The incredible story of the two long-time trainers of undefeated five-time world champion and boxing superstar, Gervonta "Tank" Davis.
They are of the rare breed. They are pugilistic shaman. Punch whisperers. A leathery, old-school pair of boxing Jedi masters that one would trudge through herds of yak, across barren, icy tundra in search of their vast sagacity. After uncovering their secret, isolated location, maybe a Tibetan monastery tucked on the side of some Himalayan mountaintop, there you would finally find Calvin Ford and Kenny Ellis emerge from underneath a thatched roof and shadowy stone pillars, wearing sepia monks' robes.
Ford and Ellis come from opposite backgrounds. One is from a stable, two-parent household where he was raised to know right from wrong. The other was raised on the hardcore, crushed crack-vial streets of Baltimore, Maryland, and did a 10-year stretch in prison on drug racketeering and conspiracy charges.
One learned boxing in the gyms. The other learned in a federal penitentiary. One was held up at gunpoint twice. The other was the inspiration for the character of Dennis “Cutty” Wise on the HBO series “The Wire.”
Together, trainers Ellis and Ford have merged to create one of the best boxers—and arguably the best in the world—in five-time, three-division world champion southpaw Gervonta “Tank” Davis (29-0, 27 KOs).
In some ignorant circles, and there are many in boxing, Ford and Ellis go underappreciated.
But to those that know, they have an avid following of trust in Baltimore, from world champions to possible future world champions, to kids putting on a pair of boxing gloves for the first time.
Ellis and Ford are always in lockstep. If one of their fledglings has an angry fit in the Upton Boxing Center on West Baltimore’s Pennsylvania Avenue, they can’t run from one trainer to the other looking for sympathy because they’re not going to get any.
It is the way they both are and the way they were both raised. Yet they share a simple philosophy that enables them to thrive—it’s about the kids. It is rare any of their fighters leave them, and if they do, it does not take long for them to return.
Perhaps it explains why they can do what no one else in boxing can currently do: Keep their homegrown talent, develop them, and nurture them while training them.
“When I was young, I had no sense of direction,” admitted Ford, 58, who got Davis when he first walked into the gym at seven years old. “I had mentors around me, but I was still young and made mistakes. It’s why I don’t get on Tank about his mistakes. You learn what you got in trouble for and move forward.
“I was introduced to boxing by a friend named Warren Boardley, who was in the Olympic trials, and Reggie Gross, who fought Mike Tyson. I’ve always been around boxing. Reggie really got me involved with boxing. They didn’t make it and when they came back home, they became two drug kingpins. Reggie was the one who urged me to box when I got out.”
Ford went to federal prison in 1988, when he was 21. He got out in 1998 when he was 31. He wanted to box and realized he was too old to fight, though not too old to forward knowledge. He plunged his efforts into working with kids.
Ford goes through the same routine with every kid that enters Upton for the first time. What he wants to initially see is if the kid really wants to fight. He will stick them in against someone their own age. If the kid comes back the next day, Ford will work with them.
He knows how to read kids. If they do not want to get into the ring the first time, Ford will have the kid shadow him, show him exercises and how to hit the bag.
When Davis showed up, Ford put him right in. He was aggressive and Ford had to channel his energy differently. The first thing Ford establishes with his kids is arriving to the gym every day. He stresses old-school values like being on time, listening to he and Ellis and repetition, repetition, repetition.
When Ford got out of prison, he approached respected Baltimore trainer Marvin McDowell of the UMAR boxing program about trying to help him get started.
McDowell rebuffed him.
Ellis happened to be standing nearby.
“That’s the first time I met Kenny and I’ll never forget it,” Ford said. “Kenny saw what happened and came over and told me, ‘The guy isn’t trying to help you, so I’ll help you.’ Kenny took his kids and brought them over to my gym, Herring Run Recreation Center, to work with me and the kids that I had.
“They got mad with Kenny for doing that and it’s what started our friendship. Kenny was the first one to see me take five kids from Baltimore and go to Washington D.C. and win the Silver Gloves to go to nationals. We have been the best of friends ever since. Kenny is my bible. He got the nickname ‘Bible’ from me. When he talks to me, he’s my reason. In all the years we have known each other, he’s been the one right. Kenny knows me.
“It is beyond two guys who are just friends. We are brothers.”
