Floyd Mayweather, Gervonta Davis & The Passing of the PPV Torch

As Gervonta Davis prepares for his inaugural PPV headliner Saturday night versus four-division world champion Leo Santa Cruz, the parallels to Floyd Mayweather’s PPV debut are hard to miss.

One of Gervonta Davis’ favorite fights to watch is Floyd Mayweather Jr.'s six-round stoppage of Arturo Gatti in 2005. 

From operating in close quarters to the quick rat-a-tat punches he unleashed on Gatti from a distance, Mayweather delivered a signature performance, dropping to his knees and shedding tears of joy in the immediate aftermath. Mayweather seemed to have an idea of what it all meant, and Davis was impressed. 

“He was doing things you can’t teach,” Davis said recently. “He was fighting in Gatti’s backyard, boxed and banged, he showed everything, all the tools.”

Davis was also fascinated with Mayweather’s ability to make his mark as a pay-per-view performer — Mayweather generated 340,000 buys in his first ever pay-per-view outing, and Davis took note.

A precocious three-time champion, Davis was on the phone earlier this month to talk up his upcoming title bout this Saturday, October 31, against four-time champion Leo Santa Cruz on Showtime PPV (9 p.m. ET/6 p.m. PT) from the Alamodome in San Antonio in an event presented by Premier Boxing Champions.

But the conversation kept veering back to Mayweather’s tour de force against the late Gatti because of the parallels that Davis drew between that fight and his own with Santa Cruz.

Comparing young fighters to someone of Mayweather’s ilk is usually a fool’s errand because of Mayweather’s remarkable and sustained success, especially on PPV, where he fought 15 times and surpassed a million buys a record nine times. But once upon a time Mayweather was an undefeated, ambitious youngster who hungered to ascend to the highest levels of his sport, and he took his first step toward that goal against Gatti.

Anyone looking to pinpoint when exactly Mayweather first morphed into a future box office star could reference that bout against the immensely popular Gatti as turning point.

Now, Davis, 25, who fights under Mayweather's promotional banner, could be coming upon such a moment in his own career, and he can sense it.   

When Davis (23-0, 22 knockouts) faces Santa Cruz on Oct. 31, he will be fighting on pay-per-view for the first time, and he's well-aware what a convincing and widely-viewed win will do for him  — just as Mayweather benefited greatly from his performance against Gatti. 

“When I watch his fight with Gatti, I know what that meant for his career, because that was his first pay-per-view, and that was the first one for him,” said Davis, who will be vying for Santa Cruz’s WBA “super” 130-pound championship and defending his own WBA world lightweight title in a 12-round main event. “He had to also worry about selling the fight, and that’s what I’m also focused on. I have to do a lot of promoting outside the ring to sell (PPVs), and I look at that as part of my job. I’m going to put on a show on Oct. 31, just like he did.” 

Davis and his team have been laying the groundwork for this moment. In 2019, Davis stamped himself as a strong ticket seller from drawing large crowds in Carson City, CA, his hometown of Baltimore, and more recently, Atlanta, when he stopped the former Cuban amateur star Yuriorkis Gamboa in 12 rounds before a crowd of 14,129. 

He and Santa Cruz won’t shatter any attendance records in Texas, but the fact that fans can show up will be cause for celebration. For the first time at a major boxing event in the United States since the COVID-19 pandemic shut down sports, Davis-Santa Cruz will allow a limited number of spectators to attend.

Those on Davis’ promotional team describe this fight as a passing of the torch moment. Not from Santa Cruz to Davis but from Mayweather to Davis as the next pay-per-view star. Mayweather was willing to climb out on a limb when he predicted their fight could draw between one and two million buys. Citing modern technology, he said the bout should at least surpass the numbers he helped generate against Gatti. 

