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LAS VEGAS — In 2016, about seven months before he’d represent the U.S. in the Summer Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Shakur Stevenson fought a nondescript opponent named Peter McGrail in a bout in the World Series of Boxing.
Stevenson had been touted for at least a year at that point as a guy who could end the more than 20-year gold medal drought for U.S. men.
But watching Stevenson make McGrail look silly, a different thought came to mind than a gold medal: This guy is boxing’s next big superstar.
Now, Stevenson hasn’t quite hit superstar status yet, but he’s 17-0 and fighting the biggest fight of his career on Saturday when he meets unbeaten Oscar Valdez in a WBC-WBO super featherweight unification bout.
Even as a teenager, Stevenson had that advanced recognition in the ring. He could see punches coming before they were thrown and he would easily avoid them. His counter shots were always well-timed and well-placed.
While no one would ever suggest that he is a knockout puncher, he clearly has sting on his shots and guys sag noticeably after he hits them for a while.
If Stevenson gets past Valdez, who is 30-0 with 23 knockouts, he’ll take his game to another level and begin to fulfill the immense promise he first showed as an amateur.
He’s all about collecting belts and checks and if he defeats Valdez, there are going to be a lot of zeroes on his next paycheck.
“I have to become a pay-per-view superstar in the sport,” Stevenson told Yahoo Sports. “I have to fill up the arenas and do whatever it takes to become that superstar. Beating [someone] like Valdez is a great way to do it. Valdez is a great fighter. This is a big, big risk. Like, this is a risk in my career and his career. We are both taking a risk and so I think we deserve the respect for getting in that ring and doing what we’re doing. But I’m a risk-taker.”
In the biggest fight of Valdez’s career prior to this, a WBC super featherweight title fight in the bubble at the MGM Grand, Valdez knocked out champion Miguel Berchelt to claim the title on Feb. 20, 2021.
Stevenson sat quietly in his seat that night, 10 or 15 feet away from the ring, intently observing the battle.
Stevenson moved little during the fight, keeping his gaze on the action. But when Valdez landed a left hook for the ages that knocked Berchelt cold in the 10th, Stevenson sat back in his seat and rubbed his hands.
Before the ring announcer had given the time of the KO, Stevenson made his plans known: He wanted Valdez.
He didn’t expect Valdez to fight him. They were circling each other at featherweight, and when Stevenson became his mandatory, Valdez dropped his belt and moved to 130. So Stevenson wasn’t sure he’d ever get the response he wanted to hear.
But he turned out to be pleasantly surprised.
“I couldn’t believe it,” he said, grinning. “I could not believe it. I got a call while I was laying down in bed with my daughter. I was like, ‘Huh? Valdez is going to fight me? No way. I’ll believe it when I see it.’ But we got Bob Arum on the phone and he kind of put the stamp on it, like ‘Yep, you and Valdez are next.’”
Valdez will be no easy out. He’s long been a gifted pressure fighter, but he’s taken his game to the next level under the tutelage of Eddy Reynoso.
Stevenson has plans to line up titles in multiple weight classes, but the first thing he had to do was to get an iconic win. Beating Valdez will be that win for him.
He’s got the complete game, the ability to make opponents miss and to connect with clean counters. He controls the ring expertly and has a radar for incoming punches few in the game have.
If he shows those skills against Valdez, Top Rank is going to wind up having to pay him handsomely to get him back in there.
“That is a big motivation,” he said of the big checks he could receive in the future. “Top Rank ... they’re going to have to pay me a lot after this fight. I will deserve a lot of money after this fight. I am the superstar of Top Rank. With Tyson Fury retiring, calling it quits, I feel I’m the next big fighter, big superstar, on their list. I think I should be paid for that.”