Chasing greatness: Shakur Stevenson interview

Mark Butcher
29/08/2017 12:34pm

Shakur Stevenson is aiming to "leave boxing a legend" by the time his pro career is over. Mark Butcher caught up with the former Olympian ahead of his latest win, which took his record to 3-0...

Shakur Stevenson is reaching for the stars. The charismatic young featherweight from Newark, New Jersey, who captured the imagination at the Rio Olympics with his winning smile and pro-friendly style, is buoyed by stratospheric aspirations. One of Stevenson’s social media profiles carries the epithet ‘chasing greatness’ but lofty ambitions to match the greats of the sport should not be considered too fanciful. A precocious amateur résumé suggests the gifted southpaw from ‘Brick City’ could build a special career. Twenty years previously Floyd Mayweather laid similar foundations.

Like Mayweather before him, Stevenson medalled at just 19 in an Olympiad yet considered it a disappointment; narrowly falling short of bantamweight gold in Rio after losing a split decision to the brilliant, but crucially more seasoned Cuban Robeisy Ramirez. A childhood dream was dashed, but Stevenson’s podium finish was still the best Olympic performance by an American male boxer since Andre Ward claimed light-heavyweight gold in Athens in 2004.

Fittingly, Stevenson’s foray into pro boxing has started with Ward, operating in a managerial capacity, and under the promotional banner of Bob Arum’s Top Rank organization. A professional since April, Stevenson’s chase has begun.

“I’ve found [the transition] great. I’ve always had a professional style. I like the professionals a lot better than the amateurs, honestly,” Stevenson, now 20, told BM over the phone. “I didn’t have a good deal with [amateur boxing politics]. But it made me who I am and I appreciate everything that amateur boxing and that Olympic tournament did for me because it’s going to make me greater.

“Where I’m from, a lot of people don’t get the opportunity to be in a position like that, especially at 19 years old. Fighting in an Olympics against grown men and I went all the way to the final. So I look back on it a lot better than I did [originally]. I would love for that Cuban to defect to America so I could beat on him!”

He has chosen an astute mentor in Ward, a conqueror of both amateur and professional codes. “Andre has been looking out [for me],” said Stevenson. “He gives me a lot of life advice. Just wants me to take care of myself outside the ring. He says that’s the most important part. After boxing, I’m the person I need to care about and make sure I’m straight. That’s his main advice – [it’s] honest. He’s been motivating me even before the Olympics.”

Stevenson’s admiration for Mayweather is also apparent and, at one point, it seemed that the New Jersey phenom would be the latest addition to ‘The Money Team’ with Floyd even tweeting that he had signed the starlet in Rio in August 2016. It was, therefore, a surprise when Stevenson eventually inked with Top Rank in February 2017. “I knew Top Rank would put me in a better position as far as taking care of my career and putting me in the right situations,” said Stevenson. “Floyd is a great fighter and one of the best fighters of all-time, one of my favourite fighters, but it was just the best business move for me.”

Top Rank CEO Bob Arum, in full promotional flow, has already made bold comparisons to Sugar Ray Leonard, but Stevenson remains grounded in the face of giddy expectation. “I try not to focus on what everyone says about me. [Even] the good stuff,” he said. “In my head, I want to stay as hungry as I was before I accomplished the silver medal. I try to stay level-headed by telling myself I didn’t do anything yet, which I really didn’t. So there is a lot more to come.”

Intriguingly, Top Rank also promote Irish star Michael Conlan who should have faced Stevenson in the Olympic semi-final but for his controversial loss to Vladimir Nikitin [who Stevenson instead beat via walkover due to the Russian’s injuries]. An enthusiastic Arum has already marked our cards that this is a pro rivalry in the making.

“I don’t know about [it being] a defining rivalry,” said Stevenson. “I know it’s going to be a big fight. He draws a lot of fans. He’s got a lot of attention on him, which is the thing for me. But if we [had] fought in the Olympics or fought tomorrow, I’m real confident I would beat him.”

The young southpaw’s career has started briskly with wins over Phoenix’s uncompromising Edgar Brito (WTD6] in April and Argentina’s Carlos Suarez [WTKO1] the following month. Stevenson’s debut was made more testing by his opponent’s headwork, which saw Brito come off worse with cuts over both eyes and took the fight to the scorecards early.

