Shakur Stevenson claimed his first world title last night, routinely outpointing Joet Gonzalez over 12 rounds to win the vacant WBO featherweight title in Reno, Nevada, headlining an ESPN+ Top Rank card.
The 22-year-old Stevenson is a big favorite of Top Rank and the ESPN brass, it seems, a blue chip talent with an American Olympic background, winning silver at Rio 2016, and he so far has shown the talent to be a serious player on the world stage.
But Stevenson (13-0, 7 KO) still has not faced a genuine world class opponent. On the eye test, we can guess he’ll do well when he does, but you never really know until you know.
So what’s next for Shakur? There are some interesting options out there, and some not so interesting options, and some options that may seem like options but aren’t, really, because boxing.
This is probably the best and biggest fight that could be made. Warrington (30-0, 7 KO) perhaps deserves to be called the best featherweight in the world — Leo Santa Cruz and Oscar Valdez are moving up to 130, Gary Russell Jr fights once a year and we’re lucky if the opponent has a pulse, and with wins over Lee Selby, Carl Frampton, and Kid Galahad in a 13-month span between May 2018 and June 2019, he’s earned the distinction more than anyone recently.
Warrington has the IBF featherweight title, so a meeting with Stevenson would be a unification fight. And politically, it seems easy enough to make — Stevenson is with Top Rank, Warrington with Frank Warren, and those sides work together frequently and easily. Both have content deals with ESPN in the US, Warren working with/through Top Rank to secure that exposure and beef up the worldwide leader’s boxing package for diehard American fans.
There are potential roadblocks, of course, as it wouldn’t be boxing if something were just easy. The IBF or WBO could order a mandatory defense — doesn’t seem likely just at the moment, but things can change quickly and sanctioning bodies don’t always have to make sense. You can look at any rankings in any weight class for any sanctioning body and understand that very quickly.
Another thing could be location. Warrington, 28, is very popular at home in Leeds, England, and a bigger draw in his country than Stevenson is in the US. Warrington may not want to give up home field, and Stevenson may not want to, either. To be fair to Warrington, he has said he’d be willing to travel for a unification, but saying something and doing it don’t always line up in boxing, in part because fighters sometimes don’t have the last word on these things. Personally, I don’t think Josh Warrington fears much of anything, nor Shakur Stevenson for that matter — both have every reason to think they’re The Man right now, a lot of confidence and momentum.
Stevenson-Warrington would be a terrific matchup of a rising would-be star against an established titleholder in his prime, both undefeated. I hope this is what we get, and timing-wise, it does line up, as Warrington just fought a couple weeks ago, smashing through overmatched Sofiane Takoucht in something of a victory lap defense in Leeds.
Gary Russell Jr
WBC titleholder Russell (30-1, 18 KO) is a superbly talented boxer, but his situation is frustrating for fans and has been for years. And according to Russell, it’s frustrating for him, too. He opened up like he never has before earlier this year before his May win over veteran Kiko Martinez, who didn’t belong in another world title fight, and after. He vented his issues in various interviews, called out PBC stablemate Leo Santa Cruz repeatedly, and, well, nothing happened.
Santa Cruz is headed up to 130 on Nov. 23 to fight for a vacant belt there, and Russell hasn’t made many peeps otherwise. Logic dictates we should expect his return in May 2020 against, I dunno, Jhack Tepora or Andoni Gago. I know he’s been ordered to defend against Tugstsogt Nyambayar, and that’s not a bad fight, but we’ll see.
I can’t see Stevenson-Russell happening. Russell says he’s not with-with PBC, that he can fight whomever he wants, but he’s been on PBC cards forever. And I have no idea of any possible friendship between the two fighters, either — American Olympians tend to be friendly, even if they’re from different squads years apart. There’s a bond there and former Olympians have often worked with later squads to help them improve. Not saying there’s anything there, just that I don’t know that there isn’t.
Anyway, Stevenson-Russell would also be great, but it doesn’t seem likely.
If Warrington doesn’t happen, Magdaleno is an easy in-house option for Top Rank, and a decent matchup. A former super bantamweight titleholder, the 27-year-old Magdaleno (27-1, 18 KO) would be a legitimate step up on paper for Shakur, and he’s ranked No. 4 at the moment by the WBO, so that’s all in line.
