Shakur Stevenson: Brick City - from the gym, through tragedy to professional boxing
In the latest The Players' Tribune offering, American featherweight Shakur Stevenson reveals all about his life and journey to professional boxing
By Shakur Stevenson
Last Updated: 18/05/17 7:04am
My grandfather wraps my hands before every fight. And every time he does, as he weaves the tape through my fingers, he tells me the same thing.
"It's that time," Pop-Pop will say. "It's that time to be great."
Then he'll cut the roll and look up at me.
"You're great. Now perform."
To be honest with you, where I'm from - Newark, New Jersey - there's not a lot of people making it out of our city. So we're not hearing that all too much.
That we can be great.
Lucky for me I had two things on my side from an early age that showed me what I was capable of and what I could do.
My Pop-Pop and his boxing gym.
When I was about five, I went with Pop-Pop to one of his baseball games. It was nothing big, just a rec league game. He's my grandfather, you know? I just looked up to him and everything he did.
Pop-Pop is Newark born and bred, and has been working with boxers for years as a trainer at a local gym. When we showed up at the field, a bunch of his fighters from the gym were there, and he introduced me to them - just street guys from Newark, and damn, I thought they were so cool.
I wanna know how to box, I thought. I wanna be a fighter. I want people to know me.
On the drive home, all I could do was ask Pop-Pop about the guys I had met and about boxing.
"What's it like to get in the ring?"
"What's it like to get punched in the face?"
"Is it a lot different from street fighting?"
See, street fighting is something a lot of kids growing up in Newark know about. It's just part of life, especially at NCC - that's the New Community Corporation housing. That's where I lived when I was little kid. It's rough around there, and people were always getting into fights.
But Pop-Pop told me that the fighting at the gym was different.
"You gotta actually be disciplined to do a sport like this," he said.
I begged him to take me with him.
"Can I come with you to see what it's like?
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I don't remember a lot from that first day at the gym, mostly just walking in and seeing guys sparring and thinking it was cool. And I'm not sure why, but I just stood there by the ropes trying to coach them. On my very first day! Like I knew something….
"Hit him harder!"
"Move the other way!"
Man, I was just being a little punk. But every day after school and on weekends, I'd go with my grandfather to the gym and ask the owner when he'd let me train. Finally, after a few months of seeing me show up to the gym every day, the owner said I could start training.
I'd just keep hitting the bag every day. I mean, every day, and that's when I started shadowboxing all the time … everywhere.
One day the owner came up to me and my grandfather.
"All right, let him go spar."
My grandfather walked me over to the stool in the corner and sat me down. He started wrapping me up, just like all the other fighters.
"It's that time," he told me. "It's that time to be great."
The gym became home. I became "Little Shakur" around the place. I felt like a special kid whenever I was there. And no one believed in me more than Pop-Pop.
Pop-Pop's a character. He's my dude and the funniest guy I've ever met. He'll have me laughing all the time. He used to pick me up from school, in this old blue van - he still has it - and he'd make me listen to all this old rap and hip hop. He'd always be playin' it and laughing and joking around. I still remember one song, it went something like...
"A Skiddleebebop, we rock, scooby doo, and guess what, America, we love you…"
He loves playing those songs. That old-school stuff, the rap with no swearing or cussing.
We'd have those drives every day. Over the next couple of years, he'd sometimes have to pick me up from different schools. Because to be honest with you, I ended up switching a few times in Newark. I had a lot of problems in class. But when I was at the gym, I just felt like I was where I needed to be. Where I was meant to be.
In the ring, I could shine.
In the gym, I could have fun.
In the gym, I wasn't worried about taking care of my eight little brothers and sisters. Or sharing bunk beds, or giving up a plate for dinner. Or listening to sirens as I tried to fall asleep. Or running away from security guards at our housing complex.
In the ring, I could be great.
I had my first fight after I turned eight, and man, I was so nervous. I won, but things didn't really "take off" from there. I lost a lot of my early amateur fights, but Pop-Pop kept working with me, he kept telling me how special I was, and what I could do. How great I could be. He's been coaching in Newark a looooong time and seen a lot of guys.
"You can be it," he'd tell me. "You are great."
So we kept at it. I started getting in some wins. I got bigger. Stronger. Faster.
When we weren't at the gym, I'd be at Pop-Pop's house watching fights he recorded on his TV. I'd sit up close, on the edge of the bed, while he'd sit there and coach - telling me what they did good, what they did bad.
"He's not using his jab enough."
"You see that? You see what a jab could do?"
After a few years though, it all got to be too much. I was about 12 or so and I just didn't want to box anymore. It had come to the point where I couldn't talk to Pop-Pop about anything else - not girls, not school - it was always about boxing and training. Every minute of every day. I just felt like he was pushing me nonstop.
