From seemingly the moment Gervonta “Tank” Davis arrived on the scene as a force to be reckoned with in boxing’s smaller divisions, the comparisons to Floyd Mayweather were inevitable.
It’s not as if Davis (23-0, 22 KOs), a southpaw from Baltimore with fight-ending punching power, resembles the defensive and precise Mayweather much as a fighter. But being labeled so early as the next big thing under the Mayweather Promotions banner certainly brought with it equal measures of recognition and pressure for Davis, who is rarely ever seen in public without Mayweather by his side and touting his greatness.
But Davis will get a chance to do something on Saturday — headline his first pay-per-view card — at a level much quicker than his mentor was able to do despite going on to break all of the sport’s records on the platform.
Davis will move down to 130 pounds yet still put his WBA regular lightweight title at stake when he faces WBA junior lightweight champion Leo Santa Cruz (37-1-1, 19 KOs) inside the Alamodome in San Antonio (Showtime PPV, 9 p.m. ET).
The way in which Mayweather and Davis have acquired universal acclaim within boxing has come in almost an inverted manner. Mayweather, who most recently retired in 2017 with a perfect 50-0 record, reached the top of the pound-for-pound rankings long before his commercial appeal caught up with him ahead of his PPV debut in 2005 when he manhandled future Hall of Famer Arturo Gatti at the age of 28.
Davis enters his first PPV headliner at just 25 still seeking that same critical respect, with the hope that Santa Cruz, who represents the most accomplished foe he has faced, can bring that for him should he win. Yet it’s the box-office draw side of things that has been anything but an issue.
Whether its packing arenas in different markets across the United States, drawing big ratings on cable for his fights or attracting big-name celebrities to populate the front row next to the ring, Davis is a hot commodity. He might be soft-spoken on camera but the exciting nature of his fights and his reputation as “the Mike Tyson of the lower weight classes” has spoken volumes about whether he was ready to make the leap commercially to the next level.
“At this stage in his career, he’s well ahead of Mayweather,” Showtime Sports president Stephen Espinoza told “Morning Kombat” last week. “I’m not sure this decision would have been made to go to pay-per-view had we not seen his 2019 results. To go to Los Angeles and have a near sellout, not withstanding the loss of his original opponent Abner Mares. Then, to go to Baltimore after a drought of title fights and reignite that community with 13,000 tickets sold and then to go to Atlanta, another long dormant market, and get 15,000 in that arena.
“There is not another fighter that I can think of — possibly Canelo [Alvarez] but I’m not positive — that can go to those three cities and do those kind of crowds. Tank has something. I’m not sure exactly what it is because it’s hard to put your finger on but he is very likable, very charismatic and what he needed was a dance partner that was his equal. I think he has that in Leo Santa Cruz.”
A four-division champion, the 32-year-old Santa Cruz has an exciting style of punches in bunches and he brings with him the Mexican-American fan base that serves as the sport’s backbone. Moving the fight from an empty Mohegan Sun Arena to the Alamodome, where a limited yet vocal crowd somewhere around 10,000 is expected as the global pandemic continues, should also help draw more interest to the fight.
Mayweather believes his fighter’s brand simply got too big over the past year not to take a flyer on PPV and said during the fight’s media teleconference earlier this month that the addition of Santa Cruz as an opponent made the event simply too big for cable television.
But it’s clear that Mayweather, better than anyone, understands what is at stake here for Davis on Saturday and he has offered seemingly every aspect of his wisdom and star value to help both Davis and the event as a whole prove successful in the hope that this is only the beginning for Davis’ PPV future.
“I don’t want to say Floyd has been more hands on [for this fight] because he has always been hands on in terms of telling me what to do inside the ring,” Davis said. “But he has been coaching me through it as far as being in my first pay-per-view. You have the crowd and you have a lot of pressure on you. You have to live up to fighting on pay-per-view because you want to continue fighting on pay-per-view and not just once.
“Just all around the board he has been coaching me and pushing me because he has been there before. There are stuff [only] he can tell me because he has been there that my coach [head trainer Calvin Ford] can’t.”
Along with starring alongside Davis on the Showtime prefight documentary series “All Access” to help hype the fight and being there as a life mentor, Mayweather has played a much more important role inside the gym as a liaison to Ford by trying to impart patience and craft into Davis’ fighting psyche instead of a reliance upon power.
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“I believe in Tank. I have believed in him ever since he was a young kid,” Mayweather said. “I still see that young kid and I told him, ‘Someday, you are going to be on pay-per-view and when it comes, it’s going to come real fast so be ready.'”
Mayweather believes the major difference between the success he had generating 340,000 PPV buys as a first-time headliner for the Gatti fight and what Davis is enjoying today is the advantage of social media. Because of that, he doesn’t believe there’s a limit to the potential buys that Davis-Santa Cruz can create (and even threw out an ambitious goal of anywhere from 1 million to 2 million as to where the fight could finish at).
But imparting wisdom on a younger fighter is one thing. Seeing him accept it and apply it in the same manner in which the disciplined Mayweather did throughout his career is another matter altogether.
Davis has had consistent trouble making weight ahead of his biggest fights. He has also been no stranger to the police blotter after multiple arrests for assault, including a video that leaked earlier this year showing Davis putting his hands on his ex-girlfriend in public at a charity basketball game.
“I’m always going to be hands on as far as talking to him about life lessons and what he can do to become better inside the ring and outside of it,” Mayweather said. “And I’ve been talking to him about not making the same kind of mistakes that I made outside of the ring. Fighters can be their own worst enemies. A lot of time I tell him that he is his. I’m always real with him because I care about him.”
Mayweather is also hoping that his legendary work ethic can be passed along to Davis, which is why he has preached how important it is for Davis to look at boxing as a lifestyle, which means staying in shape between fights.
“Health is your wealth,” Mayweather said. “I want him to be in the gym just maintaining the weight and being responsible as a young man. I also tell him the same thing that I did — smart investments. I told him to invest so he doesn’t end up like a lot of these other athletes and entertainers. That’s the best thing about my career. It’s not what I did inside the ring, it’s what I did outside the ring and I’m able to live the same life. I am always going to be on top of Tank to be the best he can be.”
Davis describes the wealth of knowledge he has inherited from Mayweather like secondhand smoke as a blessing from God and sees it as an edge he holds over other young fighters coming up. Davis, along with fellow lightweights Teofimo Lopez Jr., Devin Haney, Ryan Garcia and (eventually once he moves up) Shakur Stevenson, are looked at as the group of young fighters who have next and may be best equipped to carry the sport over the next decade.
Although many of Davis’ contemporaries have similar levels of skill, his relationship and access to Mayweather is something unique to himself and very valuable should he put it to great use. The relationship could also go a long way financially provided the eyes of the casual buying public are convinced that a transactional handoff has taken place from the biggest boxing PPV star of the previous era to the one poised to kickstart an era of his own should the numbers come back as expected and Davis defeats Santa Cruz.
“You can’t overstate the importance of Floyd,” Espinoza said. “There is an entire set of expectations and obligations that come along with being on pay-per-view. It’s not just the pressure, there are things that you actually have to do. Having the guidance of someone who has been on pay-per-view for the last half of his career and knowing what to expect, that is as much as anything of great value.
“And in the ring, Floyd sees things differently and brings a different perspective of speaking to him. This is something that we haven’t seen in Floyd before. He has been personally invested in his fighters and have seen them go to the championship level but we have never seen Floyd be as hands on and engaged as he is with Tank. This is the next step in Tank’s carer and the sky is the limit.”