WITH a combined professional record of 47-0, super-featherweights Óscar Valdez and Shakur Stevenson meet this Saturday (April 30) in Las Vegas fuelled by the blissful ignorance that chaperones most fighters towards risky business.

Though both have suffered setbacks, as amateurs, their pro careers have so far been relatively straightforward – demonstrated by Valdez winning 30 fights in a row (23 by knockout) and Stevenson winning 17 (9). Added to that, the pair enter this weekend’s fight with one belt apiece (Valdez has the WBC super-featherweight belt; Stevenson has the WBO) and a desire for something greater than shared spoils in the super-featherweight division. Furthermore, with Stevenson ranked number one in the weight class, and Valdez at two, the winner will be recognised by Boxing News as the world champ.

If on a collision course, the Valdez and Stevenson one has been brief, a credit to both. After all, as pawns in a sport that often encourages the swerving of rivals, it would have been quite easy for Valdez and Stevenson to ignore one another and focus only on their ability to argue and boast in a louder voice. That they haven’t gone down that route speaks to not only their confidence and ambition but also, in truth, a lack of alternative options in the 130-pound weight class.

As shallow a division as any, while Valdez and Stevenson are considered the best at the weight, there is an almighty chasm between them and the rest. It therefore makes sense for them to get together and cut to the chase. Moreover, it makes sense to do this now, at a time when both have momentum, not to mention plans to one day move up in weight and achieve greatness elsewhere.

First, though, they must clean house. Or, in other words, before either can dream of becoming a pound-for-pound superstar, Valdez and Stevenson must first exhibit their dominance at super-featherweight (as opposed to merely grabbing some gold and using boxing’s bizarre reward system to take turns calling themselves ‘champion’ in the same division). This is what hopefully happens this weekend in Sin City and should it – should clarity be achieved – we will have exchanged two potential stars for one potential superstar.

Of the two candidates, Valdez is the older, the more tested, and the far more experienced pro. He turned over back in 2012 and has battled and overcome countless issues already, not least of all getting up from a knockdown in 2015 against Ruben Tamayo and then doing the same again versus Genesis Servania in 2017 and Adam Lopez in 2019. He also broke his jaw in a 2018 win over Scott Quigg and has been involved in, and winning, ‘title’ fights since 2016.

Not to be confused with a prospect desperate to stay unblemished, Valdez, 31, has reached his current position the hard way, proving a lot in a short period of time and flaunting both his strengths and flaws in equal measure. His record may be perfect, yes, but, rest assured, he is not. This has been shown on more than one occasion, either by opponents putting him on his backside or pushing him close on the cards, and it has been shown, too, in Valdez’ other transgressions, the most notable of which came prior to fighting Robson Conceição in September. That fight, a tricky one on paper, was made all the more problematic when before the event it was announced that Valdez had delivered a positive performance-enhancing drug test (for phentermine, a central-nervous stimulant). This naturally cast doubt on the fight taking place and, worse, for Valdez, had some questioning his previous accomplishments.

Shakur Stevenson
Brandon Magnus/Getty Images

Yet, boxing being boxing, the Valdez vs Conceição fight somehow still went ahead, allowing Valdez to damage both his opponent and his reputation for 12 rounds. He would win a decision, too, which proved almost as controversial as the pre-fight drama and put paid to any delusion of justice being served.

Looking back, letting Valdez go unpunished set not only a worrying precedent but made a villain of a fighter previously popular in the eyes of fans. Furthermore, despite his swashbuckling style and accomplishments, many will now watch Valdez and wonder a) to what extent past accomplishments owed to outside influences and b) whether any future performances can be taken on face value.

Of course, to care too much about this in 2022 would be naïve and self-defeating, particularly given those governing the sport couldn’t care less. Instead of caring, we must, like them, somehow try to accept that just as ‘boys will be boys’ tends to excuse the unacceptable behaviour of men, so too does ‘boxing will be boxing’ excuse the unacceptable behaviour of those within the sport. We must also resign ourselves to the sobering reality that one day it will be almost impossible to find a big fight in which at least one of the two fighters involved isn’t bringing with them the baggage of a checkered performance-enhancing drug past and a cloud above their head.

Still, in contrast to Valdez, Stevenson has so far posted only clean PED tests, which is refreshing, and has, unlike Valdez, found his trouble and received his criticism away from the ring and the gym. It was on July 1, 2018, in fact, that Stevenson was arrested and charged with misdemeanour assault following an incident in a South Beach parking garage, one captured, regrettably for Stevenson, on camera. The following June, Stevenson then agreed to a deal, ensuring the charges would be dropped after a year of probation and 50 hours of community service. If a good deal, it remained, for Stevenson, a very bad look.

