By Corey Erdman
If Shakur Stevenson is to become boxing's next superstar, his biggest obstacles may not even be inside the ring.
Stevenson, by all accounts, has the goods in the squared circle. The 19-year old Olympic silver medallist is a superb technician with fast hands and a co-sign from enough professionals he's sparred to prove those aren't just smoke and mirrors. He's also a polite, engaging personality, with a smile permanently spread across his face.
That sounds like a foolproof recipe for a mega star, but history suggests that the requirements for a black mega star are the complete opposite of those for white fighters.
The marketing of fighters is not unlike the marketing of professional wrestlers. To sell a major pay-per-view, there needs to be a hero and a villain. With very few exceptions historically, in order to become a transcendent figure, black fighters have had to assume the role of the bad guy.
When Top Rank head Bob Arum is asked to compare Stevenson to a former fighter, or to put a label on what he could become, he often brings up the name Sugar Ray Leonard. This is key, because Leonard is the last example of the African American superstar who took on the role of the “good guy.” To borrow pro wrestling parlance, black fighters tend to make the most money by playing the heel.
One can come to their own conclusions based on their own worldview as to the degree of American systemic racism that has caused this, but the reality is that boxing's biggest crossover stars—Muhammad Ali, Mike Tyson, Floyd Mayweather—rose to prominence because they were antagonistic, loathsome and or arrogant, either by choice or by natural character. Even in the case of Ali, his brash personality didn't change even as his popularity grew, but the interpretation of it, particularly from the white audience, certainly did.
In Mayweather's case, he may have already been the world's best fighter, but until he beat Oscar De La Hoya, the sport's reigning good guy, and developed the obnoxious “Money” persona, his gates, pay-per-view numbers and purses didn't balloon.
Being the best fighter in the world has never been good enough for black fighters. Pernell Whitaker, Roy Jones Jr., Shane Mosley, Bernard Hopkins and Andre Ward have all held that title for varying lengths of time, and while they were indeed stars within boxing and their careers ultimately successful, none could permeate the mainstream or mega become pay-per-view attractions on their own.
Pre-Leonard, you'd have to go all the way back to Joe Louis to find a black American fighter who became the sport's top star while also being a clean-cut polite character.
With Stevenson, Arum will attempt boxing's most difficult marketing mission—creating the next Leonard. Given that he's now 85 years of age, it may be Arum's last opportunity to build a star from the ground up.
It's a fact that he seems to acknowledge, telling NJ.com last week, “we're not going to wait 10 years or 15 years. In five years he'll be a major, major star and he'll be fighting major, major events. Maybe it's because of my age I'm a little selfish, I want to get things moving quick."
Compounding the difficulty of the task is the current boxing marketplace, which consists of cloudy major network availability after drawbacks at Premier Boxing Champions, and one of two premium cable networks, HBO, cutting back on boxing spending.
This means that the vehicle that's had a hand in creating all of the sport's biggest stars since the 1980s is not necessarily a non-factor, but less of a factor than ever before.
"Prior to this, we relied on our partner, HBO. HBO is now the subject of a merger, and they're not spending money the way they used to. They wanna make their bottom line look good as the merger moves forward. This sometimes happens. So in effect, we're collateral damage," said Arum. "Before, we spent a lot of money doing shoulder programming on HBO. They did shows like 24/7 and charged the promoter for the cost of the program. They got free programming. People were tired of that. We found that you can get a lot more bang for your buck, instead of doing that shoulder programming, by doing internet social media."
While HBO has touched nearly every major star in the sport since its inception, Top Rank has had some involvement with every major star in the sport for nearly 50 years. Ali, Mayweather, Manny Pacquiao and De La Hoya all passed through Arum's hallways. Even Tyson, whose career was entrusted to Don King, fought on several of Arum's ESPN programs in his early career.
There is no more proven star maker in the sport than Arum, and he says that reputation alone draws the sport's top prospects to him on their own accord.
“(Stevenson) made a deal with two guys that we know, James Prince and Andre Ward, and they have great respect for us, and they brought him to us. We didn't chase Stevenson, we didn't chase (Michael) Conlan. People know we have the reputation for building stars. The truth is that virtually every major star from the last 20 or 30 years has been built by Top Rank,” said Arum. “Four years ago, the greatest prize in boxing was Vasyl Lomachenko. Everybody was throwing millions of dollars at him. He sat down with me, and I was ready for some crazy demand, and he said to me--he couldn't speak English back then, it was translated--I don't want a bonus from you, I want to earn it myself. Haymon offered him $2 million to sign. I didn't even have a chance to offer him five cents.”
Originally, it looked as though Stevenson would go the Haymon route himself. Mayweather himself flew to Brazil for the Olympics to court Stevenson, and was by his side during many of his on-camera media appearances. Doing so would have almost immediately made him a villain in the eyes of the boxing public, as he would have been handed a Money Team tracksuit and flatbrim, and been coupled in with the richest and most hated fighter of a generation.
Stevenson wasn't willing to trade in his signature smile for a smirk or a scowl.
Ultimately though, the game isn't the same for black fighters, as it isn't for them in everyday life. What's asked of them isn't the same as what's asked of white fighters. So unless Arum has one last trick up his Hall of Fame sleeve, or centuries of history are magically erased, whether Stevenson becomes a star or not may not come down to how good he is, but unfortunately, how bad he's willing to be.