Personally, I think I’d make Stevenson a solid favorite over Magdaleno, but Jessie’s a good fighter and at his age, he’s right in what should be his prime years and probably doesn’t want to spend a ton of time in stay-busy fights like we’ve seen him in this year against Rico Ramos and Rafael Rivera. After those bouts, he’s got to be acclimated to 126, at least as much as he’s going to get.
This might be a consolation prize option, but it’s at least a decent consolation prize.
Frampton (26-2, 15 KO) is 32 and getting into the latter stages of his career. He’s certainly not the fighter he was at his peak some years back, and isn’t quite the same at 126 as he was at 122, even counting that he won a world title in his first fight at the weight back in 2016. He’s small at the weight, and he’s got some miles on him.
Frampton is a Top Rank guy and scheduled to get out next on Nov. 30, facing Tyler McCreary, an unbeaten, middling prospect. McCreary’s 26 and will have a pretty significant height advantage on Frampton, so I’m not completely counting the Toledo fighter out in that one, even if on paper Frampton should be a firm favorite.
The last time we saw Frampton, he got outhustled over 12 rounds by Josh Warrington in Manchester, and that was in Dec. 2018. He was meant to fight in August, but a freak injury pushed his return back. Like Magdaleno, he’d be a credible choice for opponent, but an obvious underdog. The WBO have Frampton ranked No. 6 at featherweight as of their last update.
WBO No. 3-ranked Conlan (12-0, 7 KO) is an intriguing idea, but this is one Top Rank would probably like to wait on.
The 27-year-old Conlan and Stevenson should have met in the men’s bantamweight semifinals at Rio 2016, but Conlan was robbed in the quarterfinal round against Vladimir Nikitin, who was so beaten up after a couple of hard fights that he had to withdraw. As a result, Stevenson got a walkover to the final, where he lost to Cuba’s Robeisy Ramirez, though Conlan arguably stole the show with profane tirades and middle fingers for the Olympic officials.
What would have happened if Conlan met Stevenson in Rio? I’m really not sure. I think Stevenson has the more dynamic talent of the two, but Conlan was a 24-year-old, high-level amateur veteran at that point, while Stevenson was freshly 19 years old, still a kid. Stevenson might have gotten past on him pure ability, but it’s also very possible that Conlan would have gotten the better of him three years ago on experience as much as anything.
Stevenson is, in my view, the clearly better professional prospect. We’ve seen them both about the same number of times, and Shakur has the far higher ceiling — he’s five years younger, which is huge, and beaten the same level of competition that the Irishman has thus far, if not a little superior, often looking better while doing so. Conlan is at an age where he should be peaking, but is instead tinkering through rather uninspiring wins over the likes of Jason Cunningham, Ruben Garcia Hernandez, and Diego Ruiz.
Conlan’s next fight will be a “rematch” with Vladimir Nikitin on Dec. 14, originally scheduled for August before Niktin got hurt. Top Rank is rushing into that one because they want to sell the thing before Nikitin gets beaten by some scrappy club fighter, which he nearly did on St. Patrick’s Day against Juan Tapia. Nikitin just isn’t very good, and his greatest use as a pro looks to be as a minor money fight for Conlan.
My gut feeling is Top Rank likely see the same limitations in Conlan that many fans have started to, and that we’ll see this fight, but more likely in about a year than up next. They’ll run Conlan through a couple more low-risk money dates and then throw him in with Stevenson in about a year, if Shakur is still winning and still at 126. Speaking of...
Move to 130
It almost certainly won’t come next, but sooner than later we’ll see Stevenson move up in weight. He looked huge in the ring against Joet Gonzalez on Saturday, and as he gets older, he’s going to naturally outgrow this weight class, as most everyone does a few times in their career. Right now there are no problems, it doesn’t appear, but if you’re trying to map out the next year or so of Stevenson’s career, this has to be on the table.
Some Other WBO “Contender”
Can’t go without listing the possibilities really nobody wants to see, the rest of the people in the WBO’s last top 15. Those names would be Ryan Walsh, Ruben Villa, Miguel Marriaga, Musashi Mori, Leigh Wood, Antonio Paulo Soares, Bryan Chevalier, Eric Hunter, Christopher Diaz (Stevenson has already beaten him), and Yohan Vazquez. None of these are very attractive options, maybe the best of them being Villa, a ShoBox standout with good skills.