title.
“My career, I didn’t have people in my corner that I [could] trust. That was my only downfall in boxing,” Grayton III said. “I was taking last-minute fights and all that, it wasn’t good for my career.”
Toward the end, Grayton III also sustained the eye injury, which had a negative impact on his career. He retired in 1986 with a record of 13-5.
“It was just my surroundings that made me back down off the boxing career,” Grayton said.
Grayton IV was born one year later, into a home where boxing was still very much a part of life. Grayton III took his son to several world championship fights, including one particularly memorable card featuring local flyweight champion Mark “Too Sharp” Johnson. Grayton IV recently showed his father a photo of the two of them taken at the fight, which took place at the D.C. Armory, just a few days before his own debut at the venue.
“He took a liking to that [championship fight] and he’s been liking [boxing] ever since then,” Grayton III said.
Still, when Grayton asked to take up boxing as a child, his parents refused.
“When I was young I used to like to fight, but they wouldn’t let me box,” Grayton IV said. “My mom told me no, she doesn’t want me to get hurt, she doesn’t want anything to happen to me.”
“I guess I was overprotective, I still am. When he's in the ring it's like I'm in the ring with him. It's like I'm getting hit,” Cunningham Grayton said.
Instead Grayton focused on football, where he excelled. He became a starting linebacker for the Suitland High School football team that won the Maryland state title in 2006, and played alongside future 49ers linebacker Navorro Bowman, a close friend that still attends his fights.
After high school, Grayton completed a summer program at the Department of Commerce, which then turned into an internship. He enrolled in business management classes at Prince George’s Community College, where his father had defeated Darryl Tyson 20 years earlier. His parents hoped he would follow his sister Shaneka Grayton-Simmons into a federal government career.
But Grayton’s love for sports, and boxing specifically, wouldn’t go away. While he had some opportunities to play football in college, he grew more interested in following his father to the legendary Finley’s boxing gym in Northeast Washington, where Grayton III went to stay in shape. Having grown up around the sport, Grayton found himself a natural.
“It came to me kind of easy,” Grayton IV said.
After Grayton III saw his son’s commitment to the sport, he finally gave his blessing for David to start training at age 18. He started out working under Ham Johnson, just as his father had two decades prior. When Johnson left Finley’s, Grayton III took over his son’s training himself, which highlighted their similarities.
“It’s very hard for an ordinary orthodox person to train a southpaw,” Grayton III said. “Being as we were both southpaws, it was very easy for me to train him and develop him very quickly.”
Hunter had first seen Grayton fight at an amateur tournament early in his boxing career, but even then he told Cunningham Grayton that her son had talent to be something great. A year later Grayton IV showed up at Headbangers, gifted but still young in the sport.
“He was still kinda raw, just learning the sport. He didn’t really have boxing skills but he was a very, very good athlete,” Hunter said. “You’d watch him fight, even though he was raw, he fights with so much passion and so much heart. He’s not a boring fighter.”
Hunter called Grayton “just an aggressive, regular kid” when they first started working together, one that found his focus after an early sit-down from the no-nonsense Hunter. From there Grayton made rapid progress, culminating in a win in the 2010 National Golden Gloves finals over 2012 U.S. Olympian Errol Spence Jr. Beating one of the top amateur fighters in the country made Grayton a star in the local boxing community, and prompted calls from professional promoters seeking their next blue-chip prospect.
"He’s really just started boxing, and he’s already got himself up there with kids that have been fighting 10-15 years,” Hunter said. “If he stays focused, keeps his eyes on the prize, [boxing] could take him a really long way.”
When Linda Cunningham Grayton met David Grayton III, he was already a fighter and had been one since childhood. So until his eye injury, she never felt the same sort of anxiety watching him fight that she feels when her son is in the ring. Grayton's parents have come around to his desire to box, and are now his biggest fans. His father offers advice and quietly oversees his preparations, while his mother still winces at every blow, and dreads spending the night in the emergency room. But his parents have seen Grayton improve and mature tremendously since joining Headbangers, and with their support he has managed to avoid any distractions that could derail his promising career.
“A lot of the kids that come to this gym, come here because of a lack of. A lot of them don’t have family. Fortunately for him, that’s not where he comes from,” Hunter said. “He had his little run-ins here and there. But when you’re around that kind of atmosphere, where everyone is pulling for you, it’s hard not to be” positively influenced.
“It’s kind of like my therapy,” Grayton said of boxing. “It helps me feel better about myself.”
Grayton’s calm demeanor is difficult at times to square with his cocky, aggressive ring persona, but he says it’s part of the job.
“When I’m outside the ring I’m David, but when I’m inside the ring I’m Day Day. I’m a different total person,” Grayton said. “Once I get in that square, he wants to take my head off, and I gotta take his head off.”
The next night at the Armory, Grayton's fight is switched at the last moment to after the main event, delaying its start for two hours. Grayton hits the pads backstage with his father to stay loose, even as Lamont Peterson knocks out Kendall Holt to thrill the crowd.
Grayton celebrates briefly, but then tries to regain his focus. Grayton looks impatient in the first round, but settles down in the second and sends his opponent to the mat, where Coverson remains. Grayton looks exhausted as he leaves the ring, but smiles as he embraces his family. Grayton's fight didn't make the telecast, but he won and seems happy. His family embraces him and they leave to go eat, hoping that future fights also end with them together, and their son in one piece.