Calvin Ford Is Still Taking Care of the Neighborhood

Once the inspiration for a character in 'The Wire,' the former drug trade soldier emerged from a decade in prison with a mission to mentor kids and turn some into top-flight fighters, like Gervonta Davis, who could be boxing's next big thing.
photo of Jonathan AbramsJonathan Abrams@jpdabramsSenior Writer, B/R MagFebruary 8, 2019

Actor Chad L. Coleman had recently been cast for HBO's acclaimed series The Wire when the show's brain trust advised him to meet with Calvin Ford. Though the show's co-creators, David Simon and Ed Burns, have said there was no one-to-one ratio for characters in the show and the figures they were partially sourced from, Coleman would come to find out that Ford and the character he would portray in the show's third season, Dennis "Cutty" Wise, shared a lot in common.

After Coleman made his way to Upton Boxing Center on West Baltimore's Pennsylvania Avenue to meet Ford, he began to understand what made Ford so intriguing a character to emulate.

"I'm always inspired by people who are able to move from one position to another," Coleman said. "Most people find it very difficult to change."

Ford, a trainer at Upton, had not undergone so much a change as a drastic transformation, one that took him from being a soldier in Baltimore's drug trade to a mentor for kids in that same city.

"What I got was a beautiful heart, a man who found himself, who went down the wrong path, recognized his wrong, but also recognized a strength in himself from being able to do that," Coleman said. "The dirt he did, he saw his talents in it, so he knew if he shifted it to the good, he'd bring it to a different circumstance and make it positive."

One meeting turned into several, and as Coleman kept returning to the gym, he noticed a kid, just a tiny ball of energy, really, bouncing around the center's walls.

"Tank was the little boy phenom that [Ford] was worried about whether he was going to lose him to the streets or not," Coleman said. "You could tell he had it. He was just a little dude whaling away."

He never stopped whaling.

On Saturday, nearing a couple of decades after Coleman first noticed him, Gervonta "Tank" Davis will defend his World Boxing Association super featherweight title against 30-year-old Hugo Ruiz in his first headline fight on Showtime's Premier Boxing Champions card at California's Dignity Health Sports Park. And Ford will be in his corner as his trainer.

Davis, a 24-year-old southpaw, is 20-0 with 19 knockouts. While the bout was to have been against Abner Mares, a former three-division titleholder, Mares was forced to bail on the fight when he suffered a detached retina in training. Ruiz, a former junior featherweight world champion, was then tabbed to step in.

For Davis, the fight will be his first since last April, a third-round knockout of Jesus Cuellar.

"I believe I have the total package inside the ring and outside the ring," Davis said of becoming boxing's next star.

Lexington Terrace is a housing project in West Baltimore that inspired The Wire's Franklin Terrace complex. It was also the boyhood home of Calvin Ford. Growing up, he fell into the world that greeted him—one centered on drugs and crime.

Ford became a lieutenant for drug kingpin Warren Boardley. In 1988, he went to federal prison, convicted on racketeering and conspiracy charges.

During his decade-long prison tenure, Ford baked and boxed. He learned that he had a natural talent for crafting sweets—a skill that eventually landed him a job, once he had been released, in the Phillips Seafood commissary. Another member in his crew, Reggie Gross, was imprisoned for three murders. Gross had boxed professionally, most notably suffering a one-round knockout loss to Mike Tyson. Ford kickboxed in his younger days, which prompted Gross to encourage Ford to become a boxer upon his release.

Ford figured that he was too old to box, but not too old to pass on his knowledge.

So he busied himself after his release and refused the lure to re-enter his prior life. In prison, he noticed people often left only to return behind bars. They did the same thing, repeated the same patterns.

He wanted something different.

At Herring Run Recreation Center, Ford started training his son, Quaadir Gurley. The gym moved to Pennsylvania Avenue and was renamed the Upton Boxing Center.

"Next thing I know, I didn't look back," Ford said. "Just where I'm at now, doing what I'm doing."

Calvin Ford emerged from serving 10 years in federal prison to find the Baltimore neighborhood he grew up in was turning its back on the kids he's been mentoring at the Upton Boxing Center.
Calvin Ford emerged from serving 10 years in federal prison to find the Baltimore neighborhood he grew up in was turning its back on the kids he's been mentoring at the Upton Boxing Center.Photo courtesy of Dave Mandel/Showtime

He found a disconnect between the neighborhood he grew up in and the one he returned to.

