Ohara Davies has been dividing opinion in British boxing for the past five years in different fights, confrontations and a series of often bizarre statements.
On Friday at York Hall, the sacred small-hall venue in the east end of London, Davies will end a short retirement with the most important and tricky fight of his career, being shown live on ESPN+ in the U.S..
In the opposite corner will be former world champion Miguel Vazquez, who is still only 32 but fought his first fight as a boy-professional in 2006 in Mexico against Saul Alvarez. The Canelo nickname, the fame and the millions would follow; Vazquez and Alvarez fought to a draw on that long forgotten day.
"Davies believes he is getting an old man, an easy night and a cheap way back to contention," said Vazquez. "Well, he's wrong -- his people have made a big mistake." It would not be the first time that "his" people had made a mistake in the career and times of Ohara Davies.
Davies is from the troubled and bloody London borough of Hackney, where for several months in 2017, a gun-related crime took place every two days. Expelled from school at 16 and charged with gross bodily harm, he found a living on the streets and soon had a reputation. The future boxer was handy with his fists, nothing to brag about in ordinary life but a bonus in any life of crime.
"Boxing saved me from a very bad life," Davies told me in 2017. "I truly believe I would be dead now or in prison serving a long, long sentence." Boxing, when he found it, was like an addiction to Davies.
"There was nothing that would keep him away from the gym," said Tony Cesay, a former amateur national champion, who introduced Davies to the rules and regulations of the amateur sport at the famous Repton club in Bethnal Green. However, getting from Hackney to the Repton was never as easy as it should have been. Davies, now out of the street life, still had to cross different gang lines to make the two-mile journey. It was all part of the change, all part of the sacrifices that he knew he had to make.
Davies turned professional in 2014 after less than 20 amateur fights and soon made an impact on the British scene, finishing fights early, debating, arguing and upsetting people on social media. In March of 2017 he stopped Liverpool's Derry Mathews in three ugly rounds. Mathews was stepping up in weight, but could still fight and when it was over Eddie Hearn, who promoted Davies at the time, insisted that his fighter was now at world level and beyond the domestic scene. It was a statement that would naturally anger the three or four top British light-welterweights, as the super-lightweights were then known.
Davies played ball and dismissed both Josh Taylor and Jack Catterall, arguably Nos. 1 and 2 in Britain at that time. He promised to knock out both if ever their promoters were stupid enough to let their boxers fight him. There is no disputing that by mid-2017, Davies was one of the highest profile boxers in Britain. He was also without doubt the most hated fighter in the land. But away from the statements and television cameras, he was sensible company. He often seemed shocked that he had shocked people.
It was after the Mathews win that it started to go wrong.
In a move that has never truly been explained, Davies was matched in July of 2017 with Taylor in Glasgow for the Commonwealth and WBC Silver light-welterweight titles and it was not on a Hearn-promoted show. It was a hostile night, Davies doing his bit to become a genuine hate figure; the fight was nasty and finished in the seventh. Davies was hurt, turned away and that was it.
"I had a broken nose, I had nothing left and I knew I would come again," Davies explained last year when I asked him about the ending. He was telling the truth, even if it is an ugly boxing truth. The end of the fight was gleefully received by the people he had upset on both sides of the ropes. Still, Davies held his head up, went to Taylor's dressing room and congratulated him. Nobody in Taylor's camp expected to see Davies walk in that night.
Davies kept on winning, split from Hearn and in October last year he was matched over ten rounds with Catterall. The build-up was suitably unpleasant, but Catterall fought to plan, never took a risk and was a clear winner on all three scorecards at the end. Davies had not been busy enough, the fight looked winnable and he had not taken the chances. However, the relative close score of two judges -- they each had Catterall winning by just two rounds -- seemed to inspire Davies and he announced his retirement, insisting the whole world was against him. In defeat, Davies had stolen the headlines. Catterall, incidentally, is still waiting for a world title fight and Taylor is now a world champion.
Davies is just 27. He's back in the ring on Friday, out of retirement and looking for win No. 19 against a Mexican who is far from finished. It is a hard fight and at the same time a perfect fight; if Davies wins he can start shouting for everybody in his division and if he loses then he will have lost to a good fighter. He can shake hands with Vazquez and plot another return.
However, he is not meant to lose. Having Davies back winning, making bold claims, issuing challenges and screaming for rematches feels right. Davies the retired street thug might just be a better boxer than any of us have so far seen and on Friday night at dear old dirty York Hall, Vazquez will give us a genuine look at a kid who was once lost to the Hackney streets.