DAVENPORT — There’s plenty of motivation for Donovan Dennis, the Davenport heavyweight scheduled to fight in ESPN2’s heavyweight boxing tournament this weekend.
On Tuesday, Mr. Dennis traveled to the Turning Stone Resort and Casino in Verona, N.Y., for the 2015 Boxcino tournament’s quarterfinals for a six-round bout scheduled for 8 p.m. Friday locally. At 10-1 with eight knockouts, Mr. Dennis, 27, will face Quincy, Mass., fighter Steve Vukosa — 10-0 with four knockouts.
“This could catapult my career,” he said. “I want to be heavyweight champion of the world.”
The tournament, filled with quality heavyweights, gives Mr. Dennis a chance to put himself in contention for his ultimate goal. He has won numerous amateur boxing titles and fought in the 2012 U.S. Olympic Boxing Trials. But he also has known defeat.
In an April 2014 ESPN2 appearance, Mr. Dennis — a southpaw, or left-handed boxer — was knocked down in the first round by an overhand right from undefeated heavyweight Nat Heaven. Although Mr. Dennis made it to his feet, the referee stopped the bout.
Mr. Heaven also is in the Boxcino tournament.
In a Tuesday email, boxing great George Foreman said he can relate to the challenge facing Mr. Dennis.
In 1994, Mr. Foreman became heavyweight champion for the second time in his career by knocking out Michael Moorer, boxing’s only southpaw heavyweight champion since the Marquis of Queensberry were adopted in 1892.
“Donovan Dennis has a big advantage being a southpaw,” Mr. Foreman said. “Win every round is my advice. Don’t try to win it in one (round).
“Michael Moorer was well on his way to keeping his title when we fought,” Mr. Foreman wrote. “But he chose to stand around and fight rather than box and outfox me.”
Since his April 2014 loss, Mr. Dennis has regrouped and, in August, won a bout in Waterloo, Iowa.
“Donovan is maturing as a man,” said his manager, Brandon Bea, who runs a Davenport boxing gym. “He’s a little more patient.
“In that fight (with Mr. Heaven), Donovan won the first 2 minutes and 49 seconds of that round,” Mr. Bea said. “But with the heavyweights, all it takes is one punch.
“A lot of people gave him credit for getting up,” Mr. Bea said. “He’s still a high prospect, but I honestly think winning, and winning, and winning, he was on a little high horse.
“That loss set him back.”
Mr. Dennis came home to find life goes on, giving him no time to sit and sulk.
“He had a child,” Mr. Bea said, referring to Donovan II, born Aug. 9, 2014. “It’s motivation. He’s a great father, and this makes him more mature.
“He’s had to take a couple of jobs to work outside of boxing to make money to pay the bills,” Mr. Bea said. “He works hard — very presentable, very respectful. He always helps out with the kids at the gym.”
On Saturday, Mr. Dennis was at Pena’s Davenport Boxing Club where he began his career at 13. He has been helped by a number of local coaches through the years, including present trainer Nile Pena, the grandson of the late club owner Alvino Pena, and Patrick Pena, Alvino Pena’s son.
“What Donovan has been doing in his last few fights is slugging it out with these guys,” said Nile Pena. “He has a lot of strengths and attributes he’s not taking advantage of — his length, his athleticism.
“If he uses some of these physical attributes, a lot of these fights can be a little easier for him,” Nile Pena said.
Mr. Dennis agrees. At 6-foot-4 and 220 pounds, Mr. Dennis is small by today’s heavyweight standards. But he sees his anger as his real weakness.
“If I get hit real good, then it’s all out,” he said. “I want to go to war. But I’m playing more to their favor versus playing to my strengths.”
On Saturday, standing in front of an aged wood-paneled wall lined with photos of past fighters and accomplishments, he wrapped his large hands for a workout. Heavy bags hang from an old ceiling in the Pena boxing club, near a boxing ring where Mr. Dennis has spent countless hours sparring and shadowboxing.
He punched mitts assistant trainer Joe Munoz held up for him Saturday, a loud “whap” erupting from the snap of each punch.
“I wasn’t very good at team sports,” Mr. Dennis said during a break. “But my mom (Jackie Atkins), she said, ‘All right, you’ve got to do something.'”
“Donovan listens to his mother,” Mr. Bea interjected.
“My mom watches all my fights,” Mr. Dennis said. “But she said she don’t like it. She says it makes her too nervous.”
When not training, Mr. Dennis spends a lot of time with his son, Donovan II. But he’s been training a lot since the April 2014 loss, travelling to find sparring partners and improve. He’s driven to Chicago for workouts and sparred at trainer Freddie Roach’s Wild Card Boxing Club in Los Angeles.
Last week, a top amateur fighter from Kansas City stopped in Davenport to give Mr. Dennis a few rounds of good work.
Much is on the line this weekend for Mr. Dennis and his career. Mr. Bea understands this.
“Everybody is in this to win,” Mr. Bea said.
“These guys are not just your local Joe’s,” he said. “Everybody is pretty much ranked in the Top 50. No slouches.”
Photos courtesy of DP Design/DP Productions