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Preview: Shakur Stevenson headlines as boxing returns to TV screens

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Boxing is finally back, and one of its top young stars is in the main event.

I’m not going to sugarcoat this or make it more than it is. Top Rank bringing boxing back to our TV screens is a most welcome bit of news for sure, but the current schedule on deck is largely lacking in actual intrigue. With travel restrictions, promotional restrictions that differ from and go far beyond the normal petty squabbling, and no gate money to help support more significant matchups, the company is working with a pretty thin roster as fights resume on ESPN.

But still, most welcome all the same.

Tomorrow night (Tues., June 9, 7 pm ET on ESPN), one of the sport’s top rising young stars and talents will headline the first show back, from an MGM Grand Conference Center in Las Vegas that will have no fans in attendance, only essential personnel for the fights and the broadcast.

22-year-old Shakur Stevenson, a 2016 silver medalist for Team USA at the Rio Olympics, will step up to 130 pounds, dipping his toe in the waters there eight months after winning his first world title, the then-vacant WBO featherweight belt.

That fight last October had a lot of emotion built in. He was facing Joet Gonzalez, the estranged brother of Stevenson’s girlfriend, for the belt that Oscar Valdez had given up. Stevenson and Gonzalez had a lot of ill will coming in, despite what Stevenson tried to say in video packages and after the bout. There was plenty of pointed trash talk that went from Shakur to Joet before they got in the ring that night in Reno, Nevada, and while Stevenson may have felt the hatchet was buried there, Joet didn’t seem to have any more personal respect for Stevenson than he did coming in, at least at that time.

it was, frankly speaking, a pretty easy win for Stevenson (13-0, 7 KO), a celebrated blue chipper whom both Top Rank and ESPN are very high on; he’s managed by Andre Ward, who is also an ESPN commentator (though he does not call Shakur’s fights), and was snapped up by the promotional giant as soon as possible coming out of Rio.

There has been a lot of talk from many in and around the Top Rank/ESPN crew that Stevenson could be the next Floyd Mayweather. Bob Arum has said it, Tim Bradley Jr has said it, and Stevenson himself believes he’s better at 22 than Floyd was at the same stage.

A fighter should have that level of confidence, especially one hoping to operate at the level Stevenson believes to be in his near future. And of course Arum would say it, he promotes the kid. And of course, on the surface, Bradley would say it, too — as an ESPN commentator he also, in a different way, promotes the kid.

But while Arum and other promoters are seldom fully honest with their words, Bradley has proven on ESPN broadcasts that he thinks for himself enough to call it pretty well like he sees it. I’ve seen Tim rightly unimpressed with Vikas Krishan, for example, and Krishan is another Top Rank prospect that Arum hopes to be worth some money. Not on the level of Stevenson, but there there’s a genuine reason for that, too: Stevenson is clearly really good at the very least.

Terence Crawford v Amir Khan Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images

How good is he? That’s what we have to find out. To date, he has largely cruised past opponents, the best of whom have been the aforementioned Gonzalez, who was an unbeaten prospect but thought by no one to be on Stevenson’s level, and Christopher Diaz, a former title challenger Shakur outclassed on the Crawford-Khan undercard 14 months ago.

He doesn’t seem to be a big puncher, though he has flashed his power at times — he blasted out Viorel Simion, Jessie Cris Rosales, and Alberto Guevara, but they were all extremely overmatched, too.

What Stevenson clearly seems to have is skill and ring IQ, and those two things can carry a fighter a long, long way. Floyd Mayweather has said of himself in the past — and Shakur has noted this recently as inspiration — that he wasn’t the truly fastest or strongest guy, but he was the smartest. That undersells Mayweather’s incredible level of natural skill combined with an otherworldly dedication to his craft, of course, but it can definitely give a guy like Stevenson something to try and emulate.

Stevenson may not have any A+ attributes. It will be proven over time and against better opponents whether that’s the case or not. But he does have the potential right now to be great, as he also doesn’t seem to have any glaring weaknesses. He’s got a good team, by all accounts is very serious about his career, and has the desire to be something special.

On Tuesday, he’ll face Felix Caraballo (13-1-2, 9 KO), a Puerto Rican fighter who isn’t expected to be much trouble. Stevenson was meant to defend his featherweight belt against Miguel Marriaga — a solid second-tier fighter — on Mar. 14, but that was one of the very first cards scrapped in the COVID pandemic. That Shakur is first up to return seems fitting.

There’s not a lot out there to see from Caraballo. He’s never fought outside of Puerto Rico, and he’s never faced higher-level opposition. Perhaps his best win came in July 2018, a third round knockout of Mexican journeyman Mario Briones, but that also came after Caraballo suffered his first defeat six months prior in Mayaguez, Caraballo’s hometown and the host for most of his fights to date.

Caraballo, in fact, started his career 0-0-2 in 2014, so this was never some prospect anyone was celebrating. And the odds reflect the expected mismatch; as of this writing, Stevenson is favored between -4625 and -25000 on various online books, with Caraballo listed between +1100 and +2875.

So, no, this is not a marquee fight. But it is good to see fights coming back to our screens. It won’t be the same as ever, but it’s something for the time being.

Undercard

Jason Sosa v Haskell Lydell Rhodes Photo by Hunter Martin/Getty Images

Another former U.S. Olympian, Mikaela Mayer, was set to fight in the co-feature, but tested positive for COVID-19 over the weekend, and obviously her fight is off. That means Helen Joseph is also off the card; there is just no way to pull in replacement fights on short notice for these events.

But as ESPN has hours upon hours of airtime to fill, we’ll be getting a full card here, starting a 7 pm ET with a runtime window through 11 pm ET, and there are other young fighters definitely worth tuning in to see, particularly if you’re not a habitual Top Rank prelim watcher.

Featherweight Robeisy Ramirez (2-1, 2 KO) will never get some massive undefeated run in boxing, as the two-time Olympic gold medalist stunningly lost his pro debut last August against club fighter Adan Gonzales. Now 26, Ramirez has won two straight, and it might be wise to kind of forget about that shocking first fight last August.

Ramirez, frankly, may have gotten a lesson that night, and while he absolutely deserved the loss (one judge tried to give him the fight but was rightly overruled), things can happen in four-round bouts. There’s still a potentially very bright future for Ramirez, but it’s really up to him. He’ll be facing Yeuri Andujar (5-3, 3 KO) in a six-round bout.

Two heavyweight prospects are also slated for action.

Toledo’s Jared “Big Baby” Anderson (3-0, 3 KO) is looking to restore some glory to that nickname and make it his own in the boxing world. The 20-year-old turned pro last October, on the Stevenson-Gonzalez card, and has demolished all of his opponents in the first round thus far. He’ll be facing Johnnie Langston (8-2, 3 KO), a 30-year-old natural cruiserweight from Sarasota, Florida.

Italy’s Guido Vianello (6-0, 6 KO) is another former Olympian, and a silver medalist at the 2014 EU Championships in Sofia, Bulgaria. He’s had some camp work with Tyson Fury already (Vianello lives in Vegas now), and Fury has spoken very highly of him. Vianello has also done a lot of sparring with Joe Joyce and with Joseph Parker, too.

Vianello is a charismatic guy, donning a gladiator outfit for his entrance, which is always set to Queen’s “Hammer to Fall.” It’s been so far, so good for him since his Dec. 2018 pro debut. On Tuesday, he faces Don Haynesworth (16-3-1, 14 KO), a 37-year-old from New Rochelle, New York, whose record seems better than it really is.

Bad Left Hook will have live coverage of Stevenson vs Caraballo on Tuesday at 7 pm ET.