ESPN ran an odd graphic during its broadcast of the fight between Shakur Stevenson and Oscar Valdez from the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas Saturday. Along with the standard tale of the tape was a statistic emphasizing how infrequently each fighter got hit. The numbers were exiguous, memorable for their meager tally, like pocket change in the time of tap transactions. But mostly because they represented an especially poor promotional tool. Appointment viewing! Two guys who don’t get hit are fighting each other!
Such statistics might be meaningless considering, among other crucial variables, differences in opposition and style. They held mostly true on this night, however. Despite his reddened face Valdez got hit little more than enough, and Stevenson, who unified the super featherweight division by academic scores, less than that. And so a fight between a self-styled warrior and a self-proclaimed superstar expired after thirty-six mostly uneventful minutes; one that likely left viewers pondering who might beat Stevenson long before Valdez failed in his attempt.
The images are informative. There is no likening yourself to a warrior without first acquiring the battle scars. It is an image born of history, and Valdez—whose penchant for immolation threatened to shorten his career until he entrusted whatever remained of it to trainer Eddy Reynoso—earned that history. Under Reynoso, the fiery Valdez, 30-1 (23), rediscovered the concept of self-preservation. In a fight that proved the refurbished Valdez would still wager his daylights in a gamble for victory, he scored a breathtaking (and seemingly ruinous) knockout of former bully Miguel Berchelt. He might have been willing to go out on his shield Saturday, too, were he pressed to decide his fate. But the superstar never let him choose.
What is a superstar (that least creative of verbal adornments)? It implies popularity that Stevenson does not yet have unless he is willing to add qualifiers like “for Top Rank,” “in Newark,” or “on ESPN” to that distinction. But his trajectory is certainly overhead, miles above even Valdez, and perhaps it is this distance that Stevenson believes makes not only a star of him but a super one.
If stardom awaits Stevenson, 18-0 (9), so must a new division (or two). There is little for Stevenson to prove at 130 pounds. He would need two fights to collect the two remaining titles in the division, but the time Stevenson likely requires to secure those belts (while defending his own) would be wasted. Spare Kenichi Ogawa and Robert Gutierrez; let each suffer no worse than a hypothetical defeat. Lightweight is where Stevenson will meet his first stern test—and with it, the opportunity to be something better than dominant.
For a fighter with Stevenson’s aspirations, that opportunity is crucial. Dominance absent danger charms for only so long. And Stevenson, who is thus far dominant, is already short on charm. He is doing what a fighter should: taking titles from champions without even a whiff of difficulty. But his fights feel transactional; he risks just enough to secure victory, and stakes nothing more. How else did Valdez, the battleworn former junior featherweight, escape with only a leathery reminder of his limitations? Valdez’s strategy seems perfect when Saul Alvarez uses it to pillage a middling super middleweight division. But it was useless against Stevenson. Pressure behind a high guard works when the opponent fears your counters, when you enjoy advantages in speed, in timing, in power, when your defense actually protects you from incoming fire. But Valdez had no such advantage against Stevenson, who likely discerned that well before Valdez did.
Valdez swung hurtfully enough, evidenced by how frequently his misses robbed him of balance, but these punches achieved little more than the impression of violence. Like a snake charmer who renders his reptile harmless by first stitching its mouth shut, Stevenson toyed with Valdez, permitted only the illusion of danger in what amounted to a dance. That he did so while exhibiting an arrogant control that enraged a pro-Valdez crowd desperate for something spirited if not competitive. Not that Valdez was ever himself in particular danger. There was that knockdown in the sixth round, the product of an off-balance lunge from Valdez and a well-placed uppercut from Stevenson. But even when Stevenson stalked Valdez, he settled for potshotting an opponent bereft of answers, settled for taking openings as they came. And that’s not good enough.
There was a time when it was. At that time, a fighter could use a near-flawless defense, a stiff jab, and a smattering of two and three punch combinations to put victory out of reach for his opponent before coasting to a decision win as lopsided as it was uneventful. You came under assault for calling that fighter boring. Were you to level such a criticism at him, you were quickly informed of how little you knew, schooled about boxing being a business whose most sacred maxim demands one “hit and not get hit.” Strangely, you were reminded of how much money this fighter made, of how lethal he was before becoming the fighter you so ignorantly criticized him for no longer being.
But Stevenson is with the wrong promoter to be protected by that similarity. And really, that’s for the better. Approximation and resemblance should not be sufficient conditions for the superstardom Stevenson wrongly believes is his. He is unlikely to get anywhere near Gervonta Davis for the usual reasons, but Stevenson is ready now for the winner (and loser) of the George Kambosos–Devin Haney fight. He is ready now for Vasiliy Lomachenko, ready now for Teofimo Lopez, for Ryan Garcia. Just ask him—he’ll tell you. Those men will hit Stevenson with greater frequency or greater force or both.
Or they won’t. But if Stevenson conquers the lightweight division, even if he struggles doing so, his staunchest critics will be devotees of the fighters he defangs. And a fighter still mocked for crying in defeat will cause a few tears of his own.