So I stopped going to the gym and I joined my friends playing football and basketball. Oh man, my grandpa was heated. We had some words about it, but he'd still come and watch my games.
I was good at the other sports, but I didn't feel the passion for football and basketball like there was for boxing. There was something missing.
Pop-Pop came up to me one day after one of my games. He knew it. I knew it.
"You should come back to the gym," he said.
I wanted to come back, but I needed to talk some things out with him before I could. He couldn't be on me as much. Don't get me wrong, he still worked me in that gym. But we talked about other things too, you know? I really respected that. I think we both learned a lot when I took those few months off.
And then one night four years later, things changed. At around 3, 4 o'clock in the morning, I heard my momma crying at the kitchen table. I mean, just hysterically bawling.
My cousin had been shot and killed. I had heard of and even knew of other people who were killed, but never anyone in our family.
Everybody came up for the funeral. My momma's side of the family from Hampton, Virginia, were there, including my other grandfather Pop-Pop Stevenson and my Grandma Jo. They live in this house out in the country. I'd been down a couple times to visit before and I started thinking.
Maybe this is a way to get some time away from it all.
Don't get me wrong, I love my little brothers and sisters more than anything, but as the oldest of nine, I needed some space from them too. Just to get out of the city, just for a bit.
So I asked my grandparents if I could go back down with them - at that point, I didn't know if I'd even box down there. I was just ready to go. Newark's my home, it always will be. But after what happened to my cousin, even my momma agreed maybe it was time for a change for me, too. I was 16 then and as you get older the streets only get more dangerous.
I packed my things and moved down to Hampton. I didn't even tell Pop-Pop I was going. I knew how mad he'd be that we wouldn't be training anymore. We had been winning a bunch of tournaments and fights. We had been cleaning up internationally. But I was young and just wanted to avoid the conversation.
I needed to go.
He called me a few times when I got down there, too, giving me a piece of his mind. And I get it. He was hurt.
I've been pretty lucky with my grandparents though. Finding a gym I could train in in Virginia was a little harder than expected. I was in a new town, in the middle of nowhere. It's weird once you're out of the city, and without all the other stuff that goes with it. Boxing was basically all I had left to worry about down there. There was a national competition coming up and in two years… the Olympics. So I was ready to get back and start training.
But a set up with a gym wasn't panning out. So Pop-Pop Stevenson decided that we'd just turn his garage into one.
We went to Dick's Sporting Goods and got this big, black heavy bag, a little speed bag and a treadmill. Maybe some weights. But that was it.
And every day, I went to work in that little garage.
A few months later, I won youth nationals. Pop-Pop couldn't make it, but everything I was able to do in that garage on my own, I got from going to the gym every day with him.
I started working with Coach Kay Koroma. Pop-Pop and I had met Coach before at tournaments. He'd drive nearly three hours from his place in Alexandria to pick me up and then bring me back to Hampton so I could go to school on Monday. Except school wasn't having it. I'd been missing a lot of days with tournaments, and training camps at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado for the national team. And I wasn't exactly the greatest student. New environment, new rules and all that - I was getting a lot of suspensions. School just wasn't adding up for me and I got kicked out.
So I hit up Coach Kay.
"Are you ready to just get this thing going? We gotta get training for Rio. It's two years out."
"Are you ready to do this?" he asked.
So I moved up to Alexandria to live with him and train. Pop-Pop would come out to tournaments when he could to help out. And that was to be it: the start of my life as a full-time boxer.
Except I lost in the Golden Gloves tournament.
I hadn't lost in three years. Not in Junior Worlds, not in the Youth Olympics.
But I lost. To another American boxer, Ruben Villa.
And at the first-round of the Olympic Trials qualifier in Colorado I lost again to Ruben.
I lost. To the same guy. Twice.
I finally picked up a win at another qualifying tournament in Philly. Ruben wasn't there, since he had won the previous qualifier. Which meant, when we went out to Reno for the Olympic Trials, I had to win or I'd miss going to Rio and have to turn pro. Everything was riding on this tournament.
I made sure I was focused. After that loss in Colorado I had changed the background on my phone: It was a picture of Ruben winning.
Man, every time I looked at that photo I just thought of the comeback.
I was so zoned in, and in a weird way, I felt good, because in all my fights, I had never lost in Reno. I almost felt a little bit like it was my place to get things done. And for my first fight, I did.
Then it came time to fight Ruben again. And I swear to you, it was insane. There were two rings and two fights going on at the same time. But eeeeeeeverybody came around to watch Ruben and me.
So I got in the ring, and I ain't gonna lie, I was nervous. But I just kept telling myself one thing:
It's that time. It's that time to be great.
All I needed to do was perform.
So we touched gloves. And that was it. I beat him. With all due respect, I beat him easy. He's a tough fighter, but it was a 3-0 decision. I know, you're expecting some long, dramatic, drawn out description of the fight. How we went back and forth until we could barely stand. But that's not how it happened.
