With his 1980s-style high-top fade haircut, love of hip hop culture and McDonald’s food, Shakur Stevenson could pass for any teenage face in the crowd.
For more than a dozen fighters worldwide, however, that face is all too familiar.
Stevenson, 17, is one of the top amateur boxers on the planet. He’s never been beaten in international competition, going 14-0 in his young career. The two-time world champion is the first American to be selected by the International Boxing Association (AIBA) as the World Junior Fighter of the Year.
On Aug. 14, he will head to Nanjing, China, to compete in the Youth Olympic Games (Aug. 16-28), a global, multisport competition. Stevenson qualified at the Youth World Championships in Sofia, Bulgaria, in April with three other U.S. junior boxers, females Martha Fabela and Jajaira Gonzalez, and Darmani Rock. Stevenson, Gonzalez and Rock are favored in their weight divisions.
“It’s fun traveling, getting to see different places, different environments, and meeting new people,” Stevenson told USA TODAY Sports. Upon hearing that the reporter had been to China, he asked, “How’s the McDonald’s down there?”
USA Boxing coach Edward Rivas, who will accompany the group to Nanjing, describes his prized student thusly:
“If anybody was born to do something, Shakur was born to fight,” Rivas said by phone recently. “It’s something he does that he doesn’t understand himself, but he’s able to control the pace no matter what kind of opponent he faces. He can slow it down, he can speed it up, his hand-eye reaction is superior. He’s one of these athletes who seems a lot older than 17.”
Indeed, Stevenson, who was born and raised in Newark, N.J., recently moved to Hampton, Va. (where “My gym is in my garage”), and spends a lot of time at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, seems to be mature beyond his years inside the ring.
He seldom hangs out with friends, which can be hard sometimes, he says, “but I got people in my head telling me I got to do the training, got to do certain stuff, so I have a lot of supporters to help.”
He is poised to become the first American male boxer to win an Olympic gold medal since Andre Ward in 2004.
His sights and the USA’s hopes are set on Rio in 2016.
“Yeah, I’m going to win the gold medal,” Stevenson says matter-of-factly, well aware that the U.S. male boxing team was shut out in London in 2012 and took home a single bronze in Beijing.
He’s not surprised that he’s defeated every international opponent he’s faced.
“I knew I was going to do stuff like this,” the rising high school senior says. “I knew what I was capable of.”
So did his grandfather, Willie Moses, who got him started in the sweet science at age 5 and knew early on the kid possessed something special. He still trains him away from Colorado Springs.
Stevenson, named for rapper Tupac Shakur, who was murdered the year before Stevenson was born – “My mom knew him,” he says – emulates professional champions such as Floyd Mayweather, Ward and Cuban defector Guillermo Rigondeaux, all former Olympic medalists and all defensive specialists. He describes himself as mostly a defensive fighter, “but if I have to be aggressive, I’ll be aggressive.”
Rivas sees Stevenson’s greatest strength as his ability to adapt to his opponents in the ring, a quality that has made Mayweather, Ward and Rigondeaux among the top pound-for-pound boxers in the world.
“He can be offensive, he can be defensive, he’s very smart, his boxing IQ is very high, there’s things he just does naturally,” Rivas says of Stevenson. “He makes adjustments on his own in bouts. So our work is done in training and competition time is basically, you sit back and watch him work. You might remind him on a couple of adjustments and he’s able to do those things.”
The oldest of nine brothers and sisters, Stevenson describes one other quality that sets him apart from much of his competition. “When I get on the big stage, I perform. Some of them don’t. They freeze up,” he says. “I like to be in front of the crowd and show my skills and stuff.”
The light bantamweight junior world champ counts among his “bros” Erickson Lubin, a former USA boxing rising star who stunned the program last year by leaving to sign a professional contract with Mike Tyson and his Iron Mike Productions on his 18th birthday. The signing prompted a scathing letter from USA Boxing President Charles Butler to Tyson, criticizing the former heavyweight champion for ruining the “Olympic Dreams” of young boxers.
Winning Olympic gold would mean a lot, says Stevenson, who has sparred and become friends with Rau’shee Warren, a three-time Olympian who never won a medal before turning pro.
Yet, for coaches such as Rivas, the specter of defection from the program is always present.
“I’m always uneasy about our athletes turning pro because when it comes right down to it, money talks,” Rivas says. “What I feel confident about with Shakur is that he does have his eye set on an Olympic medal, and not just any medal — the gold medal.
“There’s going to be some tough competition for him to get there, and that’s what I believe intrigues him. That competition, as young as he is, to be that No. 1 guy in the country. I think it means a lot for him to go and get a gold medal for his country. That’s the part that settles me down, because he does have a very bright future in front of him.
“On a personal level between his family and himself, he will always do what’s right for him. But I believe what’s right for him is to continue his path, seek out that gold medal at the Olympic Games and move forward from there.”
First, however, Stevenson has to make the Olympic team and that’s not necessarily a forgone conclusion, Rivas says. But he believes the sky is the limit for the teenager, no matter which direction he takes.
“This is a sport,” Rivas says, “where he’s going to be a world champion in the amateurs and as a professional.”
Source: USA Today Sports