By Steve Silverman
» More Columns
The names roll off any boxing fan’s tongue: Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier, George Foreman and Sugar Ray Leonard.
They are the true greats who earned their first bit of real fame as Olympians. The United States used to produce Olympic boxing champions with a staccato rhythm that was quite similar to the beat that Ali danced to in the ring when he was at the height of his powers.
Those days are long in the past, however. American men have not earned a gold medal since Andre Ward brought one home in 2004. But members of the 2016 team hope to change that this summer in Rio.
One of the best hopes for gold is 19-year-old Shakur Stevenson, who radiates talent and confidence every time he steps in the ring. The Newark, New Jersey fighter has a sharp jab and his ability to string his punches together has helped produce victories in his most important fights.
Stevenson was drawn to boxing as a child, and his talent was developed, in part, by his grandfather. Willie Moses trained Shakur as a 5-year-old at the Elite Heat Gym in Newark. As a result of starting so early, Stevenson now has a gift that few other boxers can claim.
Stevenson will scout out his opponent and take in as much information as he can, but that pales in comparison to what he learns inside the ropes during the first few seconds once the bell rings. He has the uncanny knack of sizing up his opponent within 10 seconds of the start of any fight.
“I have studied boxing my whole life, and that has given me a feel for the sport and helps me get to know anyone who steps in the ring,” Stevenson said in an interview a day before the U.S. team took off for Brazil. “Once I am in the ring with somebody, I can tell what they are going to do from the look in their eye, the way they carry themselves, how they move and how they try to attack.
“Once I get this information down, I just work out my game plan and know how I am going to fight and what it is going to take to come out with the victory,” he added. “It’s just something that has come over the years and is pretty strong every time I get in the ring.”
Stevenson, a 5-foot-8, 123-pound bantamweight, has recorded many victories on the international stage. He is 23-0 in bouts against non-U.S. fighters, and said he’s prepared to do whatever is necessary to bring home a gold medal.
“The caliber of the fighters at the Olympics is high, and whatever I have done to this point, it has prepared me to be at my best once I get in the ring,” Stevenson said. “It doesn’t matter what I have done up until now. The only thing that matters is how I do when I step in the ring. I will be prepared and I am not going to leave anything outside that ring.”
Success in Rio would obviously be special for Stevenson, who was named after the late rapper/movie star Tupac Shakur, but not just for the usual reasons.
“I want to bring home the gold medal to Newark,” Stevenson said. “It would mean a lot because my mother is there and so are my family and friends. I want to give them something to feel good about.
“I also think it would mean a lot to the city. People don’t necessarily have the right idea about Newark and I think winning the gold would be a good reflection on a city that a lot of people don’t understand,” he added.
Stevenson has the tools needed to win on amateur boxing’s biggest stage. He has impressive foot speed and quickness, and the kind of hand-eye coordination that makes any boxing aficionado take notice. His jab is simply world class and he has the other punches needed to win regardless of the opponent.
While he may not have the same kind of experience as some of the 22- and 23-year-old fighters who will be competing in the Olympics, Stevenson said he understands the opportunity in front of him.
“There may be older fighters competing against me, but I don’t think I have anything to fear,” Stevenson said. “Once the fight starts, it’s just the two of us in the ring, and I like my chances. I know I am prepared and ready to give my best.”
Stevenson knows how long it has been since an American man ruled the Olympics. He is ready to end that drought and give Newark its golden moment.
Follow Steve on Twitter at @ProFootballBoy