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Shakur Stevenson's fast rise has Top Rank execs 'nervous'

Mikey Williams/Top Rank

Boxing promoters invest heavily in many of the young prospects they sign, especially if one of them comes with an Olympic medal, so there often is an internal debate when it comes to how quickly to move the prospect up the ranks.

Put a prospect against tough competition too quickly and disaster (a loss) can strike before the fighter has a chance to develop or the promoter has a chance to recoup the investment. Move them too slowly and, well, that costs more money, and sometimes a lot of it.

Striking a balance is the aim for promoters, who often have to hold back their prospects because they are typically fearless and want to tangle with anyone and everyone as soon as possible, and make the real money that goes with that ascension. It's up to the promoter, in consultation with the prospect's management, to determine how aggressively they will be with their matchmaking or whether they might need to takes things slower.

Top Rank has several quality prospects that it signed from the 2016 Olympics and is in the midst of answering those questions with each of them. Featherweight Shakur Stevenson, a 21-year-old silver medalist, is like many prospects in that he is eager to take on the world as soon as possible.

Top Rank has a decades-long track record of building prospects from their pro debuts into champions and stars -- Oscar De La Hoya, Floyd Mayweather and Miguel Cotto, for example -- and has more often than not been conservative moving its young fighters. Company officials know they are taking a bit of a risk with Stevenson, who is taking a mammoth step up in opposition against former junior lightweight world title challenger Christopher "Pitufo" Diaz in a 10-rounder on the Terence Crawford-Amir Khan undercard Saturday (ESPN PPV, 9 p.m. ET) at Madison Square Garden in New York.

"Absolutely, we're nervous," Top Rank vice president Carl Moretti said. "People are building up his last two opponents more than they were. The results of the last two fights, he didn't struggle with them, but Christopher Diaz is much better than them."

In October, Stevenson (10-0, 6 KOs), of Newark, New Jersey, blitzed Viorel Simion in the first round of his first scheduled 10-round bout. Simion was viewed as a test because he had lost only twice before, both by decision, to top opponents: Lee Selby, who later won a featherweight world title, and, in his previous bout, to former world titlist Scott Quigg. In January, Stevenson stopped Jessie Cris Rosales in the fourth round. Rosales' only defeat had come in 2017 by second-round knockout to former world titlist Jhonny Gonzalez, a noted knockout artist.

"Shakur and his camp have a lot of confidence against Diaz, so we decided to make the fight," Moretti said.

He said Top Rank drew the line at the Stevenson camp's request to fight big puncher and former world title challenger Miguel Marriaga.

"We said no to Marriaga. Absolutely no. Diaz? We can barely live with that fight," Moretti said.

Matchmaker Brad Goodman, who has helped build dozens of fighters for Top Rank into world titleholders, acknowledged there is perhaps a bit more risk in matching Stevenson with Diaz (24-1, 16 KOs) than he would like at this stage of Stevenson's development.

"There is no question about it that this is a step up and on paper, Shakur's toughest fight to date. Is he ready for it? I believe he is," Goodman said. "I believe his amateur pedigree and the guys he's sparred with, that experience, makes him ready for this. He wants the big lights, the big shows, the big venues. He doesn't want that small-time stuff. He wants the limelight. He craves stardom. This is the kind of fight that can help get him there. He's confident, but he can't make one mistake with an experienced, dangerous guy like Christopher Diaz."

Stevenson's managers, James Prince, Josh Dubin and Andre Ward, and trainer Kay Karoma were also confident enough in the match to make it but, as Goodman added, "We've been wrong before, but we have confidence in Shakur. If you talk to the guys he's sparred with -- Terence Crawford, [Vasiliy] Lomachenko -- he can hold his own with anybody."

As far as Stevenson is concerned, he is on the fast track and has no plans to slow down. He trained alongside Crawford, one of boxing's elite pound-for-pound fighters, in Colorado Springs, Colorado, and sparred with him. He says he has learned much from the welterweight world titleholder and is more than ready for Diaz.

"I look at it as a step-up fight. I don't see any other prospects taking fights like this, taking the kind of risk I am with this fight," Stevenson said. "I just want to be great and I feel like Christopher Diaz is the perfect guy for me. I feel like he's tough; he's coming to fight. He's not just coming to lie down. He's coming there to beat me. He'll have to bring everything he's got because I'm bringing everything I've got."

Stevenson says he knows that some view this fight as too much, too soon. It doesn't annoy or upset him though.

"We'll see," he said. "I know I'm ready. I know what I'm gonna do. I've been in there [sparring] with a lot of world champions. I sparred with [featherweight titlist] Gary Russell Jr., I sparred with Lomachenko and I'm a lot better now than I was when I sparred with them. I know what kind of level I'm in with. That makes me want to go fight for world titles and fight the world champions and the best in boxing.

"I'm going at the pace my team wants me to go. They still want me to be patient and hold me back a little bit, but I know what I'm ready for."

Stevenson is facing a misdemeanor battery charge for his role in a fight in a Miami parking garage last summer, which was caught on video, but if that case is resolved and Stevenson can carry on with his expected scheduled, he says he hopes a world title fight will be in his near future.

"I think maybe two more fights and I can get my world title shot. I should be ready for that," he said. "End of this year, early next year, I feel like I should have a world title around my waist."

But first there is the danger Diaz poses.

Diaz, 24, of Puerto Rico, lost a decision in an action-packed battle with Masayuki Ito for a vacant junior lightweight title in July and then moved down in weight and rebounded with a first-round knockout win in November.

"My advice to Shakur is this is the wrong move," said Diaz, who goes into the fight with Freddie Roach as his trainer for the first time. "They think I'm an opponent. That's not true. It's a big step for Shakur. Not for me. I can fight anyone. But they wanted me, so let's do it. But I think this is the wrong move. He's just a kid, 21 years old. He's in with a real man, a real fighter, not bums like the guys he's fought. There's a difference.

"He's a tough guy. He's a prospect. He's the one [Top Rank chairman] Bob Arum has the money on. I want to beat him and then they'll put the money on me. Shakur's got to be ready for 10 hard rounds because I'm coming to fight."

If Stevenson wins, it will be a continuation of the quick rise he wanted when he turned pro, but he says he has used his first 10 fights to go to school on moving away from an amateur style.

"I had to develop in those first few fights," he said. "I'm learning how to pick my shots. I watch Terence Crawford and how he picks his punches. Certain punches he puts enough mustard on it and certain punches he just throws out there to keep you thinking. I pick my punches a lot better now than when I first turned pro. I'm learning to mix things up. I'm learning little stuff like that and I will keep learning and getting better and better.

"I want to show it against Diaz. I think he got power and I think his skill level is not too bad. I think he also opens up and makes a lot of mistakes. I think he's a good fighter. I think the first three or four rounds are going to be interesting. It's going to be exciting."