Hope and Fisticuffs in the Land of 'The Wire'

Fightland Blog

By Jeff Harder

Photos by Matt Sprague

Calvin Ford maneuvers an extended-cab pick-up truck down West Baltimore blocks, an old laminate from a Junior Olympics boxing tournament dangling against the dashboard. From the passenger seat, the world outside is a blur of boarded-up row houses and young men orbiting street corners, like B-roll footage from The Wire. Of course, it's easy to make that comparison with one of the characters behind the wheel.

"Politicians downtown say that [The Wire] painted the city negative," says Ford, part of the real-life basis for Dennis "Cutty" Wise, a character in the third and fourth seasons of the HBO series. "No it didn’t—it gave you the other side of the city. It gave you a glimpse at how the police carried it. Let's keep it real: it gave you a glimpse of what's going on here in Baltimore."

Eight days earlier on these same blocks, the funeral of Freddie Gray gave way to flying bricks and police brandishing riot gear, a catharsis fed by decades-old tensions and inequities. Now, the new attorney general is in town, the streets are quieter, and West Baltimore's next chapter is being written. "It's unfortunate that we had that incident," Ford says of the riot, his inflection drawling out had and chopping up incident. "But I don’t look at it as a bad incident because now it has other people paying attention. We have the world watching this city now, so what's next? We gotta sit here and change what made it happen and make it better." He steers onto Pennsylvania Avenue and parks a block over from a burned-out Foot Locker in front of an off-white, modernist building undamaged by the riots. Plain black letters over the glass entrance read "Upton Boxing Center."

When Ford went to prison in 1988, he was a lieutenant for one of the city's biggest drug rings. Today, a lifetime removed from who he used to be, he's the head coach here, a gym run by the city's Department of Recreation and Parks run primarily for kids in one of Baltimore's poorest neighborhoods. One of those kids became a grown featherweight named Gervonta "Tank" Davis, who aims for this 11th straight professional win this Friday. Another victory for Davis would prove to everyone on those corners what Ford already knows firsthand: the ring offers hope.

The nucleus of Upton Boxing Center looks like it had a past life as a basketball court, with a boxing ring in the middle, two-toned walls, exercise equipment posted up across the floor, and a collage of banners covering the walls. One advertises Gervonta Davis's July 20, 2013 fight at Coppin State University. Another reads "In Loving Memory of the Champ—Ronald 'Rock' Gibbs.'"

Dressed in a blue t-shirt and grey sweatpants, Calvin Ford pantomimes combinations of half a dozen punches with a grace that makes it hard to believe he's 50 years old, and he maintains the sort of exuberance reserved for someone who designs a workout that others have to grind their way through. Right now, Ford and Kenny Ellis, a bald and bearded Upton coach who looks like he could be Ford's bodyguard, smile and trade jokes with two breathless fighters while they sweat out shuttle runs, shadowboxing, and calisthenics. One of them, Willie Williams, has a fight in a few days. "If you don't win, I'm gonna relocate—I better bring canned goods with me just in case," Ellis says, and laughter hits the high ceilings.

Williams was among the fighters from Upton who made cameo appearances during boxing-oriented scenes on The Wire, a byproduct of Ford's life story being wrapped up in actor Chad Coleman's portrayal of Dennis "Cutty" Wise. Wise was a Baltimore stick-up guy who, upon release from a 14-year sentence, wavers between crime and day-laboring legitimacy before harnessing his boxing expertise and finding redemption in running a gym for neighborhood youths. Ford became part of the character's source material when Ed Burns, one of the show's writers and a former Baltimore detective who helped put Ford behind bars, tracked him down at the gym years later. "It so happened that I came home, and he seen all the stuff I was doing," Ford says.

But you can't appreciate what Ford does today without understanding who he used to be. He grew up in Lexington Terrace, a heroin- and cocaine-infested West Baltimore housing project. His churchgoing family put him in Boy Scouts and made sure he saw the world outside Baltimore, but the lure of drug money hadn’t disappeared by high school. "It was in front of my door every day," Ford says. Over time, Ford had become a lieutenant for a million-dollar drug operation run by Warren "Black" Boardley.

