COLORADO SPRINGS — He was born the year after Money magazine named Newark the most dangerous city in America, the year after rapper Tupac Shakur, who railed against injustice and championed the struggles of single mothers and the working poor, was killed in a drive-by shooting.
So when her first child entered the world, Malikah Stevenson named him Shakur with the hope he would grow strong, proud and respected in the hard life he’d been born into — like Tupac, the poet and hip-hop artist whose song “Keep Ya Head Up” was her anthem.
This was a decade before the urban renaissance of the high-rise office towers, performing-arts center and hockey arena. This was when Newark was a decaying commercial crossroads with a notorious homicide rate.
“Its nickname is Brick City,” said Shakur Stevenson, reared in one of Newark’s many housing projects. “It’s a hard city. You got to be tough to live there.”
When Stevenson, 19, steps into the boxing ring at the Rio Olympics, he’ll represent Brick City, along with his family and country. If all goes according to plan, and he becomes the first American man to win boxing gold since Andre Ward in 2004, he then will leave Newark behind, taking his mother, six brothers and two sisters with him for a better life in Florida, if he gets his choice, or Virginia, if Malikah gets hers.
Stevenson has only sketchy memories of life before boxing — vague recollections of plastic baseball bats and balls, some faces from his kindergarten class and wishing an older brother was there to guide him.
He was 5 when his grandfather, Wali Moses, started taking him to the Newark boxing gym where he trained youngsters each afternoon. Malikah was grateful her son would be safe and off the streets until she could pick him up after work. For Stevenson, that is when life began. So did the countdown to his eighth birthday, which meant he’d be old enough for his first bout.
“I was super nervous,” he recalls of the trip to Paterson, N.J. He won that debut. And though he has no idea exactly how he did it, he remembers the feeling: “When I got out of the ring, all the people from my boxing gym were happy for me, cheering me on. I was hype!”
Despite his roots, Stevenson bears no outward trace of a hard edge. He stands 5 feet 7 and weighs 123 pounds. And when he smiles, which is often, he looks far younger than 19, with cheeks as plump as apples and dimples deep as ravines. Despite more than a decade in the ring, his face hasn’t been hit much.
“Definitely not!” says Stevenson, the first U.S. male boxer to win both the Junior and Youth World Championships (2013, 2014) and a Youth Olympic Games gold medal. With a 23-0 record in international competition, he’s regarded as the country’s top medal hopeful in men’s boxing at Rio de Janeiro.
What defines Stevenson’s boxing are his jab, his timing and a tactical wisdom beyond his years, distilled from multiple sources: his grandfather, who still trains boxers in Newark; his co-coach Kay Koroma, who’s based at the Alexandria Boxing Club in Northern Virginia and was recently named associate coach of the U.S. men’s Olympic boxing team; and his relentless study of Sugar Ray Leonard, Floyd Mayweather, Ward and other greats.
Between workouts, Stevenson devotes nearly every waking minute to shadow-boxing, his hands punching the air in rapid-fire combinations as he imagines how he’ll set up and finish off mythical opponents. The compulsive shadow-boxing is such a part of his persona that friends have grown accustomed to explaining to alarmed bystanders — whether at shopping malls or airport gates — that the baby-faced man with fists flying isn’t crazy, but an Olympian.
For Koroma, 36, the coach who has shepherded Stevenson’s training in recent years, boxing was a lifeline, too.
He grew up on Alexandria’s west side at a time when Hispanic gangs feuded against blacks. His hatred of bullying and his compulsion to leap in whenever friends got in fights landed him in juvenile detention more than once. Through a “scared straight”-style program, he met an inmate who suggested he take his powerful hands and obvious smarts and do something constructive, like boxing. He understands the sport’s potential for helping troubled kids.
Stevenson was 10 or 11 when he first caught Koroma’s eye. It was at a youth tournament in northern New Jersey, and he was boxing one of Koroma’s 10-year-old pupils. The young coach was struck by how intuitively Stevenson adapted in the ring; he was a thinking-man’s little boxer.
