His power is preposterous. His record is perfect. His popularity is unquestioned. His co-signs are impressive.
Forgive me for sounding like Don King, but I did it to illustrate why Gervonta Davis is one of the brightest stars in boxing. The 27-year-old knockout artist, whose fists masquerade as bricks in the ring, and whose mentor is none other than Floyd Mayweather Jr., has ascended the sport’s ladder to the point where he could slide into the pound-for-pound rankings in short order.
But with Davis set to return to action this weekend on a stage normally reserved for boxing’s biggest and most accomplished stars, a question arises: Is he worthy of headlining a Pay-per-view?
In a sport famous for giving its fans so much less than they deserve, it’s worth asking, since this will mark the third straight PPV fight for Davis—a southpaw out of Baltimore nicknamed Tank who boasts a 25-0 record and sensational power, as evidenced by the 24 KOs on his résumé. This time around, he faces Isaac Cruz in a showdown for Davis’ secondary WBA lightweight championship belt (Sunday, 8 p.m. EST, Showtime PPV). It will also mark the third straight Davis PPV that will make many casual boxing fans hesitate, or even groan, at the idea of forking over extra money ($74.99 in this case) to see him.
Why buy a Davis PPV when only once has he fought for a major world title on the medium and few fans care about the undercard? All three of his PPV opponents, including Cruz, are only familiar to hardcore fans. And in terms of résumés, other boxers are arguably just as, or perhaps more, deserving of such a prestigious showcase, compared to Davis. While he’s billed as a three-division champion, he’s only held one major belt in his career and his best win arguably came against Jose Pedraza in 2017. He’s controversial outside the ring, considering he’s had run-ins with the law. Plus boxing fans already had to purchase a PPV to see superstars—Canelo Alvarez, Terence Crawford, and Tyson Fury—fight in highly consequential and historical matches this fall. The pockets of the public only run so deep.
But for as many holes as one can poke in Davis’ PPV bona fides without a household name on his hit list, there are just as many reasons he’s deserving of his headlining status.
“A Tank Davis fight is sort of the filet mignon of the sport,” says Stephen Espinoza, president, sports and event programming at Showtime. “If you want filet mignon, you pay filet mignon prices.”
From the perspective of the people behind the scenes, putting Davis on PPV is necessary, such is his popularity. His fights regularly pack the house, whether it’s in Atlanta, his hometown, or Los Angeles. And with 3.1 million followers on Instagram, Mayweather’s support, plenty of famous fans (like Bradley Beal and other notables who sit ringside for his fights), and sensational knockouts that often go viral, it doesn’t take a genius to realize Davis has major marketability. Every casual boxing fan knows him and even those who don’t pay attention to the sport probably saw his spectacular KO of Leo Santa Cruz last year.
As much as Showtime would love to showcase Davis—who fights under Mayweather Promotions, which is affiliated with Premier Boxing Champions, the Al Haymon-led company that has maintained a partnership with Showtime for years—on premium cable or one of the major networks like CBS, they say it can’t be done.
“The reality is the financial requirements in order to make those fights necessitate Pay-per-view,” says Espinoza. “You have to remember that at 250,000 buys, that’s well over between $15 [million] and $20 million gross. That’s not something that can be provided in the current market with advertising dollars or what anyone’s paying in terms of licensing fees.”
Stars cost money, and Davis reportedly earned around $5 million—$1 million purse, plus an additional $4 million from his share of PPV buys—for his last fight against Mario Barrios this past June. You don’t see paydays like that fighting on cable. After Davis moved up to 140 pounds for the first time to take care of Barrios, Mayweather declared that he would only seek bouts for Davis with other PBC fighters.
That means, much to the chagrin of fans, the prospects of a super showdown with one of the best lightweights—like Devin Haney or Ryan Garcia—remain slim. Espinoza thinks Mayweather didn’t fully articulate the reasons behind that declaration—mainly the fact that promotional and network exclusivity of fighters dictate practically every matchup in the sport. Haney and Garcia are both associated with different promoters and a different network than Davis. Boxing fans are constantly left frustrated by the politics of the sport preventing the best matchups from being made. Is Tank?
