Calvin Ford was in the middle of a conversation when his phone rang. He glanced at the caller ID.
“One of my co-defendants,” he joked.
He is 57 years old and has not been charged with racketeering and conspiracy that sent him to federal prison in more than three decades.
Ford maintains a slender physique and youthful looks as he wanders about Los Angeles on his final day in a black stocking, blue hoodie, gray basketball shorts and white leggings. He never took off his sunglasses, even when he was indoors.
With a warm smile and a piercing laugh, he didn’t bear much resemblance to the tortured fictional character based on him.
A former major Baltimore drug dealer turned boxing instructor for at-risk youth on the west side of the city, Ford inspired Dennis “Cutty” Wise from HBO’s The Wire.
While “The Wire” was characterized by its realism, Ford’s story is characterized by extremes. More grief. More death. Triumph too.
One of the boys who trained with Ford during the filming of “The Wire” became world champion. His name is Gervonta Davis and on Sunday he will defend his lightweight title at the Staples Center against Isaac Cruz of Mexico. Ford will be in his corner as one of his coaches.
Ford has a vision for 27-year-old Davis, going beyond his sport and transforming the criminal community he grew up in.
“He has a goal that we don’t know about yet and that he doesn’t understand yet,” Ford said.
Just like Ford once did not know his own.
In the 1980s, Ford was a lieutenant for a drug network in Baltimore led by Warren Bordley and Christopher Burroughs. While his television-made alter ego was the performer, the real-life Ford was the brain of the operation. Ed Burns, co-creator of The Wire, was a police detective who investigated the Ford gang.
“I ran the business,” Ford said. “Make sure everything was there. Make sure everyone did what they had to do. Everyone was paid. “
One of the gang’s enforcers was Reggie Gross, a heavyweight boxer with a track record of defeats to Mike Tyson, Frank Bruno and Razor Ruddock. Gross is currently serving a life sentence for three murders to which he pleaded guilty in 1989.
Ford was sentenced to prison in 1988. He spent the next 10 years behind bars. When he was released, he vowed to change his life, going from dishwasher to manager of Phillips Foods.
“It was based on structure,” Ford said. “Exactly the same concept as mine when I was on the street.”
His search for a place to train his then-teenage son led him to the Herring Run Wellness Center. Under the management of the Baltimore Department of Recreation and Parks, the center’s boxing classes have moved to their current home in the Penn North area. Ford was hired to carry out the program.
One of the children who came to the Upton Boxing Center was 7-year-old Davis, who worked with Ford’s son, Quadir Gurley.
When Gurley moved to New Jersey with his mother, he told his father, “I need you to stay with Shorty. [Davis] because you will be a good role model for him. “
“He’s been glued to me ever since,” Ford said of Davis.
Davis wandered in foster homes and group homes because his mother was a drug addict and his father was in prison. At the time he wandered into the Upton Boxing Center, he was living with his grandmother.
“Calvin has always been that male figure in my life,” Davis said. “I think that many children who were growing up around the time I was growing up needed a father figure. I really didn’t understand this at home. “
Davis was not the most gifted fighter that Ford mentored, but he was the most single-minded, invaluable quality in a community where the streets were always ringing.
Ford remembered the losing fighters.
Ramon Manley, his first national Silver Gloves champion, was killed. Ronald Gibbs, a national Olympic fan, was stabbed to death while protecting his sister. Angelo Ward, a heavyweight contender, was shot and killed outside his home.
“Sometimes I can feel it even sitting here talking to you,” Ford said.
Tragedies shaped Davis, who saw these fighters as older brothers.
“I was younger than these guys,” Davis said. “I just learned from my mistakes. I know what to do and what not to do. I traveled when I was 10, so I saw bigger things than Baltimore. My thinking was a little different from everyone else. Everyone else had to stay on the streets. I was so focused on getting out of the hood and the streets. I focused on boxing. This was my escape. I stuck to this path and stayed close to my coaches. We are here now. “
The murder of Gurley, Ford’s son, was especially painful. He was gunned down in New Jersey in July 2013, just a day after Davis knocked out Rafael Casias and improved to 4-0.
“His son coached me and I was closely associated with his son,” Davis said. “His son was a real guy. I think I received this energy from his son, and then it passed from son to father. “
As Davis spoke, Ford sat down next to him and nodded softly.
Now 25-0 with 24 KOs, Davis believes Ford saved his life. Ford said the opposite was true, that Davis and others like him saved his life.
“The kids kept me calm,” said Ford. “I cannot tell a child not to do something and to do it himself. So I had to keep my head straight. “
His message to Davis is based on a vision he acquired during his extraordinary journey.
“Live your life to the fullest,” Ford said. “You only have one life. Be kind as you do this.
“You want people to love you or fear you. I would rather people love me than they are afraid, because if they are afraid of you, they will do something to you. “