Ellis and Ford together manage Upton, which has been a refuge in a blighted section of West Baltimore. Regrettably, there is only so much Ford and Ellis could do. They have basked in the triumphs of Davis, and potential future stars like Cuttino Oliver, Lorenzo “Truck” Simpson and Jalil Hackett.
They’ve also had pieces of their souls ripped out by the tragic losses of Angelo Ward, a super featherweight who was killed in 2012, and Ronald “Rock” Gibbs, who had Olympic dreams dashed by being stabbed to death at the age of 17. Even Ford’s own son, Quaadir Gurley, was taken, shot and killed in New Jersey in 2013 when he was 24.
“It rips you apart, because you know you can’t save them all, but it doesn’t stop Calvin and me from thinking we can’t save them all,” said Ellis, 55, the father of budding fighter Mia Ellis. “You have people out here robbing people, and they run across them again and they get shot. People are killing people for no reason.
“Today’s generation deals with things differently than when they did when I was their age.”
As a kid, Ford was bullied so often he would tuck a tiny Louisville slugger under his arm, the one you’d get as a giveaway at a Baltimore Orioles game. If he wasn’t going to get revenge one time, he would wait it out and repay the bully another time.
Ellis was not much different. When he was 12, he learned quickly that you either go hard or go soft.
One Sunday morning, when he was going to get dog food at a local corner store, he was robbed at gunpoint by a grown man for $7. Years later, when Ellis was 19, he happened to run into the same man who robbed him as a 12-year-old.
“We were in line at a grocery store and I walked up to him, being nice, and said, ‘You remember that kid you robbed a few years back?’ He said, ‘yes.’ I told him to give me my money back,” recalled Ellis. “I took a little more than he took from me. Call it interest (laughs). People were watching and I did it in front of the cashier. The situation changed. I wasn’t a 12-year-old kid anymore. I wanted my money back. That was back in the 1980s.
“You can’t do that today.”
When Ford got out of prison, Ellis began seeing him at local shows. At the time, UMAR was the hottest boxing gym in Baltimore. Ellis began seeing what Ford was doing with his kids. So, he would work his kids during the day at UMAR, and he would bring them to Upton to spar at night.
“That’s when I joined Calvin at Upton, and we don’t carry any grudges (with McDowell), because we’re about the kids,” Ellis said. “We started with these kids and it was a struggle, and still is, because a lot of these kids don’t have anything.”
Ellis is Ford’s sounding board. If he has a question, or an idea, he’ll bounce it off of him.
Upton is producing world champions, though Ford and Ellis carry a constant concern that their young ones will get swallowed by the streets.
It’s why they hold Oliver, Simpson and Hackett so closely.
“They are great kids and they all have a great future,” Ford said. “We work, and work, and work on repetition. I have Tank running drills all the time and he doesn’t know why he’s running certain drills, but I do. Oliver is the youngest of the three. He has it. The performance I saw him give me last week was his best. Oliver has everything.
“Hackett’s father sees the work I did with him as an amateur. I love that kid because he’ll do anything you ask him to do. Simpson is coming around. He has a great future. I raised the kid from scratch.”
Ford has always aspired to be a professional fighter. In July, he may get that chance when he fights Rolly Romero’s trainer, Cromwell “Bullet” Gordon, in a scheduled six-round light heavyweight fight. Davis and Ellis will be working his corner yelling instructions to the teacher this time.
“My ultimate goal is to see Tank all the way through his career, and he’s on the right track,” Ford said. “The best is yet to come. My ex-wife used to say my interest in boxing was a hobby. What kept me straight was the kids. Boxing was the tool and avenue. My relationship with Tank is beyond trainer and fighter. He introduces me to his kids as ‘Pop Pop.’ Tank kept me straight. How could I tell him to do the right thing if I wasn’t doing the right thing? Here was this short kid with a big-ass head who saved my life. He was good for me, and I was good for him.”
You don’t have to trudge through herds of yak or climb a Himalayan mountain to find these Jedi masters. They will not be holed up in an ancient abbey. Calvin Ford and Kenny Ellis will not emerge from underneath shadowy stone pillars wearing sepia monk hoodies.
They are there every day in West Baltimore, drenched in sweat, dispensing their wisdom in shrill voices to the myriad kids that they are working with, molding the next Gervonta Davis.