There were two explosions when Gervonta “Tank” Davis mollywhopped Leo Santa Cruz on Halloween night at the Alamodome in San Antonio, Texas. First, there was the booming sound of a supersonic left uppercut connecting—on target—against Santa Cruz, and then, by causal effect, came the instantaneous eruption of the crowd, a gathering limited by social distancing protocols but deafening nonetheless.
That boisterous response in San Antonio seemingly underscored a general view about Davis: that he is a developing luminary and, possibly, that rarest of prizefighters, a crossover star. Davis, now 24-0 with 23 knockouts, has the look, both in and out of the ring, and he has been tantalizing observers (cynical and credulous alike) since he mauled Jose Pedraza at the Barclays Center in 2017. And while his competition has regressed noticeably in the last few years—Santa Cruz was at his best at 122 pounds, Yuriorkis Gamboa was a bedraggled relic from another era, and assorted no-hopers crash-landed in two or three requisite rounds, just as the script called for—Davis has made sure to close the show violently.
Indeed, it pays to compare what Davis did to Gamboa and what Golden Boy hotshot Devin Haney recently failed to do. Before his shambolic kayo loss to Davis last December, Gamboa was eons removed from his days as a cyclonic featherweight and he entered the ring against Haney pushing forty. But Haney simply went through the motions en route to an uneventful unanimous decision, and for the first time in his career, Gamboa lost a fight on points.
It is a clear distinction: one fighter, Davis, is hyperaware of the performance itself being a component of victory; the other, Haney, is content merely with a “W” on his ledger. Naturally, the Gervonta Davises of the boxing world kickstart the most commotion.
Against Santa Cruz, Davis, fighting out of Baltimore, took more than his share of punches, but this liability had a contrived or premeditated feel to it. What makes Davis unique is his ability to switch gears and work from the perimeter when necessary, but aware that he was fighting an ex-bantamweight who had scored only one stoppage in his last six outings, he simply ignored the incoming and, at times, stormed after Santa Cruz with impunity.
For five rounds, Santa Cruz connected with an assortment of cuffing blows, but, at 130 pounds, he was little more than an arm puncher. When the bell rang for the sixth, Santa Cruz decided to rumble with a fighter whose nickname is “Tank.” He scored well until that lethal uppercut left him flat in his own corner, forcing Referee Rafael Ramos to call in the ringside physicians. It was the kind of knockout that can capture the imagination of more than just the average boxing fan. The question, of course, is whether Davis, a hard-punching southpaw with an adamant bad-intentions philosophy, can manage to transcend the limited allure of fisticuffs.
Although hurrahs, hallelujahs, and huzzahs are widespread in boxing, actual mainstream attractions have been rare. In this, the narrowcasting niche era of boxing in North America, there have been only a handful of bona fide stars over the last ten years: Floyd Mayweather Jr., Manny Pacquiao, Saul “Canelo” Alvarez, and Miguel Cotto. For a while, Gennadiy Golovkin was a coast-to-coast ticket seller, although his pay-per-view numbers were abysmal without Canelo Alvarez in the opposite corner. In addition, there have been some regional stars and a few one-off attractions, such as Julio Cesar Chavez Jr., whose bumbling challenge of Sergio Martinez nearly a decade ago outsold nearly every pay-per-view over the last half-decade. Recent regional draws include Jose Carlos Ramirez, Terence Crawford, and Deontay Wilder. (In fact, Maryland had a box-office magnet as recently as a decade ago, the dynamic but fragile middleweight Fernando Guerrero.) But stars? Genuine stars are hard to come by.
Before the HTML era, boxers became stars for a variety of reasons: style, charisma, looks, ethnic ties, and quality of opposition. The latter is where contemporary boxing struggles in producing breakout talents. Because of the various platform wars of the last few years, fighters take part in fewer significant bouts than ever, and that, to an extent, reinforces anonymity.
Years ago, Manny Pacquiao raised his profile not only because of his hectic ring style but also because he faced established pros regularly. His violent ascent to improbable mainstream star in the early 2000s began with a series of pitched battles against Marco Antonio Barrera, Erik Morales, and Juan Manuel Marquez. It is unlikely that Pacquiao would have reached such heights if he had just kept poleaxing unknowns in the Philippines. Today, fighters often spend years developing undifferentiated records. Think of the Charlos, now pay-per-view headliners and perpetual stars-in-the-making according to numberless spin masters on the PBC payroll (or simply doing pro bono work on their behalf), who have been professionals since the Aughts and have been the subjects of enough hype over the last five years to buoy a dozen hot air balloons. None of that has helped them break out of the boxing pigeonhole.
Then there is the strange case of Terence Crawford. For decades Bob Arum developed and maneuvered fighters into blockbuster events that were lucrative for all involved. Now, in his late eighties, Arum finds himself doling out more than $10 million in purses for Crawford pay-per-views that produce nothing but heartburn. This is, alas, a self-inflicted wound: by insisting, along with HBO and ESPN, that Crawford was some sort of modern-day Sugar Ray and the heir to the fetishist P-4-P crown, he inadvertently capsized his longstanding profit blueprint. As a result, Crawford saw his salary skyrocket while his opposition (now partitioned off because of an exclusivity contract) flatlined. That Crawford is considered elite without having faced a slew of quality welterweights (among them Errol Spence, Keith Thurman, Danny Garcia, and Shawn Porter) highlights just how skewed boxing has become. Crawford will next face the remnants of Kell Brook, guaranteed to enter the ring against “Bud” with a skeletal look modeled on Christian Bale in The Machinist.
Unfortunately, boxing in the twenty-first century dictates that the mere possibility of stardom means steering a fighter away from the matchups that might actually produce a crossover audience. Consecutive kayos in 2017 marked Davis as a potential star on the rise. First, he wore down talented Jose Pedraza to win the IBF junior-lightweight title; then he hit the road to manhandle Liam Walsh in London. Since then, however, Davis has seen his ambitions scaled down. There is a good chance that Davis continues on the already-too-familiar path of most modern fighters, a path so worn over the last ten years that it is now deep enough to act as a firebreak: one inconsequential matchup after another and an unremarkable career that suggests the content-provider model of so many other current professionals.
Whether or not Davis ever crashes the mainstream, the fact remains that he has nearly all of the characteristics necessary for popular sports recognition. Davis has a compelling backstory, a promotional relationship with Floyd Mayweather Jr. (somewhat stormy, although kayfabe can never be ruled out), a boorish social media presence, and, above all, he answers the bell for every fight determined to bring the pain. There is also a certain cartoon villainy to Davis that promises future negative appeal. He entered the ring against Santa Cruz wearing a sombrero and a color-coordinated outfit based on the Mexican national flag, all to mock the partisan crowd in Texas. (A few years ago, the novelist Lionel Shriver caused a ruckus by donning a sombrero during a lecture and thereby raising the risible specter of cultural appropriation, but boxing labors under no such moral ordinances.)
To reach anything close to superstar status, Davis will have to do more than make a slew of ho-hum title defenses against mid-card fighters and also-rans. If Davis decides to return to lightweight, where he made a pitstop last year to maul the faded Gamboa, he will find plenty of theoretical matchups waiting for him: Teofimo Lopez, Ryan Garcia, Devin Haney, and Vasily Lomachenko. Given the promotional gridlock among the various platforms and networks perpetually at play, these fights are likely to remain rotisserie specials. In that case, Davis will have to keep things simple in the ring. All he has to do, really, is keep spectators jumping to their feet, in unison, enthralled, calling out to the rafters.