RIO DE JANEIRO — Shakur Stevenson, the brilliantly talented U.S. bantamweight, lived for several years with Kay Koroma, the associate coach of the U.S. boxing team. They shared just about everything together on the road to the Olympic Games.
But there was one thing Koroma withheld from Stevenson: He never told him just how loudly he’d be booed by the partisan Brazilian fans. Stevenson, the No. 4 seed who’d gotten a bye in the opener, faced Robenilson de Jesus of Brazil, but the American didn’t let the raucous crowd bother him.
It did, however, come as kind of a shock to the system when he walked out and boos rained down upon him before his unanimous decision victory. Judges had it 29-28 twice and 30-27 for Stevenson, who was a far classier boxer and controlled the fight throughout.
“Before I heard the crowd, I was real excited,” Stevenson said. “But when I got there and they started booing, I got a little nervous.”
Stevenson, though, has the ability to, as Koroma says, “rise above,” and he did exactly that. He had much going against him in the bout.
He hadn’t fought since March. He was fighting the hometown hero, and DeJesus had an awkward, difficult style.
But Stevenson slowly but surely figured out what he had to do. He avoided getting onto the inside and getting in exchanges with DeJesus, who wanted exactly that type of fight.
Stevenson stayed on the outside and used his superior hand speed and lateral movement to control the fight.
“It wasn’t about the style,” Koroma said. “We knew he was going to be wild, so we didn’t want to go to him. I knew he was scared of Shakur. If we went to him, we would have given him the fight he wanted, because clearly he didn’t hit Shakur. But if you go to somebody that’s holding and all that stuff like that and you’re fighting in Brazil, they would have made it seem like he was winning.
“So we didn’t want that fight at all. We kept it outside so we could show the judges he wasn’t hitting us. We basically broke him down mentally.”
Koroma’s suspicions about the judging were correct. Though DeJesus landed very few shots, one judge gave him the first round and another gave him the second.
As a result, Stevenson went to the third round up on one card and tied on the other two.
Stevenson, though, was brilliant in the third. He pecked away with the jab and fired in combination when the openings were there. DeJesus had a cut from his first round win, and Stevenson frequently targeted it.
“I didn’t really have no game plan going in,” he said. “ … I started touching his cut. I saw he had a cut, so I kept hitting it, kept hitting it, rubbed my head against it a little bit. I went after the cut. That was my game plan in the fight.”
Despite the layoff, Stevenson was in excellent shape and was able to open it up in the final round.
He threw more punches in the third than he did in either of the first two rounds and DeJesus noticeably slowed.
“He got tired and I started teeing off on him,” Stevenson said. “Once I started teeing off on him, I said, ‘I got this.’ ”
He has been regarded as the best hope for a gold medal among the American men, who have been surprisingly strong during these Games.
The U.S. is 9-3 in boxing, 8-3 by the men, and light flyweight Nico Hernandez won a bronze medal.
Stevenson kept that momentum going and showed the kind of skill that Koroma knew would shine through on the big stage.
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Ireland’s Michael Conlan is the reigning world champion and looked outstanding Sunday in his win. Stevenson fights Mongolia’s Tsendbaatar Erdenebat next.
“With him, he rises to the occasion,” Koroma said of Stevenson. “He likes this. This is what he loves. When the pressure is on, he just loves it. I’ve never seen anybody like him except for [retired NBA star Allen] Iverson, [Basketball Hall of Famer] Michael Jordan, [boxing pound-for-pound star] Andre Ward, people who rise to the occasion when everybody says they’re down.
“For him, he’s like, ‘I’m winning. Let’s go. I want to do this. We’re going in his backyard? OK, let’s make it happen.’ To see him smiling in the ring, I knew that was Shakur. He loves this.”
With one more win, he’ll guarantee himself a medal. But he clearly has a preference.
“Gold, baby,” he said, beaming. “I’m going after that gold.”
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