At some point everyone has dealt with it. In particular, every young person must endure the pressure of expectations from the wider world. When the young person is also a gifted and dedicated athlete who has medaled in the Olympics, the intensity of those expectations can become even stronger.
Twenty-year-old Shakur Stevenson (3-0, 1 KO) has ensured that his team is made up of people who not only support him, but help him improve as both a fighter and a person. An old adage in boxing states that a trainer is only as good as their fighter, and a fighter is only as good as their trainer. When the boxer in question has also grown up with his coach, and his trainer is also his grandfather, the relationship is that much more meaningful.
It was thanks to Stevenson’s grandfather and co-trainer Wali Moses that Shakur began boxing at the age of five. At nineteen, he won silver in the 2016 Olympic Games, and now he’s a hungry and promising professional fighter.
“My grandfather, he practically raised me,” Shakur said. “He practically brought me up since I was a little kid. He used to take me to the gym with him every day. We’ve got a great relationship.”
Newark, New Jersey, where Stevenson grew up, is well-known for its crime. In 2016, the city had the sixth highest homicide rate in the country despite its relatively small population. With all of the trouble and the lure of instant gratification lurking in young Shakur’s surroundings, it was Moses’ influence that kept Stevenson in the gym and focused on his craft—and off the streets.
“Newark is a place where you can get caught up in a lot of other stuff outside of boxing, man,” Shakur said. “My grandfather kept me on the right track inside a boxing gym and made it so I went to the gym all the time. I’m grateful for my grandfather and I’m blessed to have him in my life. He kept me in the right position.”
Shakur also credits his grandfather for his love of the sport and the fact that his competitive nature helped motivate him coming up. “And the fact that I love boxing, man. I knew it was bigger than just my city. I would go to national tournaments and I would always want to win them national tournaments. He kept me in training all the time.”
Aside from his grandfather’s impact on his life, Stevenson has nothing but praise for Moses as a boxing trainer. “I feel like he’s one of the best boxing coaches out there. He’s got a good eye. He sees things in the ring that I don’t see. He’ll tell me certain stuff in between rounds, and I’ll go out there and try it, and 80% of the time it works.”
Rounding out Shakur’s coaching team is Kay Koroma, who began working with Stevenson and Moses in the amateurs. “My grandfather and Kay, they worked my corner since I was like 17. They both worked my corner at the same time a few times.” When preparing for upcoming fights, Shakur lets his coaches handle the studying of the specific opponent. “I know that me, personally--I’ve known this since I was a little kid--if I’m in the ring having fun and boxing at my best, I don’t think nobody could beat me.”
Stevenson’s next fight is on December 9th, on the undercard of the highly anticipated Vasyl Lomachenko vs. Guillermo Rigondeaux match. Shakur will be facing Oscar Mendoza (4-2, 2 KOs) and has recently gotten in some sparring with Top Rank stablemate Lomachenko. “It was some elite experience,” the southpaw Stevenson said about the sparring sessions. “It was elite-level, top-notch sparring. [Lomachenko’s team] honestly wanted me there the whole camp--I was giving them great work. It was a great learning experience, and it was great to see where I’m at as far as my skill level and my boxing.”
In his last outing in August, Shakur defeated Argentinian David Michael Paz (4-4-1) by one-sided, unanimous decision. Stevenson put on a very good performance and appeared to be trying to stop his opponent, but it’s exceedingly difficult to knock out a foe whose focus is to survive in the ring. “I definitely would say he was in survival mode,” Shakur said. “It was hard for me to really get off how I wanted to because he didn’t want to fight. He didn’t try to push for a fight. He wanted to survive.”
One of the more impressive traits Stevenson displays in the ring is his mental quickness. He typically seems ahead of his opponents mentally; because he correctly anticipates their responses, he is better able to control the pace of the fights and, hence, the outcome. Shakur attributes this skill to experience. “I train every single day. I spar every single day. I’ve been in the sport for a long time and I know a lot of things that a lot of people don’t know, especially at [such] an early age. So I’m a lot mentally quicker than most of my opponents and anybody I’m gonna fight way on down the line. I’ve been doing this so long I picked up a lot of stuff. I feel like the mental quickness and the mental part is very important. I’m blessed with it.”
From the outside, Stevenson frequently throws his power hand to the body of his opponent. It’s an unusual tactic; most fighters who go to the body from range use the jab because it’s a bit safer and doesn’t leave them as open to counters. Shakur credits one of his biggest boxing influences for this trick. “Honestly, I watch a lot of Floyd Mayweather and I think I got it from Floyd. I watch a lot of boxing and I pick up on a lot of things that fighters before me did.”
Aside from Mayweather, Stevenson has also found inspiration in future Hall-of-Famer and recently retired Andre “S.O.G.” Ward. In the type of intriguing story common in the sport of boxing, Ward became part of Shakur’s managerial team, along with James Prince and Josh Dubin, when the young fighter made the decision to turn professional. “I’ve looked up to Andre Ward a lot,” Shakur said about the relationship. “I used to watch his fights on YouTube. He was the last [male] Olympic gold medalist and I wanted to come after him and win the gold medal. [Ward co-managing me] only made sense. It’s not like something that me or him went out chasing--it just came right to us and everything worked out perfectly.”
Ward is the rare top-level fighter who chose to retire on top of the sport, as the pound-for-pound king, with his faculties intact and finances secured. He is well-known for being an advocate for fighters and a mentor to younger boxers, like Shakur, teaching them to be mindful about handling their income and careers. Stevenson is well aware of all that his manager can help him achieve. “I know that outside of boxing he wants the best for me, so it only made sense to have him help me in my career. Retiring on your own terms—[the way] he retired, leaving with all your brains and everything intact…I’m blessed to have him in my life also.”
But for now, Shakur’s career is burgeoning and he has a lot to look forward to. The hungry fighter has a lot of goals in mind, both short- and long-term. “Short-term, I want to start catching more knockouts. But I don’t want to go out there taking [shots] for knockouts. I want to just keep boxing how I box, and a lot of knockouts can come to me.
“Long-term, I want to take over the sport of boxing. I want to do it how Floyd, Terence Crawford, Andre Ward, all of them did it--I want to take over boxing in that way. I want to make my way to the top. I want to take all the belts in my weight class and all that stuff.
“I’ve got a lot of goals I want to complete,” he said with a laugh.
Outside the ring, Stevenson is a normal 20-year-old. “I like to stay active. I like to play basketball. And spending some time with my family, whenever they get the chance to come down. I’m young so I still play video games--so I’ll be in my room playing. I only play one video game to be honest with you: NBA 2K. I’m addicted to the game. I could play it all day.”
For his fans, Shakur has a few messages. “Follow me on Instagram and Twitter: @shakurstevenson. I’m gonna keep being a role model for the younger generation. And tune in December 9th on ESPN -- you’ll see me put on a great performance.”
[ Follow Caryn A. Tate on Twitter @carynatate ]