Although there were nineteen other fighters on the card, the fans inside Barclays Center were there to see Gervonta Davis. More specifically, those who purchased tickets to the fights in Brooklyn were there to see one particular result: Davis knocking out Rolando Romero. (photo by Ryan Hafey)

Throughout the three-fight undercard aired on Showtime PPV, the crowd was timid, arising from its collective quiet every so often when a fighter appeared hurt, as in the Erislandy Lara-Spike O’Sullivan co-feature. Otherwise, the crowd of 18,970, which produced the highest grossing and most attended boxing event in the history of the venue, was building in anticipation for the main event by reportedly patronizing the hallway bars so often that many of the concession stands reportedly ran out of both ice and liquor. 

The first noticeable roars from the crowd came when the parade of celebrities in attendance was announced, including Madonna, and Michael Strahan. The first, and loudest boos next to those that would follow for Romero, were for lightweight star Ryan Garcia—a sign that the audience was deeply invested in Tank and his prospective opponents first and foremost. 

Romero entered to Prince’s “When Doves Cry,” and paired it with an ensemble in tribute to the The Purple One. Reading between the lines, it was perhaps a response to Tank’s affinity for Michael Jackson, having entered to a choreographed Thriller routine prior to his bout against Hugo Ruiz in 2019. Or, it was Rolly doing what Rolly does, trolling the audience, this time by forcing them to watch a person they detest pay homage to a near-universally beloved figure. Whatever the genesis, the result was as intended, a rainfall of boos and jeers as he walked to the ring, and since Prince masterfully crafted the song he walked out to without bass, there was no thumping or reverb to help drown it out. Romero, who was far less animated in his ring walk than during pre-fight events, furrowed his brow that oscillated between focused, perturbed and confused as he marched towards the ring. 

Davis followed to the sounds of Fivio Foreign’s “City Of Gods,” a song with a longing chorus about New York City by one of Brooklyn’s drill music torch bearers, which along with the sight of Tank himself finally whipped the crowd into a frenzy. Over 1500 miles away, Fivio himself watched the fight on a projector screen at an event in Houston, posting Instagram stories laughing at Romero warming up in the locker room and rooting on Davis. 

Although Fivio’s sentiment was shared by many online and in the live audience, Romero, a near -1000 underdog, proved to be a much more serious threat to Davis than previously expected—and one that would give a difficult night to most active lightweights. An active lead hand, a quick tempo and a willingness to throw power shots in sync with Davis forced Tank to both think more, and respect Romero more than one might have anticipated. The first roar from the crowd during the fight came at the end of the first round, when Davis landed his first meaningful left hand, and shouted at Romero “what happened to the first round?”, in reference to his opponent’s promise that he would knock him out in less than three minutes. 

Romero managed to land some shots that seemed to bother Davis, something Davis later attributed to simply getting hit as he was warming up. There was a point in the third and fourth rounds specifically when it seemed as though Davis was somewhat on the run, moving at a pace around the perimeter of the ring that suggested he was more focused on avoiding contact than creating it. According to him though, it was a part of his plan—ostensibly to see how reckless he could bait Romero into being. 

“He was strong for sure but it was a couple shots that I was getting warmed up and he caught me and I was like, ‘I can’t sit with him just yet.’ I know when to take it to my opponents and when to chill out. There was someone in the crowd and they were telling me to press forward and I was like, not yet. I got to (loosen) him up a little more,” Davis told SHOWTIME’s Jim Gray after the bout. 

When fighters like Romero adopt a brazenly antagonistic persona, ostensibly the goal is to wind their opponent up in such a way that they fight out of character and make mistakes. In his post-fight interview, Davis even admitted to being happy that his bout with Romero didn’t happen earlier in the year when it was originally scheduled, because he felt he was “too emotional.” This time around however, he turned the tables on Romero, forcing him to try desperately—recklessly—to fulfill the bold promises he made in the previous weeks. As Davis began to warm up, the crowd reacted to every one of his landed punches, as if he was the home team and the shots were each points going up on the scoreboard.  

In the sixth round, Davis’ plan came to fruition. Romero missed with a right hand, and rather than resetting himself defensively, kept his torso square as he threw a left hand and then another right while he continued to move forward. Davis caught the right hand and threw a perfect looping left hand as he slipped out to his right. Romero crashed face first into the ropes, one arm outstretched past the ring apron as if he were reaching for something fallen behind the couch. Though he staggered to his feet wanting to continue, referee David Fields had Romero’s best interests in mind and wouldn’t allow him to.

Perhaps even more impressive than his performance in the ring was Davis’ appeal at the box office once again. Over his last four fights, Davis has proven himself to be a national attraction, moving tickets in San Antonio, Los Angeles, Atlanta and now New York. Tank’s last three bouts were sellouts, with the Alamodome in San Antonio configured for a limited capacity in the early stages of the pandemic. 

But even more striking than the raw numbers Davis is putting up as a main eventer is who he is attracting specifically. As Morgan Campbell pointed out in a 2021 article for the New York Times, Davis has an “appeal amongst his pro athlete peers.” Star athletes tweeting about Davis’ bout over the weekend included Kevin Durant, Odell Beckham Jr. and Ja Morant. 

One also can’t attempt to explain Davis’ popularity without noting his deep roots in hip-hop, which in 2022 is long entrenched globally as the principal sonic and cultural force. Davis has found himself referenced on tracks by stars such as Lil Baby (who has walked Davis to the ring in the past) and Griselda, and has had links to Drake’s OVO brand over the years, even going on a six-mile run with Drake himself which was documented by TMZ. He’s even had beef with rappers such as Moneybagg Yo and Tekashi 6ix9ine. It’s also likely not a coincidence that Davis is backed by Al Haymon, previously one of the United States’ most successful concert promoters, who had specialized in rap and R&B. The brain trust behind Tank is as astute at tapping into that market as anyone in history and has effectively turned him into a touring attraction. 

“The atmosphere at Barclays last night was, to a large degree, a direct product of Tank’s hip-hop ethos. Nobody in boxing brings out hip-hop’s current generation like Tank Davis,” said Dr. Todd Snyder, author of Beatboxing: How Hip-Hop Changed The Fight Game. “When I was interviewing rap icons for “Beatboxing,” I’d always hear the same name. Nine times out of ten, those guys would tell me Tank Davis was their favorite fighter. Boxing and hip-hop share a long and interwoven history. Perhaps no fighter today more clearly demonstrates this cross-cultural connection. In this regard, Tank follows in the footsteps of Mike Tyson, Zab Judah, Roy Jones Jr., Floyd Mayweather, Adrien Broner, and so many others.”

Davis simply has a particular cultural cache that even the very small handful of objectively more successful fighters than him in America don’t quite have. In some ways, he is similar to his rival and potential future opponent Ryan Garcia, who has helped bring a young, hip social media following to the sport of boxing. Davis has made boxing a trending topic amongst other successful athletes and performers—in other words, the trendsetters themselves. Davis told VIBE’s Preezy Brown in 2019 that his connection with other stars is just a shared appreciation of talent, that they’re “definitely the best at what (they) do.” But there’s clearly much more to it than that. He is able to draw record crowds off his own appeal, regardless of opponent or stakes. Saturday’s bout was for Davis’ secondary WBA title, so one could effectively say it was a contender vs. contender matchup, yet it still captured both a mainstream sports and pop culture audience simultaneously. 

To put it plainly: Some fighters are stars to the boxing public. Gervonta Davis is a star to the stars. 

Corey Erdman is a boxing writer and commentator based in Toronto, ON, Canada. Follow him on Twitter @corey_erdman