There was an understanding with the police in those days, Ford says: no gunplay in Lexington Terrace, and no one will come bother you. But by the late 1980s, Ford's crew drew unwanted attention after Reggie Gross, an enforcer for the gang and a heavyweight boxer under Mack Lewis who fought Mike Tyson in 1986, was charged and convicted for three brutal murders. "[Those murders] brought the feds on us," Ford says. "We beat a lot of charges—I had, like, 20 drug charges that I beat," he says. "It so happened that [the feds] got under somebody's skin and they said, 'Calvin is the source.'" Ford was convicted on racketeering and conspiracy charges, and went to federal prison in 1988.

"When I got locked up, I learned how I was supposed to carry myself," Ford says. He earned his GED, got his deadlift up to 600 pounds, and learned how to bake. ("At one of the jails, the captain said, 'Man, you make the best chocolate chip cookies in the world,'" Ford says.) A natural street fighter, he also learned the finer points of boxing behind bars under Gross and other incarcerated mentors. After his release, he says he took half a dozen different menial jobs to stay busy and prove everyone wrong who said he'd go back to selling drugs. One day, he grew frustrated while taking out trash at his job at Phillips Seafood. "I was ready to walk off the job, but something in me said, 'This is a test,' so I stayed." The next day, Ford says, he got a job as a baker in the Phillips commissary, the start of a corporate climb that led to a $30-an-hour supervisor's position.

Around the same time, Ford discovered a city-run boxing program at Herring Run Recreation Center, part of former mayor Martin O'Malley's efforts to start gyms for underprivileged kids around the city. Ford enrolled his son Quaadir, whom he'd been coaching on the heavy bags in their basement, and began volunteering at the center, learning more coaching secrets from mentors like Ellis, Mack Allison, and Leon Fitzgerald. In time, the gym moved to larger quarters at 1901 Pennsylvania Avenue, and Ford got on the payroll. Between 2006 and 2009, he won four straight Ringside championships in the 152-pound masters division. A few years after that, he left his day job and joined Upton full-time.

"Calvin is one of the great motivators I've seen in Baltimore in quite some time," says Gary Williams, who's spent 31 years covering boxing in D.C., Maryland, and Virginia. "…I applaud him for what he's done: given his background and his previous lifestyle, he really wants to make sure no one falls into that same situation ever again."

Upton Boxing Center opens its doors to anyone ages "eight to a hundred," Ford says, charging $65 a year for a membership. Thirty to 50 people, mostly boys, might find themselves in the same class on any given day. The office is wallpapered with press clippings and photos celebrating the high points, and pushpins in a U.S. wall map show where boxing has taken Upton's alumni. "If you give them different experiences, guess what's gonna happen? Their universe opens up, and it's gonna change their way of thinking," Ford says.

When young men disappear from the gym, Ford doesn’t moralize about their reasons for leaving. "I was in the streets too…I'm not goin' to promote it, but I understand why they doin' it," he says. But when Ford thinks about the fighters who left and never came back, his voice cracks and his eyes well up. There was Angelo Ward, a super featherweight who sold drugs outside the gym and was shot and killed in December 2012. There was Ronald "Rock" Gibbs, a nationally ranked Olympic hopeful who was stabbed to death at 17. And then there's Quaadir, one of Ford's eight children. Father and son had a falling out over Ford's reluctance to let Quaadir go pro. Quaadir moved to Trenton, New Jersey, where he became a high-ranking Bloods gang member. On July 21, 2013, he was shot and killed in Trenton—hours after Davis won his fourth pro bout at home in Baltimore. "[Quaadir] used to say that he didn’t have a family structure there, and he had to live the way he had to live because he was out in the streets," Ford says. "I miss him a lot—I think about him all the time."

Ford has seen plenty of Upton fighters reach great heights, too. Ramone Manley was his first national champion. Tyrieshia Douglas, a female 112-pounder who came within one decision of a 2012 Olympic bid. Upton has had countless more PAL champions, Silver and Golden Gloves standouts, and up and comers like Malik Hawkins, a super lightweight with a 3-0-1 pro record. But Ford says he's never had "that premier fighter," a name to convince the city to devote more funding to upgrade and expand the gym, attract high-level pros to do their training camps in West Baltimore, and show locals that someone from around the way is doing big things thanks to the sweet science.

