Will Gervonta Davis get his swagger back in title defense vs. Hugo Ruiz?

Combat columnist
Yahoo Sports
Gervonta Davis answers questions during a media day workout for his upcoming fight against Hugo Ruiz at Churchill Boxing Club on February 6, 2019 in Los Angeles, California. (Getty Images)
Gervonta Davis answers questions during a media day workout for his upcoming fight against Hugo Ruiz at Churchill Boxing Club on February 6, 2019 in Los Angeles, California. (Getty Images)

Boxing fans who did not know Gervonta Davis on the morning of Jan. 14, 2017, certainly were well acquainted with him by sunrise the following day.

With his promoter, Floyd Mayweather, cheering him on from ringside at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, Davis looked like a superstar-in-the-making that night as he took apart and ultimately stopped Jose Pedraza in the seventh round to win the IBF 130-pound title.

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Against a quality veteran, Davis (20-0, 19 KOs) was fast and poised, put his punches together expertly and showed above average pop in both hands. He punished Pedraza to the body and left the talented Puerto Rican with his right arm pinned against his ribcage to try to protect it after a particularly brutal Davis hook caused him obvious pain.

Davis, though, is stuck in neutral a little more than two years after that memorable night. A large part of that is because of his failure to make weight in a fight on the Mayweather-Conor McGregor undercard and his seeming indifference to it.

He dropped Jesus Cuellar, a quality opponent, three times and stopped him in the third round to win the WBA super featherweight title in his only fight since that disappointment with Francisco Fonseca, but there is an aura of vulnerability around him now that decidedly did not exist on the night he lifted the title from Pedraza.

On Saturday, he’ll take the first step toward regaining his mojo when he defends his title against Hugo Ruiz (39-4, 33 KOs) on Showtime at Dignity Health Sports Park in Carson, California. Ruiz, who routed Alberto Guevara on Jan. 19 in Las Vegas, is a late replacement for Abner Mares, who had to pull out because of a detached retina.

Mares is a name brand and a win over him would carry more significance than beating Ruiz will, but at a media workout in Santa Monica, California, this week, Davis insisted he’s not underestimating Ruiz.

“I was just watching Hugo Ruiz as I came in here,” Davis said. “All I know is that he is fast, he has some speed. It looked like he has some power and good timing. I actually think that this is not a walk in the park like people think. The fact that this is a late change doesn’t concern me because once I get in there, I’ll be able to make adjustments. I’m ready.”

Gervonta Davis punches Jose Pedraza during their IBF Junior Lightweight Championship at the Barclays Center on January 14, 2017 in New York City. (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)
Gervonta Davis punches Jose Pedraza during their IBF Junior Lightweight Championship at the Barclays Center on January 14, 2017 in New York City. (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)

When Davis destroyed Pedraza — more impressively and more comprehensively, I might add, than Vasiliy Lomachenko did in December — he looked to be positioning himself for a mega-fight with Lomachenko.

But now, Lomachenko is regarded by many as the pound-for-pound best fighter in the world, and Davis is not even remotely near the Top 10 despite a near-perfect record and a better win against a common opponent.

The key for Davis is to keep the nasty edge he showed against Pedraza and not get caught up in being a star. He comes from the roughest of neighborhoods in Baltimore and his coach, Calvin Ford, was the inspiration for the character, Cutty, on the popular HBO series, “The Wire.”

Trouble consumed many of Davis’ friends and peers, and he used boxing to avoid that path.

“I come from a city with a lot of violence and things like that, but my mind was always focused on what I wanted to be in life,” said Davis, who is now 24. “I traveled when I was super young, so my mindset was never like a typical 8-year-old. I won my first nationals when I was 10 years old. I’ve seen the world and I’ve seen the bigger picture.

“At that time, coming up in the gym there were guys that I was looking up to that were getting killed in the streets. There were days in the gym where we would get a call that guys we trained with had been killed. I knew that it’s either boxing or things wouldn’t turn out too good. I knew I had to stay in the gym and stay focused.”

If he can keep that focus on boxing and not on the trappings of success boxing can bring, Davis’ potential for greatness is unlimited.

Davis showed against Cuellar, a tough, hard-nosed veteran who doesn’t beat himself, glimpses of the talent that gives him a chance to be a star among stars.

He’s veteran enough now that there are young fighters looking up to him and following his path. One of them is 1-0 super middleweight Lorenzo Simpson, known as “Truck,” who fights on the undercard. Simpson is 18 and from the same area in Baltimore as Davis.

Davis feels a responsibility to show the newcomers the right way and, he says, is enough to motivate him each time out.

“To have people under me like ‘Truck,’ it feels amazing to inspire them to go further in life,” Davis said. “It makes me want to push harder so that I can become the best that I can be.”

The best he can be is extremely good. If he can get there will depend almost solely on his desire to be great.

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