By Cliff Rold
When watching him fight, the thing that jumps out is often best seen between rounds. It’s the eyes.
There is a focus to 22-year old Gervonta Davis (17-0, 16 KO) that is hard to miss. His game is still refining, but inside he’s one of the more accurate fighters in the game. He sees the target and wears an expression that says he intends to punch through it painfully.
Eyes don’t win fights. They can tell you something about a fighter who walks away with his hands raised. One can expect the newly minted IBF Jr. lightweight titlist will have his eyes wide open this Saturday (Showtime, 6 PM EST/PST) as he makes the first defense of his crown.
He’s hitting the road to fight outside the United States for the first time and he might have his hands full. Mandatory challenger Liam Walsh (21-0, 14 KO) of the UK will have the crowd on his side and a real chance in the ring.
In a battle of the southpaws, Walsh is a little taller, a little longer, and he might even be a hair quicker. We won’t know for sure on that last one until they’re in the ring. Walsh is the more physically mature of the two, already 30 years old and presumably in his physical prime. Davis may not hit that peak for a few years. As far as experience, Walsh might have faced a deeper pool of talent to date but Davis has the best win.
Davis’s January manhandling of undefeated Jose Pedraza looked like a close fight going in. It was, instead, a coming out party. Davis dismantled Pedraza, stopping him in seven and losing only a single round. He proved he was for real.
Now we start finding out about his immediate staying power.
Floyd Mayweather, who promoted Davis, is obviously intrigued. He made the trip overseas this week and is selling his young client. He also appears to be handing out some advice. Mayweather remembers what it’s like to be a young champion at 130 lbs., jumping straight from prospect to the belted ranks in a single night.
While the two have had some Twitter drama in the past, it’s all business right now. Davis has business potential. The talented Baltimore native has a TV friendly style and legitimate power. He throws hard and looks more comfortable at close quarters than at range. At 5’6, he may not have the scale jumping potential so coveted in the modern era pound-for-pound hysteria but there is a place for him in the market.
With a little patience, Jr. lightweight can belong to Davis if he keeps winning. The leader in the class right now, Vasyl Lomachenko, is unlikely to stick around long. Davis and his team don’t appear to be looking for that fight before he goes, and they probably shouldn’t. Davis probably isn’t ready for Lomachenko.
We won’t know for a few more days if he’s ready for Walsh. It’s a fascinating little fight. Walsh might not be the sort of fight sought out for a first defense. It’s the upside of mandatory positions (and even sanctioning body skeptics can admit they have an upside when good mandatories are adhered to). Davis is only now beginning the test period of his career. Walsh is a different test than Pedraza, a hungry fighter arriving at his title shot in the ninth year of his career.
Walsh, in front of his partisans, will be dangerous. There are fighters who never seem to run out of title shots. There are others who are lucky to get just one. When you’ve been a pro since 2008, it’s probably smart to assume yourself in the latter category.
Maybe it isn’t the case.
It wouldn’t do much good to count on favor down the road.
Given how hot the UK market is right now, a Walsh win could mean as much for him as a Davis win would in the States. Beating an American with Mayweather behind him would be a star making moment.
The longer term upside on any side of the Atlantic is in Davis. At 22, years are on his side. Win this weekend and he’ll have crossed the road warrior box off his chart of bona fides and then the real effort at star building can commence. When a fighter this long has their first title, smart promoters play a long game.
Think about Fernando Vargas. He won his first title at Jr. middleweight at 21 years old. Like Davis, he had those ferocious eyes when he was in there. There can be arguments made in retrospect about getting to the Felix Trinidad fight too soon. Those arguments ignore that there was still some attempt to stretch his development after a title win over Yori Boy Campas in December 1998.
Vargas made five defenses before the Trinidad fight in December 2000, a mix of solid veterans and intended knockout victims. Comparable to Davis, he had a tricky mandatory to overcome but his didn’t come right away. Vargas had to tackle Winky Wright and was a little lucky to get a majority decision. When he dominated the outstanding Ike Quartey in his very next fight, it was hard to say he wasn’t ready for anybody.
Davis might not be ready for anybody right now but with wins he can build towards the moment where he is. A loss this weekend wouldn’t destroy his career but it pushes it backwards and slows the logical long game. Can he make it through this critical test?
The answer might tell us more about where he’s headed in the next couple years than where he is at the final bell on Saturday.
Cliff Rold is the Managing Editor of BoxingScene, a founding member of the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board, and a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America. He can be reached at [email protected]