RIO DE JANEIRO – Shakur Stevenson is barely old enough to vote. At 19, the man many believe is the U.S. men’s boxing team’s best hope to end its medal drought appears so youthful he seems out of place among the many grizzled veterans who roam the Olympic Village.
He’s had gloves on his hands since he was 4 or 5, and he was only 2 when he first started to shadow box.
U.S. men’s associate coach Kay Koroma said Stevenson has been sparring with adults since he was 12. Fighting men older and more physically mature is nothing new to him.
He’s young, but not inexperienced. Win or lose, it’s a pretty good bet he won’t be overcome by the moment when he steps into the ring for the first time on Saturday in a second-round match in the stacked bantamweight division.
“He’s been around this his whole life,” Koroma said. “He’s not going to be intimidated by it. He has the right mindset. Ninety percent of this is mental, and he understands it.”
It’s not unusual to see Stevenson beam in the ring, particularly when he makes an opponent miss.
He’s like a pesky gnat you want to swat and be rid of, but he is too quick and elusive so you can’t quite ever seem to lay a hand on him. He’s here, he’s there, he’s in, he’s out, all the while popping a jab and slipping just out of danger.
Worse, perhaps, is that grin that seemingly always seems to crease his face, particularly when he makes you miss and is able to counter.
Stevenson is the oldest of nine children, born in 1997 in Newark, N.J., just nine months after his namesake, rapper Tupac Shakur, was murdered in Las Vegas following a Mike Tyson heavyweight title fight.
Tupac once said, “There’s nobody in the business strong enough to scare me,” and that pretty well sums up Stevenson’s attitude in the ring.
He’s not afraid or intimidated and refuses to take a back seat. He’s an elite talent and he knows it, though he’s got a disarming way about him.
He talks about what he may do in such a way that it doesn’t sound like he’s boasting.
But his manner in the ring can come off as infuriating to rivals. The more aggressive they are, the more Stevenson loves to play the matador and walk them into punches after they flail at air.
All the while, a big grin crosses his face, the joy in his work evident.
“I’m not trying to frustrate anyone,” he protests. “I’m just having fun. If it frustrates my opponents that I’m enjoying what I’m doing, that’s on them.”
He pauses for a second, and then adds, “If it gets them angry or frustrated and it leaves me [an opening], that’s my job [to take advantage],” he said.
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He’s been compared to all sorts of different boxers, from Floyd Mayweather to Guillermo Rigondeaux, but the most frequent comparison has been to Andre Ward.
Ward, who in 2004 became the last American male to win Olympic gold, regularly speaks with Stevenson and gives him advice.
Koroma said Stevenson has many of the qualities that have made Ward one of the world’s elite professional boxers.
Ward hasn’t lost since he was a 14-year-old amateur in 1998 when he was beaten by Jesus Gonzales. Ward is now 32 and 30-0 as a pro, as well as an Olympic gold medalist.
And those are the kinds of standards by which Stevenson measures himself. Koroma said boxing is like art and that Stevenson loves to express himself in the ring.
“It’s like he is portraying himself, drawing a portrait, like Michelangelo and Leonardo [da Vinci],” Koroma said. “He’s expressing himself with how he moves and how he boxes. He’s painting his own beautiful picture.”
It would be more beautiful, of course, if that picture came with a medal around his neck, particularly a gold one.
Stevenson, who is the fourth seed, has a sense this is his destiny. He was born into a city that, at the time, had the dubious distinction of being the most crime-ridden city in the country.
It may no longer be so, but it’s still a tough existence for most of its 281,000 or so residents. Stevenson says he represents hope for his hometown.
“This is important to me being here because I can do something good for the people back home,” Stevenson said. “They can see me and know I am one of them, and I got out and I had success. That’s important to me to show that anything is possible.”
A medal is no doubt possible, though he’s in a tough draw. Ireland’s Michael Conlan, a 2012 bronze medalist in London and the 2015 bantamweight world champion, is in his bracket, and they’ll meet in the semifinals if both survive that long.
Stevenson, though, is undeterred.
“This is what I’ve wanted to do all my life,” he says, shrugging off any notion of pressure. “Why am I going to start worrying now?”