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Preview: Gervonta Davis and Leo Santa Cruz both have questions to answer in Showtime PPV main event

Gervonta “Tank” Davis and Leo Santa Cruz meet for belts in two different weight classes on Saturday. Is there more than meets the eye here?

Gervonta Davis v Hugo Ruiz Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images
Scott Christ is the managing editor of Bad Left Hook and has been covering boxing for SB Nation since 2006.

Saturday night’s Showtime PPV (Oct. 31, 9 pm ET) main event between Gervonta “Tank” Davis and Leo Santa Cruz isn’t a fight anyone was really asking to see, but it’s one that has some potentially compelling elements, and some big questions on both sides.

The 25-year-old Davis (23-0, 22 KO) is still very young, but has also been treading water for nearly four years. When he beat Jose Pedraza in Jan. 2017 to win the IBF 130-pound title, he did so in impressive fashion. Pedraza was and is a damn good fighter, and he tried a different, more aggressive attack than his normal to try and test Davis, then just 22 years of age, maybe not everything he was sold to be. But it didn’t work, and Davis’ athleticism and raw power saw him beat Pedraza down into a seventh round stoppage.

The title reign wound up pretty undistinguished. Davis went to the UK and stopped Liam Walsh in three for his first defense four months later. Walsh wasn’t really considered a contender, and he proved not to be. Then Davis missed weight for a defense against Francisco Fonseca in Aug. 2017, losing his belt on the scales but winning the fight all the same, though the knockout was a bit controversial. Davis was absolutely not at his best, looking sluggish and eating more punches than was expected going in.

“Tank” didn’t move up in weight, though, instead digging in at 130. The WBA rewarded his promotional push with an immediate title fight against Jesus Cuellar — getting into the WBA’s treatment of its 130-pound belt(s) in recent years is a long ramble that involves both Davis and Leo Santa Cruz, let’s just sum it up with “they’ve been shown obvious favoritism” — which Davis won inside of three rounds. He was then meant to face Abner Mares, small at 130 and past his best days by a good bit, but an eye injury for Mares meant that Hugo Ruiz stepped in to face Davis in Feb. 2019. Ruiz didn’t last a full round. Ricardo Nunez, an absurd mandatory challenger, was disposed of in two rounds five months later.

How to Watch Davis vs Santa Cruz

Date: Saturday, Oct. 31 | Start Time: 9:00 pm ET
Location: Alamodome, San Antonio, TX
TV: Showtime PPV | Stream:
Live Online Coverage:

Davis finally did step up to 135 pounds for a Dec. 2019 fight with Yuriorkis Gamboa, a badly-faded former featherweight titleholder. Despite Gamboa tearing his Achilles in round two, it took Davis 11-and-a-half rounds to get the Cuban veteran out. Some of that was due to Gamboa’s guts and desire and crazy toughness, but some of it was due to Davis looking a little flat. He’d struggled to make 135 pounds — which he eventually did — and just didn’t look particularly explosive in the fight. Yeah, he dropped Gamboa three times, but how much of that was the fact Gamboa could barely walk?

Davis has looked lethargic twice, once against Fonseca, where he didn’t make weight, and arguably against Gamboa last year, where he made weight but had to do it at the very last minute, basically.

That opens up a question: with this fight being at a 130-pound limit (titles are on the line at 130 and 135 because it’s boxing, we do what we want here if there’s money in a fight or fighter), will he have trouble on the scales and again in the ring?

Leo Santa Cruz v Rafael Rivera Photo by Joe Scarnici/Getty Images

Leo Santa Cruz (37-1-1, 19 KO) is now 32 years old, and has been a standout fighter since 2012, when he broke out with an IBF bantamweight title win over Vusi Malinga. For a bit, he was one of boxing’s more exciting young fighters. Looking back now, his 118-pound title reign isn’t anything to get that excited about — he beat Malinga for a vacant belt, then defended against Eric Morel, Victor Zaleta, and Alberto Guevara — but he was fun to watch and was gaining fans. He had a good body attack, a high level of activity, and while he wasn’t necessarily a big puncher, he had enough pop to break some guys down.

