Shakur Stevenson walked into a hostile Riocentro Pavilion 6 in Rio. He was booed loudly by a crowd heavily favoring countryman Robenílson Vieira de Jesus. For a moment, the 19-year-old bantamweight was admittedly nervous. Then, came time to do what he was there to do-box.
Stevenson shook off some early jitters to dominate his 28-year-old opponent in his first match of these Olympic Games
He went to the third round up on one card and tied on the other two, but that’s when he destroyed De Jesus with a series of quick and accurate combinations and jabs. When his opponent’s face was cut on both sides (once from incidental contact) Stevenson stalked him on the outside, teeing off at will in the third round. He won by scores of 30-27, 29-28 and 29-28 to advance to the quarterfinals.
His second match against Mongolian opponent Tsendbaatar Erdenebat wasn’t even close. Heard from the crowd was the voice of Floyd Mayweather. “Jab. Go to the body,” said the champ who flew to Rio in part to see Stevenson.
“I see the next Floyd Mayweather,” the retired 49-0 champ said. “If anyone can break my records, this young kid right here can do it. I truly believe that.”
It’s been twelve years since an American man has won a gold medal in boxing. Shakur Stevenson is the country’s best hope to end the drought at the top of the victor’s stand. He’s been compared to Floyd Mayweather and his mentor, Andre Ward. It just so happens that Ward is the last American boxer to win that elusive Olympic gold.
Named after rapper Tupac Shakur, Stevenson was born ready to live up to expectations. He started to shadowbox when he was two. By the age of five, he laced up his first pair of gloves in the gym ran by his grandfather Willie “Wali” Moses.
His debut was a highly anticipated one among boxing observers. Naturally superior skill, high acumen for the sport, a 24-0 international record and off the charts confidence are all necessary components of a champion.
Promoters have been circling the prospect all year. Once the PowerAde “Just a Kid” ad campaign featured Stevenson telling his backstory as a “Kid from Newark,” his bankability outside of boxing soared.
The ad highlights Stevenson’s perseverance and tenacity in the face of adversity, but also how critical the influence his family, particularly his mother, has been for the Olympian. His high wattage smile, dotted by cavernous dimples is an easy marketing sell.
He also has the natural swagger to command a press conference. “There isn’t a match that goes by where I don’t pause at least once to think about where I came from and all that I’ve been through,” Stevenson said in a statement through Coca Cola.
Raised in Newark, New Jersey, as one of nine siblings, he came up in a gang-infested neighborhood before moving to Virginia two years ago. There he’s been training with U.S. men’s associate coach Kay Korom.
Training for the Olympics has been more intense. Under Korom and the leadership of successful Irish coach, Billy Walsh, the 19-year-old polished his skills against elite sparring opponents. Stevenson has worked with Albert Selimov, an experienced lightweight who was the last amateur to beat Vasyl Lomachenko. He also beat talented British boxer Peter McGrail in the World Series of Boxing earlier this year.
Stevenson has a style that is both allusive and infuriating to competitors as he often grins in the ring. The southpaw has a solid jab that has to be respected, especially since it sets up an efficient uppercut combination. Something he’ll need to show more of in the next round against Mongolia’s Erdenebat Tsendbaata.
Boxing is as visceral as it is physical. It appears Shakur Stevenson is on the cusp of putting it all together.