Fourth time’s a charm? Keyshawn Davis will have to beat rival Andy Cruz to win Olympic gold


Andy Cruz Gomez glided around the ring in jubilation, then proceeded to perform the “floss,” motioning his hands to the front and back of his body rapidly in expression as Keyshawn Davis solemnly exited the ring through the ropes.

The brilliant boxer from Cuba had just defeated Davis via unanimous decision, and it wasn’t the first time he had beaten the American. This September 2019 victory in the gold medal match of the AIBA World Championships in Russia was the most impactful, though. And the three-round fight wasn’t all that close.

Cruz, a 25-year-old disciple of the vaunted Cuban school of boxing, controlled the action with his excellent jab and ended the fight by marching Davis into a corner before unleashing a barrage of shots.

Davis couldn’t find Cruz in the ring, even when his foe was pressuring him — Cruz’s elusiveness in tight quarters is a sight to behold. The pair has fought three times and each time Cruz’s hand has been raised at the end of the fight.

On Sunday (at 1:15 a.m. ET), they’ll meet for the final time in the amateurs, and the stakes for these lightweights couldn’t be any higher. An Olympic gold medal is on the line.

Beyond the personal stakes for Davis, for whom Olympic gold has long been a dream, it would be the first gold medal for a U.S. men’s boxer since Andre Ward won in Athens in 2004. Davis is the first lightweight from the U.S. men’s boxing team to fight for reach the Olympic finals since Oscar De La Hoya, who won that gold medal in 1992 in Barcelona.

“It’s been, what, 17 years? … He has the chance, he has the skill,” De La Hoya said. “It seems like he’s really focus and determined. It’s all about just fighting hard to the last second. There’s no getting tired, there’s no thinking about anything else but winning that gold. And he can do it. It would be monumental for USA Boxing and Olympic boxing. So we’re rooting for him 1,000 percent.”

Davis is one of two American men in gold medal contention after featherweight Duke Ragan settled for silver, dropping a 3-2 decision to Russia’s Albert Batyrgaziev on Thursday. Super heavyweight Richard Torrez Jr. fights in a gold medal bout of his own one hour after Davis and Cruz square off.

Davis qualified for the gold medal fight by defeating Hovhannes Bachkov of Armenia by unanimous decision on Friday. Coincidentally, Davis beat Bachkov in 2019 to reach the AIBA World Championships finals, where he met Cruz. In the second semifinal, Cruz won a unanimous decision of his own over Harry Garside of Australia.

Davis believed this would be the final before the tournament began, and now Cruz stands in between him and realizing his dream.

“Everybody hoping that me and Cruz will be in the finals,” Davis said before his first Olympic fight. “Everybody hoping it will be a helluva fight. Last three fights were helluva fights.”

And Davis certainly won’t be lacking for motivation.

“I don’t really like the dude,” Davis, 22, told ESPN days before the Olympics kicked off. “He walks around with a little chip on his shoulder.”

Davis began boxing at 9 after his mother, Wanda, took him and his two brothers, Kelvin and Keon, to City of Norfolk Gym at Barraud Park in Virginia. Wanda was looking for another outlet for her three boys to let out some energy beyond football and basketball, both seasonal sports.

She was sold when she was told they would train five days a week, all year round.

Davis was immediately invested, and his work paid off. He prospered for years as an amateur, and then crossed paths with a boxing icon in 2016 which took his passion to another level. Keyshawn met Pernell Whitaker, a hall-of-fame boxer and winner of a gold medal at the 1984 Games in Los Angeles, and carried a significant presence in the boxing scene in Norfolk.

“They had a decent relationship,” said Wanda, who added Whitaker would occasionally come to offer Davis pointers during sparring sessions.

“‘Sweet Pea’ always used to tell me to use my quickness and use my speed,” Davis recalled. “He said I reminded him a lot of himself. ‘Don’t ever lose that, always stay behind that.’ And he was a fan of the jab.”

Whitaker owns one of the best jabs in boxing history, a lead hand that led him to world championships in three divisions. Before his tremendous success in the pros, he brought Olympic gold home to Norfolk. That victory was 15 years before Davis was even born, but the victory over Luis Ortiz is immortalized on YouTube. Keyshawn watched that fight numerous times to prepare for his own gold-medal match he knew was coming all along.

