Shakur Stevenson, Oscar Valdez to meet in title fight on ESPN

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - APRIL 29: Oscar Valdez (L) and Shakur Stevenson (R) face-off during the wei ...

A week before the biggest fight of his life, WBO junior lightweight champion Shakur Stevenson is tired.

“I’m really missing my daughter,” he said after training at the Top Rank gym. “I miss my girl, too. But I don’t miss nobody as much as I miss my daughter. … I feel like she misses me right now. She’s not seeing me. I don’t want her to forget me.”

It’s been eight weeks since Stevenson (17-0, nine knockouts) has seen his 4-month-old daughter, Leilani. And it will be another week until he holds her and his girlfriend, recording artist Young Lyric. Before that, he has business to attend to.

Specifically, an ESPN main event 130-pound unification title fight against WBC champion Oscar Valdez (30-0, 23 KOs) on Saturday at the MGM Grand Garden.

“I don’t really want to see them before the fight,” said Stevenson, even though his daughter and her mother are in Las Vegas for fight week.

Why not?

“I just want to feel the sacrifice. I want to feel hungry, still.”

Family first

Boxing always has been about family for Stevenson, who grew up in Newark, New Jersey, and still proudly represents the city on his fight trunks. His grandfather, Wali Moses, was a trainer, and Stevenson remembers meeting some of his fighters when he was 5.

He asked his grandfather to take him to the gym, and he was there the next day. It didn’t take long to realize he had the kind of natural talent most people can only dream of.

His grandfather took him around the world to amateur tournaments. Stevenson developed the reputation as a true blue-chip prospect, hyped before the 2016 Olympics as the U.S.’s best shot at a male Olympic boxing gold medal since Andre Ward in 2004.

Stevenson moved from Newark to Alexandria, Virginia, as a teenager, and much has been made of his relationship with Moses and trainer Kay Koroma throughout his career. But Moses is vehement that he’s the only man who ever has and ever will train his grandson, rejecting the notion he and Koroma are co-trainers.

“He don’t have two trainers,” Moses said. “He has me.”

Stevenson, for his part, doesn’t want to get involved in any conflict between two members of his team. The third man in his corner is strength and conditioning coach Edward Jackson, who remembers first seeing Stevenson as a teenager, before the Olympics, in a Houston gym.

Jackson put Stevenson in the ring with a 22-0 professional to see what he was made of. After four dominant rounds, he asked for a new opponent, and the entire gym stopped.

“By the time he got to the second kid, the whole gym was stopping and watching,” Jackson said. “After the second round, he came back to the corner. I said, ‘There’s not much for me to tell you. You’re doing everything right.’”

Then Jackson had a thought.

“Has anybody ever told you, when you come into the corner, there’s not much for them to tell you?”

“Yeah, I heard that before,” Stevenson said.

Pound-for-pound glory?

For better or worse, the Rio Olympics introduced most boxing fans to Stevenson. Not because of his talent, or dedication, or even his silver medal.

After he lost the gold medal match to Cuban amateur legend Robeisy Ramirez, Stevenson gave an interview during which he broke down crying and lamented, “All respect to him, but I don’t like to lose!”

It’s something he knows he’ll always be known for but something he doesn’t regret. Internet trolls will respond to anything he posts with a video of the interview, even though he’s not really trying to outrun it.

“Now, for these situations, I know how bad I don’t want to be in that situation. I don’t want to feel like I lost,” he said. “I’m gonna make sure that feeling never comes back.”

So far it hasn’t. Stevenson turned pro in 2017 and has barely lost a round. He outclassed Joet Gonzalez in 2019 to win a featherweight belt, then moved to junior lightweight and beat Jamel Herring in October to become a two-division titlist.

Now comes the biggest test of his pro career. About equal in stature to that gold medal match against Ramirez, he posits. Herring was a well-respected titleholder, but Valdez represents a different kind of challenge.

He’s an undefeated two-division titlist himself. A Mexican warrior who knocked Miguel Berchelt unconscious in February 2021 to win his version of the title at the MGM Grand.

Throughout the buildup to the fight, Stevenson has maintained he believes he’s the world’s best fighter. But he also acknowledges he still has to prove it, and Saturday represents a golden opportunity to do just that.

With a win, he will have a legitimate case to be included on pound-for-pound lists.

Moses already has his sights set on bigger things — literally — at 135 pounds, and possibly beyond that. Stevenson is a different fighter and a different person than the kid people know from the Olympic video, even though he still hasn’t entered his prime.

He’s stronger, starting to fill out his frame and add power to the speed, reflexes and timing that have carried him to this moment.

He’s also maturing. Especially outside the ring, especially as Leilani’s dad. The second the fight ends, he will get to enjoy the “fruits of his labor,” the months spent in Las Vegas, away from his family and his newborn daughter.

“When I say enjoy the fruits, I ain’t talking about the check,” he said. “I’m going in there to get the job done.”

Contact Jonah Dylan at jdylan@reviewjournal.com. Follow @TheJonahDylan on Twitter.