This weekend at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas, boxing's current trend of unification bouts will continue when WBC junior lightweight champion Oscar Valdez (30-0) takes on WBO junior lightweight champion Shakur Stevenson (17-0).
The match will crown the first Ring Magazine junior lightweight champion since Manny Pacquiao held the title following his razor-thin split decision over Juan Manuel Marquez in their second encounter in March 2008. Although junior lightweight is one of the oldest weight classes in boxing, there have rarely been any unification bouts at 130-pounds. The last time titles were unified in the division was in 2005, when Marco Antonio Barrera claimed the WBC and IBF titles from Robbie Peden.
While the titles on the line are one of the most significant components of Valdez-Stevenson, the fight, in many ways, is more about finding out if Stevenson will live up to his potential. At 24-years old, the 2016 Olympic Silver medalist is as high as a -700 favorite to defeat Valdez. Few fans or pundits are picking Valdez to come out with his hand raised in victory against Stevenson, which is likely due to the prior performances of each fighter.
Stevenson, who hails from Newark, New Jersey, dominated Jamel Herring en route to a 10th-round stoppage to claim the WBO 130-pound title. On the other hand, Valdez is attempting to bounce back from a setback that not only led many to believe that he lost for the first time but to question his integrity as a clean fighter.
Valdez tested positive for the banned substance phentermine before facing the 2016 Olympic Gold Medalist Robson Conceicao. Although the substance is primarily used to help with weight loss, in the court of public opinion, Valdez had committed one of boxing's ultimate sins and will always be labeled as a dirty fighter by many. Valdez's situation worsened when he escaped with a controversial decision over Conceicao in a fight that saw him out landed in jabs, power punches, and total punches.
“My last fight wasn't my best fight,” stated Valdez on an episode of Top Rank's Blood, Sweat, and Tears show promoting his fight with Stevenson. “We could all agree on that. I agree on that. It was definitely a lot of pressure towards that fight. I wasn't' 100% there, but we got the win. I wasn't all there. All the characterizations I received, and I get it sometimes. If I'm an athlete and I'm a boxer, and I have another fighter in front of me who may be cheating, I'm going to be offended as well. And that's what happened with a lot fighters. They were offended, and they were trying to bring me down. And the worst thing about it is that they did it. They got what they wanted.”
For Stevenson, being such a massive favorite over a fellow undefeated champion brings lofty expectations. The fight with Valdez won't be judged on him simply walking away with a win but focused just as much on how he does it. Stevenson's promoter Top Rank has made comparisons to all-time great Floyd Mayweather Jr., looking at both fighter's punch statistics relative to defense and punches landed. Mayweather was never able to unify titles at junior lightweight, a weight class that many would argue was Mayweather at his absolute best.
Mayweather did come close to unifying the titles at junior lightweight when he faced Diego Corrales in January 2001, but the now fallen warrior vacated his IBF title before meeting the defensive master. The man who would become the biggest moneymaker in boxing history went on to make eight total defenses of his junior lightweight title, with only fighters like Julio Cesar Chavez Sr., Alexis Arguello, and Azumah Nelson having a legitimate argument to be ranked above him at 130-pounds.
Certainly, Mayweather is the more accomplished fighter. Still, the comparisons to the BWAA's 2010-2019 Fighter of the Decade winner aren't going to intimidate Stevenson but instead make him more confident in his abilities. “I like the comparisons to Floyd,” said Stevenson on Top Rank's Blood, Sweat, and Tears. “But at the end of the day, Floyd at 23 and me at 23, you sit there, and you watch and pay attention. I feel like I know more than him. I just feel like I'm on a whole other level.” Time will tell if Stevenson's career will be on the same page as someone like Mayweather, but the Newark, New Jersey native, feels that he is leagues above his fellow contemporaries.
Over the last few years, a crop of young, potentially elite fighters has circled around the same weight class, most predominately at lightweight. Those fighters include Gervonta Davis, Teofimo Lopez, Ryan Garcia, and Devin Haney. Against Valdez, Stevenson plans on separating himself from the pack with his knowledge of the art of boxing.
“I don't think there's a lot of boxers nowadays that understand the logic of boxing,” said Stevenson. “I feel like a lot of fighters these days they go in the gym and practice things over and over. I don't think they actually understand what they're doing, and I feel like I understand boxing. Distance, range, how to make somebody miss, how to step in on the inside. They don't understand certain things, and I feel like I'm one of the fighters that understands. I'm mastering the art of hitting and not getting hit.”
Clearly, Stevenson views himself as a transcendent fighter that will reign on top of pound-for-pound lists one day. Valdez will be his most challenging opponent on paper. And Stevenson is no stranger to losing with his infamous emotional reaction to losing the Gold medal match to Robeisy Ramirez at the 2016 Olympics. Fear, however, can be an incredible motivator. It can keep a fighter relaxed and ready while staying calm and alert. The expectations surrounding Stevenson are as high as can be, but those expectations don't just come from the public but from himself.
“I put in the work in training camp,” said Stevenson. “I understand that the lights are just lights, just people. I do this every day in the gym. I feel like with the Jamel Herring fight, I told every single person that I was going in there to beat him up. I told him I was going to shine. I told him that if they upped the level on me, I'm going to up the level on them. I am scared of losing, but I will do whatever it takes to win. I'm willing to go above and beyond just to come out victorious.”
On April 30th, we will see if Stevenson lives up to expectations.