Floyd Mayweather has been focused on one boxer all week. It's no secret which one. Mayweather, the 1996 Olympic bronze medalist and world champion, came all the way to Rio to add one highly charismatic and talented 19-year-old from Newark, New Jersey, to his "Money Team."
On Tuesday, Mayweather showed up at to Shakur Stevenson's quarterfinal bout, shouting instructions from the stands. On Wednesday, Mayweather started promoting him—on Twitter, anyway (where he listed all of Stevenson's social media handles).
But it's not a done deal yet, at least according to Stevenson, who will fight Cuba's 2012 Olympic flyweight champion Robeisy Ramirez for the bantamweight gold medal in Rio on Saturday. Win or lose, Stevenson will leave Brazil with the best Olympic finish by a male U.S. boxer since Andre Ward won gold in 2004.
"Nothing's decided," Stevenson said on Thursday, feinting (verbally) in the mixed zone where reporters traditionally hound athletes after their bouts. Stevenson had just advanced out of the 56kg semifinals by walkover after Russia's Vladimir Nikitin failed the morning's medical check.
"I'm gonna focus on winning the gold medal," Stevenson said, wearing an orange hoodie instead of a tank top and hand wraps. "After I win a gold medal, I'm gonna weigh my options and see what's next for me."
"Honestly, I don't really know my options right now. I'm going to decide when I get back to the States," he said.
When the same question came from a different angle—about whether a second Olympics might be in his future—Stevenson essentially slipped right and smiled (which he also does in the ring sometimes). "I don't really know yet, but I love—love—the Olympics right now. I'm excited. It's going to be a great fight, I promise—and I promise I'm gonna come out on top."
Stevenson has never done otherwise. He has a 26-0 international record (although he'll say it's 25 because he doesn't count Thursday's walkover).
And everyone knows he's the real deal. Ireland's Michael Conlan (who lost a highly controversial quarterfinal to the Russian Nikitin) said, "Shakur's a big name in the States, and he is a big name all over the world." Conlan had been planning to fight him since the prelims. Anticipating a semifinal matchup that wasn't to be, Conlan said, "It will be fantastic to be in the ring with him and take that victory because of how big the American market is for sport."
In 2013, Stevenson won the junior world championship title, and AIBA (the international boxing association) voted him Junior Male Boxer of the Year. In 2014, he won a gold medal at the Youth Olympic Games in China in front of a highly partisan crowd by defeating Chinese flyweight Ly Ping in the 114-pound final. Stevenson has been saying that he would win the Olympic gold medal in Rio ever since.
According to his maternal grandfather, Wali Moses, who has trained Stevenson since he was five, he was always very competitive and set high goals for himself.
"When Shakur was very young," Moses said, "a lot of athletes at the time didn't take [boxing] seriously. At seven years old, he said to me, 'Pop-Pop, I'm going to come to these tournaments and I'm not gonna lose.' So we went back to the gym, and we kept training."
Later, when he saw what the older boys were doing at the gym, Stevenson asked Moses, "Pop-Pop, why don't I train like the rest of them?" Moses told him, "Shakur, you don't want to be like the rest of 'em." Stevenson said, "Oh, OK," and started training even harder.
"He and I would box in the house from the morning to the evening," Moses said. "My wife would have to yell, 'Y'all stop boxing, go to bed, man, go to bed!' You may see him come up to me and go at it again. That's how it's been his whole career. I think Shakur has boxed me more than anybody in his life. We boxed year in, year out, every day in the house, all day long. My wife would just scream at the both of us. It was crazy."
When Stevenson was eight, Moses said, "He was able to equal my hand speed. That's when I knew he was really special. I would really have to be on my guard."
Meanwhile, at school, Moses said, teachers would ride Stevenson about his grades, telling him to quit boxing, telling him that he wasn't going to make it. The odds were too small.
"They thought he was a dreamer, an unbelievable dreamer," Moses recalled. "They didn't think it would come true.
"The thing that I admire about him is that he stuck with it. He never stopped. He never let nobody deter his dreams or his efforts to become one of the best athletes in the world."
Then, at 14, Stevenson dropped this bombshell.
Moses said, "He came to me and said, 'Pop-Pop, I'm married to boxing.'
"I'm married to boxing!? Well, that was something I never heard of before. I said, 'Well, man, you bought in.' And that's it. Ever since then, he's continued to make himself a better fighter, a better person, a better athlete.
"And this," Moses said, referring to Saturday's gold-medal opportunity, "is the result of it—of his efforts throughout his life. I'll tell you, he never stopped working, man. When he punched, he literally punched when he woke up, when he got out of bed, before he would even get to the bathroom he'd be punchin' bababababa. The only way we would know he would be asleep is if we didn't hear him punching.
"He literally threw thousands of punches per day, every day, day in, day out, day in, day out. He still does the same thing to this day. You see him walking, you'll notice that he's always punching," Moses said.
And sure enough, in the background, behind a handful of reporters surrounding his mother, Malikah Stevenson, that orange sweatshirt was moving to its own rhythm in the winter heat.
While Stevenson wished he had fought on Thursday, his mother was actually relieved. "The less fighting the better," she said, adding, "I'm nervous to see what happens" in Saturday's final. In any case, she was happy to see the oldest of her nine children in person for the first time since May—even if it meant boarding a plane for the first time. "I didn't like it—none of it," Malikah said of flying.
"But he's a sweetheart; he's a sweetheart," she said, glowing with a smile as easy as her son's.
Finally, Moses made clear what everyone else could sense about Stevenson's future in the ring.
"The dream doesn't stop here," Moses said. "We plan to take it to the next level. Hopefully, he gets an opportunity."
And if that means a deal with Mayweather, Moses said, "it gonna make a big difference in our family. My daughter's worked hard all her life. It's been a struggle to make sure that she's OK. Me and my wife, we raised six kids. We know how hard it is for her to raise nine. We've always been by her side. We've been close-knit family." It would be a relief, he said, to "not have to worry and see her struggle and work so hard.
"This is just a culmination, I think, of all his work and efforts to provide and give his mother a better life."
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