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'This is the fight to save boxing': Inside the making of Gervonta Davis-Ryan Garcia

GERVONTA “TANK” DAVIS and Ryan Garcia stood face to face last month in New York’s Times Square, a rare — and unexpected — sight for myriad reasons.

Years and years of fighting words on social media had actually led to signed contracts for a real fight inside the ring, an occurrence far too seldom the norm in the increasingly fractured boxing business.

This matchup pits two of the sport’s top stars, undefeated fighters under the age of 30, who carry vastly different fan bases — many of whom don’t typically watch boxing.

Davis (28-0, 26 KOs) hails from Baltimore and for a long time enjoyed the imprimatur of Floyd Mayweather along with all the celebrities from the hip-hop industry and sports world that accompany such an association. Now without Mayweather, Davis still owns a massive collection of celebrity supporters who are mesmerized by his crushing power and quiet aura. He boasts 4.6 million followers on Instagram.

Garcia (23-0, 19 KOs) possesses 9.5 million followers on Instagram, plus over 5 million on TikTok. He carries a vastly different fan base into this showdown. The Mexican-American from Southern California is often underestimated due to his model looks — he’s sponsored by Dior — and legion of influencer followers. Often, he’s mistaken for an influencer-turned-boxer himself, but he was a decorated amateur who began boxing at age 7 before mastering the art of self-promotion across social media and beyond.

Typically when a fight of this magnitude is constructed, it’s past the matchup’s viable expiration date in regards to the fighters’ athletic primes — as was the case for Mayweather-Manny Pacquiao, which nonetheless was a commercial success. Given the long-held bad blood between Al Haymon’s Premier Boxing Champions (Davis’ promoter) and Oscar De La Hoya’s Golden Boy Promotions (Garcia), there was ample skepticism this fight would see the light of day anytime soon. Add in the competing networks (Davis is with Showtime and Garcia with DAZN), and the reasons began to mount why this fight that made oh-so-much sense would fall by the wayside in the fashion of mega fights like Anthony Joshua-Deontay Wilder and, more recently, Errol Spence Jr.-Terence Crawford and Tyson Fury-Oleksandr Usyk.

And those issues had to be accounted for before the parties could even dive into the meat of the negotiations: the contracted weight, network agreement and, of course, how the money would be divvied up.

But standing in New York City, the pair met face to face and did their best to inject some hype into their 136-pound PPV showdown, which promises to be one of boxing’s biggest revenue drivers in years. The fight on Saturday at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas immediately sold out to a $20-million-plus gate, De La Hoya told ESPN, with A-list celebrities like Bad Bunny and Justin Bieber set to be ringside.

“This fight means … everything,” said Garcia. “It’s a moment that I’ve been envisioning for so long now. It’s the only thing I’ve wanted for so long, to defeat Gervonta Davis and to destroy him. To end everything that he’s ever worked for, because I know he’s trying to do that for me. I’m going to take him out. He’s done. It’s nap time for Gervonta.”

Davis wasn’t coy in his response, saying he’s “gonna walk [Garcia] to the deep waters and I’m gonna drown you. They gonna have to pick you up. I promise you that. … I feel as though I’m already that top guy in the sport. This fight is just about me getting over the hump.”

Twitter fingers had, for once, led to an actual fight. Now the comments were being said face to face with something at stake: the chance for both Davis and Garcia to catapult themselves into a new stratosphere in the hierarchy of not just boxing attractions but sports stars. This is a rare mega fight that promises to usher in viewers who aren’t even casual fans of “the sweet science.”

“Every decade has its fight to save boxing,” said De La Hoya, who’s been one half of several such fights, chiefly his 2007 bout with Mayweather that shattered revenue records. “This is the fight to save boxing. … You can see and feel the anticipation. The ticket sales is a great indication that the pay-per-view is going to be huge. This is the fight of the year.”

TALK PERCOLATED AROUND a Davis-Garcia matchup more than two years ago after the latter picked up a career-best win with a seventh-round TKO of Olympic gold medalist Luke Campbell.

In the ring after the bout, Garcia stated his intentions.

“I really want to be a man of my word,” Garcia said. “I really want to fight Tank. I know people are worried about it [happening], but I’m ready for it.”

Garcia showed off his mettle after Campbell floored him in Round 2, recovering to end matters with a crushing left hook to the body that sucked the air out of his foe.

Following that January 2021 victory, there were serious attempts to match Garcia with Davis, but after Garcia flirted with an exhibition matchup with Pacquiao, any momentum seemed to fade away.

