In the Leadup to Devin Haney-Ryan Garcia, Spare a Thought for Shakur Stevenson

Come one, come all, professional boxers: I’m about to tell you how to land a huge fight.

Here’s all you have to do: win. Stay undefeated if you can. That’s the most important thing. If you just keep winning, no one will be able to ignore you anymore. You’ll get a fight with a pound-for-pound talent or a huge star. And the really big fights are driven by casual fans, who need easy marketing tools to get involved, like “this guy has never lost before.” So just don’t lose and you’re set.

Hold on, sorry, I’m hearing that’s not all. It’s also crucial that you fight in an entertaining style. Otherwise, you’ll bore the fans and they’ll never pay to watch you again, even if you have a spotless record. Plus, other fighters know that merely being associated with you will hurt their own ticket sales.

Oh, and when you fight in that entertaining style, be sure not to look too good. At least not until you’re a huge star. Otherwise, you might end up on the wrong end of the risk-reward equation. You sure don’t want to end up like Gennadiy Golovkin in his early thirties, just maybe taking a few extra shots on purpose so that the biggest stars of the sport will think they have a chance against you.

But don’t pull your punches enough to get clipped and knocked out. It’s all about maintaining that ‘0.’

Are these starting to sound like unreasonable expectations to anyone else?

There are exceptions to this path to stardom, of course. The late, great “Marvelous” Marvin Hagler took a loss early and recovered to become one of the best middleweights of all time. Floyd Mayweather wasn’t scoring any thrilling knockouts in his last several fights and still had a lengthy reign as the sport’s biggest star. But we’re talking about two all-time-greats here. For most fighters, an early loss or a less-than-pulsating fighting style could prove crippling to their careers.

I’m thinking about all of this because while watching the Devin Haney (31-0, 15 KOs)-Ryan Garcia (24-1, 20 KOs) promotion—before Garcia started to exhibit concerning signs of deteriorating mental health—Shakur Stevenson (21-0, 10 KOs) popped into my head.

I know, I know. You’re probably thinking, Sigh…Shakur. The guy who stunk it out against Edwin De Los Santos (16-2, 14 KOs) in the most boring fight I’ve ever seen, who fake-retired on Twitter, and who won’t stop talking trash on that dumb app even though he’s done nothing recently to back it up?

Yep, that Shakur Stevenson. A Shakur Stevenson who, I might add, is still undefeated, unlike Ryan Garcia. Yet Stevenson is not the one in the big fight.

I’d guess that most of the boxing world is okay with this. When I said Stevenson “stunk it out” against De Los Santos, I might have understated things. He stayed outside the pocket all night, completely nullifying De Los Santos’ offense and limiting him to 40 landed punches, a CompuBox record low for a 12-round fight at the time.

Stevenson clearly did enough to win, but didn’t land much more than De Los Santos himself, leaving everyone bored and annoyed. I stayed up to watch that fight on a weeknight and went to bed afterwards feeling like I’d been taken advantage of.

That said, it seemed like Stevenson was compromised on fight night. Not only that, but he is a defensively blessed fighter -- is it not unfair to ask him to completely reinvent himself into a brawler, which would result in a higher chance of him losing fights?

There are many reasons why I am not a professional boxer, but I can tell you for a fact that if I were one, I’d be fighting defensively out of sheer terror of getting punched in the face.

Stevenson has an otherworldly ability to avoid getting hit by punches, and we’re asking him to use that ability less for our entertainment. Sure, we want all-action fights to satisfy our bloodlust, but why should the onus be on Stevenson to fight in a potentially less effective style? If we’re serious about commending the bravery of those who step in the ring, I think that should extend to not demanding that they change the style they’ve spent decades sharpening.

I understand that fans shell out money to watch fights and expect to be entertained for doing so, and that fighters are only going to take on challenges that will provide adequate financial compensation, as they should.

But that model has created a sport that does not always accurately reflect which boxers are the best in the world. Stevenson and Jaron “Boots” Ennis (31-0, 28 KOs) may be the two best fighters of their generation. Neither of them has been given the chance to prove it.

Stevenson may not be the most exciting fighter out there. That said, inarguably, he is better than Ryan Garcia, whose good looks and huge social media following are at least as responsible for his fame as his boxing skills. Garcia has had electrifying flashes in his career, but it’s become clear in his recent fights – the knockout loss to Gervonta “Tank” Davis (29-0, 27 KOs) and an eighth-round stoppage of Oscar Duarte (26-2-1, 21 KOs) that saw Garcia trying what can only generously be called a pale shadow of a shoulder roll – that he is merely a good fighter, not a great one.

Stevenson has seen his stock plummet after a win. Garcia’s stock is unharmed after a loss.

In recent weeks, Garcia has clearly been struggling with his mental health, as he has in the past, and I wish him nothing but the best, including pulling out of the Haney fight if that’s what he needs. I commend him for taking on tough fights when he could have protected and padded his record, and I wish more fighters had that attitude. But I do think that Garcia is a B-level professional fighter who is getting to take part in A-level fights.

If the fight goes ahead, on April 20th, Haney is going to comfortably beat Garcia. He is a better, more complete fighter with a more impressive resume, and has improved at a far quicker rate than Garcia since the two went 3-3 in a six-fight rivalry in the amateurs. While Haney dismantles Garcia, Stevenson might well be typing yet more frustrated tweets as he prepares for an unnamed July 6th opponent that he’ll probably beat in a comfortable unanimous decision.

Maybe it’s greedy to point this out in a sport in which the best fights getting made is always far from a given, but Garcia-Haney isn’t the fight boxing fans should want. The bout is a great opportunity for Haney to scoop up some of Garcia’s huge fanbase, but the fight itself is unlikely to tell us anything new about either fighter. Haney is a -700 favorite on DraftKings.

We only rejoiced at Haney-Garcia because we aren’t getting Haney-“Tank,” or Haney-Teofimo Lopez (20-1, 13 KOs), or “Tank”-Lopez, or Stevenson against any of those three – all fights in which it might actually be difficult to pick a favorite. Those are the fights that, to dedicated fans, would help determine the best lightweight and super lightweight of the generation.

After the fight with Haney, Garcia will have fought two of those four potential standouts. None of the others have stepped in the ring together yet. I hope they do, but in a sport that often fails to value skill over popularity, my expectations are low.

It’s fine if boxing is okay with the current system.

But then let’s admit that we don’t care about the best fights happening before the biggest.