With his arms raised in victory and the jeers raining down on this April night at Madison Square Garden, Shakur Stevenson knows the crowd isn't happy. He just picked apart former title contender Christopher Diaz in a unanimous victory.
He flashes a smile brighter than the gold bandana reading "Newark" atop his head, shushes the crowd with one finger raised to his mouth and then takes the mic.
"I'm the smartest fighter in boxing," he tells ESPN's Bernardo Osuna from inside the ring. "My defense is the best in boxing."
His words don't satisfy a carnivorous crowd that expected to see carnage. Nor does his style, one predicated on great footwork and defense.
Boastful words and technical precision don't win crowds. Stevenson, 22, knows that, but he doesn't care. Why would he? He's been dubbed "the new man to beat" in the featherweight division by former world champion-turned-ESPN analyst Timothy Bradley Jr. He's 11-0 with six knockouts as a professional. And this Saturday, he'll fight Alberto Guevara in his hometown of Newark, New Jersey.
Still, before he exits the Madison Square Garden ring, he can't resist responding to the boos.
"I'm the next Floyd," Stevenson says. "I'm the next Sugar Ray. Y'all can hate me if y'all want."
Whether it's from fans or rival fighters he once considered friends, Stevenson hears the hate. As he navigates life as a budding celebrity, he's realizing those he can trust are few and far between. He'll handle the rest in the ring.
Still, Stevenson is getting tired of waiting to prove it.
Should any of Stevenson's doubters venture across the Hudson River for his bout with former title challenger Alberto Guevara (27-4, 12 KOs) at Newark's Prudential Center on July 13, they'd be well-served to stew in silence.
The 10-round main event is being billed as a homecoming for Stevenson and a celebration for the city that threw him a victory parade after he won a silver medal at the 2016 Summer Olympics. There will be no booing Brick City's prince in the Prudential Center.
However, Stevenson's elite skills and early success have him feeling unsatisfied. The way he sees it, his next fight should be for Oscar Valdez's WBO featherweight belt or against a top-five divisional foe.
"There's no point in waiting when I can already beat the world champions," he says. "I'll ask for Valdez next, but I think he's moving up [to super featherweight]. I'd love for it to be [Carl] Frampton. I don't mind sending him into retirement."
Stevenson understands how to play the game. It's all he knows, really. His brash self-promotion and callouts of divisional foes contrast with the contagiously earnest smile that he never seems to shake.
"Not everyone's gonna love me, but I can make them believe in me," Stevenson says.
A world champion-turned-Olympic medalist, he's been groomed for this. His mentor and co-manager, Andre Ward, was an undefeated world champion who some disliked because of the same stylistic flourishes Stevenson is hearing about now. Fans will find a way to pick every fighter apart, but Stevenson believes authenticity and aggressive self-promotion will make him Top Rank's biggest star.
Ward, who manages Stevenson along with Josh Dubin and music executive J. Prince, has been preaching patience.
There's little doubt that Stevenson could win a title now. But Ward and Top Rank CEO Bob Arum are in the business of steering their pupil toward longevity. Read: retaining titles.
To do that, their golden boy, the No. 1 contender in the WBO featherweight rankings and No. 3 in the IBF, must be prepared for every situation. Against a heavy-handed former world champion with nothing to lose like Frampton (26-2, 15 KOs), one mistake could ground a career before it ever truly takes flight.
"Shakur's skillful enough to beat anyone in the division," Ward says. "But once you win the belt, you've got to be man enough to keep it. There's a big difference.
"He's not trying to hear it."
The oldest of Malikah Stevenson's nine children, Shakur spent most days with his grandfather, Wali Moses, while Malikah worked. The pair developed a ritual: breakfast accompanied by reruns of the fights that had aired on cable that week. One morning, two-year-old Shakur started punching the air—a baby's version of shadowboxing. Months later, Moses placed a baseball bat at one end of the living room and boxing gloves at the other. Guess which way his toddler grandson waddled?
