Six years ago, the campaign Shakur Stevenson was promoting in his hometown was Powerade’s “Just a Kid,” and the soon-to-be Olympian was just that, 18 years old and ready to not just take on the world, but to show his peers that dreaming big and making those dreams happen wasn’t exclusive to certain neighborhoods in certain cities.
Anyone, even a kid from Newark, could do it.
“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,” Stevenson said in 2016. “They can think about something more than our city, more than hard times.”
His mom, Malikah, was there, along with some of his eight siblings, and it was a celebration for someone everyone in attendance knew had the potential to break stereotypes and cross over beyond boxing. All before he turned 21. But, at the time, Stevenson kept his focus on what was immediately ahead of him, and his sights were set on the Rio Olympics, particularly Robeisy Ramirez, a 2012 gold medal winner for Cuba.
And while Stevenson was good, most assumed Ramirez would repeat at 56kg, something that momentarily took the smile off his face that day.
“I'm tough too,” he said. “They say the Cubans or these other international guys are the best boxers, but we're all human, we all put our pants on the same way, we all bleed the same way. If I get in the ring with a Cuban, the Cuban's getting in the ring with Shakur Stevenson, too. And he's got to realize that.”
They would meet in the gold medal bout in Rio, Ramirez eking out a close decision that left the American with a silver medal and a broken heart. He wouldn’t turn pro until April of the following year.
“I think I needed that break,” he said before his second pro bout against Carlos Gaston Suarez in May 2017. “I was really hurt after the Olympics; I was sad about losing and my mind wasn’t all the way there. So that break definitely was needed, but everything happened the way it was supposed to happen and everything was perfect timing.”
There’s been no heartache in the ring since. Eighteen fights, eighteen wins, nine knockouts and a pair of world titles at 130 pounds. Along the way he’s barely lost around, even as he’s steadily gone up in competition from the likes of Christopher Diaz and Joet Gonzalez to Jamel Herring and Oscar Valdez. In fact, when he faced the 30-0 Valdez in April, it was not only expected to be Stevenson’s toughest test, but perhaps the fight where he got a “1” in his loss column.
It didn’t happen that way. Stevenson dropped Valdez in the sixth round en route to a lopsided unanimous decision win, adding his opponent’s WBC belt to the WBO one already in his possession. It was as dominant as Stevenson’s fans thought it would be, and was described by former world champion Paulie Malignaggi as such on a ProBoxTV podcast:
“They looked like they were doing two different sports in there,” said Malignaggi, who was spot on in that assessment, leaving many to wonder what is left for Stevenson at 130 pounds in terms of a challenge. A bout with the surging Ramirez would have a nice storyline attached to it, but the Cuban is comfortable campaigning at featherweight. Outside of that, fellow titleholders Hector Luis Garcia and Joe Cordina are both unbeaten and have had impressive 2022 campaigns, Garcia handing Chris Colbert his first loss while Cordina knocked out Kenichi Ogawa, but neither are particularly moving the needle outside of their respective circles.
Then there’s Brazil’s Robson Conceicao, a three-time Olympian and gold medal winner in 2016, who will be the one tasked with spoiling Stevenson’s second pro fight in Newark and first since 2019 this Friday night. And in his return, the 25-year-old wanted to make one thing clear as he arrived home.
“I’m a grown man now, there ain’t no kid about me no more,” said Stevenson on an episode of Top Rank’s “Real Time” web show. “There’s a lot of responsibility but I feel I can handle it.”
A lot has changed since those pre-Olympic days. Stevenson is a father, he’s engaged to be married (the Valdez fight was so untaxing for him that he proposed to his lady in the ring after the decision was read), and he is expected to be one of those young stars to take over the sport in the next several years, as predicted back when he took a trip to Brazil to chase gold. Now it’s almost full circle. He’s fighting a Brazilian and he’s fighting at home in Newark. It could even be his toughest test, given Conceicao’s amateur pedigree and a 17-1 record with the only loss coming by way of a controversial decision against Valdez in September of last year. Since then, he defeated previously unbeaten Xavier Martinez, and now he gets his crack at a fighter who could easily be looking ahead to what happens in 2023 and beyond is he isn’t careful.
But Stevenson has seen too much to let that happen, and that has little, if anything, to do with boxing. In Newark, those who are distracted often lose their way. And that could lead to any number of bad things. Stevenson’s mom was not about to let that happen to Shakur or any of his brothers and sisters.
“It's everything,” she told me in 2016. “I keep them busy, and they all do something, so if they stay in stuff, it keeps them from running around.”
Stevenson was in the boxing gym from the age of five. In a lot of ways, he’s never left. That’s why he’s here and not in situations like one described to me by one of the counselors at the Boys & Girls Club in Newark, Chris Crockett.
“We have kids who are ten years old that take care of their mom, their dad and two siblings,” said Crockett, “At ten. How is that possible?”
So yeah, Stevenson may be like any other 25-year-old, but with one exception: he’s never lost sight of what he’s always wanted for himself. And for the kids of Newark, who he addressed at the press conference announcing the fight at Prudential Center.
“All you kids, you gotta keep trying to be great,” he said. “Strive to be better, and I want to be an example for you all. I want to make sure I do my part.”