By Thomas Gerbasi
When talking about his first 12 months as a professional boxer, Shakur Stevenson appears to be a lot more mature than most 20-year-olds.
He says he’s happy with his progress and his 4-0 record, particularly the two Madison Square Garden wins over Carlos Gaston Suarez and Oscar Mendoza that constitute the two knockouts on that perfect slate, but that there is room for growth and even better performances in year two.
That year begins on Friday night, as the Newark, New Jersey native will face Juan Tapia on the Ray Beltran-Paulus Moses card on ESPN. On paper, Tapia is the 2016 U.S. Olympic silver medalist’s toughest test to date, and by record alone, the Texan has earned that respect from Stevenson, who has an opponent he can actually find on YouTube and not have to go searching for grainy, amateur-shot video. He usually leaves that business to coach Kay Koroma, but this time he’s leaving no stone unturned in his fight prep.
“He’s got a good record, 8-1, so I checked him out,” said Stevenson, who described his foe as “a little wild.”
That’s okay, though. When you’ve fought since the age of five and won fights around the block and around the world like he has, a little wild is no issue. Just look at his debut last April, as he dodged headbutts from Edgar Brito all night before picking up a six-round technical decision.
It wasn’t the spectacular victory he wanted for his debut, but if he didn’t know then, he certainly knows now. Winning is the cure for anything, no matter how you get one. And the next three bouts went a lot smoother for Stevenson, who sandwiched his NYC knockouts around a shutout decision over David Michel Paz in Lincoln, Nebraska.
This week he’s in Reno at the Grand Sierra Resort and Casino's Grand Theater, a place he is quite familiar with from his amateur days. But he’s not the sentimental sort, saving that stuff for the media telling his story. It’s the same reason why moving his training camp from Virginia to the Olympic Training Center in Colorado was no issue. When it comes to training, just put a heavy bag and a ring somewhere, and he’ll adjust just fine, and on fight night, have that ring ready and he’ll go in and get his work done, no matter what the setting.
That attitude alone sets Stevenson apart from many of his peers, because it marks him as low maintenance in the best way possible. Call him up, tell him where and when, and he’ll show up with his mouthpiece, ready to fight. So if the 24-year-old Tapia - who is coming off a fifth-round TKO win over another 4-0 fighter, Irving Tapia, last September – shows up with the attitude that beating an unbeaten Olympic silver medalist changes his life forever and fights accordingly, Stevenson won’t crack.
That’s just the way he’s built, and it comes from a place that doesn’t let too many folks out of its grip. For evidence of that, I went to Newark before Stevenson left for Rio for the 2016 Games and spoke to Chris Crockett, a counselor at the Boys & Girls Club that hosted a meet and greet with the Olympian. The stories were harrowing, straight from TV and movies, but all too real. So while Stevenson can light up a room with his million-dollar smile, the hope he provides for the kids who showed up to take selfies with him is priceless.
“It's an amazing feeling that I can inspire some of these kids here and help them want to do something in life or want to be great,” he told me back then. “They can think about something more than our city, more than hard times.”
These days, that’s probably something that doesn’t hit him on a daily basis the way it may hit those of us on the outside looking in. And that’s natural as he goes about his business in the fight game. He’s like any other active on social media 20-year-old, only he’s someone who may just be a household name in a few years. He admits that since turning pro, “A lot more people recognize me,” but that life hasn’t changed too much.
Maybe in the day-to-day it hasn’t, but the world is watching. And after a successful first year that got his feet wet in the punch for pay business, Stevenson is about to take that leap in 2018. He may not be fighting for a world title by the end of the year, but if the success of the likes of Vasyl Lomachenko, Oleksandr Usyk and Dmitry Bivol, just to name a few, are any indication, the days of building an accomplished amateur’s pro record to 25-0 before challenging for a belt may be over.
I ask Stevenson about his in the ring plans for the coming year.
“I’ll let Top Rank take care of that,” said the featherweight who has been clamoring for an eight-round fight that he will get this week. That’s the typical answer we get, so I pressed him on it.
“I’d take a world title fight tomorrow.”
Now that’s the truth, and he would. He’s a fighter. But he’s also smart enough to know that things take time. That’s an opponent Stevenson may be outgunned against, because when I asked him if he’s a patient or impatient man, he didn’t hesitate with his response.
“I’m impatient,” he laughed again, ready for Friday night to get here already.
Let year two begin.