By age five, Shakur was shadowboxing everywhere he went. The community took notice.
"People in Newark look out for each other," says Moses, who, along with USA National Boxing Team assistant Kay Koroma, still coaches Shakur. "There's a lot of people who have been on this journey with us. A lot of people helped make sure that Shakur was what we like to call a house cat, not a street cat."
Stevenson's rise through the amateur ranks was methodical. While many top American prospects avoided tournaments in foreign countries, Stevenson and Moses chased opportunities to face the best wherever they were. At 14, Stevenson traveled to Russia and won the Veles Cup. He moved to Virginia to train with Koroma at 16 and won the AIBA Youth World Championships and the Summer Youth Olympics in 2014.
By the time the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro arrived, Stevenson knew he would turn pro after the tournament. Ultimately, he lost to Robeisy Ramirez by split decision as the older Cuban captured his second Olympic gold medal. After the fight, a close contest between two fighters with similarly slick southpaw styles, Stevenson broke down in tears while coming to grips with his first—and last—international amateur loss.
Meanwhile, Floyd Mayweather, who flew to Brazil in hopes of recruiting Stevenson to sign with his Mayweather Promotions roster, was putting on a full-court press. However, Stevenson ultimately signed with Top Rank in part because of its history of building stars (such as Oscar De La Hoya, Mayweather and Miguel Cotto) and because Arum had a history working with Stevenson's management team.
Details of the deal weren't made public, but it's safe to say that he's doing well financially. After a decade of promising that he would one day take care of the family, life quickly pivoted for all of them.
"It's been really different with him taking over the household bills," Malikah says. "Sometimes he acts like he's the dad now. But he's doing what he always said he was going to do."
For the kid who fell in love with boxing in front of the kitchen television, superstardom has always been a means, not the end.
"I don't ever want my brothers and sisters to want for anything," Stevenson says. "When I'm getting up early to train, that's all I think about. Making sure they're healthy and feeling good."
In Newark, the noise hasn't stopped since news of Stevenson's upcoming bout broke.
Malikah and Shakur's father, Shahid Guyton, now live double lives as ticket agents, directing friends and family to where they can purchase tickets online. New Jersey natives Karl-Anthony Towns of the Minnesota Timberwolves and New York Giants safety Jabrill Peppers have asked to walk Shakur out to the ring. And the city of Newark is banking on Stevenson to become a repeat attraction that could bring title fights—and commerce—back to Brick City.
Top Rank knows distractions will only continue to mount for its young star, especially since Stevenson wants to fight at home frequently.
"It's not just about winning a world title," Top Rank vice president Carl Moretti says. "Shakur wants to go to the Hall of Fame. We've got to keep him focused and on the right track."
During a brief interview following an early June press conference, staying focused was far from easy. Not a minute went by without someone approaching Stevenson for a photo. He handled each request like a seasoned pro, posing for the camera with one fist up while continuing to answer questions between snaps. Soon, he was whisked away for a photo shoot at the Prudential Center, then to the airport to begin training in Las Vegas.
Not all of the attention surrounding Stevenson's rise has been positive.
In the early hours of July 1, 2018, after celebrating his 21st birthday on South Beach—and posting an Instagram photo with Drake—Stevenson and fellow boxer David Grayton were arrested following a brawl inside a Miami parking garage. According to Local10.com's Tim Swift, the police report said the boxers "made comments to a group of people in the garage, including two women to whom they directed sexual innuendo, which sparked the fight."
Video footage released in April shows a brutal scene in which Stevenson ducks around a woman to punch a man in the head. When one of the women begins hitting Grayton, he pummels her before he and Stevenson finish fighting the man in their group.
Stevenson was sentenced in mid-June to one year of probation and 50 hours of community service. He called the night a learning experience that he regrets but declined to speak about it further.
