Editor's note: This story was published ahead of Shakur Stevenson's fight against Alberto Guevara in July. Stevenson defeated Guevara via third-round knockout.
NEWARK, N.J. -- The first memory that comes to mind is his grandfather calling him outside. Shakur Stevenson is 10. His grandfather, Wali Moses, is ready and waiting with the gloves and the pads. The kids from the block are waiting, too. This isn't something Shakur wants to do, but something he must. It's all on him to put on a show.
Twelve years later, it's still on him. But returning home to headline his first card (Saturday at the Prudential Center in Newark), he feels no such ambivalence. Shakur Stevenson wants everything: money, respect, championship belts and the kind of adulation that merits an entry in boxing history.
It's a perfectly reasonable expectation. He's no longer America's best amateur since his idol and co-manager, Andre Ward. Rather, at 22, he's a No. 1 contender on the cusp of his first title shot. It's not hyperbole to compare his skills -- an eight-rounder last August saw him hit just five times -- to those of Floyd Mayweather or Pernell Whitaker. He has the talent and the body to be fighting for titles for at least the next decade.
So what's the problem?
Why were the cognoscenti at boxing's alleged Mecca, Madison Square Garden, booing in the closing moments as he overwhelmed the bigger, stronger and more experienced Christopher Diaz back in March, a more stringent test than any which his fellow top prospects have yet faced?
It's not an uncomplicated question. Why do some fighters, to use wrestling parlance, get over, and others do not? It hinges on style, persona, the range of available opponents, and a quality in scarce supply among young men in any walk of life: self-knowledge. Shakur knows what he wants. He knows how he wants to be seen. But how to get there? Not so easy.
A great deal of talk has already been devoted to the subject of Stevenson's "man strength." With each outing, you can see his musculature grow more dense around his chest, traps and shoulders. He's got four knockouts in his past six fights, including the spectacular first-round demolition of 21-2 Viorel Simion. But the truth is, he's primarily a boxer -- defensively responsible, perhaps to a fault -- and always will be.
"Hit and don't get hit," he says. "That's the first thing my granddad taught me."
If the cerebral cortex favors guys who don't get hit, the public does not. As a stylistic archetype, Arturo Gatti is preferable to Willie Pep, the primal to the sublime. Judging from the cascade of boos at the Garden, Stevenson did himself no favors proclaiming to be "the next Mayweather." It's not that it lacked originality, but being so young, he failed to recall Mayweather's predicament. People didn't really care about Mayweather until he was already 11 years into his pro career, when he reinvented himself, as "Pretty Boy Floyd" transmogrified into "Money May."
I'm not sure that's Shakur -- if he's got the disposition, the raw ego or the narcissism required to pull that off. In the meantime, he merely looks like a good guy in a sport that celebrates bad boys. All dimples and smiles in a game known for scar tissue.
"Inside the ring it turns," says Kay Koroma, the longtime USA Boxing coach who's been in Shakur's corner since he was 16. "It's a different smile, a sinister smile...I've seen so many people, like 'why's he smiling?' Then this kid starts doing remarkable things...You're trying to hurt him, and he's laughing at you. It's scary.
"His name suits him," continues Koroma, invoking the rapper for whom Stevenson was named. "Tupac Shakur had so many looks to him. People loved him. People hated him. People feared him."
That's not to say the emotional currents in the fighter's life run as deep as they did in the life of the rapper, the troubadour who glorified Thug Life. But it's an instructive comparison. Who is Shakur Stevenson, and what does he represent? Is he a babyface or a heel?
The same questions are asked of every famous fighter; usually, the answers evolve. Stevenson became a commodity in the Rio Olympics. He wept upon losing a close decision in the gold-medal round to Robeisy Ramirez, a Cuban who already had a gold medal. Still, the dimples and the smile and, most of all, the talent conspired to make Stevenson a Great American Hope.
Then, a year ago, while partying in Miami celebrating his 21st birthday, he says something to someone's girl. He gets into a fight. He's charged with battery. Worse still, at least for Shakur, there's video.
Now, as per a deal with the prosecutor, charges will be dropped at the conclusion of a one-year probationary period pending a community service provision. "I promised myself I would never put myself in that situation," Stevenson says. "I don't want to be a loser."
That should be the end of it. But the video, along with some idiotic Twitter beefs, leave you wondering. Is Stevenson ready to be a star? And if so, what kind? He's not a villain; I can tell you that. But not a hero yet, either. And fans don't do well with ambivalence.
The best thing he can do is keep fighting and winning -- by knockout whenever he can. At 11-0, Stevenson is the No. 1 featherweight in the WBO, whose title is held by Oscar Valdez.
"I feel like I crush Oscar Valdez," Shakur says. "His style is perfect for me. He's a come-forward fighter. His last few fights, he's been trying to box, but if he boxed with me that would be even worse for him."
Valdez is a very tough guy, not to mention a two-time Olympian. But at 28, there's a question if he can still make the weight, or if he really wants to.
"I feel like he's going to move up," Shakur says. "I don't feel like that fight's going to happen."
That would be a shame, at least for Shakur. He can't be a great fighter without great opponents. Then again, it's a problem he ought to get used to.
Alberto Guevara, 27-4, is Stevenson's third announced opponent for Saturday night. One of them developed "flu-like symptoms" in the Mexican summer. Another just disappeared. Then there were at least five others who turned down the fight.
There are reasons guys don't want to fight Shakur. They're not going to change, either. In the meantime, you're asking: Why should I root for this kid? The answers, I'd suggest, are back in Brick City, as his hometown is known.
"It made me what I am," Shakur says.
The year before he was born, Money magazine christened Newark the most dangerous city in America. It's not that anymore. There's a good deal of new housing stock. There's even talk of a Newark Renaissance. But it's still Newark, and that's why Shakur insisted on a big return.
Now as then, his grandfather will be in his corner. And now as then, he'll be playing to the crowd. Among them will be Anthony Mcphall. Mcphall and Wali Moses coached together for years at Elite Heat Boxing on Mount Pleasant Avenue. Mcphall's son Armani was the first, and still among the very few to ever beat up Shakur Stevenson. That was in grade school. They became inseparable for a time.
"Whenever we'd go to tournaments, it would just be me and 'Mani," recalls Shakur.
And then it wasn't. At 16, following the shooting death of his cousin, Shakur's mother insisted he leave for Virginia.
In 2016, a few months after Shakur medalled in Rio, Armani was shot and killed outside a liquor store on South Orange Avenue.
His father still spends afternoons and evenings training teenagers, male and female, physically talented or not. Every city has guys like Anthony Mcphall, and every city is lucky to have them.
Still, I can't imagine how he makes sense of Shakur's return. They were the same age, him and Armani. One kid goes and lives. The kid who stays dies.
"You can't figure it out," Anthony Mcphall says.
So what does Shakur represent to you?
"Represents Newark," Mcphall says. "Every time I see him fight I feel so happy for him. Fights the same way he fought 10 years ago. He just advanced. He's a lot faster and a lot stronger and he makes me...
"I know if my son was here, he'd be proud of him and he'd be rooting for him just as well as I am." That's it right there. And that's more than enough.