After the decision was read and Andy Cruz was declared Olympic gold medalist in the lightweight division, he broke into a Michael Jackson dance routine in the middle of the ring before doing the “rock-a-baby” motion popularized by NBA star Russell Westbrook. It was part celebration, part taunting of his vanquished opponent Keyshawn Davis.
As Cruz was doing all of that, Davis paid him no mind. While Cruz was reciting a few steps from the Thriller video, Davis walked closely enough by him to have to hoist his raised arm over top of Cruz, the way one might while holding an umbrella and passing someone on the sidewalk. Davis walked with his arm held high and index finger pointed skyward over to a camera in the neutral corner before pointing at it and addressing the audience.
“I’m a champion, whether I’ve got the gold medal or not,” said 22-year old Davis.
In typical boxing parlance, that line would normally mean “I won the fight no matter what the judges said,” or maybe “a silver medal is a heck of an achievement,” which is true. But for Davis, it likely meant something much deeper. That the battles he’d fought mentally and emotionally to even be in that moment, let alone handling it as he did, was as difficult as any championship victory could possibly be.
It was a level of composure and clarity Davis couldn’t have summoned four years ago. After convincing his family to leave Norfolk, Virginia for Alexandria, Virginia in order to focus on his boxing career at the age of 17, Davis has said felt crushed by the weight of it all—his Olympic pursuit, the prospect of providing for his family, leaving a predominantly Black school for one with primarily white students where he felt out of place. He dealt with depression, anxiety and anger management issues severe enough that a school counselor contacted his older sister Shanice to plead with her to get Davis to enter a mental health facility. When asked by the counsellor if he had suicidal and homicidal thoughts, he answered in the affirmative.
“They strapped me down to the stretcher, cut the sirens, and I ride that way for three hours. When I get there, they make me take the strings out of my hoodie and my pants – and you know why,” Davis said in a recent interview with Olympics.com. Davis’ mother Wanda told him simply, “don’t snap.” In Davis’ words, “the only thing I knew how to do was only going to make the situation worse.”
During his week in the facility, Davis has said he watched as children younger than him expressed their emotions and exposed their vulnerabilities, and felt that if they were able to be that open, that brave, that he could too.
“I know this is what God wanted me to do because I feel like all that happened for a reason,” Davis told the Washington Post’s Les Carpenter recently. “He had me go through a mental breakdown before I even started my career. So when I get into my career, I know how to be strong mentally in certain areas. I know how to cope with things. I know how to do this.”
Coming one step—or rather, a few punches, one additional round—away from a lifelong dream of winning Olympic gold is about as difficult a test of an athlete’s coping mechanisms as one can imagine. In that moment, and in the tournament that proceeded it, Davis showed that he is ready to tackle whatever is ahead in the professional ranks.
Davis’ Olympic opportunity was one he anticipated his whole life, but was then taken away before being given right back to him all in the past two years. After fully expecting to fight in Tokyo in 2020, the pandemic threw a wrench into his plans. Qualifying tournaments were scheduled and cancelled, and with the uncertainty of when he would actually fight again, Davis found himself in a frustrating position. In addition, his mother was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, and Davis wanted to be at home to help care for her.
Davis was removed from Team USA, but it coincided with his decision to turn pro. With no guarantee of any amateur fights, let alone the Olympic Games, on the horizon and with amateur contemporaries like Marc Castro already being showcased in the pros, Davis turned pro independently with his mother as his official representative.
After three pro victories, two on Canelo Alvarez undercards in massive stadiums, Davis was given the opportunity to return to Team USA and go to the Olympics after all. Suddenly, after learning to slow down in the ring and focus on his defensive craft, he was thrown back into the hyperactive, point-fighting game of Olympic boxing.
After a slew of impressive performances in the earlier rounds, including a stoppage win over reigning silver medalist Sofiane Oumiha and a gutsy semi-final victory over Hovhannes Bachkov which he won despite a point deduction, Davis earned his latest clash with Cruz.
Cruz plagued Davis throughout his amateur career, beating him three times in other major competitions. A brilliantly talented boxer, Cruz falls into the same category as many decorated Cuban fighters—ones who have mastered the equation of three-round amateur fights, but who could in all likelihood become top contenders in the pros near-instantly if that were permitted by their government. Cruz proved as much earlier this year in an exhibition bout with former titleholder Miguel Vazquez, with whom he had very minimal trouble in a contest that, while not a sanctioned pro bout, was not contested any differently than a sanctioned one would have been.
In their Olympic final, Cruz took the first round, but in the second round Davis showed what he’s capable of. He jabbed his way in, he pushed Cruz around on the inside, and might have even shaken him up with a short right hand. The professional strength and ruggedness Davis had learned in the paid ranks, and in sparring sessions with Terence Crawford that he said “put him in his place” and showed him he “wasn’t on the IQ level (he) thought (he) was on,” were paying off.
But this was still an amateur fight. And when Cruz, or his Cuban teammates need to win one round, they know exactly how to do it. It’s amateur boxing’s version of the two-minute offense—an approach that’s successful for a short period of time, predicated on quick safe plays that can’t be replicated for an entire game. Knowing he needed to win the round to win gold and that he couldn’t fight Davis’ second round tempo, Cruz began to dance. Not the way he did after the fight, but in the more beautiful manner around the perimeter of the ring that he and his fellow great Cubans can do without danger when they need to. Cruz also dipped into perhaps the oldest amateur trick in the bag, raising his hand in the air every time he landed a punch. Cruz would pot-shot, connect, announce it physically to the judges and glide away.
It might not be something he could do for twelve rounds against Davis, but for one round, and sometimes even three, Cruz can be impossible to catch in that particular rhythm.
Prior to the bout, Davis was fixated on Cruz, the one man he could never figure out. But his time in the pro ranks likely gave him the clarity on this particular situation he needed. He was no longer just defined by his amateur success. He is a pro boxer now too, and over four rounds, six rounds, or more, it’s entirely possible that he would get to Cruz. Perhaps having that knowledge was comforting for him.
Having been in the pros, Davis likely also understands that a gold medal is not a prerequisite for professional success by any means. Of the current men’s world titleholders, only three: Anthony Joshua, Ryota Murata and Guillermo Rigondeaux have Olympic gold on their resumes. Davis’ closest friend in the pros, Shakur Stevenson, like him won silver. Many current champions never even competed at the Olympics at all. And of the male fighters who won gold in 2016, none are world champions yet, and three of them have suffered pro losses within their respective first nine fights.
With the perspective of an adult managing his own career and business without a promoter (his ring name is now literally “The Businessman”), Davis has become a role model for young fighters dealing with the turbulence of high level amateur ranks and the bumpy landing on the runway in the pros. Whatever shortcomings you may encounter, there is always a bigger prize, a bigger goal out there to conquer, whether it be in the ring, within yourself, or for a greater purpose. According to the Washington Post, Davis has told his former school counselor that he’d like to mentor young kids dealing with mental health crises and has said he is “doing this so kids can feel comfortable.”
“I’m proud because I put my professional career on hold, put my money on hold, to accomplish my dream, and I did that. A lot of people wouldn’t take that risk, wouldn’t take that opportunity to put what they have on hold when everything was going their way, they (were) getting everything they wanted, risking their career, putting their bodies on the line to do something extraordinary, and I did that," Davis said at the post-fight press conference. “Everything was worth it, man."