"I tore into him just like a big brother is supposed to," Ward says. "I think he felt the sting of having his mugshot posted everywhere the most. He's still dealing with the fallout."
Ward adds that he, Dubin and Prince had noticed some behavior from Stevenson leading up to the Miami brawl that worried them.
"We had a few conversations with Shakur," Ward says. "Unfortunately, sometimes young men have to learn lessons the hard way.
"Having this fame and money at his age, coming from where he came from, you have to move delicately. Overall, I think he's done a great job. I don't expect to see him in that position ever again."
After Stevenson's arrest, the boxing community rushed to determine whether he is more like the clean-cut Ward or a fighter with a long arrest record like Adrien Broner.
While Stevenson has been a model citizen beyond the arrest, there still are signs of a young man grappling with the burden of newfound fame.
"As a mother, it's scary," Malikah says. "He has all this attention on him, and you never know people's true intentions."
Stevenson is fond of tweeting cryptic messages that give an insight into his psyche each day. Themes of loyalty and trust come up often, and the consensus seems to be that he believes in self-reliance. Stevenson laughs off his social media posts as "just tweeting my feelings in the moment" while acknowledging that rising fame has made it difficult to forge relationships in the business.
Nowhere is that more apparent than Stevenson's occasional feuds with other fighters.
There was a time in 2017 and 2018 when Stevenson and super featherweight two-time world champion Gervonta Davis were sparring partners. They bonded over shared hardships growing up in Newark and Baltimore, respectively. Stevenson says they were friends. But after getting into a back-and-forth through the media and on Twitter, those days are done.
"I don't know what it is from his standpoint, but I know that sooner than later, we have to get in the ring," Stevenson explains. "I got no beef with Tank [Davis], but once I conquer 126 [pounds], I'm moving up to 130. ... I think it's just knowing that we gotta fight."
Stevenson says he wouldn't call many of his peers friends.
"I ain't cool with a lot boxers," he says. "We don't click. A lot of dudes you thought was cool turn out to be weird."
As Stevenson matures, critics will undoubtedly want to see more knockout power. Regardless of whether he notches his seventh KO Saturday, a dominant performance may not be enough to ensure that Stevenson's title shot comes next. That's probably for the best.
Stevenson's technical proficiency makes him a contender against any featherweight, but he still hasn't faced top professional competition. Even Diaz had an inflated reputation when they met.
It's easy to understand what Bradley saw when he anointed Stevenson as the best fighter in the featherweight division, but it's impossible to know how Stevenson will react against savvy champions who can apply immense pressure like Leo Santa Cruz, Josh Warrington and Gary Russell Jr.
"When it comes to a title shot, I tend to prefer one fight too late than one fight too early," Ward says.
Those instincts are well-founded, but Top Rank's promotional deals with Warrington, Frampton and Valdez mean that Stevenson may make a huge step up in competition soon. A report from BoxingScene.com's Keith Idec noted a win by Stevenson on Saturday night would kick off negotiations for a date with Valdez.
Keith Idec @Idecboxing
If @ShakurStevenson wins Saturday night, negotiations will begin right away 4 a Stevenson-Oscar Valdez fight 4 Valdez's WBO featherweight title. Valdez could decide to move up to 130 pounds. Then Stevenson, the WBO's mandatory challenger, would fight the next available contender.
For years, the featherweight division has failed to produce the star-studded fights fans hope for. Those opportunities are now emerging, and if Stevenson does eventually unify the division, no one will question his greatness.
When Stevenson takes to the ring this weekend for the 12th time as a professional, his pursuit of that status could take another step forward.
Like any fighter, he has plenty of reasons to stress. But don't expect a frown.
"When I'm smiling and having fun, I'm at my best," Stevenson says. "That's when you know I'm 'bout to show the world what Brick City is about."
Matt Foley is a writer based in New York. His freelance work has been featured in SLAM, the New York Times, Ozy and theScore. Follow him on Twitter: @mattyfoles.