BALTIMORE -- Long before the greatest boxer in the world anointed him a future star, really before anyone outside West Baltimore knew his name, Gervonta Davis thought big.
When Davis, the IBF super featherweight champion, spoke of what he would become, he did not brag about how many title belts he'd win or the violent, fight-of-the-year spectacles he'd author. Sure, he expected to achieve those feats along the way. But his real goal was to become the next fighter capable of selling enormous pay-per-view events to an eager public.
The 22-year-old Baltimore native isn't there yet. But if all goes according to plan, he'll take a major step on Saturday night when he tops the undercard for the Floyd Mayweather-Conor McGregor mega-fight in Las Vegas.
"It is very important to have this kind of opportunity on a big stage like this," Davis said this week. "I plan to put on a great show."
His opponent, little known Costa Rican Francisco Fonseca, is undefeated but seems almost incidental to the narrative. Davis believes that, to get where he wants to go, he must deliver a spectacular knockout before the biggest audience of his young career. If he looks good enough, maybe some of those casual fans will pay attention the next time he fights.
"You can't be a PPV star if you don't put on an exciting performance," Davis said. "Fans want knockouts, and I'm going to work for that on Saturday night."
There's potential danger in that line of thinking. Plenty of promising fighters have been upset because they abandoned their basic craft in search of one spectacular shot. But Davis, a natural combination puncher, doesn't fear that trap. He's drilled for too many years at the Upton Boxing Center under the eye of his mentor and trainer, Calvin Ford.
"My coach ... tells me not to focus on a knockout, and to follow the team game plan," he said. "If an opportunity comes to knock out my opponent, I'm going to take it."
Davis (18-0 with 17 knockouts) has already had quite a year. He won his title in January with a furious seven-round assault on Jose Pedraza at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn. In May, he traveled to London for his first title defense and destroyed previously undefeated Brit Liam Walsh with a barrage of left hands in the third round. Now, he's co-headlining a card that some believe could break the all-time pay-per-view record (4.6 million buys) Mayweather set with his fight against Manny Pacquiao two years ago.
Mayweather has said he will retire again after the McGregor fight, but in addition to making at least $100 million, he hopes to use this last great spectacle to boost the career of Davis, whom he promotes.
"A lot of eyes are going to see Gervonta Davis," Leonard Ellerbe, the CEO of Mayweather Promotions, told BoxingScene.com earlier this month. "There are going to be a lot of eyes on Gervonta Davis and he will be the next superstar in boxing."
Davis has already won over one of the most important figures in the boxing business, Showtime Sports executive vice president Stephen Espinoza, who called the Baltimore fighter one of his "personal favorites" on a recent conference call.
As the best fighter of his generation, Mayweather is a model for Davis in the ring. But he's perhaps even more of an aspirational figure outside of it, where he's made himself the most bankable name in combat sports.
The art of becoming a boxing superstar only begins with winning fights. You also have to attract an audience without help from an established league. The only way to hit it really big is to crack the tiny circle of fighters who regularly headline pay-per-view cards. Even for Mayweather, that ascent took many years. Like Davis, he started out fighting in supporting spots on cards headlined by more established stars.
He ultimately made the leap by crafting his persona as sharply as he had his boxing skills. Sometimes, Mayweather sells his fights by explicitly playing the villain. But he never fails to sell them.
Asked what he has observed about his promoter's methods, Davis said: "Floyd puts a lot of time and thought to make sure everything is done at a high level. ... He stays in the media."
Davis tried to do the same in the run-up to Saturday's event. On Twitter, he began talking up the fact he would be on the undercard more than a month before he had an opponent. He has also become a more visible figure in Baltimore in recent months, with Under Armour putting up large billboards of him at several locations around town.
Beyond his own fights, Davis is a boxing fan who often tweets his thoughts about televised bouts as they're going on. He's intrigued by the Mayweather-McGregor carnival, just like everyone else.
"I'm interested in seeing how it all plays out," he said.
After his big showcase, he hopes to defend his title once more in 2017, preferably in Baltimore, where he's been dreaming of headlining a show for years. He split his training for the Fonseca fight between his familiar environs in Upton and Mayweather's gym in Las Vegas. But he knows that even if he achieves the superstardom he covets, his hometown will remain his strongest base.
"Coming back to fight in Baltimore is a goal of mine and I'm trying to see that happen," he said.
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