They went their separate ways and continued to build their profiles. Davis, a former champion at 130 pounds, moved up to 140 for a June 2021 fight with Mario Barrios that he won via 11th-round TKO. Six months later, “Tank” returned to 135 pounds for a tougher-than-expected decision victory over Isaac Cruz.

Earlier that year, Garcia had postponed a fight with lightweight contender Javier Fortuna to address his mental health. He was poised to return in November 2021 against former 130-pound champion Joseph “JoJo” Diaz Jr., but wrist surgery sidelined Garcia.

And after that December win against Cruz, Davis and Garcia once again taunted each other on Twitter, but it didn’t lead to anything of real substance.

Garcia ended a 15-month layoff in April 2022 with a decision victory over fringe contender Emmanuel Tagoe, Garcia’s first fight at 140 pounds. One month later, Davis fought before yet another sellout crowd and vanquished Rolando “Rolly” Romero in six rounds.

Garcia was ringside in Brooklyn for that bout and was seen betting Spence that Romero would win. He didn’t cash in on that prediction, but his presence would continue to drive the storyline further.

After he rescheduled the bout with Fortuna and flattened him last July inside six rounds, Garcia called out Davis once again.

“I’m not going back down to 135 for nothing, but I will fight ‘Tank’ next,” Garcia said. “If ‘Tank’ wants it at 140 … let’s get it.”

AT THAT POINT, the timing — and interests — finally seemed to align for both parties. Talks began in earnest, with Garcia’s advisor and attorney, Guadalupe Valencia, the vital cog that bridged the fractured relationships.

Valencia has long held a strong relationship with Haymon, who advises Davis, and also deals with De La Hoya regularly regarding Garcia’s business.

“I had all the confidence in the world that we would get it done,” Valencia told ESPN. “I didn’t know how hard it was gonna be to make it. There was a difficult, complicated negotiation that took over six months. …

“The most important factor is both fighters pushed their respective representatives to make it happen. … I wasn’t gonna be stopped from making this fight happen.”

Willpower and conviction aside, ample roadblocks remained. Before they could even dive into the trickiest part — the network agreement between Showtime and DAZN — the purse split and financial guarantees had to be sorted first. Otherwise, why waste the time?

Davis and Garcia are both proven ticket-sellers, but Davis is the biggest attraction at the gate stateside outside of Canelo Alvarez.

Atlanta. Los Angeles. Brooklyn. Washington D.C. His native Baltimore. Davis sold out venues in each city against clear B-side opponents. Those Showtime PPV fights pulled in plenty of stars in attendance, ranging from rappers to actors, showcasing Davis’ growing star power alongside his then promoter, Mayweather.

Garcia, too, has proven the ability to draw, but not quite on that level. He’d never headlined a PPV, so he accepted the slightly shorter end of the revenue split, along with an eight-figure guarantee, sources said. Davis will also earn a career-high eight figures.

“I have to give Ryan a lot of credit,” De La Hoya, who’s promoted Garcia since 2016, told ESPN. “He pushed for this. He wanted this fight. We had to literally give in on the percentage slip. I was adamant about making this a 50-50 fight. Ryan didn’t care. Ryan was like, ‘Give him the lion’s share, I just want this fight to happen.’

“We allowed PBC to be the lead promoter. We accepted the lesser split on the percentage. … We were dealing with another promoter and another network. The fact that we had personal history [with PBC], it made it more difficult to make this happen. … I mean, the collaboration with DAZN and Showtime was like pulling teeth.”

COLLABORATIONS BETWEEN COMPETING networks are rare in boxing, saved only for events that will earn all parties so much money, it’s nearly impossible to say no. Nearly.

The first such joint boxing PPV came in 2002 for the heavyweight championship fight between Lennox Lewis and Mike Tyson, an HBO/Showtime event that set revenue records. Stephen Espinoza, now the president of Showtime Sports, was involved in that event in his role as Tyson’s attorney.

The next joint event came along in 2015 when Mayweather and Pacquiao met in what remains the biggest commercial fight of all time. Espinoza was by then in his position at Showtime.

HBO and Showtime also collaborated on a non-PPV fight, the April 2017 heavyweight title tilt between Anthony Joshua and Wladimir Klitschko in London (Showtime aired the fight live while HBO showed the bout on delay.)

The next two PPV collaborations were between ESPN and Fox for the second and third bouts between Tyson Fury and Deontay Wilder for the heavyweight championship. ESPN produced the February 2020 bout, while Fox handled the trilogy fight in October 2021 as part of the two-fight deal.

