Keyshawn Davis: Team USA’s gold-medal lightweight hope fights the good fight

TOKYO, JAPAN - AUGUST 06: Keyshawn Davis of Team United States (red) celebrates defeating Hovhannes Bachkov of Team Armenia during the Men's Light (57-63kg) Semifinal 1 on day fourteen of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Kokugikan Arena on August 06, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan. (Photo by Buda Mendes/Getty Images)
TOKYO, JAPAN - AUGUST 06: Keyshawn Davis of Team United States (red) celebrates defeating Hovhannes Bachkov of Team Armenia during the Men's Light (57-63kg) Semifinal 1 on day fourteen of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Kokugikan Arena on August 06, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan. (Photo by Buda Mendes/Getty Images)

USA's gold-medal match qualifier in the lightweight boxing division Keyshawn Davis’ courageous battle for his mental health defies many of the sport’s more common clichés and warmed-over hard-knock stories.

There are no easy roads to the Olympics.

But for Keyshawn Davis, the Team USA boxer now guaranteed at-least silver here in Japan, the road to Tokyo required more than the determination and hard work you hear so much about in the patter of Olympic dreams. Four years ago, with anger the only emotion he knew how to show, this lightweight gold-contender found himself in the back of an ambulance, sirens wailing, en route to a mental facility.

“They strapped me down to the stretcher, cut the sirens, and I ride that way for three hours,” said Davis, still just 22, who speaks with clarity, and even a degree of gratitude, about such terrifying events. “When I get there, they make me take the strings out of my hoodie and my pants – and you know why.”

When Davis was 18, in his last year of high school, he moved from his hometown of Norfolk, across the state of Virginia to Alexandria (on the Potomac River near DC), to work with famed boxing coach Kay Koroma. “I went to become a better fighter,” Davis added in an exclusive interview with Tokyo 2020. “Things didn’t go as expected.”

Where anger won't help

In a sport where tough and mean and game are valuable currency, Davis didn’t tell anyone about the feelings of pressure building in him, the anxiety caused by being separated from his mother, or the weight of trying to help his family out of poverty.

A profound anger, easily camouflaged in the ring, began to spill over. “It was the only emotion I knew how to show,” Davis said of that time, when he’d lost all interest in life and claims he “just didn’t care” anymore. “It’s all I let people see even though I had all the other feelings too, I just kept them hidden and underneath.”

A school counselor Davis grew to trust phoned his sister, who was worried enough about her brother to urge him to check into an emergency facility in Alexandria. “I had to take my clothes off and put on a jumpsuit,” he said of the day that ended with him strapped to a gurney and on his way to a residential facility closer to his hometown. “I was in there the whole day; I thought I’d be in and out.”

When the reality of his situation became clear, when the orderlies arrived with the gurney, Davis made a call to his mother. “She told me ‘don’t snap,’” he said, knowing now that an outburst of anger could have turned his week at the facility into a month, or even years. “’I know you want to, but don’t’. That humbled me right there. The only thing I knew how to do was only going to make the situation worse.”

Wake-up call on first night

Davis describes a trying first night at the facility, where he spent a week medicated and coaxed to open up about what was going on. “They watched me through the night. I couldn't sleep by myself,” he said. “The mattress was so thin it hurt my back and it was so bright in the hallway I had to fight myself to sleep.”

LAKE CHARLES, LOUISIANA - DECEMBER 15: Keyshawn Davis reacts after defeating Ernesto Mercado during the 2020 U.S. Olympic Boxing Team Trials at Golden Nugget Lake Charles Hotel & Casino on December 15, 2019 in Lake Charles, Louisiana. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)
LAKE CHARLES, LOUISIANA - DECEMBER 15: Keyshawn Davis reacts after defeating Ernesto Mercado during the 2020 U.S. Olympic Boxing Team Trials at Golden Nugget Lake Charles Hotel & Casino on December 15, 2019 in Lake Charles, Louisiana. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)
2019 Getty Images

When he woke in the morning from his fitful slumber, Davis became hostile when the doctor who tried to get an IV in him. “I had a big temper back then,” he remembered. “I scared her.”

