Men At Work
10:07 AM EDT on April 24, 2023
LAS VEGAS — Vegas is like the ocean. It doesn’t change. Not unless the whole world does. All the chaotic things that happen inside of it are reduced to just ripples on the surface. As a whole, it persists. So on the day before the fight, the arching video screen roof covering all of Fremont Street make you feel like you can’t escape the casinos even when you step outside of them, dooming you forever to the echoes of the cover band doing Coolio’s “Fantastic Voyage” on a stage outside the Four Queens. And on the night before the fight, the dancing girls on little table-sized stages set up between the card table of the Circa will not be able to wipe the desultory look off their faces, their swaying bodies betrayed by their deadened eyes. And on the morning of the fight, a sunburnt homeless man waving a bottle will stagger down Carson Street screaming, “I’ll pass any fucking polygraph! I’ll pass any polygraph they give me!” And on the afternoon of the fight all the guys with big gym muscles and big gold chains and tattoo murals that filigree all their exposed skin will stand around like trick-or-treaters who all bought their costumes from the same catalog. And on the morning after the fight, the straitlaced tourists will mill about with their New Balances scuffing over the little cards with topless girls and phone numbers littering the sidewalk and wander wherever the lights are flashing the brightest. And everyone will look at one another, at all the pieces of this place, and wait for someone else to tell them why they’re here. To tell them who they are supposed to be.
Fights have a purpose, which imbues them with appeal in this purposeless place. They are the islands of passing debris that all the barnacles cling to so as not to be left drifting in the abyss. Big fights give meaning to all the empty pageantry of Vegas, at least for a weekend. They promise to redeem the mistake that we all made in coming here at all.
This was a big fight. Gervonta “Tank” Davis, lightweight powerhouse, one of the purest hard punchers in boxing, polished, a product of Baltimore, a forgotten child raised up by a trainer who inspired the “Cutty” character on The Wire, the proverbial kid who rose from nothing to become a champion. Tank is a killer who grows more and more cerebral with each passing year, which only makes him more dangerous. He is a world class athlete who has one of those odd bodies that never really look particularly in shape, and now he his covered with so many tattoos, from his chin down to his feet, that you couldn’t see any definition even if it was there. Reliable knockout punchers are the most valuable commodity in boxing, and Tank is that. He seems at all times totally unflappable. He has steady eyes and never appears to get nervous. He knows he is where he should be.
On the other side was Ryan Garcia, “King Ry,” a ridiculous nickname for a 24-year-old pretty boy who looks more like a side character from the Twilight movies than a member of the brutal world of boxing. He’s tall and chiseled and baby-faced and his black hair is thick and lustrous. He has 10 million Instagram followers and who can even imagine the DMs he gets. But he’s a dangerous fucking fighter. He’s not awkward, as many tall guys are, and he has superlative hand speed, and one of the most devastating left hooks in boxing. It’s fast and he flicks it out with that long arm and turns it over and it’s very easy for a shorter fighter to catch it on the jaw and go to sleep. It cracks like a whip with a set of brass knuckles on the tip. Nobody had ever beaten Garcia because everyone who tried to get inside that left hook got punished for it severely.
Tank was the more refined fighter, more complete, having purged all the rawness out of his game and boiled himself down to a patient and measured executioner who is satisfied to wait for the moment that he knows will come. Garcia is still growing as a boxer, a bit of a boy to Tank’s man, as embodied by the fact that even though Garcia has two lions tattooed on his chest and a huge sword running through two crowns tattooed on his back, you can still see his regular skin between his tattoos. Not so for Tank.
But. But! Tank was the shorter fighter. And though he has sophisticated footwork and defense, he is more quick than he is fast fast. Garcia has a long and punishing jab and that split second hook he can throw right off the jab and he knocks out short fighters as a habit. It was not hard at all to imagine him just slicing Tank’s face up with that mean jab all night and then cracking him on the temple when the short guy tried to leap inside. Very easy to imagine that. So easy I put $50 on Garcia to do just that. Talent is subjective, but height and reach are not. If Garcia could keep his distance and fight intelligently, he could win this fight. But who knew if he would do all that?
The fight was early evening Vegas time in an arena that sits just off the southern end of the Strip. A parade of fight people flowed over from the MGM Grand, past the ceremonial boxing ring with a golden lion sitting in it set up in the hotel lobby, past the casino floor and the David Copperfield Theater, over the pedestrian bridge to the New York New York simulacrum, past the Salt Bae restaurant and the Terry Fator ventriloquist show and the pinging blinging blinking lights. Las Vegas is like the internet, an endless series of discrete and disconnected entertainment quanta, streaming past your eyes until you pick one or die. At the pre-fight press conference earlier in the week, Tank showed up in a trucker hat that read “I LOVE SEX,” and Garcia lounged shirtless in a jacket rakishly opened well down his chest, like a young Dirk Diggler. They were fully present in Vegas, and Vegas was in them.