It was that time and I just wasn't going to let Rio slip away.
But it was double elimination to get the spot on the Olympic team. So we each went through another set of brackets before we met again two days later.
I knew - if I beat him once, I could do it again.
And I did. I was going to Rio.
"Man, I know you're going to win gold," Ruben told me.
The best part of the Olympics? Pop-Pop, my dad and my momma all came too - it was the first time she'd ever been on a plane. And for my family and friends in Newark who couldn't make it, I heard they'd set up a big screen at the corner of Broad and Market so they could watch.
I made my way through my fights to the gold medal bout. The guy I'm fighting, the Cuban, Robeisy Ramirez, I used to watch him all the time growing up. He won the gold four years earlier. If anything, I was excited to fight him. I couldn't wait.
So I walk out to the ring and I'm smiling. Anytime you see me fight, I smile. I'm happy. I thought maybe the crowd would be neutral, you know? An American versus a Cuban. But nah, they went in on me.
I lost the first round. And I just thought, Daaaaaang, I gotta do something. I trained my whole life for this. I can't let it go.
So I come back out for the second round, and switch my whole style up and make sure I'm scoring effectively. I moved my hands lower, so I could see a bit better and pick my punches better.
I went back to the corner knowing I'd won that round.
Now it's 1-1, with one more round to go.
Not gonna lie, in my head, I'm thinking how exhausted I am, how much weight I had to lose, how tired I was.
The plan for the final round was to just keep him from landing punches. Just keeping it boring, really, and get the decision. Which pretty much went to plan until the last 15 or 20 seconds - he threw a lot of punches, I'm just trying to grab him.
And then the final bell sounds.
So we're each standing there and they tell us it's a split decision.
OK, give it to me, give it to me.
"And your winner, out of the red corner…Robeisy Ramirez!"
I thought I had it together when I went up for the post-fight interviews. I get to the camera and I'm good. I start talking for a second and I'm good. But then I look up into the stands. And I see my dad. I see my momma.
I see Pop-Pop.
And I just lose it. You've probably seen it already, but yeah, I just broke down in tears. I guess it just hit me all at once. All I could do in that moment was cry. And when I got back to the locker room, I didn't want to to talk to nobody. Even Floyd Mayweather was on the phone wanting to talk to me.
I couldn't speak to any of them. I just had to be alone and process.
And then the Cuban, he came up to me. That was nothing but love. He was telling me how good I'll be, that I was the best he ever fought. I mean, this was a guy I really looked up to. He and I walked to the medal ceremony together.
Standing up on the medal stand, I felt like a failure. I felt like I had let everybody down.
When I finally saw Pop-Pop, he just told me how proud he was.
Then I flew home.
And I stopped boxing. I got back to Grandpa Stevenson's house in Virginia and I don't know, it was like my motivation was gone. I couldn't understand how you could work so hard for something, go through all that, and just lose at the end.
So for four months, I just spent time with family in Hampton. Didn't even put on a pair of gloves, hit a bag or step into a ring.
Then I got invited to Andre Ward's training camp in Oakland ahead of his fight against Kovalev last November. Now Dre is my favourite fighter, so boxing or no boxing, I was like, I gotta go.
As soon as I got there, it was like the switch flipped again. I don't even know how to describe what it's like watching a boxer like that just spar. The skill set, the drive - I mean, he's really taking it to these big dudes.
I wanna be just as great as Andre Ward, I told myself. I could be this good. I know I could be this good.
We spoke a little bit about the fight in Rio - he told me how he watched the fight and thought I got robbed. And you know, it was good hearing that, but I had to start owning what it was: I lost. Forget what anybody else thinks or says, I lost.
Here's the other thing, I think a lot of people nowadays look at a career like Floyd Mayweather's, see him going undefeated and think a loss is the biggest thing in the world. I used to think that too.
But it's a part of the sport. So I'm learning to stop tripping over it. Besides, if you look at guys like Sugar Ray Leonard, or Ali, they lost and were still the greats, right?
So when Dre talked to me about going pro, I knew it was time and I was ready. Leading up to my first pro fight, I changed the background on my phone again.
And on the night of the fight, just like always, Pop-Pop was there wrapping my hands for me for my pro debut. It was just like we'd always talked about. Dre was there, too, cheering me on. I know your debut is important, and I think we've started something with that first win. It was exciting, don't get me wrong, but for me, the second one is going to mean a little more for us. Because it's going to be at Madison Square Garden on Saturday night. Not only is where all the greats fought but more importantly, it's close to home. It's close to Newark - right where it all started.
In a way, it's sort of where everything is going to start again. Where I can show just how I'm going to keep going.
That's what this is now, I want to keep putting on for my city. I want to make Newark proud. And I know it's that time.
That time to be great.