From that first night and morning, which Davis describes as “the worst,” he discovered what he calls “nothing but peace.” And, as a boxer with Olympic ambitions even then, it’s no surprise that a healthy sense of competition got him to open up in group therapy sessions about what was happening in his life, and in his head.

“There were kids in there, really young, like seven and 12 and 15, a lot younger than me [Davis was 18 at the time]. And you see these young kids doing it, opening up, talking about their problems, I start thinking ‘shoot, I can do this if they can',” laughed Davis, engaging and open about the circumstances he found himself in. “You see these kids stepping up and you get this attitude. Three days in and I was ready to start talking – it made me feel better to hear what these little kids were going through. And when you share things, you feel like you’re not alone.”

Davis, who has a keen attention to detail as well as lightning speed in the ring, left the facility on Halloween Night with new ways of coping. And techniques that would serve him well as he joined his brothers, Kelvin and Keon, in the tricky world of pro boxing.

A road ahead

“I got through it and now I’m living my dream,” said Davis, who went on to win two silver medals at the 2019 world championships and Pan American Games before turning pro in 2021. “Honestly, I think it’s why I’m so good now. The home [mental facility] humbled me and put me on a different perspective.”

Davis likes to say he “beat mental health.” It’s odd phrasing, but a natural posture. He’s a fighter after all. And the anger that once plagued him, he’s channeled that into a career in the ring with every indication of becoming a major success.

He won his first three pro fights, the first two by knockout.

The third was a dominant and unanimous six-round decision against Mexican Jose Antonio Meza on 8 May 2021, part of the undercard of the Canelo Alvarez v. Billy Joe Saunders bout that drew a crowd of 73,126 in Arlington, Texas.

Turning pro was a decision he made during the “lost year” of the pandemic. And Davis, at the time, thought it meant an end to his Olympic Dream. But a change in policy by USA Boxing, only a few weeks before the team’s final training camp, meant he (and fellow pros Troy Isley and Duke Ragan) got their chance to fight for gold in Tokyo.

“I was super, super surprised when I got called back into the team,” said Davis, who Team USA high-performance director Matt Johnson called, even before the Games began, a “medal-potential, medal quality” boxer. “I was confused because I thought it couldn’t happen.”

Davis, a southpaw, arrived in Tokyo among Team USA’s top contenders to medal. And he's delivered on that promise, beating ROC's Gabil Mamedov and Armenian Hovhannes Bachkov to earn his place in the gold-medal match against Andy Cruz of Cuba on 8 August. He credits his experience in the professional fight game as helping him. “My defense is better. It has to be on point when you go pro; you have to step it up. I’m harder to hit now.

“I take less risk,” he said of his style, sharpened in the professional ring with its smaller gloves and higher stakes. “But I’m still aggressive and I still play those good head games. Every fighter is uncomfortable in the ring with me. If you can’t hit someone it will frustrate you.”

Success, Olympic silver assured

It’s no surprise that Davis comes across as older than his 22 years. He’s been through much and he’s done the work of becoming a more complete person. He’s taken a stance in his budding professional life of staying independent, keeping control of his fate and his fortunes.

He’s even earned a nickname: The Businessman.

ARLINGTON, TEXAS - MAY 08:  Keyshawn Davis punches Jose Antonio Meza, during their lightweight fight at AT&T Stadium on May 08, 2021 in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)
ARLINGTON, TEXAS - MAY 08: Keyshawn Davis punches Jose Antonio Meza, during their lightweight fight at AT&T Stadium on May 08, 2021 in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)
2021 Getty Images

Davis’ trip to Tokyo, where he's become the best hope for American boxing gold since Andre Ward last came home with one from Athens in 2004, is another signal of a fast-track toward maturity in and out of the ring.

When asked about his overall goals, he stays away from the snappy, cocksure banter so common to young boxers.

“Honestly, I’m living the success already. Coming through the home, being back on Team USA and travelling,” he said, a long way from that night when sirens wailed a warning in his ears. “All I have to do is live and show the world who Keyshawn Davis is. I’m doing this so kids can feel more comfortable. I’m telling my story and living my success to say ‘you can come from anything – from the ‘hood like me, with no father around.’

“You can beat all the odds,” he said, expressing a depth of understanding without even a hint of cliché. "You don’t have to be all the things stacked up against you.”

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