Gervonta Davis looks to grab lightweight title in Atlanta

Two-time junior lightweight world titlist Gervonta “Tank” Davis is the cornerstone of Showtime’s boxing franchise — a super-aggressive crowd-pleaser with fast hands and explosive power in the mold of a young Mike Tyson, only about 90 pounds lighter.

At 25, Davis is probably not yet in his prime. But his move up to lightweight, which begins on Saturday (Showtime, 9 p.m. ET) against former unified featherweight tilist Yuriorkis Gamboa with a vacant secondary 135-pound world title on the line at State Farm Arena in Atlanta, is a key moment in Davis’ progression.

“Top young star in the sport, Gervonta ‘Tank’ Davis,” said Showtime Sports president Stephen Espinoza, at the final prefight news conference on Thursday. “You know, I’ve got to correct myself. It’s time to quit calling Gervonta a young star or a rising star or a future star. What he has demonstrated this year is that he is a bona fide star. He is a box office draw.

“That is without question when you go into three cities — Los Angeles, Baltimore and Atlanta — you sell tickets and bring people out. You’re a bona fide attraction. We’re not talking about the future. We’re talking about the present.”

Indeed, Davis drew a raucous crowd to the Dignity Health Sports Park in Carson, California, in February for what turned out to be a devastating, first-round knockout of former world titlist Hugo Ruiz, a late replacement for the injured Abner Mares. Even though Mares was the local attraction for that fight, few returned their tickets when Mares dropped out.

Then, on July 27, Baltimore’s Davis had a homecoming defense against Ricardo Nunez, whom he destroyed in two rounds before a sold-out crowd. That crowd also witnessed Gamboa — also an excellent puncher and who previously sparred with Davis — knock out former junior lightweight titlist Roman “Rocky” Martinez in the second round of the co-feature to set up Saturday’s showdown.

Davis (22-0, 21 KOs), a southpaw, is the driving force for why another big crowd is expected Saturday night for the first world title fight in Atlanta in 21 years. The last one happened on Sept. 19, 1998, when hometown favorite Evander Holyfield defended his unified heavyweight title against Vaughn Bean in the main event of a card that included two world title bouts.

Saturday’s card also features a pair of world title bouts, as Jean Pascal (34-6-1, 20 KOs) will defend his secondary light heavyweight title for the first time against former two-division titlist Badou Jack (22-2-3, 13 KOs) in the co-feature.

Davis seems to be on his way to becoming one of boxing’s next major stars and pay-per-view attractions. But he knows he must avoid the pitfalls that have already threatened to derail his career.

Davis has had well-documented run-ins with the law over the years, including an arrest for misdemeanor assault following an incident with a man at a Northern Virginia shopping mall earlier this year (which was eventually dropped) and a 2018 arrest for disorderly conduct stemming from an alleged street fight outside a Washington, D.C., bar at 2:30 a.m.

Davis also missed weight by two pounds for a 130-pound-title defense in 2017 that cost him his first belt, and he has had issues with promoter Mayweather Promotions.

But the legal issues, the weight problem and the promoter issues all seem to have been worked out. And Davis, at least outwardly, appears to be in a good place as he gets set to fight for the third time this year when he meets Gamboa, who is easily the biggest name Davis has faced to date.

“There was one point in time that I wasn’t fighting, and I was frustrated and I was getting in trouble,” Davis said. “As you see now, I’ve been more active and I’ve been out of trouble. I’ve been in the gym, I’ve been training and I’ve been getting the Ws. I think that played a factor in me staying out of trouble outside the ring, staying focused on what’s in front of me, and that’s my boxing career.”

Davis spends far less time in Baltimore, and now spends about half his time living in Atlanta — a city he says has “shown him love.” He can also spend more time with his 1-year-old daughter, Gervanni, who lives in Atlanta with her mother. Gervanni spent the duration of Davis’ interview with ESPN at Gervonta’s side, intermittently laughing.

Davis said he is doing his best to stay out of trouble for the sake of his daughter and his career. To assist in that pursuit, he said he has brought back a security detail that shadows him when he is in public.

“I have my security back with me to just protect myself from the outsiders, who might wake up on the wrong side of the bed one day and feel like they want to do something and things like that,” Davis said. “So the security is to protect me from them and also to protect them from me so we can walk a straight path and do great things. I know I have a big future in front of me, so that’s my main focus. So when I’m outside of the ring, I try to carry myself as a professional athlete, not just anybody.”

If Davis can stay out of trouble, Espinoza believes he can become a huge star. He pointed to Davis’ year and the volume of tickets he sold as a headliner in 2019 as proof.

“We expect a sellout or something very close on [Saturday], which will mean that over three different cities on three different dates and three fights this year, Gervonta will have sold well over 30,000 tickets, including over 8,000 in Carson, California against a last-minute opponent,” Espinoza said. “At Royal Farms in Baltimore, a sellout crowd of nearly 15,000, and State Farm Arena in Atlanta, ticket sales are going very, very well. With well over 30,000 seats sold among three fights in 2019, that puts Gervonta at the top of the list, along with Errol Spence and Anthony Joshua, in terms of the boxers who have sold the most tickets across events in 2019.

“So when we described Gervonta as one of the young stars in boxing, this is not just hyperbole. There’s no young fighter doing what Gervonta is doing right now. He re-launched the Baltimore market. We’re using him to re-launch the Atlanta market, and it says a lot about his drawing power.”

Mayweather Promotions CEO Leonard Ellerbe said Davis is especially popular among African-American fans, which is one of the reasons he brought the fight with Miami-based Cuban defector Gamboa (30-2, 18 KOs), a 2004 Olympic gold medalist who turned 38 on Monday, to Atlanta.

A win on Saturday would likely move Davis to the next stage of his career. There are plans to have him make his debut as a pay-per-view headliner in 2020, possibly against junior lightweight titlist Leo Santa Cruz for a fight for which Davis said he is willing to return to 130 pounds.

“If he can get past Gamboa, then in 2020, he’s going into that pay-per-view world,” said Ellerbe, who worked closely with Espinoza on many of Mayweather’s pay-per-views. “When you have that kind of star power and you’re thinking outside of the box, we’re going to make the biggest fights out there in the world [for Davis].”

Davis is happy to let his team handle that aspect of his career while he will handle his part in the ring and try to stay on the right path outside of it.

“I want to make sure I put on a great performance [against Gamboa] so it can show the people that I’m one of the top guys in the sport.” Davis said. “I’m definitely happy with my team getting three fights this year. Hopefully, I can fight three times next year. I’m young. I’m only 25 years old, and the sky’s the limit for me. I’m happy with my career as of right now. Hopefully, we get better and better in 2020. Saturday is just a step closer to where I want to be in the sport of boxing.”