At a national youth tournament a year or so later, Koroma came across Stevenson in the bathroom, alone and crying after a rare defeat. He took him aside and explained why he’d lost, breaking it down in tactical terms. He told him not to worry; it could be fixed if he would listen to his grandfather and keep working.
Stevenson did, rising up the sport’s youth ranks with Moses polishing his grandson’s skills.
Not long after two of Malikah Stevenson’s cousins were shot on the same night in Newark, one of them fatally, she decided her son should move in with his grandparents in Hampton, Va. She worried that the notoriety Stevenson, then 16, was getting for his boxing might spark jealousy and become a flashpoint for conflict.
So he moved to Hampton, hung a punching bag in his grandparents’ garage and enrolled at Bethel High.
“Shakur is like the little man of the house, and I saw how he liked to watch over me,” Malikah explained. “I didn’t want any of that tragedy to be on his shoulders. He takes a lot of things on his shoulders, and I didn’t want him to have to watch over me, too.”
Before long, he was calling Koroma every other week to come pick him up and bring him to the Alexandria Boxing Club to train. Finally, after growing weary of the 350-mile round-trip, Koroma asked Malikah whether her son could move in with him.
She gave her blessing and today gives her thanks, seeing in her son as a 19-year-old qualities that didn’t exist at 16: humility, understanding, the ability to compromise.
“Coach Kay taught Shakur how to grow into a man,” she said.
Added Stevenson: “He has got a lot of love for us fighters. As a child, he took me in to live with him. Fed me. Didn’t have no money. He did a lot for me, and I appreciate everything he has done for me.”
To Koroma, boxing isn’t about brute strength or power. It has more in common with art. In his view, boxing based on sheer power and no strategy is like scribbling a drawing and considering it done. Boxing based on strategy — on probing for weakness, setting an opponent up and then picking him apart over time — is a work of art worthy of the highest marks in a judged sport.
“You want to be creative,” Koroma said, relaying the advice he gives Stevenson. “You want to be like Michelangelo or Picasso, where you keep drawing that picture and figuring out more and more what colors to add to it. And people will start to see what you’re doing.”
There have been days, however, when the canvas has failed. Though unbeaten internationally, Stevenson lost to fellow American Ruben Villa twice in 2015 — the first one marking his first defeat since 2012.
“I got angry,” Stevenson recalled of the first loss, in which he dropped the first round, “so instead of boxing, I started trying to take his head off. And he was picking me apart, basically.”
The boxers met again the following month, at Olympic qualifying trials in Colorado, and Stevenson lost a second time despite revamping his game plan. He cried, raged and then vowed to quit and turn pro on the spot, upset at the decision.
Koroma calmed him down, urging to give the Olympics one more try. And his grandfather’s advice came to mind.
“He always told me when I was coming up, ‘Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. Fool me three times, Dang, I’m stupid!’ ” Stevenson recalled with a laugh.
So he found a photo of the referee holding up Villa’s hand in triumph and made it the screensaver on his cellphone, so that it tortured him every hour of every day until the next time they met.
Stevenson exacted his revenge, beating Villa twice in a single tournament to clinch a spot at Olympic trials in December 2015. He earned his place on the Rio-bound squad last spring.
“I hate losing,” Stevenson said. “A loss is like a tragedy to me. A loss is like somebody died, basically. I just don’t want that feeling at all, so I’m gonna go down there [to Rio] and handle my business.”
Stevenson’s plan is to send his mother, grandfather and younger siblings’ father to Brazil to watch him box. But with the boxing competition spanning 10 days, it’s an expensive trip, so in May he launched a GoFundMe page to cover the costs. So far, he has raised nearly $6,000 toward the $10,000 goal — much of it in $5 and $10 increments from friends and supporters who write that they wish they could give more and are praying that he brings home the gold for Newark.
Malikah Stevenson has never been overseas. She has never been on a plane, nor has she wanted to. But she’s waiting on the arrival of her passport, determined to make the trip to watch her son box.
Stevenson is her first-born. He is her protector. As Tupac wrote in a poem she loves, he is her rose that grew from concrete.