“It’s just business. I don’t get frustrated with that,” he says. “This is the boxing world. I just think people should be more patient. It’s not just me. It’s other fighters, too. It’s not even the fighters. It’s the people—promoters, management that have big egos that don’t want to work with each other.”
One silver lining is the surprise upset of Teófimo López last weekend by George Kambosos Jr. The new unified lightweight champion from Australia can fight whomever he wants next. “Complete free agent,” Lou DiBella, president of DiBella Entertainment and Kambosos’ promoter, tells Complex Sports via text. Espinoza thinks the upset could potentially knock loose the logjam he says has been preventing Davis from getting a crack at one of the big names at lightweight. Would Tank take on Kambosos? “I’m all for it,” he says.
But Davis also isn’t pressing the issue to make a big fight happen next. Neither is Showtime nor Mayweather Promotions, since Espizona will tell you “establishing a mainstream boxing star is a long and slow process.” The patience of boxing fans will continue to be tested.
“When the time is right, it’s going to happen,” says Davis. “I don’t know if it’s going to be now or later. I mean, we waited for Manny and Floyd.”
But 2015’s mega-match between Manny Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather happened five years after it should have. It often gets late early in a boxer’s career. Nobody wants to wait any longer for the best fighters at 135 pounds to meet before they scatter to different divisions or fade away, since the shelf life of smaller guys tends to be shorter than the sport’s bigger brutes. Davis is pleading for patience and for boxing observers to stop anointing champions as the guy at lightweight who has to fight everybody else immediately.
“It’s top guys that you say is a top guy is not really a top guy,” says Davis when asked about the prospects of fighting Haney, Garcia, Lopez, or Kambosos in the future. “You gotta give guys some time to be at the top for a little minute just to say, ‘Oh, this guy’s gotta fight this guy.’”
Tank taking on any of them would make for one of the most hyped bouts of 2022. But for now, you’ll have to settle for his showdown with Cruz. The 23-year-old Mexican is actually a late replacement for Rolando Romero, who was pulled from a showdown with Davis after sexual assault allegations emerged in October. If we’re being honest, Davis-Cruz is a very good matchup despite Cruz (22-1-1, 15 KOs), known for constantly coming forward, having zero name recognition amongst casual fans.
“Cruz is a tough fighter. When this fight was first made, I didn’t know much about Cruz,” Mayweather said Thursday at a press conference. “But when I did my homework, I saw that I’ve faced guys like him before. You can’t overlook any opponent, but especially one like Cruz.”
Adding to his PPV appeal is Davis’ flair for showmanship. While he doesn’t have the most vivacious personality—he’s actually one of the more reserved and soft-spoken boxers you’ll meet—he’s taken a page out of Mayweather’s book and made his ring walk a spectacle. He’s had a Michael Jackson “Thriller”-themed entrance, and twice Davis has tapped Lil Baby to rhyme as he strutted to the ring. So what does he have in store for Sunday?
“I got something planned. I just can’t say,” says Davis sheepishly. “He’s at the top of the food chain right now.”
Well, that could be anybody. Even though Davis changed his phone number and cut off contact with a lot of people this year to demonstrate a new level of maturity—he says there are only about five individuals he personally knows who can reach him on his new number—if he wanted to stunt with a name even bigger than Lil Baby, he could.
Four years ago, a video of Drake doing roadwork with Davis made the social media rounds, and their admiration remains mutual. Informed that Drake’s supposed to be in Los Angeles for the Free Larry Hoover Benefit Concert at the Memorial Coliseum (hosted by Ye) later next week, Davis was clueless. But his curiosity was piqued.
“We probably gotta call Drake,” says Davis.
Talent always recognizes talent.