They call him the Tank.
On Saturday night in Atlanta, Gervonta Davis won a version of a world title at a third weight when he finally broke Mario Barrios in round 11.
The win was impressive, but it comes at a time when skipping across weight divisions, comforted by skilled matchmaking and picking up available baubles has been so seriously undermined that it borders on an irrelevancy.
In 2017 he was the future of the sport, winning fights with ease, playing protégé to Floyd Mayweather’s opulent mentor and looking destructive in the ring.
They call him Tank, he is still unbeaten, he might still be the future of the sport and Mayweather is still pulling and pushing his moves, but it has been a slow journey for the kid from the streets of Baltimore. A kid with a lot of damage in his short, short life.
Barrios was unbeaten in 26, 17 had finished early, and he towered over Davis, who is short; Barrios was in front and in round eight, with Mayweather screaming from ringside, Davis changed the fight with two knockdowns. Davis was five or six inches shorter, a naturally lighter man by about 10 pounds; Davis dropped Barrios again in round 11, body shots that time, and that was it.
Make no mistake, it was a great win, a win that gives Davis the WBA regular belt at light-welterweight, a division also called super-lightweight. It is the same division that Josh Taylor unified a few weeks ago to become the undisputed king. The WBA invent their rules as they go along and the WBC make belts for any and every boxing occasion; it is mayhem, a sad state of affairs.
Davis is the product of chaos, a child survivor of a life on the streets of Baltimore, a life of being packed between grandparents, uncles, sofas and homes. A life watching in misery the police or the ambulance service take away your mum, your dad, your friends. He did survive and that is because, from the age of six, he was in the care of a boxing gym and a man called Calvin Ford. There was still a lot of blood and death and very little hope.
If it sounds like the outline of a bleak television show, that is because it was. Ford inspired the character, Dennis “Cutty” Wilson, the reformed felon, former hitman and boxing coach in The Wire.
Ford served 10 years for being part of the city’s leading and most violent drug gang. Ford is still there in the gym, still at the side of the wide-eyed kid he has trained for two decades. That’s a story in the too-much for Hollywood file.
“I never looked back,” said Ford. “Boxing saved my soul.” It is no wonder that the producers of The Wire fell in love with him and his gym and the boys and men he tried to save. And Davis has the same type of glorious lines: “I was always fighting, every day from when I was a small boy.” Davis had a cameo in The Wire cancelled on the day when he had to attend school.
Ford worked his magic as the city outside imploded. There is a reason why The Wire was brilliant, deep and nasty. Sadly, too many of Ford’s boys and men have died. Tank was lucky, make no mistake.
The name Tank replaced Shorty, a sensible move for a kid with a short fuse. Ford can still call him Shorty. He turned professional in 2013, won his first world title in 2017, his next in 2019 and then Barrios was taken care of on Saturday night. That’s three versions of a world title at three different weights, no defeats, 25 wins and 24 pulled off in quick time. Also, and this only adds to the crazy fortunes of modern boxing, he now holds WBA belts at super-feather, lightweight and light-welter, The WBA has a minimum of three world champions at each weight, perhaps more. The WBC likes to have three or four. That’s just crazy.
However, there is a good argument that Tank should be boxing’s number-one attraction: At 26, he is not, it’s not even close.
Davis has been stripped of a title at the scales and there have been problems with the police after a series of altercations. The negatives are real, they add up.
There remains a mixed sense of dread and anticipation with Davis; will he succumb to the demons chasing him from a life he left behind? A few years ago, after he had won a world title, he was mentoring a local kid in Baltimore and the plan was for a defence of his world title in Baltimore, with the kid on the undercard; the boy, Montell “Telly” Pridgett, was shot and killed. Tank took it bad. This is not the same type of relationship with a bad history that Mike Tyson had; this is a very direct and bloody and instant link with the place that damaged you. Tyson was screwed from the inside, but protected from the physical side – Tank has thinner walls between his riches and the streets.
Ford went to prison with a man called Reggie Gross. Gross was a hitman for the same drug gang that Ford worked for, and a prolific one. Gross had lost a fight to Tyson before he was charged and lost a fight to Frank Bruno after he was charged. Gross is still in prison, a reminder that being a professional boxer does not give you immunity from a bad ending. These were day-to-day horror stories in the life of Davis – he is, in many ways, a marvel.
Gervonta Tank Davis is still waiting to be the star he should be and there is no guarantee when that glorious procession will be.