Gervonta Davis will be the last to make the long, slow walk to the ring on Saturday at the Alamodome in San Antonio, Texas, the normal position for the show’s biggest star.
He’ll face veteran Leo Santa Cruz for both the WBA super featherweight world championship and the WBA lightweight championship. It’s a rare feat in boxing to fight for titles in different divisions on the same night, last accomplished by the great Sugar Ray Leonard when he defeated Donnie Lalonde in 1988 for the WBC super middleweight and WBC light heavyweight titles.
Allowing Davis to collect two belts is also a nod toward stardom. His promoter, Floyd Mayweather Jr., is so certain he’s going to be a star that he’s jumped in the ring and helped train him, alongside chief trainer Calvin Ford.
He’s an undefeated knockout artist who takes on Santa Cruz in the biggest fight of his life with a 23-0 record and 22 knockouts.
Davis also is a legitimate ticket seller, putting fans into seats most places he goes.
On fight night, he’ll be a week shy of 26 and in a division loaded with attractive matches to make.
Yet, it’s also fair to question whether Davis will be able to make that step that so few make and become a star. Mayweather Promotions CEO Leonard Ellerbe, who has repeatedly insisted the lightweight division goes through Davis, was cautious when discussing the card’s prospects for robust pay-per-view sales on Saturday.
He did his best to temper expectations.
“We don’t have any expectations,” Ellerbe told Yahoo Sports. “We expect to do very good, but this is his first pay-per-view fight. We understand the conditions we’re in and we’ve had a good promotion. We’re excited for this weekend.”
Knockout punchers tend to catch the eye of the general public, particularly if they do it against high-profile opponents. Mike Tyson proved that years ago, when he was an unknown heavyweight blowing through everyone put in front of him in a round or two.
Davis has benefitted from his connection with Mayweather, who introduced him to the hip-hop audience that gave him a powerful base as he was turning into a bigger attraction. Davis is popular among rappers and musicians who tweet about him and talk about him, helping him sell tickets.
There is little more valuable to a boxing promoter than a fighter who puts people in the seats, and Davis has done that thus far.
“That’s one aspect of it,” Ellerbe said of Davis’ appeal in the hip-hop world. “Floyd has done a tremendous job putting him out there and giving him the stamp. But just like with anything, it’s a process.”
This will be his first fight since stopping Yuriorkis Gamboa on Dec. 28 in Atlanta. A little more than a month after that win, Davis was caught on video grabbing the mother of one of his children by the neck at a celebrity basketball game and dragging her out of the arena.
He appeared on a podcast with Brian Custer and addressed the incident. He told Custer he sought anger management treatment, but denied he’d hit her.
“It wasn't because I have to, it was more so because of the situation in the future, knowing how to deal with stuff in the future,” he said.
He should be commended for seeking help, but it was an unsettling and disturbing video that was viewed by millions. He has to hope people forget the video or won’t care about it enough to skip his fights.
But even beyond that, there are issues which makes one question how big Davis can become. Nearly every major star in the sport’s history — guys like Leonard, Mayweather, Tyson, Oscar De La Hoya and Muhammad Ali — used the media to their advantage.
Davis has a great back story and overcame a rugged childhood to become a world champion. He went through a number of foster homes and lived in desperate circumstances much of his life.
But he’s not the type of guy like his promoter who can generate media coverage on his own. He’s a quiet, reserved person much more content keeping his earbuds in listening to music than he is promoting himself in the media.
It’s not a lot of fun, because you answer the same questions repeatedly and more than a few off-the-wall questions, but it’s the only way to build name recognition.
Davis is going to do his best to let his fists do the talking. In facing Santa Cruz, he’s taking on the toughest challenge of his career. Santa Cruz has won titles in four weight divisions and, at 32, is still fighting at a high level.
“Fighting for both titles is great and it’s to my advantage, because I can maintain that [lightweight belt], too. I’m definitely excited for that and I’m definitely ready.”
Davis insisted he’s a natural 130-pounder, brushing off a notion that he’ll have a significant size advantage over Santa Cruz, who has fought one fight above featherweight in his illustrious career.
The power, though, is real and Ellerbe said it is one of the selling points of the fight. Santa Cruz’s father has been extremely ill and he’s vowed to win the fight for him. But to do it, he’ll have to show he can deal with Davis’ thudding punches.
“Tank is a violent puncher,” Ellerbe said. “Violent. Leo Santa Cruz knows that. That’s one of the challenges that he wants to prove to his fans, that he’s able to take on the big, strong guy and get the victory. Come Saturday night, we’re going to find out if Leo is going to be able to handle Tank’s power.
“He’s going to get hit. He’s going to get hit in the fight. A lot of those questions will be answered. But there is no questioning Tank’s power. You either have it or you don’t, and believe me, he does.”
Time will tell if it’s enough to push him into the boxing stratosphere, and it’s not going to be easy. But that power is the thing he has going for him as he attempts to become a star.
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