Gervonta Davis paused nearly imperceptibly during a drill this month at the Upton Boxing Center in West Baltimore. The lightest touch of his red gloves had made the ball in the middle of a double-end striking bag a moving target. In between strikes and side-to-side dodges, Davis faced the bag head on, jerking and watching it flutter an inch from his nose. A cartoonish smile spread across his face, dimpling his cheeks. He revels in escapes.
Davis fought his way out of an unstable childhood in the notorious neighborhood — both his parents struggled with drug abuse, and he spent time in group homes. He escaped the fate of many peers, dedicating his fights to the tally of murdered fighters that seems to grow every year. He had the vision since he was 8 years old, a future with a gaudy title belt around his waist.
Davis’s next vision: to succeed his promoter and mentor, Floyd “Money” Mayweather Jr., as the most lucrative draw in boxing.
On Saturday, immediately before Mayweather and UFC superstar Conor McGregor touch gloves in Las Vegas, Davis (18-0, 17 knockouts) will defend his International Boxing Federation junior lightweight title against Francisco Fonseca (19-0-1, 13 KOs) of Costa Rica in the biggest fight of his ascendant career.
In January, with a seventh-round technical knockout of previously undefeated Jose Pedraza, Davis won the 130-pound title at age 22, becoming the youngest current champ in the sport while showcasing power and aggression that has spawned comparisons to Mike Tyson. Davis then traveled to London in May and defended his title with a third-round technical knockout of then-undefeated Briton Liam Walsh. The crowd spat at him as he exited the ring.
“I wanted to be that guy they talk about. I want to be the guy that shine. I want to be that No. 1 guy,” Davis said.
“I’m just ready for Floyd to pass the torch on to me.”
Mayweather Promotions has backed Davis since 2015, shortly after Davis signed with manager Al Haymon. In May, a brand closer to home attached itself to the rising star. Baltimore-based Under Armour announced it had signed Davis with a billboard. “Baltimore’s own” is written in giant white font, and Davis’s face towers above his city in a spot previously occupied by Michael Phelps and Ray Lewis.
Davis gives Under Armour an uplifting narrative to sell to its local base, according to Brian Boring, Under Armour’s vice president of global creative and design.
“It’s almost like this intense kind of sorrow that I think a lot of people can relate to,” Boring said.
Davis’s trainers know the story behind his pain. For decades, they have looked for the kids fighting in the streets and offered an outlet at the Upton Boxing Center. Davis’s path was the same: At age 5, a pair of uncles saw him throwing punches and directed him to the Upton gym.
“The hardship, the vacant homes, the violence, the struggle to eat, that stuff will make you hard,” said Kenny Ellis, who trains Davis along with Calvin Ford.
Ford’s own reformation story — from street enforcer who spent 10 years in federal prison to a positive influence at Upton — inspired the character of Dennis “Cutty” Wise on the acclaimed HBO series “The Wire.” He said he still pictures an 8-year-old Davis standing at his hip and vying for attention in a squeaky voice.
“The love I was getting from the gym, I wasn’t getting at home,” Davis said. “That actually glued me to the gym. . . . It made me always work harder and want to come back.”
As much as his prodigious physical talents, Davis draws praise from his coaches for his vision — not just the spatial awareness he uses on the canvas, but the foresight to stay focused on the fight game. Ford said Davis has taken note of the tragedy surrounding him and adjusted his life accordingly, but the coach also said the champion’s magnetism helped him avoid a life of crime.
“[He] used to try to be a hustler. He tried it. That’s a typical kid that’s from the city. He failed that,” Ford said of Davis, who dropped out of Digital Harbor High before obtaining his GED. “I said, ‘Yo, you always get in trouble every time you do something bad. . . . You stand out. It’s not meant for you to do bad stuff.’ This is his calling. Every time he indulged with certain other things, he got in trouble. I always had to be there to get him out of trouble, but again, this was his calling. Once he realized it, he stuck with it.”
And whether it’s Davis’s image on TV or on a billboard over Baltimore, Davis said he wants his story to inspire the city’s youth. He could have moved to Los Angeles or Las Vegas by now. But he wants to show the kids in his neighborhood that West Baltimore contains greatness.
“I want to build a legacy,” Davis said. “I want to make sure my team is okay that’s around me. I want to be a stand-up guy, a smart guy, a business guy. I always have that in my mind. That’s what I always want to do.
“Just giving them hope. That’s what I want to do for the city.”
Now, as a young champion with surging popularity, Davis is surrounded by different company.
This month, he had a morning appointment for a promotional photo shoot at Under Armour headquarters in Baltimore. As company employees hovered, Davis’s friends talked about the boxer’s recent trip to Houston, during which Davis posted an Instagram video of himself on a late-night jog with the rapper Drake.
After the shoot, Davis retired to a black luxury van provided by Under Armour and disappeared behind tinted windows as a chauffeur pointed the vehicle toward the boxing gym.
After his workout, Davis asked a friend to bring him a snowball — shaved ice and syrup — sold from behind the counter of a record store a couple of blocks away. Weeks before fighting in front of the world, clad head-to-toe in clothes he was being paid to wear, the champion enjoyed his $1 treat, savoring the sweet taste of his neighborhood from the white leather seats of his rented car.
More on Mayweather-McGregor: