The last two fights were supposed to at least be challenges.
After overwhelming the top contenders at junior lightweight, Shakur Stevenson’s latest title fights in his burgeoning career provided opponents who were supposed to at least threaten his rapid ascent.
He dominated veteran Jamel Herring, winning by TKO in the 10th round to claim the WBO junior lightweight title. He then handed Oscar Valdez his first-career loss, defending his WBO belt and adding the WBC junior lightweight title to his collection as he cruised to a unanimous decision win.
At 24-years-old (he turned 25 in June), Stevenson sat at 18-0 as the WBO and WBC unified junior lightweight champion. He had previously tore through the featherweight division, claiming the WBO title. He’d outlanded his opponents 1,716 to 576 in punches. He’d barely even lost a round.
“I think that, honestly, it’s more so me vs. me out there,” Stevenson told The Post last week, his trademark smile sprawled across his face as he threw playful jabs at the air. “I feel like me at my best, I don’t think nobody can beat me, I don’t think nobody can even give me any trouble, any competition. Only way that anything could go any other way is if I beat myself. I’m damn sure I’m not doing that, I’m damn sure I’m not gonna beat myself in no type of way.
“I’m gonna come in there 100 percent, give it my all, every round. I just don’t see nobody being able to compete with that. And the scary thing is, I’m getting better and better. As each fight’s going, I’m picking up things, I’m learning more things, I’m just getting more comfortable inside the ring with higher level of competition, and I think it’s getting scary.”
No, at the moment, it doesn’t seem like anybody can give Stevenson any trouble. He finally did lose a challenge for the first time, however, on Thursday, only it didn’t come from an opponent.
Stevenson was scheduled to defend his WBO and WBC newly-unified junior lightweight titles Friday night at the Prudential Center (10 p.m., ESPN) in his native Newark, N.J. against top contender, and former Olympic gold medalist, Robson Conceicao. He weighed in at 131.6 pounds, however – 1.6 pounds overweight. Despite being granted the standard two hours to try to cut down and reach the permissible weight, he quickly announced he would not be able to get down in time, likely seeing the bigger picture and not risking his health. As a result, he was stripped of his WBO and WBC belts and was hurt financially, while Conceicao can still win the titles if he wins the bout.
“I gave it my all,” Stevenson tweeted. “I’ve been professional my whole career and made weight, but my body just can’t make 130 anymore. My health has to come first. I’m moving up to 135 in my next fight.”
When looked at broadly, Stevenson’s first setback perhaps only brings him closer to reaching new levels of stardom. Although he was stripped of his titles, it only cemented what has long been anticipated – an imminent move to the 135-pound lightweight division. If that was going to be his decision after the Conceicao fight anyway, he would have to vacate his unified junior lightweight belts to make the move, meaning the result would be the same.
And if it wasn’t going to be his decision, this likely offers Stevenson a silver lining. The loaded lightweight division offers much more intriguing – and lucrative – potential matchups with undisputed champion Devin Haney, former champions Vasiliy Lomachenko and George Kambosos and budding stars Gervonta Davis and Ryan Garcia. And it’s become clear that 130 pounds is not feasible for him and become an unneeded struggle.
Regardless of the change in stakes, the Conceicao fight, and more importantly, his subsequent move to the lightweight division set Stevenson up for the biggest fights and biggest stages in the sport. If he follows the ambition he’s demonstrated throughout his career, Stevenson will get those bouts as soon as possible.
And that’s where he’s at his best. As the moments around him keep getting bigger, so does Stevenson’s game.
“The best comes out of me when I’m up against that level of competition,” Stevenson said. “That’s when you talk about my last two fights, it’s because the competition raised on me. And once it raised on me I stepped up tremendously to the task.
“I think that, you’ve got to realize, some people either got it in them, or they don’t. I think when the crowd gets loud, you go out there, the lights are bright, some people fold up and they’re not ready for that moment. With me, I just prepare so well and I enjoy the moment. I understand who I am. I understand that I’m a superstar. I understand that I’m gonna be a great in the sport one day. Just knowing those things, as I’m walking out, it just seems so normal for me now, it seems regular, I’m not scared, I’m not nervous, I’m ready. I’m prepared, I’m prepared for what’s ahead of me.”
Beyond his lightning-quick combinations and maddening elusiveness, Stevenson’s self-awareness might be his greatest strength. Just recently entering the pound-for-pound rankings as one of the 10 best boxers alive, Stevenson knows he’s not at the level of superstardom he wants to be. And he knows that beyond his feats in the ring, he has to add elements outside of it, turning to YouTube stars like Jake Paul for social media and branding inspiration.
Most importantly, he’s cognizant of the ever-increasing expectations that surround him and his limitless potential, especially as he continues to look even better each time he enters the ring. Already, he’s risen from a top prospect, to an exciting young star, to a champion and to one of the sport’s most-scintillating talents.
“It doesn’t change anything at all,” Stevenson said. “I’m forever hungry. I think that my goals are so much higher, that I don’t even look at it like ‘I’m the guy,’ or ‘I’m this.’ I look at it as ‘I’m not where I’m supposed to be.’ My mindset is so different. You’ve got to realize, with every accomplishment, there’s always something else. If I go beat this guy, then it’ll be about who is next, then I beat the next person, then it’s about what’s next, or ‘You going to 135?’ Or ‘what are you doing at this?’ There’s always something new. I look at it like, the job ain’t over until I’m done with the sport of boxing. The job ain’t finished until I’m done with the sport of boxing. And my goals are so high in the sport, I want to be a legend, I want to be a great.”
That mindset and self-awareness prepared Stevenson for his first bit of adversity and dealing with potential distractions in missing weight and soon moving divisions.
As he deals with that adversity, he returns to the place where he learned best how to handle it in Newark.
“I’ve got a dominant personality, as far as inside the ring and outside the ring,” Stevenson said. “And being from where I’m from, you’ve got to be dominant, for you to get anything, or anywhere, you’ve got to be a dominant person, and I think that’s a trait that’s stuck with me my whole life. Even inside the boxing ring, I’m so competitive, because where I’m from, shit, you compete. We’re outside, on the basketball courts, I’m competing. Anywhere I go when I’m in Newark, you’re competing in whatever you do, from football, basketball, boxing, s–t, I even did a little hockey in JFK one time just for that competition. I just think Newark’s helped me with my competitive edge that I’ve got right now, and my family too.”