Shakur Stevenson smashed his boxing gloves together in approval of his performance at the end of the first round of his Youth Olympic flyweight boxing final against China’s Ping Lyu in August.
The 17-year-old Team USA Boxing savior traveled to Nanjing, China, to compete in the Youth Olympic Games (Aug. 16-28), a global, multisport competition and pre-Olympic showcase of sorts. Stevenson qualified at the Youth World Championships in Sofia, Bulgaria, in April of 2014 with three other U.S. junior boxers.
In a rematch with the crafty, hometown hopeful Lyu, the fight was over as soon as Stevenson’s gloves collided and continued to speak loudly for two more decisive rounds as he took the gold.
“I GOT YA!”
Stevenson knew what it was and he destroyed his competition in emphatic fashion to become the first U.S. men’s boxer to win a Youth Olympic gold medal in the two editions of the Games.
SHAKUR: It was great winning the Youth Olympics and just being around a bunch of athletes from all over the world that were 17 and 18 years old just like me. There were a bunch of females and all that…It was a great experience.
Of course the young buck has to mention the shorties. That’s what high school boys think about, even if they are laying the groundwork to become mega celebrities as adults. Don’t forget social media. What would they do without that?
SHAKUR: A lot of people follow me on Instagram and Twitter and they already know me. I’m little. I’m smaller than most boxers. I fight at 114 and people look at me and don’t believe I’m a boxer. I don’t fit the perception of what a boxer looks like I guess. People tell me I look more like a basketball player. I don’t look like I would rip somebody’s head off.
His final international accolade will put a fitting bow on a legendary amateur career. Just competing in the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil would be the highlight of most U.S. boxers’ careers.
After all, Team USA men’s boxing was shut out of the medal mix in the 2012 and in 2008 in Beijing, they mustered a lonely bronze by Alabama’s Deontay Wilder. It’s been a minute since the U.S. has been this confident about securing at least one gold. With no hesitation Stevenson says its money in the bag.
SHAKUR: Yeah, I’m going to win the gold medal. I’m confident about the Olympics and I know I’m going to get there. Everything I do now is preparing for that moment. My weight class that I just moved up to (light bantamweight) it’s not very hard. I just have to have it. I have to win that gold.
WELL ROUNDED AND WELL-SURROUNDED
In fact, Stevenson has other pressing matters to tend to right now. With the boxing game on lock for the time being, the high school kid has to get his academics flowing with the same brilliance that he exhibits in the ring.
SHAKUR: The hardest thing right now is that I’m focusing on school. I’m trying to work on graduating from high school because I’m behind because of my recent boxing grind and all of that. My biggest challenge is trying to graduate right before the Olympics ..I’m trying to graduate in the 2015 year.
Shortly after his cousin’s death, Shakur’s mom plucked him from the unpredictable streets of New Jeru and sent him to live with his grandmother in Hampton, Virginia.
SHAKUR: My mother wanted a change of environment for me. I think it was a great decision. I’m attending Bethel HS in Hampton, where A.I. (Allen Iverson) went to school. Everybody loves him out here, especially the basketball coach. He was at a football game not too long ago. I’ve never met him personally but I want to though. I do miss my old life in Jersey, but I’m making friends and everything here so I’m moving on to bigger and better things.
As my conversation with Shakur (whose mom knew deceased rapper Tupac and named her son after him) deepened, the confidence he exudes began to make a lot of sense. It’s a confidence that he says can be misinterpreted by his opponents.
SHAKUR: A lot of boxers in amateurs, when I go to these tournaments, a lot of them think I’m cocky just because of the way good boxers portray themselves ...good boxers like Adrien Broner and Floyd that’s how they express their confidence, so a lot of people think I’m cocky, but I’m not really. I’m a humble person with a lot of confidence. I’m not really like that though.
You would be a bit cocky too if you were doing appearances on the Katie Couric Show with LL Cool J.
The flip side of that confidence is underestimating an opponent which Shakur was guilty of during a sparring session against three-time Olympian Rau’shee Warren.
SHAKUR: I’ve been challenged by a couple of boxers particularly in sparring with Warren. He gave me a …he gave me some work….they spar like 10 minute rounds not three minutes, so it’s different. Like I came out hot. I thought we were doing three-minute rounds so I came out buzzin' on em’…and it was going, but I guess he was saving his energy just to catch me at the end and he got some work in on me. It was good work though.”
Mama knew her boy was special. Pac joints were the soundtrack of his early life so the principals of survival, success, pain, hard work and impact were embedded in his musical DNA at an early age. Music seeps deep into the subconscious and in Stevenson’s case, it produced a modern day warrior in tune with the rhythmic execution of boxing techniques.
SHAKUR: I guess when I turned around three my mom told me who I was named after. She used to always listen to him in the house and while I was growing up I already knew his lyrics and the songs. Now I just go listen to Pac. I definitely listen to Tupac.
