America's Best Chance at Boxing Gold?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because there’s an empty space for boxing’s next greats.
By Matt Foley
Shakur Stevenson’s victory celebrations are multifarious. When the unanimous decision roars through the loudspeakers, America’s boxing prodigy appears, initially, surprised. Sometimes he drops to a knee in elation. Then a calm maturity sets in. Stevenson bounces to his feet, congratulates his opponent with as gracious a hug as two teenage brawlers can muster and turns to his corner with a stone-faced, Stephen Curry-esque nod.
At 19, 123-pound Stevenson is America’s best chance at a boxing gold medal, which has proved elusive since 2004. Before the slick southpaw earned his free trip to Rio de Janeiro, Stevenson was a junior world champion, youth world champion, Youth Olympic gold medalist and Outstanding Boxer at the 2016 U.S. Olympic Trials. He is one of the most decorated amateur fighters in American history. Veteran trainer Dennis Porter expects Stevenson to be a force far beyond the Olympics. “Shakur is America’s top talent,” Porter tells OZY. “After this summer, every promoter will be coming for his signature.” Stevenson’s already drawing comparisons to the greatest boxer of this generation — Floyd Mayweather — but he says he “doesn’t worry much about that.”
Stevenson has a chance to reenergize a fading American boxing scene and inhabit the vacuum left behind as this generation’s celebrity fighters, particularly Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao, age out. Both of those superstars have been quick, technically sound welterweights and middleweights with dynamic personas to boot. Fight fans might just fall in love with how Stevenson tactfully shreds opponents; casual viewers could stay on for his post-fight press conferences.
The teenager’s strengths: a piercing jab and in-fight adaptability. “He’s a chess master. When the first round ends, he’s already broken his opponent mentally,” Kay Koroma, Stevenson’s trainer, and Team USA coach, tells OZY. He stalks opponents in the ring, skillfully dodging damage and peppering his foe with lightning-quick shots — all while flashing his 1,000-watt grin. As Porter puts it: “Nobody’s knocked that smile off.”
“Brick City” forged Stevenson’s ironclad confidence: Raised in Newark, New Jersey, one of nine siblings, he came up in a gang-infested neighborhood. But instead of mimicking the violence on the streets, Stevenson was drawn to boxing matches on TV. At age 5, he recounts, his grandfather noticed him glued to the screen, and began taking him to the gym for weekly after-school training sessions. When Shakur started shadow-boxing everywhere he went, his family knew he’d found his passion. As the oldest child, Stevenson took care of his siblings — something boxing helped him with. He earned the neighborhood’s respect: “They knew I was a boxer, so I was straight,” he says. And he studied the greats — Sugar Ray Leonard, Mayweather and his friend and favorite boxer, Andre Ward — adopting traits into his own game, specifically Ward’s defensive awareness and Mayweather’s ability to dominate a fight with the jab alone.
At 14, Stevenson traveled to Russia and won the Veles Cup. He was originally the American backup, but when the top fighter couldn’t travel, Stevenson boarded the plane. “I beat the top guys from other countries and just felt like, ‘Man, this is it for me. This is what I do,’” Stevenson says. At age 16, he moved to Virginia to train with Koroma. Stevenson’s boxing bildungsroman is not unique — pro boxing, unlike most team sports, doesn’t benefit from farm systems or youth cultures; plenty of privileged parents would rather not have their kids being punched in the head. Boxing, experts say, favors the low-income kid who can devote himself to a demanding lifestyle from a young age. “Boxing is a visceral, mental and physical struggle,” Douglass Fischer, editor of RingTV.com, told OZY. “Boxing makes sense to people who are underprivileged and discriminated against. Their mantra is that they must fight for a better existence. With boxing, that’s what they are literally trying to do.”
Olympic boxing has its differences from the rest of the game. For one, it’s among the few times fight broadcasts are not hidden behind pay-per-view walls. In a sport where marketing is so crucial, where the mythology that causes people to tune in rests on a single character rather than a complex team, that’s a big opportunity. Stevenson could go mainstream this summer. He’s already being featured in Powerade’s “Just a Kid” campaign, set to air throughout the Olympics. Though he prefers fighting on camera to preening, such PR pushes are no small part of his chosen career. Success in Rio is a significant starting point for Stevenson, but — according to Fischer — it’s ultimately not the same “launchpad to fame” as in decades past. “They sign more lucrative professional contracts, due to the Games’ prestige,” he says. But he notes: “Plenty of medalists have flopped as pros.”
Currently, Ireland’s Michael Conlan and Cuba’s Robeisy Ramirez are Stevenson’s most dangerous amateur opponents. But don’t forget this year’s big change: The International Boxing Association recently deemed professionals eligible to compete in the 2016 Games, meaning Stevenson could face undefeated veterans — Guillermo Rigondeaux (16-0), for instance. He tells us he “can’t wait to take them out.” Perhaps that’s because his international record is an impeccable 24-0. His biggest hurdle will be controlling the pace against professionals. Amateurs train to score quickly for three rapid-fire rounds while more meticulous pros fight 12 slower rounds. Stevenson has sparred with countless professionals, including Andre Ward, but Rio will be his ultimate challenge.
Until then, Stevenson will continue training in Colorado. He still gets phone calls from his grandpa. He likes to wear a shirt these days — easy to spot in videos he shoots — that says “Just a kid from Newark.” The baby-faced assassin with a devastating right hand is on the precipice of becoming something much greater.