This feature was originally published in Boxing News magazine
CALVIN FORD takes a long, deep breath as he considers the question and instinctively places his right hand on his heart. Then come the tears.
“I’m sorry, I try not to get emotional,” he says, blinking them back.
“What will this win do for the kids in Baltimore? Man, you really have no idea.”
The victory in question was the one which anointed Gervonta Davis the new IBF super-featherweight king at New York’s Barclays Center on January 14. The man known as “Tank” blasted through previously undefeated Jose Pedraza in seven brutal rounds to become the youngest world champion on the planet and the youngest in Baltimore’s history.
But, despite being just 22 years old, this was a journey that started way back in 2001 when Davis first walked into the boxing gym. Ford, his softly-spoken, unassuming coach, has been there every step of the way.
“He’s been with me since day one,” Ford tells Boxing News. “He was seven years old. My son Qaadir was actually training and he told me, you’ve got to see this kid, this kid is lightning. And when my son moved to Jersey with his mum he told me I’d be a good role model for this kid. I suppose when you look at it, me and Tank, we saved each other in a sense.”
Like many of Baltimore’s residents, Ford had previously lived life on the wrong side of the tracks, to put it lightly. In the 80s he was a lieutenant for a multi-million dollar drug operation and in 1988 he was convicted on conspiracy and racketeering charges.
It was while serving time that he discovered boxing and changed his life forever. Another member of his crew happened to be Reggie Gross, the man who was knocked out by Mike Tyson in 1986 and Frank Bruno in 1987. A year after that, Gross was charged and convicted of a trio of murders.
“Reggie was my co-defendant,” Ford recalls. “You remember the one who fought Mike Tyson?
“Me and him got close when we got locked up and he said ‘man, you good with your hands’. Actually I’m a kickboxer, I kickboxed when I was a kid.
“Reggie said ‘man, you should go home and box when you get out’. I said ‘nah I’ll be too old’ but I wasn’t too old to train.”
Even so, many people expected Ford to return to his old life once he was released a decade later. Even his wife thought he’d be sucked back in.
He adds: “I remember she said: ‘you’re going to go back in the streets’ but I told her no. I made sure that I set myself up so I wasn’t going to do anything and it worked. I washed pots and pans at Phillips Foods and worked my way up to be a manager. She said ‘how you do that?’”
As well as working at Phillips and resisting the lure of the street, Ford, by now, had started volunteering at the city-run Herring Run Recreation Center, where young Qaadir was learning to box.
“I wasn’t out in the street no more,” he says. “One thing I learned when I was inside, and seeing everybody coming back, it was always the old things that they used to do. Why you back? ‘Oh, living beyond my needs’. So I decided I wasn’t going to do any of these things. Then when Phillips went out of business, I dedicated myself full time to the gym.”
For many people outside of Maryland, their only exposure to Baltimore’s criminal underbelly is the critically acclaimed HBO crime drama The Wire. In season three a former gangland enforcer Dennis “Cutty” Wise is released from prison but struggles to adapt to life back on the outside, that is until he opens his own boxing gym.
The inspiration behind the character? Calvin Ford. He explains: “True story, true story. I’m the inspiration behind that whole gym part.
“The lieutenant who was chasing us back in ‘88, Ed Burns, was one of the writers so when he was reading in the papers that I was taking care of kids from off the inner streets in a boxing gym he couldn’t believe it. I just kept doing it and doing it, bringing champions back.”
In The Wire, Cutty faces a constant battle to keep his kids, themselves lured by the opportunity to make money on the corners of west Baltimore, in the gym. That’s true too, says Ford.
“Listen, I’m going to give it to you straight,” he says. “Ronald Gibbs, we called him ‘Rock’, he was a good boxer. He got killed. I always used to tell Ronald: ‘you’ve got to stop going back for your sister sometimes because people know you box’. But he got killed. Then there’s Angelo Ward, one foot in the gym, one foot in the streets. He was shot dead in 2012.”
Most painful of all for Ford, however, was the death of his son Qaadir, who, having moved to New Jersey, was the victim of a gang-related murder. The loss also made a deep impact on Davis, who was taken under Qaadir’s wing when he first set foot in the gym.
“What happened to my son that really hurt me,” he adds, shaking his head ruefully. “So Tank stayed firm because we knew we were really going to do this.
“I tried explaining to him that he’s a beacon for the city. When they see my lifestyle – coming from the streets and all the things I had been doing… So I told Tank to stop holding up for people all the time, his friends and stuff.
“My lifestyle when I went inside for 10 years and you’re coming back out onto the streets of Baltimore trying not to get trapped again into that same life. I couldn’t tell him the right things to do if I’m not doing them myself. That’s what I mean by saving each other. Believe me, it’s a struggle but I can’t tell my kids not to do something that I’m doing.”
Even so, the respect he earned in his previous life helped Ford and his batch of young boxers, including Davis, in those formative years.
“I had respect in the city because I was like a Robin Hood type character before I went away,” he explains. “Everybody remembered me and the crew that I ran with. I’ll keep it real. I’m a street guy and always will be.
If you come to Baltimore and walk through the hoods, you won’t see nobody standing on my corners out of respect. So when I needed certain things back then I would ask my street guys. I would say, ‘I need to get this tournament or that tournament’, and they would make it so.”
From the start, Davis stood out among the crowd. By the age of 10 he had won a silver gloves title. By the time he turned pro in 2013, his amateur record was 206-15.
Ford says: “From day one I knew this kid was special, I really did. He won so many nationals. For his last amateur fight we did a show and there were 2,000 people there to watch him. Then his first pro fight was on a Lamont Peterson card in DC. He’s sparred with Danny Garcia. He’s always been operating at a high level and spending time around the right people.
“So when it comes to this level, it’s where he’s meant to be at.”
But many had suggested that the opportunity to face 22-0 Pedraza had come too early for Davis, who is now promoted by Floyd Mayweather. His performance in Brooklyn made a lot of people look silly.
“Pedraza was the man who would show me is he really built for this,” Ford says. “Now, when you’re on that level, you’ve got a bullseye on your head and everybody is going to be calling you out.
“It didn’t take me by surprise in any way. I saw everything we’ve been working on.”
Ford insists his first world champion will not change him or the work done at his Upton Boxing facility, at which membership costs just $65 per year. But, he says, with one shuddering swing of that right fist, which sent Pedraza crashing to the canvas, Davis has changed the future for Baltimore’s youngsters forever.
“I want people to believe in my vision,” Ford says.
“I want them to have a place where anybody can come and change their character. They see it with their own eyes the champions that are coming out of my gym. I had a kid who was getting bullied. We did a media workout in the mall with Tank, he saw it, and now he’s one of my top little young ’uns in the gym.
“I’ve got like 80 kids in my gym and Tank was the first one to stamp them, to validate them, to let them know, you can do the same thing. Like I said, you have no idea what this does for us.
“A friend of mine told me: ‘A lot of people want to see you fall’, But Tank has applied the stamp. People say I’m just an amateur coach but now I’ve got a world champion.
“I try not to get emotional but it’s going to change the mindset of a lot of kids. I just don’t preach that you have to be a boxer. I preach that you can do anything if you put your mind to it and stick with it.
“Sometimes kids don’t believe that but Tank did it – so they will now.”