NEWARK, N.J. — Shakur Stevenson was either 12 or 13 the first time he watched a fight at the Prudential Center in his hometown of Newark. He doesn’t recall who was fighting in the main event, but he does remember that feeling of destiny, that some day he would be the star attraction in that building. It was a big dream for a kid from up the hill in the Central Ward who hadn’t even reached high school yet.
That vision will come to fruition on July 13 when he faces Hairon Socarras in an ESPN showcase from “Brick City.” The venue will be partitioned in half for a capacity of about 7,000, and Stevenson doesn’t hazard a guess for the attendance.
“I’m gonna wait and see but I know my city loves me,” said Stevenson, who will set up training camp at the Top Rank Gym in Las Vegas.
Does it ever. When he earned a silver medal at the 2016 Olympics, he was greeted with a hero’s parade upon his return from Rio. At Monday’s press conference to announce the event, a Prudential Center representative referred to the venue as “home” for the 21-year-old Stevenson (11-0, 6 knockouts), who could be succeeding Tomasz Adamek from earlier this decade as a major draw at “The Rock.”
Stevenson hopes to be for Newark when Terence Crawford has been for Omaha in his world title fights there.
Stevenson has scouted Socarras (22-0-3, 14 KOs), saying he’s a thinking fighter who likes to pick his shots. Though unbeaten, the Florida-based native of Cuba is stepping well up in competition, with his last nine opponents coming off a loss.
“He’s a Cuban so all Cuban boxers is decent and they got good skills,” said Stevenson. But he’s not as good as Robeisy Ramirez, the Cuban who defeated Stevenson on a split decision in the gold medal match. Ramirez recently defected from Cuba and signed with Top Rank, providing Stevenson with an opportunity down the road to get a bit of revenge some day.
“I knew if me and him get in the ring as of right now I’m gonna crush him,” said Stevenson, who rewatches the match often. “But I want him to get the pro experience and get a little bit better so I can fight him at his best.”
That opportunity likely will come after Stevenson fights for a world title. The timetable to move Stevenson into a championship fight is by the end of 2019 or early 2020, said Top Rank vice president Carl Moretti, with the details of whom he’ll fight still to be worked out.
Stevenson thinks the WBO route is the easiest to make, given that the current titleholder Oscar Valdez is also under Top Rank. Stevenson’s understanding is that Valdez (26-0, 20 KOs), who made his sixth defense of the belt this past weekend against Jason Sanchez, is likely to move up in weight, and that someone, perhaps another Top Rank signee like Carl Frampton, could face him for the belt.
“If I was him I wouldn’t get in the ring with me,” said of Frampton, a two division world champion and 2016 BWAA Fighter of the Year. “No disrespect to him, he was a great fighter when he had his moments but his moment is over now. He’s a small featherweight.”
There’s also IBF titleholder Josh Warrington (28-0, 6 KOs) of England, who beat Frampton in his previous outing, and whom Stevenson has called out in the past.
Wali Moses, the grandfather and trainer of Stevenson, has no preference either way.
“I gotta let him make his own decision, I can’t expect him to be a child outside the ring and be a man inside the ring,” said Moses.
Rebirth of NJ boxing?
Despite its much-celebrated rebirth, Newark maintains its reputation as a rough place to grow up. Moses, his grandfather and trainer, says boxing helped keep him from the streets, and a busy travel schedule for amateur tournaments and Moses’ city league baseball games meant there was little time to get into trouble. Still, Stevenson credits the city’s grittiness with helping make him the person he is today.
“I just feel like it’s very important for my city and all the young kids that are looking up to me,” said Stevenson.
The undercard will feature plenty of local talent, including Julian Rodriguez (16-0, 10 KOs), a junior welterweight from Hasbrouck Heights, N.J. who hasn’t fought in nearly two years due to shoulder issues. There will also be John Bauza (12-0, 5 KOs), a Puerto Rico native now based in North Bergen, N.J. and Vito Mielnicki Jr., a 17-year-old from Roseland, N.J. with multiple national championships under his belt. He’ll be making his pro debut as the youngest boxer ever licensed in the state.
There will also be some out-of-towners, including Vikas Krishan (2-0, 1 KO) of India, who is trained by Moses. The co-feature will pit Joshua Greer (20-1-1, 12 KOs) against Nikolai Potapov (20-1-1, 11 KOs) in an IBF eliminator for the no. 2 ranking at bantamweight.
Moretti, who lives not too far from the venue, says that while the club show scene has dried up in New Jersey because of high promotion costs, a lack of talent was never an issue.
“We could do another card with five other guys on the card that are just as popular and can sell just as many tickets,” said Moretti.
“My gut feeling is that it’s the first [Prudential Center show] of many.”
For fight week, Stevenson will be checked into a hotel under a different name to avoid the distractions that come along with a hometown event, like last minute requests for tickets. There will be plenty of supporters in the crowd, but Stevenson also plans on putting on a show for the detractors as well.
“A lot of people didn’t believe in me, it is what it is, I ain’t really tripping but that motivated me and made me who I am now,” said Stevenson. “All the people who said I couldn’t do stuff now are looking like ‘damn, he did everything I said he couldn’t.’”
Ryan Songalia is a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America and part of the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism Class of 2020. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @ryansongalia.
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