He was anointed with prodigy abilities at birth. His Pac-fueled mentality, created a baby-faced boxing machine with the scientific swag of a “Sweet Pea” Whitaker, the confidence of a Mike Tyson and the silent but deadly, million dollar smile of a Sugar Ray Leonard.
Boxing icon Floyd Mayweather Jr., never one to throw compliments unless it has a boomerang attached said, “What’s up young champ, “ when Stevenson bumped heads with him in passing once.
The respectful greeting was further proof that Shakur’s already bodied the international game, sporting a spotless 17-0 record in worldwide competition. He’s a 5-foot-6, (52kg) stick of dynamite with accelerated mitts that connect hard as bricks like the city that cultivated his fearless passion for hand-to-hand combat and sparked his undeniable destiny as a prize fighter.
SHAKUR: Growing up in Newark, you have a lot of guys who say they box, but they really don’t. A bunch of people who have sparred and act like and tell people yeah, “I box.” I don’t even know why they do it but they do. It wasn’t a lot of (real) boxers coming up.
Some say boxing is a lost art, particularly in the African-American inner-cities. Boxing was once a palpable breadline for urban blacks, but like baseball, it ‘s developed into a bonafide come up for young Hispanic athletes looking to thwart the pattern of financial depression within their families.
That kind of talk is silly and offensive to Stevenson, who’s the two-time world champion and first American to be selected by the International Boxing Association (AIBA) as the World Junior Fighter of the Year. He wasn’t trying to entertain any talk about the rising popularity of MMA or America’s decreasing boxing libido.
SHAKUR: I don’t care how popular it is. I love the sport. I have been doing this since I was in Kindergarten. This has always been my passion. My grandfather Willie Moses introduced me to boxing and still trains me in Colorado Springs. I have a new coach Kay Koroma from Alexandria, Virgina, who I work with now too.
My grandfather used to deal with fighters. I think my grandfather used to box too…I’m not sure, but he just started teaching me. The day before he took me to the gym for the first time he took me to the park to meet two of his fighters. So once I met them I really got excited about it. I felt it was so cool that they were boxers and I kept talking about it all day. So the next day he just brought me to the gym and I loved it ever since.
Young Stevenson, the oldest of nine kids, has no time to study trends, especially when he’s on the opposite age spectrum compared to 50-year-old Bernard Hopkins (so the future of boxing is looking decent) and he’s in the middle of making history as the highest touted African-American amateur since Mark Breland.
After he duplicates the Olympic feats of Andre Ward (his favorite boxer and the last U.S. man to win an Olympic boxing gold in 2004) Shakur’s looking to bounce right into the mix of things as a pro and ride his inevitable Olympic glory straight to the bright lights and banks of Atlantic City, Vegas, HBO, Showtime and Pay Per View bonanzas…basically world boxing domination.
SHAKUR: I want to go pro and try to win every belt that I can..WBC, WBO, everything that I can. Keep moving up in weight and I wanna make some money. So 147 pounds is my ultimate weight to fight at because that’s where the money at.
And what if the thin-framed Stevenson can’t ever get comfortable at a weight of 147? The aforementioned Breland was good as a pro but he never put any meat on those bones and it cost him against thicker fighters.
Shakur says he already has a plan for that.
SHAKUR: I do in a way have concerns about the ability to move up through weight classes but I feel like If I’m little then I have to call out as many fighters who are bigger than me and bring the money to my weight class then. Make myself the attraction. Make them want to come down to me to get that check.
Boxing is full of young hopefuls who dominate the amateur circuit and fail to continue that level of success as a pro. So what makes Stevenson different?
SHAKUR: It’s my ring intelligence. I’m smarter than most boxers and I have a lot of heart. I don’t think I’m scared of anything. I study the greats. Feed my mind with boxing knowledge. Sugar Ray Robinson is the greatest of all-time in my eyes. Some of the things Sugar Ray did in his fights when I watch them it was amazing...you will see people now a day’s copying some of the stuff he did 50 years ago. He moved with such confidence. His swag was completely different than other fighters.
Also, there’s not a lot of people who fight like me because I’m a southpaw that’s slick and I’m really right-handed so most boxers don’t fight that way…there aren’t any guys really like me out there. It poses a problem for opponents because my style is unorthodox. Most orthodox people train for southpaws that are left-handed, but it messes them up that I’m right-handed.
USA Boxing coach Edward Rivas put it bluntly when speaking on the Bugatti Veyron of U.S. amateur boxing.
RIVAS: If anybody was born to do something, Shakur was born to fight. It's something he does that he doesn't understand himself, but he's able to control the pace no matter what kind of opponent he faces. He can slow it down, he can speed it up, his hand-eye reaction is superior. He's one of these athletes who seems a lot older than 17."
And he's one of those young guns with dreams broader than Broadway.