Can Gervonta Davis make the leap forward against Leo Santa Cruz?


Gervonta “Tank” Davis packed up his things, left his home in Baltimore and traveled west to prepare for the biggest fight of his young career. For three months, the rising lightweight has been stationed in Las Vegas, under the direction of his mentor and promoter, Floyd Mayweather.

Ever since Davis appeared on the undercard of Mayweather’s 2017 bout with UFC star Conor McGregor in a glorified “boxing” match, it was clear Davis was being positioned as the one to pick up where Mayweather left off. Davis is a former Golden Gloves national champion who won his first major pro belt when he was 22.

Davis, now 25, looks to take another major step forward on Saturday, as he headlines his first pay-per-view card at the Alamodome in San Antonio. He’ll be in the ring against Leo Santa Cruz, 32, in American boxing’s first major fight with fans in attendance since the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak. The stakes for Davis have never been higher.

This fight will gauge Davis’ stock against other rising stars in the sport, including Teofimo Lopez Jr., who made a statement earlier this month with his victory over Vasiliy Lomachenko. That win earned Lopez three of the four major lightweight belts, along with the WBC “franchise” belt. And by doing so, Lopez clearly pulled ahead of other promising young lightweight fighters including Davis, Devin Haney and Ryan Garcia. Lopez’s win established him as one of the sport’s top attractions.

The long-term implications of this bout are clear: If Davis (23-0, 22 KOs) wants to keep pace with Lopez, 23, a New York native, he’ll need a strong showing against arguably the toughest opponent of his career in Santa Cruz (37-1-1, 19 KOs). By Davis’ estimation, that’s exactly what he intends to do in his PPV-headlining debut.

“You got a lot of pressure on you,” Davis said during the prefight news conference on Oct. 6.

While Davis’ profile continues to steadily grow, the in-fight results have been lacking.

In December 2019, Davis went up against Yuriorkis Gamboa, a 2004 Olympic gold medalist who is in the twilight of his career. Gamboa ruptured his right Achilles tendon in the second round, but Davis failed to put Gamboa away until the 12th round, when Davis landed his third knockdown and earned an eventual stoppage. On top of that, Davis needed a second attempt during weigh-ins in order to retain his title.

Davis’ struggles with making weight have been well-documented. On at least three different occasions, Davis has needed multiple attempts to reach the contracted limit for a bout, including the Gamboa fight. In 2017, Davis was stripped of the IBF’s junior lightweight title for missing weight.

When the fight between Davis and Santa Cruz was announced, the WBA said it would be for both Santa Cruz’s 130-pound belt and Davis’ 135-pound “regular” title — unusual circumstances by any measure. Many wondered if that setup was a built-in backup plan because of Davis’ weight-cutting problem, but Davis confidently said he’ll be under the 130-pound limit and that he isn’t worried about the issue.

“I’m already at weight, as you can see,” Davis said. “I’m not big. I’ve just been working hard. Our camp is not worrying about weight.”

And that’s a good sign considering where the boxer is in his career.

When Lopez upset Lomachenko to become the primary champion at 135 pounds, he set the tone for years to come. It showed other young fighters such as Davis what it will take to not only become one of the sport’s best but also what is required to take down Lopez one day.

Lopez, like Davis, is known for his power. But Lopez boxed his way around the skilled Lomachenko to win the unanimous decision. The narrative surrounding Davis is similar to the one that enveloped Lopez before his recent victory.

“A lot of people don’t know Tank’s boxing skills is better than his power,” Mayweather said. “He just didn’t have to use his boxing skills. But Tank can really, really box his ass off.”

Davis will need everything in his bag to topple Santa Cruz, a Mexican boxer who has victories over Abner Mares and Carl Frampton under his belt. And when it came to make this fight, Santa Cruz was the one clamoring for the young champion.

“I think nobody wants to fight him,” Santa Cruz said. “I chose to fight him. I picked him.”

With Lopez raising the bar in his victory over Lomachenko, Davis needs the type of performance against Santa Cruz that will show he is a worthy foe for Lopez and the other young lightweights.

With a budding star such as Davis, who is the fighting pride of Mayweather Promotions and arguably the future of Al Haymon’s Premier Boxing Champions, it’s important for the promotion to put Davis in the right fights to build his stock. But it’s also up to Davis to not derail everyone’s plans for him.

Weight issues haven’t been his only problem. Davis also has made headlines for altercations outside of the ring, including as recently as earlier this year. In February, Davis was charged with simple battery and domestic violence after an incident at a celebrity basketball game in Miami.

For better or worse, boxing is a sport that is willing to ignore a multitude of sins if someone can excel in the ring. In Davis’ case, the problems haven’t spoiled his ring stock. But he still needs a signature, high-profile victory to maintain his career trajectory.

Otherwise, the question about Davis’ true potential will continue to linger despite the following he continues to build. And after months of being forged in the Mojave Desert, he is ready for that challenge.

“Forget whatever’s behind me,” Davis said. “I’m just so focused on what’s in front of me.”

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