It’s near dusk on a weekday in late summer, and at 1901 Pennsylvania Avenue in West Baltimore that means work is about to begin. Dozens of kids and a few adults, too, will soon arrive at the Upton Boxing Center to train, spar, and take in the advice that coach Calvin Ford and a partially volunteer staff dish out nightly at this city-funded recreation facility.
“You ain’t nobody until you beat somebody,” Ford says while preparing stations, drills, and matchups for the next few hours. Sage words float around this place, much like the pops from leather gloves smacking training mitts, the beats of 92Q on the radio, and the late afternoon light piercing through a run of high windows in the converted basketball gym.
There are tires to flip. Boxes to leap. Ropes to pull weight. The boxing ring in the center of it all represents a sport, yes, but in the bigger picture, also a refuge from the realities of what’s outside.
With a Bluetooth in his right ear and a black T-shirt tucked into a pair of workout pants, Ford is the 52-year-old real life inspiration behind the character Cutty from The Wire, a former drug dealer turned neighborhood do-gooder, who speaks softly.
“I call it the gym struggle,” Ford says. “You have some success stories and you have some bad stories. We’re doing all right. If you come in here and work hard, something good can really happen.”
“I’ll be home soon,” Ford’s top protégé and Baltimore’s next potential world champion boxer, 22-year-old Gervonta “Tank” Davis, tells his coach over the phone. The 5-foot-6, 130-pound spark plug is ranked in the top 10 globally in his super featherweight class and has signed a deal with Las Vegas-based Mayweather Promotions.
Normally, Davis would already be here at the boxing center, blocks from where he grew up in the city’s blighted Sandtown neighborhood. Though his name, likeness, and accomplishments are ubiquitous on the Upton walls, Davis is out of town—and out of state—for safety reasons.
Following last summer’s murders of two of his peers in a two-week span—the popular local rapper Lor Scoota and his manager, Trayvon Lee—Davis decided to leave, “before it happened to me,” he says. Two springs ago, he shared the stage with Scoota, born Tyriece Watson, at several city high schools. Positioned as up-and-coming role models, they delivered a message of perseverance after the death of Freddie Gray. On June 25, Watson, 23, was gunned down in his car while leaving an anti-violence, charity basketball game at Morgan State University. Police called it targeted. Lee, 24, was shot and killed 11 days later.
“The people that I was brought up with are either dead or in jail,” Davis says.
As of press time, Davis remained away from his hometown, save a few days here and there. But he vowed to return for training, once his next fight was set.
“Every time you are doing something good,” says Davis’ close friend, 20-year-old top local fighter, Malik “Iceman” Hawkins, “the devil always finds a way to try to stop it.”
Such is the sentiment in the world they come from, one where children, especially boys, face the worst odds of escaping poverty of any major jurisdiction in America, according to a 2015 Harvard University study. The Sandtown neighborhood is where a third of families live in poverty and gang-related violence contributes to the backdrop of 263 citywide homicides as of early November. It’s where Davis bounced around—from his drug-addicted parents’ house to foster care—often sleeping on the floor and fighting in the street during the day, causing a pair of uncles to drag him to the Upton Boxing Gym when he was 8 years old.
“He’s had it rough, but in the ring is where he gets his life,” says his mother, Kenya Brown. “That’s where you see the most emotion and happiness. Gervonta turns into a different person. And his talent, you cannot play it down.”
After a decorated amateur career, with more than 200 wins, Davis is 16-0 as a pro, with 15 knockouts. He is quick, strong, and powerful—and given his small size, the nickname “Tank” befits him. He has only needed to go more than four rounds three times and has performed well in televised bouts on Spike and Showtime. In his most recent fight in June in Hollywood, Florida, Davis ended Mexico’s Mario Rorozco’s night with a right hook 41 seconds in.
“I think he is going to be a world champion,” says sports writer Gary “Digital” Williams, who has covered local boxing for 33 years. “He doesn’t look like he has a lot of power, but he does. He’s a good tactician, very patient, and has quick hands. What’s good about his career, he’s been challenged in certain bouts, and survived. The bright lights don’t seem to get to him.”