You could stick the aforementioned incident in the museum of Boxers Behaving Badly and it would go largely unnoticed. Yet, as true as that may be, it maintains its relevance as a sign of Stevenson’s immaturity, and recklessness, and the need for boxing to keep him on track and give his mind some focus.

Because when he’s fit, focused and fighting, the 24-year-old from New Jersey is as exciting a prospect as we have in the sport, blessed with the kind of skills redolent of other great American southpaws. He is smart. He is smooth. He is slick. He has to some degree been fast-tracked, due to his considerable amateur pedigree (a 2016 Olympic silver medallist), but, with the foot never far from the brake, there remains a sense that there is more to come.

This can be said of both the matchmaking and Stevenson’s performances. The matchmaking has been astute, though never overly ambitious, while the performances have been compelling to witness due to the artistry on show but rarely entertaining. Rather, for the bulk of his career Stevenson has predominantly been operating in first or second gear, rattling through his arsenal of skills against men not on his level, either physically or technically. This dynamic has caused him to look bored at times, perhaps even disinterested. It has also resulted in his fights descending into little more than background noise and his bandwagon emptying a tad as a result.

In need of a test, if only to inspire and invigorate him, Stevenson got exactly that when challenging Jamel Herring, a man 12 years his senior, last October. As well as hugely experienced, Herring was a titleholder at super-featherweight, a division somewhat new to Stevenson (a former featherweight), and had just scored the win of his career when stopping Belfast’s Carl Frampton inside six rounds. This supposedly made him a threat to Stevenson’s unbeaten record and made their fight a fascinating one to contemplate. Yet, of course, once the first bell sounded, it didn’t take long for what many suspected to become very clear.

Tested at last, Stevenson saw the threat in front of him that night in Atlanta and rose to it and then some. He dominated Herring through each of the nine-and-a-half rounds they spent in one another’s company before finishing the older man’s title reign in the 10th round. With that, any bad blood used to sell the fight dried instantly and Stevenson, breaking a run of dominant but dull performances, had the statement win he was desperately searching for.

Herring, as hoped, had unlocked new levels to Stevenson’s game. Previous doubts and misgivings quashed, we now had an altogether different proposition on our hands. We had a man, in Stevenson, who could box when he needed to box, fight when he needed to fight, and finish when he needed to finish. We had a man with multiple gears and multiple ways of fighting. We had someone all of a sudden capable of getting us excited.
If all Stevenson ultimately needed was a test, he thankfully gets another one this Saturday in the form of Valdez. This test, unlike the last one, will arrive with far more pressure and attention and maybe even a few Stevenson doubts, too. For Valdez, unlike Herring, is a man whose potential has been championed since day one and a man backed in ways Herring never was throughout his career. That’s not to say potential and promotional power win fights, but they certainly don’t do a fighter any harm and Valdez, as a consequence of his, has the confident strut and demeanour of someone accustomed to getting his own way.

For him, winning has become a habit and habits are sometimes hard to kick. His career to date has not been sullied or stifled by setbacks and the feeling of coming second, as was the case with Herring. Nor has he ever gone into a fight as an underdog, with his abilities questioned and his own self-belief the only thing taking him from the changing room to the ring.

Oscar Valdez
Mikey Williams/Top Rank

Instead, Valdez’s tough experiences in the ring have been allayed by his treatment away from it, creating, in effect, a battle-hardened fighter softened by the sport’s leniency. There is subsequently a whiff of entitlement about the Mexican right now, given all that happened last year, and one suspects this challenge against Stevenson will provide the sudden jolt to the system he either requires or fears.

Either way, stylistically speaking, the southpaw skills of Stevenson, combined with his impressive composure, figure to be a problem for Valdez this Saturday night, as well as any other night for that matter. Moreover, with Stevenson never better than he was last time out, and Valdez never more suspect, all the positive energy seems to be flowing in the direction of the fighter who, to date, has aced every one of his tests – both in the ring and in the bathroom. It should be enough, this ability and positivity, for Stevenson to take a 12-round decision.

If the April 30 main event captures the imagination, its undercard fails in that regard, at least at the time of writing. Unfortunately, with the lion’s share of the promotion’s money presumably spent on bringing Valdez and Stevenson together, all we are left with is an eight-round lightweight co-feature between talented US Olympic silver medallist Keyshawn Davis, 4-0 (3), and Esteban Sánchez, 18-1 (8), as well as a four-round middleweight fight between Ali Walsh, 4-0 (3), and Alejandro Ibarra, 7-1 (2).

The Verdict Credit to the boxers for agreeing to face their closest rival to decide who’s the best.