RIO DE JANEIRO – The story line was irresistible. Months after Muhammad Ali’s death and 56 years after Ali won gold as Cassius Clay, a New Jersey kid who grew up listening to his grandfather talk about the great fight legends had a chance to give the U.S. its first men’s boxing gold medal in 12 years.
Shakur Stevenson even lived for a time on Muhammad Ali Boulevard in Newark. It seemed too good to be true, and it turned out that way in the end. Stevenson, who turned 19 in July, proved a little too young and inexperienced as he fell to Cuba’s Robeisy Ramirez in the bantamweight title match Tuesday afternoon at Riocentro Pavilion.
Stevenson lost a split decision when two of the three judges favored Ramirez in the third and deciding round. In a battle of southpaws, they had split the first two rounds, with Ramirez coming out aggressively to capture the first and Stevenson outboxing him in the second to set up the pivotal third.
Ramirez is 22, but he had won gold in London and his experience showed in the final. Stevenson failed to respond to Ramirez’s aggressive approach in the first round and the Cuban was able to tilt the bout his way with a late flurry in the third.
Stevenson, who was mentored by 2004 U.S. gold medalist Andre Ward and rooted on by ring legend Floyd Mayweather earlier in the Olympics, wanted the gold badly – for his large family in Newark, for the long-suffering U.S. amateur boxing program, and, of course, to enhance his own imminent prospects as a professional.
“That kid has been very seldom beat,” said Billy Walsh, the U.S. coach. “To lose on the biggest stage of all is very difficult for him. He’s showing his years now. He just turned 19 in July, so he’s a baby. It was a boy against a man today.”
In fact, Stevenson had never lost an international bout, though he has lost in the U.S.. He was devastated by the loss. He pulled his shirt over his face after the bout and walked away to cry. He was sobbing uncontrollably when he arrived outside the media mixed zone moments later and was led through the area by his handlers without stopping to comment.
After the medal ceremony, a more composed Stevenson returned to the mixed zone to discuss the bout.
“I feel like I let a lot of people down,” said Stevenson, who was named for the rapper Tupac Shakur nine months after Tupac’s murder. “I’m disappointed in myself, I’m crushed. But I’m going to come back stronger.
“The last round he caught me in the corner. I don’t think he hit me, but he threw a lot of punches in the last round and he pulled it out, I guess. In the third I had a plan, because I knew he was going to come at me and it was 1-1. I was going to try to keep him outside and make him look stupid, but it didn’t work.”
Walsh said Stevenson was supposed to come back at Ramirez in the opening round, but he didn’t: “It was inexperience. But it’s been a great Games for him.”
Did it sting to hear that the coach had characterized the bout as boy vs. man? Stevenson hesitated. “No,” he said. Then he laughed and added this: “What did Billy win when he was an amateur when he went to the Olympics? Nothing.”
Walsh, a former Irish amateur fighter, admitted he had more than his share of tough moments in the ring. But he has been credited with boosting the U.S. boxing program after it hit rock bottom with no medals in London.
Stevenson, who began boxing in his grandfather’s Newark ring at 5, talked about reviving American boxing. Like most successful Olympians, he is likely to do it as a pro. He’s marketable, having been featured in a Powerade ad, “Just a kid from Newark.”
“It’s been a great experience,” he said. “I’m disappointed, and I think I let a lot of people down, but I feel I’ll be back stronger than ever. Most likely, I’ll turn pro and try to win some world titles and try to break records.”
He did win a silver medal, the first U.S. medal that precious since Ward won gold in Athens. But Stevenson found little consolation in silver.
“I don’t look at it as an accomplishment,” he said. “I look at it as a loss.”