Then again, maybe that fighter has been here all along.

Around 5:30 p.m., Gervonta "Tank" Davis comes through Upton's entrance wearing ear buds and a blank face. He just woke up from a nap, his number-one pastime during the six-day weeks of training leading up to his eight-rounder with Alberto Mora in Atlantic City on May 22. He's been splitting his morning and evening workouts between Upton and HeadBangers Gym in Washington, D.C. Now, ahead of the night's workout, the 20-year-old Davis zigzags from ringside to the weight room, where others can hear his whispers.

"Coach Calvin, he believed in me when nobody did," Davis says.

Davis remembers a childhood marred by his parents' drug problems and stints in foster care before winding up on Woodyear Street. "I was the new kid on the block, so I was fighting a lot," he says. One day, Davis's uncle brought his eight-year-old nephew to Upton after catching him scrapping outside his front door. Ford's son Quaadir took Davis under his wing at Upton, and he grew fast. At 10 years old and 65 pounds, Davis won a Silver Gloves title. In the years that followed, he compiled a 206-15 amateur record. He missed the age cut-off for the 2012 Olympics, so Davis and Ford made a deal: win a national title and you can go pro. He won the 2012 Golden Gloves nationals at 123 pounds. Since then Davis has won all 10 pro fights, nine by knockout, and signed with Al Haymon, manager for Floyd Mayweather, Jr.

His handlers won't put his pro fights online, so someone on Team Davis shows me the closing moments of his last fight against Israel Suarez on his iPhone. Davis connects with three hooks in a row, and Suarez crumples at 47 seconds of the first round. He's got the defense of Mayweather and the power of Tyson, they say. "Gervonta's one of them fighters that come through every 25 years," says Ellis. "Just gifted."

In his 31 years, Williams has seen only two world champions come out of Baltimore: Vincent Pettway and Hasim Rahman. Baltimore fighters have had trouble avoiding the pitfalls of the streets and adapting to the bright lights, he says, but Gervonta is an exception. "People talk about Gervonta differently than other boxers. They talk about his footwork, his ability to go to the body—they talk about him in different, more technical terms than they do other boxers in the area." He's still building his career, but Williams has high expectations. "He may be the next one to go over the top. I really do believe that."

Ford says he wants Davis to be a "beacon"—a homegrown champion and a pillar of his community. That's why, along with eating clean and avoiding career-shortening sparring wars, Davis's mentors tell him to remember his community: pay respects to the people who gave him snow cones when he had empty pockets, snap pictures with the people who remembered him when he was in diapers, walk away from confrontations because you never know who will be watching, because winning fights and carrying a good reputation shows the people standing on the corner that there are rewards to hitting a heavy bag. "When Tank busts through the door and other kids see that it can be done, they'll stay in the gym," he says.

In the meantime, Ford and Davis grind through the days until May 22 while the city around them moves forward. Before the riots, West Baltimore was already changing for the better Ford says—new homes, a new bakery up the street. There are still troubled young men in the gym, but there's a new breed too, Ford says. More of his athletes are finishing school. More parents are coming to watch them train. Along with the gym, weight room, and showers, Upton's facilities including a computer room where Ford would like to keep a tutor on staff. It's a matter of finding and cultivating talent that kids possess, Ford says, whether it's with numbers, words, or hands. "If you don’t put 'em nowhere, don’t give 'em a chance, tell 'em they won't be anything, what's gonna happen?"

The sun's getting lower and school-aged pugilists fill the floor at Upton for the evening workout. They exchange awkward hellos with Coach Ford, slip into workout gear, and mime crosses and hooks while their shoes squeak across the floor. Ford calls over one waist-high, silent, stone-faced kid. He puts his hand on the kid's shoulder and praises his progress. "You're a ringer," Ford says. The stone-faced kid gives a toothy smile, and stalks away throwing jabs and crosses. 


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