Davis seemingly had to give up his Olympic dreams when COVID forced his hand in turning pro in 2020. But when Olympic qualifiers were also interrupted, three professionals — Davis, Ragan and Troy Isley — were invited to join the team in Tokyo.

In a flash, his Olympic dreams were back on the table.

The Cuban will be favored to win once again on Sunday. He’s looked spectacular in the Olympics, and is well on his way to the Val Baker Trophy for the most outstanding boxer of the tournament.

If Cruz hopes a gold medal will be a launching pad to a budding pro career, though, he has obvious obstacles to overcome. Cuba doesn’t allow its citizens to fight professionally. Former champions like Guillermo Rigondeaux and Erislandy Lara defected to the United States to pursue professional careers. The closest experience Cruz can boast was his time in the semi-pro World Series of Boxing, a breeding ground that vaulted boxers like Vasiliy Lomachenko and Oleksandr Usyk to pound-for-pound stardom.

Cruz built a perfect 16-0 record in the WSOB before returning to the amateurs, where he won two gold medals at the Pan American Games and another two at the AIBA World Championships.

But Davis has already turned pro. His debut in the paid ranks came in a high-profile opportunity in February on the undercard of Canelo Alvarez vs. Avni Yildirim. It was a success by any measure, as Davis earned a second-round TKO victory.

Davis’ next two fights were also on major events, with a stoppage victory in April on the Jamel Herring-Carl Frampton card, and a six-round decision triumph on the undercard of Alvarez-Billy Joe Saunders in May. He was 3-0 and seemingly on a professional fast track when he got the call to join the Olympic team, and he jumped at the opportunity.

Davis believes his three pro fights — and the training he’s done for them — will be the difference in his fourth fight against Cruz.

“My shot placement is different,” Davis said. “I know how to set up shots; know how to set traps. I know how to change the pace. With those eight-ounce [gloves], you do not want to get hit. My defense is a lot tighter, sharper. I’m on my toes more; I’m starting to use my feet more.”

De La Hoya had some insight to offer in regards to how Davis could flip the script after losing to Cruz in their three previous meetings.

“Try something different. Try a different strategy,” said De La Hoya. “Don’t try to fight the same fight that you fought three times that you came up short. Try to do the ordinary. Try to confuse him. It doesn’t matter how you look. No one is giving you points on how perfect your jab is, or your right hand.

“Just throw punches and have that determination to win. When I fought in the Olympics I was so worried about how people judged me and how my combinations were looking, but in the Olympics just throw that out the window. I don’t care if I look sloppy, it just doesn’t matter. Just do whatever it takes to win.”

The stakes couldn’t be much higher, and even before the tournament began, Davis realized that his lifelong dream of standing atop the podium with gold dangling from his neck would have to go through Cruz.

“I’m going to beat him like I should,” Davis said. “This fourth time is going to be different. I learned so much from those three fights.”

That’s the mark of a great pro fighter — adjustments. Juan Manuel Marquez fought Manny Pacquiao three times without a victory. The fourth meeting ended with Pacquiao unconscious, courtesy of a blistering overhand right from Marquez.

Davis has studied film in preparation for the man he knew would be standing across from him. “I learned from every one of your fights,” Davis said in a message to Cruz. “I will never stop learning.”

One contest stood out to Davis during all that film study: a loss Cruz suffered to France’s Sofiane Oumiha in April 2019.

“I finally understood how he lost to the France kid,” Davis said, “and I’m going to bite off that style.”

Davis defeated Oumiha in September of that year, and then, in a prelude to fighting Cruz in the Olympic final, defeated Oumiha in his Round of 16 fight on July 31.

Davis scored a stoppage in that rematch, which is impressive considering Oumiha entered the Tokyo Games as the No. 1 seed. The finish came courtesy of an overhand right that sent Oumiha stumbling before the ref decided he couldn’t continue.

That kind of power could be key in making sure the fourth meeting will be different. Scoring a stoppage in the Olympics is no easy feat between the bigger gloves (10 ounces rather than 8) and shorter rounds (three rather than 10 or 12 on the top level). Regardless of the result, Davis’ amateur career ends on Sunday.

If Cruz and Davis meet again down the line, they’ll do so as paid professionals. For now, they fight for far more than money: national pride, competitive rivalry and, for Davis, a chance to finally end that 17-year U.S. men’s boxing gold-medal drought.

“Bringing us pro boxers back on the team, I feel like it was destined for me,” Davis said. “I feel like it’s destined for me to win that gold medal.”

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