After a move to 122 in 2013 with a win over Alexander Munoz, Santa Cruz won another world title in August of that year, beating Victor Terrazas for the WBC junior featherweight strap. He defended that belt against Cesar Seda, Cristian Mijares, Manuel Roman, and Jesus Ruiz, then moved up again. Like his run at bantamweight, it was solid but the results when added up just aren’t spectacular.

At 126, Santa Cruz scored a tune-up win over Jose Cayetano, then beat Abner Mares in a good fight to win a world title in a third weight class. A successful defense against Kiko Martinez led to a showdown in Brooklyn agaisnt Carl Frampton, where Santa Cruz finally took his first L, losing a majority decision in a fantastic fight. The two met in a rematch in Jan. 2018, six months after the first bout, and Santa Cruz won a majority decision in Las Vegas. A desired and discussed rubber match never came to be.

Since the Frampton rematch, Santa Cruz has taken a lot of criticism for his opposition. He dominated Chris Avalos, beat Mares in a rematch, and then finished up at 126 (we think) with a win over Rafael Rivera. He moved up to 130 and got a bogus WBA title fight with Miguel Flores, which he won pretty handily.

Santa Cruz is a really laid back guy. He doesn’t seem to take fan or media criticism to heart — and he doesn’t even get that much from the media because he really is a nice guy, very affable and kind. He seems truly happy with how life has gone for him, and he credits that to Al Haymon and the rest of his team, and rightly so. When you break it all down, he’s had a fantastic career. He’s won world titles in three divisions, only lost one fight, and made a lot of money. He’s been featured on a lot of the biggest cards in recent years, including Mayweather-Pacquiao, the biggest PPV of all time.

But there’s still something missing in Santa Cruz’s career, arguably. He’s sort of akin to a consistently strong actor, who maybe doesn’t have that little extra something that makes him stand out as a top star, even with how good he really is. A win on Saturday over Davis could be sort of his J.K. Simmons in Whiplash chance — that opportunity to shine on the big stage, with the spotlight truly on him.

There are concerns, of course. Santa Cruz is really still quite unproven at 130, and there aren’t a lot of fighters who have been truly proven, seriously established top guys in four weight classes, which is what Leo’s going for this weekend. He wasn’t a huge puncher at 118, and his power has diminished by the weight class. And he’s also had a lot of carefully-chosen opposition. It’s not that he’s never fought anyone — Frampton and Mares were both quite good — but there have been a lot of deliberate choices over the years, and a lot of matchups that deserved criticism.

We don’t know if Leo’s power — what there is of it — can keep Davis honest at 130 pounds. We don’t know how he’ll deal with a guy who has the power and explosive ability of Davis, if Davis is in good shape and fights at his best. And yet, it’s not like Davis has been bowling over the top opponents possible, either. Has there been a hesitation to match him tough for whatever reason?

There are big questions on both sides here. Maybe Davis is simply too naturally strong for Santa Cruz, maybe Leo just won’t have the goods at 130. Or maybe Santa Cruz can give Davis some tactical problems he hasn’t had to deal with before, maybe a smart game plan can make up for Leo’s expected lack of power at 130, maybe rounds will go by as Santa Cruz scores points and Davis relies too much on power shots that keep not being there. Maybe! Maybe?

I like the fight. It might be a bust, and I understand that mind set going in if you have it, but I think there’s intrigue in this thing.


Errol Spence Jr. v Shawn Porter Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images

San Antonio native Mario Barrios is in the co-feature because he’s the local attraction for the show, and the 25-year-old junior welterweight, who holds the WBA’s secondary “world” (“regular”) title, will be facing fellow Texan Ryan Karl.

Being totally honest, this fight projects as a pretty bad mismatch. Barrios (25-0, 16 KO) gutted out a debatable win over Batyr Akhmedov in his last fight, and had been doing well to that point. He doesn’t seem like a true top tier, world class guy; that’s just one man’s opinion, of course, but once he jumped from 130 to 140, his 5’10” height — while still an advantage usually — wasn’t so big an advantage anymore, and his competition sort of stalled out for a bit there. He did prove he can hang in tough with a guy like Akhmedov, who is a good fighter, but this is another step back in competition. There’s a seeming lack of confidence from someone involved in his matchmaking, and if that’s not the case, then they could’ve made better fights and not left things open to that interpretation. Take it up with yourselves.