The partnership between Showtime and streaming service DAZN for Davis-Garcia is heavily tilted in Showtime’s favor. While the fight will be available to purchase through both apps for $84.99 — $60 on DAZN for current subscribers — Showtime will produce the broadcast with its usual commentary team. DAZN will participate with a branding presence and will also receive a seven-figure fee as part of the deal, sources said.

It’s a one-fight deal, but there is a rematch clause that De La Hoya said threatened to kill the fight at the time. The unilateral rematch clause, which only Davis can exercise in the event he loses, would land DAZN as the lead broadcaster with Golden Boy the lead promoter rather than PBC.

“We were convinced that DAZN had to be involved,” De La Hoya said. “We pushed for that and we pushed and we finally made it happen. This fight was literally dead in the water until I got my lawyer to give Stephen Espinoza a call because they [formerly] worked in the same law firm. And we revived it.”

That deal point was important to De La Hoya and his company’s partnership with DAZN, the exclusive home of Golden Boy’s fights since HBO left boxing in 2018. Garcia rose to prominence on DAZN, and without its participation in this event, the deal might have fallen apart.

Espinoza, however, disputes that it was ever a consideration from the Showtime side to have no involvement from DAZN.

“The question then became, OK, what type of involvement?” Espinoza said. “And there were differences, certain views on how they thought it would work. Showtime had different views on how they thought it would work. I don’t think you can point a finger at one party or the other for negotiating for what they desire.”

Espinoza and Joe Markowski negotiated the broadcast agreement directly with each other, sources said. With regards to the other deal points, Golden Boy Promotions president Eric Gomez communicated with Valencia, who acted as the intermediary and dealt directly with Haymon. De La Hoya, who owns Golden Boy, has the final say when it comes to his company’s dealings.

Unlike the joint PPVs mentioned above, DAZN’s chief involvement in this fight is the ability to sell the event on its streaming service (just like Showtime) along with the revenue it will earn from the fee to make the fight happen. The far greater participation, in the vein of past collaborations between networks, lies in a potential rematch if Garcia scores the minor upset. As of Wednesday morning, Garcia was a +210 underdog, according to Caesars Sportsbook.

Multiple sources told ESPN that if DAZN had insisted on a 50-50 joint event where the production is shared and commentary teams are melded, the deal would’ve been killed.

“We chose to be commercially pragmatic…,” said Markowski, the CEO of DAZN’s North American business. DAZN is guaranteed to be in black for the event through its participation. “We are very happy with the deal from our side. I think it’s one of the better deals we’ve done in boxing, to be honest.”

THEY WERE REFERRED to by some as the modern-day Four Kings: Davis, Garcia, Devin Haney and Teofimo Lopez Jr. Only unlike the actual Four Kings — Sugar Ray Leonard, Marvelous Marvin Hagler, Roberto Duran and Thomas Hearns — none of the current quartet have shared the ring.

With four budding stars all competing at 135 pounds, it seemed inevitable at least some of them would meet inside a ring sooner than later. But only Haney remains at lightweight, where he is the undisputed champion, set to defend his four titles vs. Vasiliy Lomachenko on May 20. Lopez now campaigns at 140 pounds, while Davis and Garcia will meet at a catchweight of 136 pounds.

The issue of weight was the last genuine stumbling block in this complex deal. After all, Garcia’s last two fights, both in 2022, took place at 140 pounds. Davis has competed at 140 once, his victory over Barrios in June 2021.

Davis will concede 4½ inches in height, but the contract includes a rehydration clause that stipulates each fighter will have to weigh in on the morning of the bout and can’t exceed 146 pounds.

Canelo Alvarez’s fights with Daniel Jacobs and Sergey Kovalev contained rehydration clauses that would have cost his opponents several hundreds of thousands of dollars per pound if they exceeded the agreed-upon weight. When Mayweather fought Alvarez in 2013, the contract weight was 152 pounds, two below Alvarez’s fighting weight at the time. And, of course, there was a rehydration clause.

Garcia’s advisor didn’t disclose the financial penalty for this fight, but said it’s in line with past fights. De La Hoya confided, “If I tell you the number, you would fall off your chair if you’re sitting down.”

“He likes to fight people with no power so he’s trying to weight-drain me …,” Garcia said. “There’s a lot of stipulations in there that show what kind of character he has. His integrity and the will of a competitor — he doesn’t have it. He doesn’t have the heart of a champion.”

Davis retorted that “he’s a bigger fighter and he’s only growing. He’s coming from like 170, 180. Why would I not have a rehydration clause in there? So he can blow back up to 150, 160 around the time we fight? No. I’m not dumb.”