"We took care of our neighborhood," Ford, now 53, said. "We understood the kids, looked out for the kids, the people in the neighborhood. We had to take care of our own. Today, there's just no guidance for some of them."

He is trying to provide it. Kids, Ford found, can sense honesty, so he was straight with them, telling them what awaited them outside the gym versus what they could find inside.

"The streets are like a habit," Ford said. "It's like a drug. You're used to a certain lifestyle. Then I had a kid that believed in what I was doing, in what I was telling him. I couldn't go left, because if something happened to me, it's like I didn't care about them."

His transformation drew the attention of Burns, a former Baltimore police detective. "It was just a great opportunity to help out with that show because the show would show what was going on in the city," Ford said.

On The Wire, Ford's loosely inspired alter ego, "Cutty" Wise, is played by Coleman. Wise is a widely respected street soldier recently released from prison. He finds the streets that he returns to changed for the worse thanks to a generation of kids more reckless and heartless than when he grew up there. He opens a boxing center to train children in an effort to keep them from drugs and crime.

(Warning: Video includes NSFW language.)

"I'm one of them kids from the streets," Ford said. "I believe that you have more structured programs in place to help them through all the trauma stuff that they're going through, you'll have better citizens in the world, in the city of Baltimore. You give it a different type of hope."

Davis began his fighting career young. He was five when his uncles James Walker and Edwin Hanks brought him into the Upton gym after catching him brawling in the street.

Davis' parents were in and out of jail at that time, forcing him to spend time in a group home. Upton became a place to vent, where Davis found stability in an erratic world. It wasn't long before Gurley nudged his father into checking out one of Davis' sessions, initiating a partnership that continues today.

"He's a big part of my career, and we came up together in the boxing ring," Davis said of Ford.

Sometimes, Davis beat Ford to the gym.

"When I left the gym, he was leaving with me," Ford said. "He worked hard. He was interested in it for the age that he was at. When he got in the ring, he just turned into a whole different person. He really enjoyed what he was doing. We had other kids that were coming up in front of him; he wanted to be on that same level that they was on."

Davis is one of the success stories. But Upton has also suffered its share of tragedies. Angelo Ward, a super featherweight, was killed in 2012. Ronald "Rock" Gibbs, a talented amateur with Olympic hopes, was stabbed to death at the age of 17. Gurley was shot and killed in New Jersey in 2013 at the age of 24.

Even with their deaths, Ford feels the gym is a benefit to those who train there.

"We have a lot of kids that we lost, incarceration, death," Ford said. "They wasn't going to be fighters, but this made an impact on their life."

Davis, the reigning WBA super featherweight champion, has been influenced as well. Still, there have been challenges along the way. A failure to make weight for a defense of his IBF super featherweight title led Davis to be stripped of his belt before a bout scheduled for the undercard of the Floyd Mayweather-Conor McGregor fight in August 2017. There was the disorderly conduct charge he faced after being arrested last fall for an alleged street fight outside a bar in Washington, D.C. And then there's his unfiltered use of Twitter, where he spars with other fighters and recently discussed his strained relationship with Mayweather.

Gervonta Davis' TKO of Jose Pedraza in 2017 made him the IBF super featherweight champion, a title he now holds in the WBA.
Gervonta Davis' TKO of Jose Pedraza in 2017 made him the IBF super featherweight champion, a title he now holds in the WBA.Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

"[W]hen you're young and when you're his age, there's a lot of distractions that come your way, especially when you have these long layoffs, parties and getting distracted and a lot of other ways that your fame can catch up to you," Showtime Sports boxing analyst Paulie Malignaggi said. "Obviously, we know the talent of Gervonta Davis, but I want to see the focus. And the way I see him, he does seem focused and more with his eye on the prize."

Ford sees a pupil still learning and growing, one who is taking earnest steps toward stardom. "He understands that he's got a lot of people depending on him, the city depending on him," Ford said. "He wants to make a difference. He keeps striving to be the best that he can be."

He expects a good showing come Saturday. Davis, though, is keeping him guessing.

"Tank is like Michael Jordan," Ford said. "I'm waiting to see what type of performance he's going to put together for us. You wonder what's next. He's got something planned. He don't tell us everything, but he's got something planned. When we ask him, he starts smiling. He's got that little smirk. So, we're looking forward to it."


Jonathan Abrams is a senior writer for B/R Mag. A former staff writer at Grantland and sports reporter at the New York Times and Los Angeles Times, Abrams is also the best-selling author of All the Pieces Matter: The Inside Story of The Wireavailable right here, right now. Follow him on Twitter: @jpdabrams.


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