The boxing public is about to learn what Shakur Stevenson has known since he was six years old. An enthusiastic and wayward youth, (characteristics that are still present in adulthood) Stevenson began his boxing ascent in Newark, New Jersey, the “Brick City.” From a region represented vehemently by Redman via criminally underrated lyrics, Stevenson is taking an altogether different approach as he inspires his community through sport. His escape from a warped landscape, courtesy of boxing, doesn’t mean that the environment that nurtured him has completely left his system.
Celebrating his twenty-first birthday during the summer of 2018 in Miami Beach, boxing’s prodigal son, the supposed heir to the throne once sat on by Floyd Mayweather and Andre Ward, Stevenson’s idols, took part in a violent altercation that was caught on camera. This footage catapulted Shakur into a spotlight that even winning an Olympic silver medal failed to provide. Now the star of a viral video that dominated social media, Stevenson’s actions throughout the clip highlighted his fighting prowess in the wrong context, with the goonish footage paving the way for trips up north instead of a journey toward a title. The matter was resolved in front of a judge last June, when Stevenson, staring ominously at three counts of battery, agreed to a year of probation and fifty hours of community service in exchange for dismissal of charges. It was a lenient verdict considering the aggression on hand as Stevenson, along with another boxer, David Grayton, reigned menacingly in a one-sided street brawl.
“It’s not just as a fighter I’m learning, I’m learning as a man, too,” admitted Stevenson, recalling the ugly episode that brought widespread scorn on the baby-faced protégé. “It just ain’t in the gym with my coach and team where I’m trying to be better, even on the outside of the ring I want to be the best person I can possibly be. I’ve made mistakes in the past that I can tell you I’m not proud of, but I am working hard at becoming a better man as well as a better fighter. That means a lot to me.”
Provided with the task of restoring America’s reputation amongst the amateur code it once dominated, Stevenson arrived at the Rio Olympics three summers ago, expecting fully that the tournament’s gold medal was weeks away from becoming his property. The baby named after Tupac Shakur was now a teenager thousands of miles away from his “Brick City” base, but when you’re comfortable in the ring despite your surroundings, fighting away from home at such a tender age in the Olympics is Eden. Stevenson had made a promise to those close to him, but he was unable to keep it as heartbreak struck in the fifty-six-kilogram final.
Aiming for the first gold medal won by an American male since 2004, Stevenson had survived a talent-laden field until it was just himself and Cuba’s outstanding Robeisy Ramirez remaining. In a brilliant tactical battle, Stevenson fell agonizingly short and had to make do with second place. The smile that had overtaken his youthful appearance throughout the competition was swiftly replaced with a constant flow of tears as he failed to compose himself for multiple TV interviews afterward. A gold medal is absent but, as after the London Games four years earlier when Errol Spence and Jose Ramirez put Olympic disappointment aside to pursue professional glories, Shakur is adamant that his chance to rule the world is imminent and he’ll exploit it ruthlessly.
“You ain’t even seen fifty percent of what I’m capable of. I’m twenty-two and I’m getting better all the time. I’ve been preparing for world titles since I was a young boy and, although the Olympics was a long-term target that I’d put so much into, it’s not going to get in the way of what I’ve always wanted. I’ve been a professional fighter for two years, but I’ve been fighting all my life, so I’m going to be ready for the champions in my division much quicker than all these other guys. As far as I’m concerned, and this ain’t me trying to hype myself or say something that’ll make me stand out, I fully believe that I’m going to be the face of American boxing and that I’ll be top of the pound-for-pound list in two years’ time.”
Stevenson’s boast is delivered with an authoritative tone, and it’s a demeanor that remains when he talks about other issues that irk him in boxing’s current climate. A gloried unpaid crusade coupled with a flawless professional ledger can sometimes position a boxer on a mainstream platform. Guided by Top Rank, arguably the grandest promotional company in all of combat sports, Stevenson’s compliments toward those responsible for navigating both his progress and profile are limited. Stevenson, 12-0 (7), believes his name should be pushed harder than it is by Top Rank.
“Am I happy with Top Rank? Yes, I’m happy with them because they’ve got me very close to a world title shot and that was the plan from the moment I walked into a boxing gym, but I don’t think they realize what they’ve got. Every boxer out there probably believes that their promotional company could do more for them, but every other fighter isn’t me. Top Rank are promoting a fighter who is going all the way to the very top, and that’s what they should be telling people because it isn’t a lie.”
Stevenson’s grievances appear small when related to his position as a fighter who is on the verge of testing himself against the very best, but compare his push to the rockets placed on the backs of his counterparts and there is a sense of justification. Golden Boy has used the handsome looks of Ryan Garcia to mitigate his obvious flaws, and Devin Haney, an outstanding prospect out of Oakland, California, has been the subject of many Eddie Hearn soliloquies since joining Matchroom USA earlier this year. Stevenson is aware of the traditional flimflam surrounding those making their way in the sport on American soil, but, when analyzing his own arsenal against that possessed by his fellow prospects, he has no doubt who will go furthest.
“All I have to do is go back to when we were teammates on the national camps and the guys you hear about all the time weren’t just a little bit behind me, they were on so much of a different level that I don’t know how they can be spoken about in the same conversation as me. I was the best in the amateurs, and now I’m going to be the best in the professionals. There’s good fighters out there who are coming up now, and I have no doubt at all that some of them will go on to win world titles, but I’m still so much better than these fighters, and you’ll see that before the end of this year when I’ll be world champion.”
Stevenson’s defining prophecy appears to be a step closer with the WBO recently announcing that he is the mandatory challenger for Oscar Valdez’s featherweight crown. But Valdez vacated the title, leaving Joet Gonzalez and Jessie Magdaleno as the favorites to meet Shakur in the coming months for the belt. While a world title represents the pinnacle for most fighters, Stevenson is swift to point out that his “inevitable” coronation, likely to be sometime in 2019, is just the beginning for him.
“I want all champions,” declared Stevenson, the eldest of nine children who is no stranger at competing for attention. “If Valdez wants one more fight at featherweight, then I’ll beat his ass for his title, and if he does go up then I’ll fight whoever for it and beat their ass too. I’ve already stated that I don’t mind going to England for [IBF champion] Josh Warrington, but he’s already making excuses about why he won’t fight me. Nothing in the featherweight division scares me. Nothing in boxing scares me. This is my life, and it’s been my life for as long as I can remember. Once I’m world champion, everybody is going to know what I’ve known for a long time.”