I'm ready for this moment. Undefeated Three-Time World Champion - Gervonta "Tank" Davis

“When I fought Arturo Gatti, we didn’t have social media,” Mayweather said at a virtual press conference. “We didn’t have the different social media outlets. I was pushing and promoting the first PPV, and we did some pretty decent numbers. These two guys can probably beat that. The reason they can beat that is, like I said before, it’s totally different now.”

While times are different, the connections that link their inaugural appearances on PPV are multilayered and fascinating to scrutinize, from the type of opponent they faced to the venue where they fought. Mayweather traveled into Gatti’s backyard of Atlantic City as an unbeaten two-division champion in his PPV debut, just as Davis, in fighting in Texas, will likely be fighting before a pro-Santa Cruz crowd.

Gatti was a fan-favorite who authored unlikely comebacks and partook in brutal slugfests. His supporters flocked to him because of his ring style and down-to-earth, accessible personality. Santa Cruz is also well-liked and admired, a punch-machine whose backstory requires Kleenex. He is the sentimental favorite with a father who has battled cancer and other health issues. “Even if they’re both the ‘B’ side, both Gatti and Santa Cruz are very accomplished and well-known," said Steve Farhood, the Showtime boxing analyst and historian. "They both have large followings."

Mayweather and Davis were at different stages of their careers when they stepped up to PPV, Farhood noted. Mayweather was fighting on the platform seven years after he won his first title in 1998; Davis captured his first title almost four years ago, in a scintillating seventh-round stoppage of Jose Pedraza for the IBF junior lightweight title. So, Mayweather had more time to establish himself as a fixture before he jumped to PPV, even if Davis has proven to be a reliable ticket seller. 

“We were both young — he was 28, I’m 25,” Davis said. “We were both champions, it was a huge fight, we both had great opponents.”

Davis will be dropping down in weight to face Santa Cruz, shrinking from 135 pounds to 130, while Mayweather was still in the process of moving up when he faced Gatti, Farhood pointed out. It was just Mayweather’s third fight at 140 pounds after he fought most of his career at 135 and below. “We all knew Floyd would make the weight against Gatti,” Farhood said. “Gervonta struggled to make 135 in his last fight, and now he will have to make 130.”

An impressive Davis victory against Santa Cruz (37-1-1, 19 knockouts) should solidify him as one of the top fighters in the sport, according to Farhood. Davis has stopped 22 of his 23 opponents and employs an aggressive, seek-and-destroy style. 

“He’s like a mini-Mike Tyson with his power,” Farhood said. “And if he can do to Leo what he’s done to most of his opponents, I think there’s no doubt he’s a top pound-for-pound guy.”

Davis-Santa Cruz will be the first bout where more than one divisional title is at stake since Mayweather’s second bout with Marcos Maidana in 2014, Farhood said, when Mayweather retained welterweight and junior middleweight titles. 

By that time, Mayweather was already using social media to plug his fights. Davis isn’t afraid to use social media to promote his own business, and one name he has called out on Twitter is the undefeated Ryan Garcia, a popular lightweight who will step up in class to face the former Olympic-gold medalist Luke Campbell on Dec. 5 in the biggest test of his career. 

Asked which fighter he believes can further advance his career on PPV after Santa Cruz, Davis mentioned Garcia as giving him the best chance, in the same way that Oscar De La Hoya propelled Mayweather to box office heights when they met in 2007 and Mayweather won a split decision. Garcia is promoted by De La Hoya’s Golden Boy Promotions in an even bit of symmetry.

“Ryan has that profile, the image of the ‘Golden Boy’ in and out of the ring,” Davis said. “That’s the only fighter who I can think of facing down the line in the kind of pay-per-view fight that can compare to Floyd and Oscar.”

But of course, that’s only if he can overcome Santa Cruz, no easy chore. Davis said he wasn’t looking past his 32-year-old opponent. He knows what’s at stake on Oct. 31, the rewards that await him, the honors that will be bestowed if he delivers on PPV.  

"I'm ready for this moment," he said. "I'm ready to make my mark."  

For a closer look at Gervonta Davis, check out his fighter page. 

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