Less than a month before he was scheduled to fight for the world title, a milestone he had dreamed about achieving for much of his life, Shakur Stevenson suffered a terrible loss.
His father, Alfredo Rivera, died on Sept. 29.
Rivera was absent for much of his son’s life, but the two reconnected when Stevenson was about 16 years old. Never, though, was there a total forgiveness and a full acceptance into each other’s lives.
There were old wounds that were difficult to heal. So while they’d spoken over the last six years or so, their relationship wasn’t typical.
“We had a little bit of a relationship,” is how Stevenson put it.
Stevenson will fight Joet Gonzalez for the vacant WBO featherweight world title on Saturday (10 p.m. ET, ESPN+) in Reno, Nevada, in the main event of a Top Rank-promoted card. Stevenson, a silver medalist at the 2016 Rio Olympics, has the potential to be a breakout star.
He’s fast-handed and slick in the ring and his power is quickly developing. He’s so gifted that he held his own in a recent sparring session with pound-for-pound elite Vasiliy Lomachenko in Oxnard, California, in which the Top Rank brass was mesmerized.
“Our matchmakers were blown away by how well Stevenson did,” Top Rank president Todd duBoef said. “They were absolutely blown away. It was like, ‘Wow!’”
The fight with Gonzalez will be his biggest since he was beaten in the gold medal match by Cuban Robeisy Ramírez in 2016. Stevenson vowed that this time things will be different, but he faces a turbulent time.
Not only is he still grieving over the loss of his father and coming to grips with their relationship, but there are personal issues between Gonzalez and he that complicate matters.
Stevenson is dating Gonzalez’s sister, Jajaira, much to the dismay of Joet, who is no fan of Stevenson’s.
It’s all stuff that could be problematic for a boxer on the verge of a major fight, even one as talented as Stevenson.
“Anything outside forces that come up on a fighter, the things that normal people deal with in their everyday lives, has the potential to be a distraction, especially for a fighter coming up on the biggest fight of his life,” said former world champion Andre Ward, one of Stevenson’s co-managers. “We won’t know until the fight actually happens, obviously, but what I’ve seen from our interactions and the things we’ve talked about, I think he’s doing a phenomenal job dealing with it. He’s only 22 years old so I think he’s taken a lot of stuff and kind of compartmentalized it.
“He has some built-in defense mechanisms and he just presses forward. At some point, he’ll have to look at himself and his father and address it. I’m guessing he’ll do that after the fight. The stuff with Joet, that’s kind of out of a movie. I don’t even know where to begin with that. But I’m happy and pleased that he seems to be dealing with it the right away.”
Asked if he was going to be able to perform at his usual level because he’s grieving over his father’s loss, Stevenson took the conversation in an unexpected direction and said it impacted the way he felt about his father as he tried to deal with the pain he felt over his absence from his childhood.
“If I’m being honest with you, I’m bipolar,” Stevenson said of his relationship with his father. “I’m a bipolar type of person. Sometimes me and him would talk, and sometimes he’d reach out to me and I’d kind of shy away from him because I still had some anger inside of me. I’m dealing with it well. I’m hurting because that’s my blood. That’s my Dad and I can’t go and look him in the face, knowing he’s not here no more. At the end of the day, he did love me and with my boxing, he loved what I became.”
He’s a brilliant talent who is good enough to be on the pound-for-pound list someday, and perhaps soon.
The issue for Stevenson is whether he’d lost out-of-the-ring issues prevent him from fulfilling his potential. He was arrested after a brawl in Miami on his 21st birthday last year. In June, he pleaded guilty and was given a year of probation.
It’s only a blip, but Ward, a notoriously clean person who was unusually focused, even as a young man, on what he needed to do, was not pleased.
“Was I upset by that?” Ward asked rhetorically. “Oh man, absolutely. Absolutely I was upset. Myself, James Prince, Josh Dubin, we all co-manage him and it’s like a family. It’s not just business. We talk to him about life. I don’t want to say we saw that coming, but you see certain things. You live long enough and you see certain things and you kind of know where they’re going. Unfortunately, he went through that and the whole world saw it.
“I’m just happy with the way he’s dealt with it. He can’t undo what happened. People saw it, but he’s facing it and dealing with it head on, just like he’s doing with the situation with Joet’s family.”
Stevenson insists he’s on the right track and is focused fully on his career and getting past Gonzalez.
Gonzalez is no pushover and is himself one of the bright young prospects in the sport. That said, Stevenson has the opportunity to stand apart among the best fighters in the world given his talent.
Not only did he spar with Lomachenko, but he’s been in with a number of other highly regarded established veterans, Ward said, and held his own. And Stevenson vows to make up for what he said was a slip-up in the Olympic finale.
“I won’t let myself down again,” Stevenson said. “That keeps coming up in my head. This whole time, I keep thinking about when I failed in the Olympics. It’s motivating to me. I wasn’t 100 percent. I think if I were 100 percent then, not giving myself any excuses, there was a lot going on around me. I was cutting weight and I had to cut a lot of weight, and things were happening leading up to that.
“If I had been 100 percent and went into that fight that way, I honestly think I would have beaten him. But the thing it’s done, it’s helped me as I am ready for this fight. I know what to look out for. I got to to this point pretty quickly, but I have learned a lot along the way and I know I am ready for this moment. This is going to be my time.”
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