“I would definitely be in jail or dead.”
Gervonta Davis’ assessment of what life without boxing would have offered is bleak. But then so were his beginnings.
Deep within his 5ft 6in frame the American carries memories of seeing parents take drugs, recollections of scrapping for food, thoughts of foster care, and anguish for the friends lost to Baltimore’s gang wars.
At 22 he has seen too much darkness. Yet on Saturday he will step out in London’s bright lights as a world champion, alongside arguably boxing’s most recognisable global face – a man who says Davis is “like my son”.
Floyd ‘Money’ Mayweather has banked on a talent he calls the “future of boxing”. But can Davis fully cut ties with a brutal past and run towards expectation where once there was hopelessness?
‘I can’t feel pain any more’
Englishman Liam Walsh – one of three professional-boxing brothers from Norfolk – provides IBF super-featherweight title defence number one for Davis at London’s Copper Box Arena.
It is a long way from Pennsylvania Avenue in west Baltimore, a city where there was almost a murder a day in the year before Davis was born and one where he was left exposed and vulnerable to gang culture.
Mayweather claims Davis and his two brothers lived in a single room as children, sometimes going days without food until authorities stepped in.
“I was taken from my mother and father aged four or five”, says Davis – nicknamed ‘Tank’ because of a perceived large head when he was little.
“Seeing my mother and father do drugs… I’ve been through a lot so there’s nothing the next person can do to hurt me.”
A dulling of pain and the hunger junior scars had left turned Davis into a formidable, if misguided, fighter. He displayed a vicious anger in school but when an uncle spotted him fighting on the streets, he took him to the gym to focus a destructive nature.
Trainer Calvin Ford – a man who took up boxing during 10 years in prison after being convicted on racketeering and conspiracy charges – began to channel the attributes worth saving. The character Cutty from acclaimed HBO drama The Wire was based on Ford. He says he and Davis “saved each other” and, while life at home saw the fighter move from foster care to a grandmother’s house, the gym led him to national titles – and a taste of what could be.
“I would definitely be in jail or dead but I stayed in the gym and years later I’m signed to one of the best fighters ever,” added Davis.
‘Like my son’ – protective Mayweather
Life in Baltimore has shaped Davis for ‘The Doghouse’, the name given to brutal sparring sessions at Mayweather’s Las Vegas gym.
He signed with Mayweather Promotions in 2015, ushering in a new level of scrutiny as suddenly expectation was on him, rather than simply fuelling a personal battle against the odds.
And the tutoring runs deep. Mayweather sits and studies his protege on the heavy bag, joins him on late-night runs and speaks of a commitment “to keep him on the right path”.
But that goal is complex. Davis’ mother is now clean, and training under the reformed Ford in Baltimore offers comfort, so much so he reportedly frustrated Mayweather last year by refusing to move to Las Vegas full-time, insisting he wants to offer people in Baltimore “hope”.
“The first thing, when we signed him, I said ‘we have to move your mother’,” added 40-year-old American Mayweather, who won world titles in five weight divisions before retiring unbeaten in 2015.
“People kicked in his mother’s door when they knew he’d signed for us.
“He’s like my son. I love him and we’ve been through a lot in the short period of time we’ve been together. He’s made some decisions I’ve not been too fond of.
“When his career is over I want him to have something. Early on I want him buying real estate and making smart investments. Boxing is short term, if you’re a businessman it lasts forever.
“Even though he’s quiet, he can surround himself with the wrong individuals. He wants to be in the inner city as that’s where he comes from but I tell him we have to leave that alone and look to bigger and better things for the future.”
The real deal? Can Davis handle the hype?
Boxing has too many world champions, but of them all only Japan’s 21-year-old WBO flyweight king Kosei Tanaka is younger than Davis.
As Mayweather tells the media just how good his man is, ‘Tank’ smiles cheekily, seemingly more than happy to hand the hype job over to a master. The level of praise is striking – arguably none of the other 30 or so fighters under the Mayweather banner are showered with such projections of greatness.
The backing, added to Davis’ fan-friendly nature, will tick all the boxes outside of the ring. He has an element of showman about him, though posting videos of himself back-somersaulting from the top rope before landing punches in the gym may not be the safest of ways to attract social media followers.
He has admitted to being briefly swayed by the cars and jewellery that come with success, but vowed to go back to basics. They certainly have not softened him. In the ring he is nasty, focused and punishing, traits which will go a long way if he is to avoid becoming one of boxing’s many wasted talents.
A southpaw, Davis’ stance makes him tricky and he has been dubbed a ‘mini Mike Tyson’ by some observers for his stocky, come-forward style. A haul of 16 knockouts from 17 fights also fits the ‘Iron Mike’ mould.
In taking the IBF title last time out he showcased an ability to step up in class, and after some taunting of the champion, inflicted a first career defeat on Puerto Rican Jose Pedraza with a comprehensive knockout.
“Dynamite in both hands. Extremely fast. His fight game says he’s cocky and arrogant – he doesn’t have to say it with his mouth,” Mayweather told BBC Sport.
“When he fought Pedraza I was nervous. It was a big step for him. But he handled it and to do what he did, I thought ‘we have a star on our hands here’. This is just the start.”
‘Silver spoon in his mouth’
A win over Walsh – unbeaten in 21 fights – would answer more questions and stretch the Davis brand that little bit further.
But Davis can expect to meet a stubborn fighter. Walsh is respected in the British fight game for his grit and humility. At 31, he has longed for this chance having suffered injury in a car accident before a postponed meeting with Scotland’s Ricky Burns for the WBO lightweight title in 2012.
The Cromer-based fighter contrasts all that is Team Mayweather. His gym is devoid of a shower, he speaks of money with no real desire and backs it up by sharing his earnings with his twin Ryan and brother Michael – both featherweights.
Promoter Frank Warren says his man is “underestimated” with a will to “go to the trenches” which may break Davis, who he feels has a “silver spoon in his mouth”.
“Floyd is constantly telling him how good he is,” said Warren. “In Davis’ mind, he is there already. Once that bell goes and the fight starts, he will be looking to the guys in his corner thinking ‘you didn’t tell me it was going to be like this’.”
Warren may well be right. Davis, after all, has never fought professionally outside of the United States. But surely, after all he has seen and come through, fighting on foreign soil hardly seems a road block?
Walsh would be foolish to think hostility will tame this product of Baltimore’s streets. Davis has walked a path of much resistance to reach spectacular heights.