Shakur Stevenson came into the 2016 Olympic tournament with the weight of a once-proud amateur boxing nation resting on his young shoulders. Although Stevenson had to settle for a silver medal, he exhibited class and professionalism when it mattered most.
Two Olympic cycles had passed without an American male entering the boxing tournament as a clearcut medal favorite. That changed in Rio with bantamweight (56 kg) Shakur Stevenson, a prodigious talent who was undefeated against international competition, expected by many to deliver an overdue gold medal for the men’s squad.
The competition, though, promised to be fierce, and the bantamweight division was indeed one of the deepest in Rio. Obviously, the hype surrounding Shakur Stevenson centered on his natural talent and maturity as a boxer, but the most impressive takeaway from his Olympic run — even more noteworthy than his podium finish — may be the class and passion he showed in defeat.
In a sense, the actual competition for Stevenson was a somewhat nonstarter. He got a deserved bye to skip the preliminary rounds, and then he only fought twice, sliding into the gold medal bout via walkover when his Russian opponent failed a pre-fight medical exam.
Of course, Stevenson was impressive when he did fight. He outclassed the experienced Robenílson Vieira de Jesus of Brazil, and then he handled the aggressive and impressive Mongolian Erdenebat Tsendbaatar, a fellow precocious teenager whose pressure style and power gave early opponents fits.
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The semi final walkover was obviously anticlimactic, and it denied Shakur Stevenson the opportunity to put a definitive stamp on a silver medal run that — through no fault of his own — feels less like the coronation it was supposed to be than a fleeting glimpse or tease of what this genuine bluechip boxer is capable of.
The gold medal bout crystallized this sentiment in a way that was simultaneously revealing, frustrating and impressive. Through four fights heading into this bout, Cuban Robeisy Ramirez Carrazana had flashed sublime skills, his semi final masterclass against Murodjon Akhmadaliev of Uzbekistan standing out as one of the fights of the tournament.
Ramirez, who won gold in London as a flyweight, simply outworked Shakur Stevenson, who admitted as much to NBC’s Chris Mannix in an raw, emotional and endearing post-fight interview. Statistically, Ramirez had been averaging 80 punches thrown per round while Stevenson only clocked in at around 56, and although Stevenson’s defensive acumen disrupted the Cuban’s productivity, he was unable to let his hands go with enough abandon.
But give Shakur Stevenson full credit for admitting as much to Mannix, and shower the young man with even more plaudits for asserting, without any qualifications, that Ramirez deserved the victory. While it was heart-wrenching to see Stevenson break down after the magnitude of his loss had sunken in, he should also garner admiration for his unbridled display of emotion.
Shakur Stevenson showed three crucial things today at the Olympics: He flashed the skills and talent that allowed him to nearly match an elite Cuban foe in losing the narrowest of split decisions; he showed humility and class in defeat that belies his 19 years and refreshingly runs counter to the entitlement many hyped athletes exhibit; and he wept openly on national television, proving, unequivocally, that he cares. The kid’s going to be just fine.
Stevenson will now embark on a professional career that would seem to promise world championship glory through multiple weight classes — such is the depth of his potential. For now, though, Stevenson did what was expected of him in the ring in Rio but surprised us in an even more important way: with his character. And that’s something that will serve him in better stead than any Olympic medal.