RIO DE JANEIRO — The decision was announced and for the first time the smile disappeared.
It was Sunday afternoon in Rio Centro 6 Pavilion and Cuban boxer Robeisy Ramirez had just been announced as the winner of the gold medal bout in the bantamweight division. As the referee raised Ramirez’s hand and the arena erupted, his opponent, Shakur Stevenson, the radiant and thrillingly talented 19-year-old American whose every appearance in Rio—in and out of the ring—had been lit by a dazzling white smile seemingly forever on his boyish face, dissolved. He pulled his red shirt up over his head, hiding his face, and after lurching blindly over to shake hands with the Cuban’s cornermen, ducked through the ropes and out of the Olympic spotlight he had been dreaming of since he was 14.
Stevenson’s silver medal marks the best performance by a male U.S. boxer since Andre Ward (Stevenson’s hero, as it happens) took gold in the light heavyweight division in 2004. It was also—along with light flyweight Nico Hernandez’s bronze—a glittering and tangible symbol of the resurgence of the American boxing program here in Rio.
But, at that moment on Sunday afternoon, silver was obviously a crushing disappointment to Stevenson. Indeed, a full 10 minutes later, when he came into the mixed zone (where athletes are expected to meet and debrief with the waiting media) he was still sobbing, his face hidden under a towel. His teammate Claressa Shields, the 2012 women’s middleweight gold medalist who will be fighting to defend her title on Sunday, gathered Stevenson into her arms and for several minutes spoke closely into his ear as he rocked and wept. He would leave the area without speaking—but not without stopping for an instant to shake hands with Ramirez, who was speaking to a knot of Cuban reporters.
“He’s gutted,” said U.S. coach Billy Walsh a few minutes later. “This guy’s just 19 and he’s never felt that. He’s always been a champion. He’s always won at the highest level.”
In fact, he almost won at this level. He certainly made a glorious run at it, fulfilling the promise he showed right from the start. Stevenson, one of nine children, began boxing at age seven in the Newark, N.J., gym run by his grandfather, Walli Moses. At 14, Shakur told Moses, “Pop-Pop, I’m married to boxing.”
It has been a true love affair ever since. That year, he traveled to Russia for an amateur competition, the Veles Cup, won all his bouts and returned to tell his mother, Malikah, that he wanted to go to the Olympics. Two years later he won the world junior title. Everything was geared toward Rio. At 16, Shakur moved to Alexandria, Va., to live and train with Kay Koroma, the nationally renowned coach who had been working with him along with Moses.
Though his mother was relieved to have Shakur away from Newark and the often dangerous environment there—she’d had two cousins shot there, one fatally—the young boxer maintained close ties with his hometown. As he moved up in the ranks, he would say again and again that part of his motivation was to bring hope to the city of Newark and to show other kids from those same streets that they could follow their dream just as he was following his.
Stevenson’s dream was almost derailed in 2015. He had an international record of 23–0, but that year he lost twice to fellow American Ruben Villa. Determined to learn from the setback, he used a photo of the referee raising Villa’s hand as the screensaver on his phone and went back to work even harder under Koroma. In the final Olympic trials, Stevenson beat Villa twice to secure his berth on the team and then sewed up his spot in Rio with a qualifying victory in Argentina in March.
In Rio, Stevenson had been an electric presence. He drew a bye in his first round bout, but was in the arena each day supporting his teammates on a U.S. squad that was clearly on the upswing after a dismal showing four years ago in London, where the American men won no medals for the first time in Olympic history. And when he finally fought, Stevenson showed world-class skill and a sense of presence more than equal to amateur boxing’s grandest stage.
“Oh, man, he’s built for this moment,” said Koroma—in Rio as the U.S. men’s associate coach—after his young charge’s first bout, a unanimous decision victory over Robenilson De Jesus of Brazil. “To see him smiling in the ring—every time he comes to the corner, I think, ‘Oh this is Shakur, he has fun in there.’ When the pressure’s on he loves it.”
After a smoothly accomplished quarterfinal win over Mongolia’s Tsendbaatar Erdenebat last Thursday (with Floyd Mayweather Jr. on hand expressly to see Stevenson in action), the pressure would indeed come on Sunday. The 22-year-old Ramierez, the 2012 Olympic flyweight champion, was moving up in weight from four years ago. But through four winning bouts here in Rio he had shown himself to be stronger and better than ever.
Stevenson, though, came into the final brimming with confidence. “I think it’s going to be a great match-up,” he said with—no surprise—a smile. “You got the 2012 Olympic gold medalist from Cuba, a great, great fighter. And you got the up-and-coming, rising superstar from the U-S-A, and we’re going to put on a show. We ’bout to turn this place out.”
With Malikah and his father, Shahid Guyton, and Pop-Pop cheering from the stands—and with a throng of proud Newark fans watching on a big screen set up on the corner of Broad and Market Streets back home in New Jersey—Stevenson set out on Sunday afternoon to fulfill that promise. In the end, though, the experience of the former Olympic champ outweighed the talent and spirit of the first-timer.
Boxing aggressively and throwing in flurries, Ramirez took the first round on all three judges’ cards. In the corner, Koroma and Walsh urged Stevenson to step up the pace.
“We told him he was down,” said Koroma afterward, “and he came out and fought his fight in the second, being aggressive, catching [Ramirez] with the cleaner shots.”
All three judges gave Stevenson the round, making it even going into the third and final frame.
Moving, jabbing and largely making the charging Ramirez miss, Stevenson appeared to be headed to a possible upset, but a series of flurries by Ramirez, while they did no damage, probably caught the judges’ eyes just enough to tip the scales. Two of the three gave the final round to the Cuban, bringing on the decision that undid Stevenson.
But only temporarily. By the time he made it through the medal ceremony and to the post-fight press conference, Stevenson had regained his composure.
Seated alone on the dais with his silver medal around his neck, looking unmarked and strikingly young, Stevenson said, “It was a close fight. Much respect to Cuba’s Robeisy Ramirez. I feel like I let a lot of people down. I’m disappointed but I’m going to come back stronger.”
Asked what’s next for him, would he be back for another try at the gold or were the rumors true that he had already signed to turn professional under Mayweather’s promotional organization, The Money Team?
Stevenson replied that he had not signed with anyone yet, but said, “I’m done with the Olympics. Now it’s time to go to the pros. I want to win titles, I want to break records.”
A moment later Ramirez arrived and took a seat at the table with an interpreter between him and Stevenson, who sat quietly as a couple of questions were asked in Spanish of the new gold medalist. And then a thought seemed to occur to Stevenson. He leaned across and said something to Ramirez. A translation followed and then, laughter from the Cuban.
The interpreter gestured toward Stevenson and explained the exchange. “He says that Ramierez should turn pro and then they can fight again.”
The silver medalist flashed a thumbs-up to Ramirez and then, like the lifting of a cloud, came the smile. One can only think after tonight that boxing fans will be seeing it for a long time to come.