Power proving to be blessing and curse for middleweight Stevens
NEW YORK -- Every boxing gym has a story, and the Starrett City Boxing Club, a one-room concrete jungle buried beneath a parking garage in the East New York section of Brooklyn, tells a tale. Inside, two rings gobble up most of the space, with the requisite heavy bags dangling from hooks in the ceiling and trunks worn by Sugar Ray Leonard, Roberto Duran and Tommy Hearns encased high on a pylon in the middle of the room. Founded in 1978, Starrett City has shipped scores of young fighters off to Golden Gloves and P.A.L. tournaments, with a few taking their talents even further. Shannon Briggs, Luis Collazo and Travis Simms were among the handful of titleholders who came through Starrett City, a respectable number when you consider just how many boxing gyms are out there (a lot) and just how many belly-hanging-over- the-belt wanna-be's are in them (even more).
Sitting on a ring apron last week, his fists clenched, his eyes darting over in the direction of an overflowing trophy case, Curtis Stevens, the middleweight contender who will move one step closer to a world title shot when he takes on Saul Roman on Saturday at Mohegan Sun Casino (NBC Sports Network, 10:30 p.m. ET), nodded his head. "I've been coming here since I was five years old," Stevens said. "I'm next."
There was a time when Stevens' rise appeared to be less if than when. From the Brownsville section of Brooklyn -- the same rough neighborhood that produced Mike Tyson and Riddick Bowe -- Stevens was a wunderkind, a tough-talking, hard-hitting brawler. He took his first fight at age 8 and scored his first knockout in his second. At 10, Stevens competed in the Silver Gloves tournament and knocked an opponent out so badly, his uncle/trainer Andre Rozier said, "the kid's Mom jumped up to the ring and started going crazy."
Thudding, concussive power quickly became Stevens' calling card. With a right hook that uncoiled from his shoulder like a piston rod, Stevens rolled through the amateur ranks, winning the U.S. National championship at light heavyweight in 2002. At 5-foot-7 -- small in stature for someone fighting in the higher weight classes -- Stevens consistently knocked out taller opponents, including two during a brief stint at heavyweight. "His punches had so much intensity on them," Rozier said. "When we worked the pads I could feel he had heavier hands, but when he started putting guys down like he did, that's when I knew this kid had thunder in his punches."
Stevens turned pro in '04, and the spectacular knockouts continued. He ended 10 of his first 11 fights early. Stevens' manager dubbed him and longtime pal, Jaidon Codrington, the "Chin Checkers," a flashy nickname for two fighters who were bullying their way through their respective divisions.
In 2006, Stevens experienced the first bump in his career when he was stopped by Marcos Primera. "Premature stoppage," Stevens said, and he avenged the loss in his next fight, beating Primera by unanimous decision. Stevens then won three straight fights before facing, in 2007, top super middleweight prospect Andre Dirrell. Knowing Stevens' power, Dirrell boxed from the outside, fighting off of his back foot, jabbing and putting together enough combinations to walk away with a lopsided decision win.
"He ran," Stevens said. "But I'm not being critical. He did what he had to do to survive. I give him credit for that."
Slowly though, a pattern was developing. Stevens was dynamic against one-dimensional opponents, against fighters who were willing to stand and trade. But as the competition got better, Stevens couldn't adjust. Primera may have been a fluke, but Dirrell, a lanky '04 Olympic bronze medalist, outsmarted Stevens in the ring. The trend continued in 2010, when Stevens, riding a four-fight winning streak, again looking poised to fulfill his potential, stepped in against journeyman Jesse Brinkley in a super middleweight title eliminator.
It should have been Stevens' finest moment. It turned out to be one of his worst. Unable to catch Brinkley, unable to bury him with one punch, Stevens was battered in another one-sided decision.
"I had a one-track mind that night," Stevens said. "I said 'I'm going to knock him out,' and that was it. And he knocked me out of my socks. When I looked at the tape, I was going for one shot every time. I was throwing my hook, and he was rolling with it. He [messed] me up in that fight. I'll give him that."
If that was bad, what followed was worse. Embroiled in a promotional dispute with Star Boxing's Joe DeGuardia, Stevens was forced out of the ring for more than two years. He continued to train, traveling to Canada and California to work with top talent such as Jean Pascal and Andre Ward, but opportunities were missed. The harder he fought to get out of his contract, the more entangled he became. Finally, last year, after returning his $25,000 signing bonus, Stevens was set free.
The layoff did yield a positive, however: Being in so many training camps, Stevens started to cut weight. Naturally bulky -- Stevens played middle linebacker in high school -- Stevens often struggled to get under 165 pounds, leaving him to fight against bigger, taller opponents in the 168- and 175-pound divisions. But while in camp with Ward in '11, Stevens was surprised to see his weight in the low 160s. Ward's trainer, Virgil Hunter, suggested Stevens try to drop down to the 154-pound junior middleweight division.
"I just kind of laughed and thought 'no way,'" Stevens said. "But I did think I could get to 160."
As a middleweight, Stevens has done some damage. Last January, Stevens blasted veteran Elvin Ayala out in the first round. In April, he outpointed Derrick Findley to win an eight-round decision. The win over Findley, Stevens says, is evidence of how he has grown as a fighter.
"I didn't go in looking for a knockout," Stevens said. "I had a Plan B. I wanted to knock Findley out, but when I saw how he was fighting I looked for openings and just boxed after that."
Stevens' success hasn't gone unnoticed. The 160-pound division is top heavy with big names, led by Sergio Martinez, Julio Cesar Chavez Jr., Gennady Golovkin and Peter Quillin. An emphatic win over the hard-punching -- but easy to hit -- Roman (37-9) will create an opportunity for a high profile fight for Stevens (24-3), most likely against Golovkin, an HBO-funded fighter who is scouring the division for an opponent to fight in the fall in New York City. Stevens' New York roots and rising profile have made him an appealing option.
While Golovkin has struggled to find top middleweights to face him, Stevens, who was ringside for Golovkin's win over Matthew Macklin last month, is eager for the chance.
"I give Golovkin all the respect; he is doing what he is supposed to," Stevens said. "But [in January] he fought a junior middleweight [Gabriel Rosado]. Then he fights Macklin, who was just scared. He was just trying to survive. We haven't seen Golovkin get hit yet. He's walking around being introduced as the most feared middleweight in boxing. What? I just sit back and laugh. I'm not scared of him. I want it. I have the one-punch knockout power. He doesn't.
"Golovkin loads up on shots. He punches slow. When I fight, I'm not trying to load up. I'm going to let it flow. I want to knock him out. After I do what I can do to him, I'll be the most feared middleweight."
Six years after getting outclassed by Dirrell, three years after getting demolished by Brinkley, Stevens is barreling toward another crossroad fight. The power will always be his calling card, will always be what draws fans to his shows. But to beat the best he will need more. And for the first time, Stevens says, he knows it.