Gervonta Davis was going through the motions during an interview in May when a phrase caught his attention.
Davis is one of boxing’s young and rising stars around the lightweight division. When it was suggested that he didn’t have the top accomplishment among the group of impressive young 135-pounders that includes Teofimo Lopez, Ryan Garcia and Devin Haney, Davis stopped looking down, picked his head up and interjected.
“I’m the top [feature] of that group,” Davis told ESPN. “They’re in their own little group. I sit alone.”
Despite the conviction in his voice, it’s hard for the undefeated Davis to make that claim when comparing his career to date against that of his peers, in terms of who he’s fought. If he truly wants to be unrivaled, he will need to start tackling bigger challenges.
Take this weekend’s bout against Mario Barrios (Saturday, 9 p.m. ET, Showtime PPV), for example. Davis (24-0, 23 KOs) is moving up to the junior welterweight division for the first time. Barrios (26-0, 17 KOs) holds a secondary belt in the 140-pound weight class.
Sure, it’s an interesting challenge. But even a knockout win against an opponent such as Barrios won’t indicate where the 26-year-old nicknamed “Tank” stacks up against the likes of Garcia, Haney, and Lopez.
Lopez has the best victory amongst the group. Last year, Lopez upset pound-for-pound star Vasiliy Lomachenko to win three of the four major belts in the lightweight division. That victory started a trend of boxing’s four princes of boxing — not the “Four Kings” who thrilled boxing in the 1980s, but a promising group all the same — taking on tougher opponents.
Barrios represents a step back for Davis, even if Davis is going up 10 pounds in weight. But it lines up with a career path that has been unpredictable thus far.
The Baltimore, Maryland native has never been a unified champion since he won his first title in 2017, over junior lightweight Jose Pedraza. Davis had his belt stripped later in 2017 when he failed to make weight for a title defense against Francisco Fonseca.
Even Davis’ entertaining knockout over Santa Cruz illustrated the issue with his career strategy. The bout was for the WBA’s top belt at 130 and his “regular” 135-pound title, which perfectly illustrates the divisional limbo in which Davis exists. But it also reflects how Davis has operated since he started boxing at seven years old.
His pro career is an extension of an approach in the amateur ranks: lining up the opponent in front of him and looking to be as dominant as possible. To a certain extent, it’s worked. What Davis lacks in terms of a stacked resume of opponents, he makes up for in star power. Among boxing’s four young princes — Davis, Garcia, Lopez and Haney — Davis is arguably the biggest attraction in terms of drawing money.
Of Showtime’s nine summer cards, Davis is headlining the network’s lone PPV.
“He puts butts in seats,” Mayweather Promotions CEO Leonard Ellerbe said at the fight’s press conference in Atlanta in May. “People gravitate to the way he fights. This new generation of fans that we have, they love him.”
It’s hard not to wonder how much higher that ceiling could be raised if he were to start facing, and then defeating, the biggest names of his generation. But while others are craving greatness and taking the fights that will be remembered years from now, Davis’ priorities seem focused elsewhere.
When asked about whether or not he feels he has to be an undisputed champion or a unified champion, Davis said he simply just wants to be the best version of himself.
“There’s really no competition,” Davis told ESPN. “I never pay attention to what the next person is doing. I don’t care what they’re doing. We’re not even in the same lane. My focus is whoever they put in front of me, I need to beat them in a high performance.”
It’s the antithesis of what Josh Taylor and Jose Ramirez did in May, when they fought for the undisputed junior welterweight title. Each of them beat other champions to create the fight that Taylor won via unanimous decision to capture all four titles. Claressa Shields (twice), Katie Taylor and Jessica McCaskill have all become undisputed women’s champions.
The boxing world is increasingly heading in that direction, with the sport’s highest profile stars looking to prove they are the best inside the ring. It’s what Canelo Alvarez and Caleb Plant are after at super middleweight in July and, potentially by the end of the year, what Anthony Joshua, Tyson Fury and Deontay Wilder desire at heavyweight.
The fans who already support Davis are behind him, but there could be so much more. Boxing fans across the board want to see the best fighting the best. And even with an impressive victory over Barrios on Saturday night, it’s hard to call Davis the best in any weight class.
Only a win over an opponent of equal caliber will bring him that acclaim. But Davis must want it for himself, too.
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