RIO DE JANEIRO — In a playful moment at the Athletes’ Village just two days earlier, Shakur Stevenson was serenaded by his close-as-sister best friend, Claressa Shields, the unofficial captain the U.S. Olympic boxing team.
“Just the two of us, building gold medals in the sky!” Shields sang as she danced around the room, revamping the lyrics of the Bill Withers 1980s R&B classic, while Stevenson swayed and laughed in a chair nearby. “Just the two of us, bye and bye!”
They came to Rio bearing the gold medal hopes of USA Boxing — Stevenson, 19, a first-time Olympian who started the tournament here with a 23-0 record in international competition, and Shields, 21, the middleweight who had extended her record to 74-1 since her gold medal triumph at the 2012 London Games.
And Saturday, when the referee of the gold medal men’s bantamweight bout at Riocentro Pavilion 6 announced a split decision in favor of Cuba’s Robeisy Ramirez, the teenager who had wanted nothing more than to deliver Olympic gold to his family, his home town of Newark and his country, buried his head in his red USA boxing shirt as the tears fell.
Minutes later, he was led to an interview area in a nearby tent, but discussing the fight was out of the question. He crumpled in a chair just outside and convulsed in sobs that shook all of his 123 pounds, a white towel over his head. And at his side was Shields, who appeared from nowhere and grabbed him by the shoulders. “Stop it! Stop your crying! Stop it!” she demanded.
Stevenson couldn’t recall later what Shields told him. But she was the only person who understood his anguish — the anguish of a teenager who had fought so hard, come so far and had so much to prove on the Olympic stage.
“Much respect to Cuba’s Robeisy Ramirez, who did what he had to do,” Stevenson said once his tears ran dry. “I took my loss. I feel like I let a lot of people down. I’m disappointed in myself. I’m crushed. But I’m going to come back stronger than ever.”
The silver medal draped around his neck represented the highest achievement by a U.S. male boxer at the Olympics since Andre Ward, Stevenson’s hero, won gold in 2004. But when someone tried enumerating the boxing greats who had claimed silver rather than gold, Stevenson was unmoved.
“I don’t look at it as an accomplishment,” he said. “I look at it as a loss.”
Stevenson didn’t question the judging, saying he knew that Ramirez would be scored the victor. He called the two-time Olympic champion a “great fighter” and said more than once that he hoped Cuba would allow him to turn pro so they could fight again. Next time, he promised, the outcome would be different.
After initially sidestepping a question about his future, Stevenson acknowledged that he intended to turn pro on the heels of an international record that now stands at 26-1 rather than return for the 2020 Olympics.
“I want to break records, win world titles,” he said. “But I’m not going to the pros with a gold medal, like I wanted.”
Saturday’s gold medal bout didn’t turn on a controversial call or suspect judging. It was close battle between two well-matched fighters, with the quick-fisted Ramirez claiming the first round and Stevenson the second.
The decisive third round could have gone either way. The Cuban played the aggressor and closed the final 90 seconds with a flurry of punches. Stevenson, by contrast, deftly evaded nearly all the punches Ramirez threw while connecting on a higher percentage of his own.
“I knew he was going to come at me,” Stevenson said when asked about his mind-set entering the third round. “I was going to try to box him from the outside and make him look stupid. It didn’t work.”
Kay Koroma, the Alexandria Boxing Club trainer who was named a member of USA Boxing’s staff for the Rio Games and has worked most closely with Stevenson, was in his corner Saturday. He hopes Stevenson won’t rush into any decisions about his future.
“This isn’t a road that just started a year ago,” Koroma said. “It started a long, long time ago.”
Both will have plenty of options ahead of them, Koroma said. All he wants is for Stevenson to take a vacation, take a break from training and forget any thought that he has let anyone down by earning a silver medal in his Olympic debut.
“This is something big for Newark,” Koroma said. “It’s major for a kid that grew up from those streets. Everybody knows him there. He has never shied away from telling people he’s from Newark. I’m sure everybody in Newark is going crazy right now. They’re not upset he didn’t get the gold.
“Even back home in Alexandria, everybody is excited for him. To us, he already had a gold medal in our hearts.”