The arena is the size of a basketball stadium, and they had almost all of the press sitting up in the fifth-floor rafters, looking down at the ring like snipers. At lesser fights the press sits in the first several rows at ringside, but seats in those rows were selling for about $6,000 apiece on Saturday, and the promoters decided they would rather make an extra half million or so in ticket sales than to lavish more perks on the horde of slovenly middle aged reporters from BobsBoxingSite.com, who were busily licking chicken finger crumbs off their fingers. For some reason.
Ryan Garcia perched at the end of the locker room tunnel, his face projected on the arena’s big screen, and closed his eyes and turned his gloved palms upward in an exaggerated performance of letting the spirit of god wash over himself, as sappy inspirational music played. Looked absurd. His long, black sequined robe and red gloves were relatively low key, though. Davis was wearing metallic green trunks covered in an all over print of metallic purple hearts, as if he had gone to the tailor and said, Give me the most garish shit you got. He had a purple robe that read “Human Made.” Who knows why boxers do the things they do? The speakers played “Love Sosa” as he walked in and the entire arena shook every time the bass hit. I think the intimidating power of that sort of entrance is more valuable than whatever hopeful power is contained in the Christian music sort of entrance, but of course the fighters themselves have earned the right to walk in as they see fit. Garcia’s torso was long and lean and it looked, more than anything, like a big target.
Everything and everyone was on edge when the fight started. That’s how it is in fights when each guy knows that either of them can knock the other out, and vice versa. That high strung intensity of a first round of two very fucking good fighters eyeing each other like swordsmen is one of the most enervating feelings in any sport. You could see right away that Tank was short. Garcia put the jab on him in the first, and in the second he clicked up the aggression a notch. He started connecting. Tank had to grab and hold, a sign that Garcia was getting to him. As his punches started to land, you could see, even from way up on the fifth level, the empowering energy of success begin to overwhelm Garcia. He was doing good and so he naturally wanted to do more. The thing is, though, he was doing well by hitting Tank with jabs and left hooks at the proper distance, meaning the distance that allowed him to connect safely, and which needed to be carefully maintained lest he place himself at risk of getting countered. “Don’t jump in!” I yelled out, unprofessionally. Garcia jumped in. He was going to press the action. As soon as he jumped in, Tank rolled under a left hook, a move he had surely practiced one million times in the gym over the past several months, and popped Garcia right in the face with a hard straight left-hand counter, which knocked him down. This was, in retrospect, the most predictable thing in the world. If I had been able to communicate a single message to Ryan Garcia before the fight began it would have been: When you first start landing punches, don’t get excited and jump in. It happened though. Human instinct is more powerful than most things.
After that, Tank’s self-assuredness grew. He was still careful and considered and patient, but he started extending his front hand and just touching Garcia’s own lead hand, leaving it out there, just baiting Garcia to try a throw a left hook over it, which would be slipped and countered again. This kind of self-confidence from a very good fighter carries its own kind of force, and you could see Garcia start to wilt in its face. There were still tense, face-to-face standoffs over the next several rounds, like a cat facing off with a rattlesnake, but the balance of confidence had shifted. Unlike Tank, who has had a hard life and is now comfortable luxuriating in hellish places, Garcia must prove himself to himself over and over in order to maintain and nurture his belief in his own destiny as a champion. That sort of contingent self-belief can be punctured and, in boxing, leads directly to a downward staircase to loss.
In the seventh round, Tank threw a left hand that hit Garcia on the rib cage, right under his right nipple. It didn’t look like much–a glancing blow, almost–but Garcia took several steps back in retreat, grimaced, and then sunk to one knee. He couldn’t get up by the count of 10 and the fight was over. Body shots are funny like that. It is impossible to tell how damaging they are from the outside. A punch that looks utterly pedestrian can clip you on just the right nerve and make you collapse. Garcia’s long torso invited it, and got it. But either then, or a couple rounds later, in the body, or on the jaw, it was probably only a matter of time. Boxing skill is an endless process of refinement, and the more refined boxer almost always wins. The technical possibilities of height and reach are subservient to that. I should have known.
In the ring after the fight, Tank accepted his glory. “I am the face of boxing,” he said. “Abso-fucking-lutely.”
A big fight in Vegas will make you wonder about men. What are we trying to prove? Thousands of men, wearing ostentatious dark shades indoors, wearing chunky ropy glittering jewelry, wearing ugly Givenchy shirts and brand new white fisherman hats, wearing the sort of suits that are vigorously tailored to hug the chest, the chest inflated by bench presses that are not for any other purpose. What’s it all about? The neck tattoos, sunbursts spreading out from Adam’s apples, the kicks that are limited edition and cost $450, the crosses festooned with diamonds, the lack of a sense of irony. Whence our testosterone-and-weed-soaked desperation? You have to ask these questions, or you have to simply accept that thousands of men, all in the same place, are, actually, Scarface, in real life. Those are the only options. A humbled Ryan Garcia, in the post-fight interview, gave all the credit to his opponent. Then he realized he had forgotten someone. He leaned into the microphone just as it was being taken away and said, “No matter what, even if I lose I want to say thank you Jesus Christ for all he does in my life.” Then everyone left.