By Keith Idec
The most promising fighter to emerge from the 2012 U.S. Men’s Olympic Boxing Team expects big things this month from one particular amateur on the 2016 squad.
From what Errol Spence Jr. has seen, Shakur Stevenson – a 19-year-old, 123-pound Olympian from Newark, New Jersey – operates on a level above the teammates with whom Stevenson has traveled to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, for the 2016 Summer Olympics.
“I’m looking for Shakur Stevenson,” Spence said during a conference call Wednesday. “That kid, he’s talented. He’s a gold medal favorite. … From what I watched – I watched a couple of his fights on YouTube. He can fight. Very talented, very skilled. His boxing IQ is very high and other than [2012 women’s gold medalist] Clarissa Shields, Shakur Stevenson is the most talented boxer on that team.”
Stevenson received a first-round bye and isn’t scheduled to fight until August 14. Two of his teammates – 108-pounder Nico Hernandez, of Wichita, Kansas, and 132-pounder Carlos Balderas, of Santa Maria, California – are set to compete Saturday in Rio.
Andre Ward was the last American male to win an Olympic gold medal in boxing. Now that 12 years have passed since Ward captured gold in Athens, Greece, if Stevenson or any of his teammates can end that drought it would serve as an international reminder that USA Boxing’s once-prominent program still can produce fighters capable of defeating often older and more experienced opponents on the grandest amateur stage.
Spence, who lost in the quarterfinal round four years ago in London, hopes that’s exactly what happens once Olympic boxing competition begins Saturday for members of the American team.
“We've got a good team that’s coming out,” Spence said. “They’re young, they’re fast and they’re motivated to win. And, you know, the scoring system is different now, too, so I’m looking for a lot of them to bring home gold medals.”
Spence’s optimism aside, the United States hasn’t won a lot of medals – gold, silver or bronze – in the past four Summer Olympics combined, let alone at a single set of Games.
Since Philadelphia’s David Reid won a 154-pound gold medal during the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta and five of his teammates secured bronze medals, the United States has won a total of six men’s medals in four Summer Olympics. That means the U.S. has merely matched the total of medals won by Reid, Floyd Mayweather Jr. (125), Terrance Cauthen (132), Rhoshii Wells (165), Antonio Tarver (178) and Nate Jones (201) in 1996 during the 20 years since that team performed.
Those medal winners include Rocky Juarez (silver at 125; 2000), Ricardo Williams (silver at 139; 2000), Clarence Vinson (bronze at 119; 2000), Ward (gold at 178; 2004), Andre Dirrell (bronze at 165; 2004) and Deontay Wilder (bronze at 201; 2008).
Of course, amateur success and failure often aren’t accurate indications of what’s to come in the professional ranks. Mayweather’s incredible professional career after he was robbed in the semifinals 20 years ago is a prime example. Conversely, so are the unremarkable professional careers of his 1996 teammates Cauthen and Wells.
Spence believes, however, that there remains significant value in performing on the Olympic stage, even if you don’t win a medal.
“I think being an Olympian helps you out a lot,” Spence said, “especially the experience part, fighting internationally, fighting a lot of international fighters, going overseas and fighting in other fighters’ [backyards], not knowing who you're gonna fight until the morning of the fight.
“So it’s getting that experience, getting different styles under your belt and fighting in different venues and different places around the world, and fighting on those different types of stages. Of course the Olympics is the biggest stage you can fight [on]. And just having that under my belt gets me ready for big fights like this.”
Spence (20-0, 17 KOs) referred to his August 21 fight against Italy’s Leonard Bundu (33-1-2, 12 KOs). If the DeSoto, Texas, native beats Bundu in their nationally televised, 12-round main event inside Ford Amphitheater at Coney Island Boardwalk (NBC; 5 p.m. ET/2 p.m. PT), the powerful southpaw will earn a shot the IBF welterweight title, currently held by England’s Kell Brook (36-0, 25 KOs).
Less than four years into his professional career, the 26-year-old Spence seemingly is headed toward stardom. Having powerful adviser Al Haymon handling his business obviously has helped Spence’s cause, but Spence is certain his Olympic experience began building his brand four years ago.
That said, he also recognizes that competing in the Olympics doesn’t translate into nearly as much bargaining power for American amateurs as it once did. Williams was paid a whopping $1.4 million signing bonus by promoter Lou DiBella’s company, but his career was derailed by legal, training and personal issues before ever fighting for a world title.
Such predecessors as Oscar De La Hoya, Riddick Bowe, Roy Jones Jr., Evander Holyfield, Pernell Whitaker, Meldrick Taylor, Ray Leonard, Michael Spinks, Leon Spinks, George Foreman, Joe Frazier, Muhammad Ali and Floyd Patterson parlayed their Olympic participation into stardom and significant paydays at the professional level.
That has become much less common among American Olympians these days.
“Being an Olympian doesn’t carry as much weight as it used to,” Spence said. “A lot of those guys, they were 13-0, 14-0 fighting for world titles and stuff like that, and not having to go through a title eliminator and things like that, that we have to go through. But, you know, it’s been good and just being branded an Olympian, that means a lot.
“I think it helped more being an Olympian [than if I wasn’t]. Just casual people, Americans, they find it real cool and find it great and awesome that you’re an Olympian. To me, that’s a great thing, to represent my country and to fight overseas, for a gold medal, which I didn’t get, which I wanted. But just being an Olympian has helped me out a lot, just branded me as an Olympian and just knowing that when you’re an Olympian, you’re the cream of the crop in your country. You’re the top guy. You beat all these top prospects. Like most of the top prospects in today’s game, I fought them in the amateurs and beat them.”
Keith Idec covers boxing for The Record and Herald News, of Woodland Park, N.J., and BoxingScene.com. He can be reached on Twitter @Idecboxing.