Why you should care
Because “mini Mike Tyson” doesn’t just look the part.
Like a lion toying with its wounded prey, Gervonta “Tank” Davis knows when to finish a wobbly Liam Walsh. A furious combination — left hook, right uppercut — yanks the Englishman off the ropes, sending him staggering toward the middle of the ring.
An overhand left — more John Henry sledgehammer than jab, leaves the previously undefeated contender crumpled on the mat in London’s Copper Box Arena. Three seconds later, when the referee stops the fight, one question hangs in the air: Has boxing’s next knockout king arrived?
Davis, 22, burst on the mainstream boxing scene with a January 2017 knockout of Jose Pedraza, then the International Boxing Federation junior lightweight champ. Davis (18-0, 17 KOs) followed the impressive title debut with the third-round KO of Walsh. Now, IBF belt in hand, the 5-foot-6, 130-pound Davis is being mentioned in the same breath as some of boxing’s best. His muscle-bound build and crippling power conjure another nickname too — “mini Mike Tyson.” Like Tyson in the 1980s, Davis can captivate an American boxing public starved for a slick knockout artist. Davis’ boss — retired legend Floyd Mayweather Jr. — has promised not to rush his protégé on the road to title unification, but every brutal knockout vaults Tank further toward high-profile clashes and life-altering spoils.
If he lands a clean shot, he already knows where the next punches are going.
Kay Koroma, trainer
“Tank was relentless,” says Kay Koroma, trainer at Alexandria Boxing Club in Virginia and Team USA, remembering his first run-in with a 10-year-old Davis. “He didn’t care who was in front of him, he was going to fight.”
Davis’ humble beginnings parallel that of many in the sport. In West Baltimore, evading violence and drugs was a daily challenge. But as Richardson Hitchins, Davis’ teammate at Mayweather Promotions, puts it, the hurdles Davis has overcome provide the young champ with perspective. “Most people don’t really know true struggle,” Hitchins says. “But you can tell by the way Tank speaks, he comes from nothing.”
Where Davis comes from, precisely, is Baltimore’s Sandtown-Winchester community, made famous by HBO’s The Wire, and then infamous by the death of Freddie Gray. After being taken from his drug-abusing parents around the age of 4, Davis shuffled between foster care and relatives’ homes. At 7, he walked into Upton Boxing Center, the legendary dive where Calvin Ford — inspiration for The Wire’s Dennis “Cutty” Wise — spends countless hours training Baltimore’s youth, and never looked back. “[Davis and Ford] have great chemistry,” Koroma tells OZY. “Coach Ford already had a bunch of older fighters, so he coached Tank at a faster pace than other kids.”
Ford’s coaching and Davis’ tenacity paid off in hundreds of amateur wins, two USA Boxing Junior Olympic titles, one National Golden Gloves gold medal and one frustration: In 2012, Davis fell months shy of the 18-year-old cutoff for Olympic boxing athletes. With a record of 206-15 and little interest in waiting for the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Games, Davis turned pro in 2013. Little did he know that in two short years, his idol would take a personal interest in his career.
In 2015, Davis boasted a 10-0 ledger, but he was still relatively unknown. Although his bruising fight style is far different from the defense-first tactics that made Mayweather an undefeated, five-division champion, the man called “Money” recognized a talent he could guide to stardom. Mayweather signed Davis to Mayweather Promotions and began his tutelage. Today, those lessons are trickling down the ranks. “Gervonta has taught the younger guys like me a lot,” says Hitchins, 19. “How to prepare and understanding the business side of boxing, he learned that all from Floyd.”
Even in his two most recent bouts, when some wondered if his potential could outlast larger, more experienced fighters, Davis flashed a ring presence his opponents clearly lack — there’s no shortage of confidence on Team Mayweather. But as his career progresses, Davis will need to prove he can win on more than strength. Those who know him believe that won’t be a problem. “[Davis] has a lot of tricks up his sleeve,” says Koroma. “People underestimate him, but when they step in the ring, they see he has good foot movement, good defense.” Plus, Davis’ power is complemented by terrific anticipation. “If he lands a clean shot,” Koroma says, “he already knows where the next punches are going.”
Still, there are no guarantees in the fickle world of boxing. Davis’ swift ascent to becoming the youngest active world champion has been dazzling, but one bad loss could trigger a steep plummet. As ESPN boxing analyst and International Boxing Hall of Famer Nigel Collins notes, caution must be paid when assessing a fighter in his early stage. “Davis appears to have a very bright future, but I try not to jump to conclusions,” Collins says. “I’ve seen way too many [boxers] fall apart when the competition gets tougher.”
It’s a funny concept, this idea that a fighter could be champion without facing world-class competition, but such is the wacky world of boxing. The greatest champions are those who “unify” titles — simultaneously controlling belts from multiple major boxing federations. Currently, Davis is the IBF champion at 130 pounds, but the World Boxing Organization, World Boxing Council and World Boxing Association titles are held by other fighters. The target on Davis’ back grows with each KO notched. Top-ranked WBO champion Vasyl Lomachenko will surely request a unification, but, as Mayweather told reporters after his protégé’s title defense in London, Davis’ long-term success is his chief concern. “This kid is still young, so we’re going to take our time,” said Mayweather.
For now, it looks like Tank is picking up steam.