RIO DE JANEIRO — It takes a lot to awe Floyd Mayweather, but he was in awe of the wispy young fighter he watched sparring a few months ago at the Mayweather Boxing Club in Las Vegas.
Mayweather, the one-time pound-for-pound boxing king who retired last year after a 49-0 career, instantly wanted to sign the boxer to a promotional contract.
“The first time I ever saw him box, I saw him at the Mayweather Boxing Club and we were interested [in signing him],” Mayweather said. “We thought he was a pro because he was boxing another up-and-coming top fighter, and he looked unbelievable.”
The boxer he saw was no pro. It was Shakur Stevenson, the U.S. bantamweight, who on Tuesday in the quarterfinals of the Olympics got the chance to fight in front of his idol for the first time.
Stevenson cruised to an easy victory, as Tsendbaatar Erdenebat barely laid a glove on him en route to a unanimous decision. All three judges had it 30-27 for Stevenson, who guaranteed himself at least a bronze with his second consecutive win.
Mayweather, who is trying to sign Stevenson to a deal with his Mayweather Promotions team, was laying it on thick. This was like a chance to sit in the living room as Coach K delivered his pitch to a five-star recruit.
Stevenson was standing to Mayweather’s left as the boxing legend raved about his talent. How much was he laying it on?
Well, so much so that he compared the 19-year-old amateur to himself.
“I see the next Floyd Mayweather,” he said. “If anybody can break my records, this young kid here can do it. I truly believe in him.”
[Photos: Olympic photos of the day: Aug. 16, 2016]
He had reason to believe in him after the performance Stevenson put on Tuesday against Erdenebat. Stevenson, who rated himself a C-minus in his opening win, upgraded the mark Tuesday to B-minus.
That might be because Erdenebat, who roared out of the corner winging big shots, actually hit him cleanly once in the third.
But given that Stevenson was so sharp and so aware defensively, it was hard to remember more than two or three blows landing cleanly.
Asked if he remembered being hit, Stevenson pretended to think before smiling.
“I got hit, I think,” he said. “He jumped in with some crazy, wild stuff. He got out of character.”
Stevenson, though, was on his game completely. Despite being rushed at the bell, he kept his composure and maintained his distance. He popped the jab to keep Erdenebat at bay and occasionally went to the body, where he scored with such regularity that Erdenebat noticeably tired by the third round.
“Those shots take a lot out of you and slow you down,” Stevenson said.
U.S. associate coach Kay Koroma learned that Mayweather was in the gym while Stevenson was warming up, but Koroma didn’t tell Stevenson at first.
Mayweather was in Rio on Sunday but didn’t attend Stevenson’s fight.
“He was a little disappointed that Floyd never came to watch him fight [Sunday],” Koroma said. “I said, ‘It is what it is. We’re not here for Floyd.’ They came today and told me Floyd was here, and I waited until after he warmed up to tell him. I said, ‘Floyd’s here,’ and he goes, ‘For real?’
“Then, the next thing you know, they showed him on the screen. And then he got all up and was like, ‘OK, we got to do what we got to do.’ It was exciting when they opened the curtain and Floyd was right there. He was yelling, ‘Let’s go Stevenson.’ Shakur was like, ‘Oh damn.’ ”
Stevenson said he got a bit nervous when he saw Mayweather, but he didn’t let on. He boxed beautifully on a day when the judges were turning in some odd decisions.
In the fight immediately before his, Ireland’s Michael Conlan fought a terrific fight and seemed to easily handle Russian Vladimir Nikitin, but Nikitin was given a 29-28 decision on all three cards.
Conlan was, as were all of the Irish coaches, rightly furious.
“I’ve been robbed of my Olympic dream,” Conlan said as part of an expletive-filled rant.
He had plenty of sympathy from the U.S. fighters and coaches, all of whom thought he had won easily.
“I thought Conlan was robbed,” said Stevenson, who will fight Nikitin and not Conlan in the semifinals.
Koroma said part of the reason Stevenson boxed, staying on the outside, was to make certain the judges could tell what was going on and that there was no mistake about who was hitting whom.
Even the judges couldn’t rob Stevenson after his exhibition.
“He did an unbelievable job, very, very good,” Mayweather said. “He’s not a good fighter, he’s a great amateur boxer. Some day, he’s going to be a world champion at the professional level, at the highest ranks.”
For now, he’ll have to settle for Olympic medalist. Stevenson has guaranteed himself a bronze, and will go after at least a silver when he meets Nikitin in the semifinals.
But as he said after his opening win, he’s got more on his mind.
“Get after that gold,” Stevenson said.
The way he looked on Tuesday, it wouldn’t be wise to doubt him.
Not even Floyd Mayweather does. And that speaks volumes about Shakur Stevenson.