“I felt that I didn’t get hit at all [against Brito]. I got hit with a headbutt! If that counts as getting hit,” said Stevenson. “But I’ve watched the fight over and over and felt that I looked sharp. I picked my punches. He was a tough fighter. He’d never been knocked out. I’ve been in fights like that when I was an amateur, where guys would get frustrated that they can’t hit me or do nothing with me. So they will try to pull out anything in their bag of tricks. I’m blessed that I got the amateur experience that helped me out in my pro debut. A guy who would come in there to headbutt me, try to get rough and introduce me to the pros. I felt I responded to it well.”

His second outing came on a grander stage on the Terence Crawford-Felix Diaz undercard at historic Madison Square Garden. Stevenson had already pictured himself headlining in New York or New Jersey and felt his cameo appearance was a taste of things to come. “That’s exactly what I was thinking,” said Stevenson, reflecting on his one-round triumph. “I brought a lot of fans out on that day, people from my city and New Jersey. That was one of the best days of my life when I walked out to [rapper] DMX and the whole crowd was cheering. It was an amazing night.”

Having only turned 20 in late June, Stevenson is still on a learning curve professionally and personally. Being young and high profile in these times of instantaneous, social media driven ‘news’ can be hazardous. In June, a Twitter spat with Mayweather’s daughter Iyanna went too far before the likes of Olympic golden girl Claressa Shields and Moonlight movie director Barry Jenkins stepped in with valuable advice.

“Honestly, I’m still learning right now. I have a few moments where I’ve got to stop myself from saying certain things that I can’t say,” confessed Stevenson. “I’m just turning 20 and still a baby so I’m still learning a lot. It’s hard, but [I will] get there. I’m motivated to get there, to be that person that I want to be. I just want to say that I was wrong for that situation [with Mayweather’s daughter]. I let my anger get the best of me. She kept ticking and kept ticking and finally I let it out. But I was wrong in that situation because I’ve got little sisters. I’m blessed that I’ve got a good team behind me and they showed me the right way.”

An elite amateur pedigree – including World Junior, World Youth and Youth Olympic gold medals – as well as an invaluable grounding in the semi-pro World Series of Boxing with the USA Knockouts means Stevenson can, of course, be moved faster than most prospects. There is understandably no timeline yet to a world title shot, but Stevenson believes he is already capable of matching many on that level.

“World title shot? I’d take it as quick as possible. I may be young, but I can handle a lot of these guys right now,” Stevenson told BM. “I know the gym is a lot different from fighting but I’ve sparred 15, 16 [consecutive] rounds with different people so I know I have got the condition and the mindset to do it. If they want to throw me in there as soon as possible – I’m with it. That’s up to my team and I’m going to let them handle that part. I doubt that they are willing to do that but I’m willing to fight anybody in the division now. There’s a lot of guys who have got world titles that I would expose, right now at 20 years old.”

As a small child, Stevenson was introduced to boxing by his grandfather and trainer Willie ‘Wali’ Moses and the pair remain closer than two pages in the same book. “I started from a little kid at five years old when my grandfather took me to the gym and he is with me to this day, working my corner and with me in training camp. It is amazing that I’ve got my grandfather behind me like that. He is one of the best coaches [around] – I [want to] put that out there.”

The oldest of nine siblings, family is at the forefront of Stevenson’s existence. “I try to lead by example for my little brothers and sisters, show them that you can come from nothing and still be somebody,” said Stevenson, who briefly relocated to Hampton, Virginia, aged 16, after the fatal shooting of a cousin prompted concern for his well-being by his mother Malikah. “So I have always had that responsibility. They are actually in the backseat [of my car] right now and can hear you, too!”

Named after iconic rapper Tupac Shakur, Stevenson hopes his star can shine just as brightly and beyond. “It’s amazing carrying that name,” he said. “It’s funny I’m driving in my car and was just listening to Tupac with my little brothers and sisters. I’m glad I’ve got that name so I can make it even greater than it already is.

“Boxing [has been] my passion ever since [I was] a little kid. I loved boxing and I still love boxing to this day. I sit at home and I watch old fights, I watch new fights. I watch boxing all day, every day. Boxing is on my mind. It’s like I got married to boxing.

“For me, chasing greatness [means] leaving the sport as a legend. Leaving the sport like a Sugar Ray Leonard or a Sugar Ray Robinson. Once I leave the sport, I want to be talked about as a great fighter like Muhammad Ali and the rest of them.”

The chase will be worth following.