Undoubtedly, Garcia is the bigger, stronger fighter between the pair, and could face a competitive disadvantage now that he’s not free to eat and hydrate as he pleases following Friday afternoons’ weigh-in.

And in a battle of two ferocious punchers with quick hands, every edge each fighter can grab hold of could factor into the outcome.

“Ryan and our team felt that he could do it so long as he had enough time to prepare and train and focus on it …,” Valencia said. “Anybody in boxing could tell you that a pound in the boxing world means a lot. And so we got one pound to make the fight happen. … We’re comfortable. We’re not complaining about it. … And if we didn’t feel confident in it, we wouldn’t have done it.”

De La Hoya, who starred in numerous marquee fights and sliced through divisions with titles in six different weight classes, famously drained himself to 147 pounds for a beatdown at the hands of Pacquiao in December 2008 (the previous time he fought at welterweight was in 2001). It was the Hall of Famer’s final fight.

“That f—ing rehydration clause just didn’t make sense,” De La Hoya said. “… It made me think there’s big doubt on Tank’s side because Ryan’s a big kid at 135, but he still makes the weight. …

“Rehydration is very important. But what me and Ryan talked about was, when you’re a fighter who is disciplined, when you’re a fighter that doesn’t have to gain 10, 15, 20 pounds the next day, then it shouldn’t be an issue.”

DAVIS AND GARCIA both announced on social media in November that their fight was on, but in reality, there was still much work to be done to finalize the deal. The contracts were finally signed by all parties in February, one month after Davis remained unbeaten with an eighth-round TKO victory over 130-pound titleholder Hector Luis Garcia in Washington, D.C.

But weeks before the fight took place, Davis encountered trouble with the law once again. He was arrested after he allegedly struck the mother of one of his children on the right side of her head with a “closed hand type slap,” according to Broward County Sheriff’s Office records, and was charged on a misdemeanor domestic violence charge of battery causing bodily harm.

The woman later recanted the accusation, but Davis awaits further court dates related to the alleged incident. Davis’ involvement in a hit-and-run incident that took place in November 2020 was yet another impediment to a planned fight with Garcia in April.

He pleaded guilty in February to four traffic offenses and will await sentencing on May 5. Last year, a Baltimore Circuit Court judge declined to approve a plea deal that would have allowed Davis to avoid jail time and instead spend 60 days under house arrest.

Garcia, meanwhile, agreed to his own stay-busy fight, a planned Jan. 28 bout vs. Mercito Gesta, but later decided to forego the tune-up bout.

“I just didn’t want to take the risk of an interim fight before this one,” Garcia said. “There are a lot of little things that can happen. I didn’t wait this long to mess it up at the finish line.”

The Davis-Garcia fight was originally slated for April 15, but was moved one week to allow more time to promote the fight, according to Valencia. “We just felt like a little bit of extra time would help,” he said.

And for a fight of this magnitude, every little bit of promotion counts. The fighters embarked on a two-city press tour (New York and Los Angeles) where they made headlines for their exchange of insults and created palpable buzz for the event.

Fights like this between two undefeated stars with speed and punching power don’t come around too often, especially in the modern era, and the contrast of personalities has certainly captured the imagination of their legions of supporters.

Whether all those millions of social-media followers translate to PPV buys remains to be seen, but if the immense ticket sales are any indication, this bout has a chance to cross the one-million-buy plateau. The last fight to accomplish the feat? The 2018 rematch between Canelo and Gennadiy Golovkin.

“I would generally say that the gate is a very, very good indicator of pay-per-view success,” said Espinoza. “How closely they’re correlated has changed with the spread of piracy and the challenges there. … But I think that if people are willing to spend hundreds or in some cases thousands of dollars to attend the fight, that’s a good indicator that people will spend $85 to watch it on television.”

Said De La Hoya, who’s been the A-side in numerous PPV super fights: “It’s the best indicator. … And the fact that this fight sold out so fast is a great indication that there’s a lot of interest aside from the casual boxing fan that knows the Jake Pauls and knows boxing through these exhibitions.

“It’s also attracting Hollywood; it’s attracting sports fans in general. I’ve had calls from athletes from all walks of life, from baseball to golf to football, wanting tickets.”

The boxing super fight apparently isn’t extinct. It was just in hibernation. And with a little — and in some cases, a lot of — compromise, the sport finally is able to deliver a fight between two stars in their prime — not years after fans yearned for it, but at exactly the right time.

Perhaps the willingness of Davis and Garcia to face each other, politics and sides of the street be damned, can serve as a beacon of light in a sport that far too often fails to make the big fights.

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