The 28-year-old “Cowboy” Karl (18-2, 12 KO) is a fun TV fighter when you’re talking prelims and undercards and whatnot, but he’s never shown the sort of ability or the results that should have him in any sort of world title fight, be it real or secondary or interim. He’s won three straight against marginal opposition, but he’s also been stopped by the likes of Eddie Ramirez and Kevin Watts, who aren’t exactly contenders. Ramirez was a rising prospect at the time, and he beat up on Karl, though Karl did scrape a couple rounds on my card just on heart and grit. He’s a determined guy and he will come to fight here, but he’s not in Barrios’ league, and if Karl wins this it’ll be a legitimate contender for Upset of the Year.

Regis Prograis v Juan Jose Velasco Photo by Alex Menendez/Getty Images

Former 140-pound titlist Regis Prograis will look to get back in the win column, as he takes on Juan Heraldez in a 10-round bout.

The 31-year-old “Rougarou” Prograis (24-1, 20 KO) hasn’t fought since his Oct. 2019 trip to London, where he lost a competitive decision to Josh Taylor in a fight that unified the WBA and IBF titles and gave Taylor the World Boxing Super Series trophy. Before falling against Taylor, Prograis had been on a really good run, scoring quality wins over Kiryl Relikh and Terry Flanagan in the tournament, and also beating former titleholder Julius Indongo and previously-unbeaten Juan Jose Velasco and Joel Diaz Jr in his three prior bouts.

Prograis is a little older than you might guess off hand, so if he wants to get back in the title mix at 140 before his prime starts really coming to an end, he has to win here, and he’ll be the clear favorite.

Heraldez (16-0-1, 10 KO) is a 30-year-old Mayweather Promotions fighter who had trouble in his own last fight, going to a 10-round draw with Argenis Mendez in May 2019. Heraldez has a lot of belief in his boxing skills, but he also seems to sort of fall in love at times with proving he’s crafty and slick. That worked OK against the likes of Kevin Watts and Eddie Ramirez, and it didn’t get him beaten by Mendez, but Prograis is another level. Heraldez will have to be better than he’s been before to get an upset win here.

LA FIGHT CLUB: Art Hovanissyan v Diego Magdaleno Photo by Josh Lefkowitz/Getty Images

Diego Magdaleno and Isaac Cruz will meet in an IBF lightweight eliminator, and if that sounds familiar, you might be thinking of the Selby-Kambosos IBF lightweight eliminator on the Usyk-Chisora card. The IBF’s No. 1 and No. 2 contender spots are currently not filled, because that’s how they do it. At the moment, Kambosos is ranked No. 3, Selby No. 4, Cruz No. 6, and Magdaleno No. 9. How does this all shake out to get us the 1 and 2 spots filled? Don’t ask so many fucking questions, bud! It’s just vibes at the IBF!

When all is said and done, the winners of Selby-Kambosos and Cruz-Magdaleno might fight for the actual title shot. They might fight for the actual title, if Teofimo Lopez goes up in weight and vacates at 135.

This is pretty clearly the most well-matched fight on the PPV undercard. The 34-year-old Magdaleno (32-3, 13 KO) is 0-2 in world title fights, losing a split decision to Roman “Rocky” Martinez in a 2013 WBO 130-pound title bout, and getting stopped in two by Terry Flanagan in a 2015 WBO 135-pound title bout. He also was viciously knocked out by Teofimo Lopez in Feb. 2019.

Magdaleno was pretty obviously sent out this past February in Nashville to lose to local fighter Austin Dulay; instead, he pretty well gave Dulay the business and won a clear 10-round decision. Magdaleno’s never been a big puncher or anything, but he’s not a dull fighter, either, which is maybe because he’s not slick enough to be boring. Against good opponents, he has to fight.

The 22-year-old Cruz (19-1-1, 14 KO) could be an interesting fighter at lightweight, and at the very least he makes for an interesting matchup in this one. He’s short (5’4½”) and short-armed (62½” reach) at 135, but he’s a scrapper. He’s had just two fights outside of Mexico, but he’s won them both, including a February minor upset over Thomas Mattice, where he showed a lot of activity, a fearlessness, and an understandable focus on body work when he got inside on the much taller Mattice. I think this one has some quiet potential to be a real show-stealer and a hell of a fight.

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