LAS VEGAS -- Shakur Stevenson wasn't in your typical run-down, sweaty boxing gym.
Staring at a black ring with ZUFFA BOXING emblazoned on the mat, he had a familiar thought run through his head prior to his sparring session. On a massage table at the UFC Apex, the training facility home to the UFC's roster, he contemplated his place in the combat sports world.
Stevenson is without question one of the biggest names in boxing, but on that Saturday in late September, observing all of the big screens on the Strip with promotion for Canelo Alvarez's fight that night against Jermell Charlo, his thoughts surely ran through all of the excuses he has heard that have prevented him from being featured in such an event.
"Not enough money on the table."
"More time needed to be ready."
"Other side of the street."
Stevenson has proved to be boxing's most evasive target both inside and outside the ring. Inside the ropes, he's rated by CompuBox as the hardest to hit in the sport.
Outside the ropes, Stevenson has earned the moniker of arguably the sport's most-avoided fighter from former boxers, managers and promoters alike. Despite his growing star power and main event status on ESPN -- with strong TV ratings to match -- Stevenson hasn't been able to secure top-flight opponents, even when it means title opportunities and career-high paydays.
Stevenson (20-0, 10 KOs) was set to fight Frank Martin this week after sources told ESPN several others turned the title opportunity down. But before the deal could be signed, Martin withdrew from the bout and the career-best seven-figure payday.
In his place, Dominican Edwin De Los Santos stepped up and will face Stevenson for the vacant WBC lightweight title on Thursday at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas (10:30 p.m. ET, ESPN/ESPN+).
As the excuses pile up from others, Stevenson has a theory why.
"I've been in the ring with a lot of them guys, I think that's the main thing. If you really think about any of 'em, and name 'em, I sparred all of them," Stevenson, 26, told ESPN last week.
"When you get in there and you spar with somebody, you could judge how good they are when you get in the ring with them," Stevenson said. "So, I think that just makes a big difference. I think it got a lot to do with my ring IQ. I'm a lot better than what they thought I was before they seen it in front of them. And then I kind of like shocked them and surprised them."
STEVENSON, AS THE WBC's No. 1 contender, pushed for a bout with Haney this fall, but the champion made a long-planned jump to 140 pounds for a Dec. 9 title shot against titlist Regis Prograis.
Haney remains the undisputed lightweight champion -- for now -- but that will change once Stevenson and De Los Santos step through the ropes to vie for one of Haney's four belts.
Martin was No. 2 in the WBC rankings, and he originally accepted the fight. But when the contract was sent over by Stevenson's promoter, Top Rank, they were quickly informed that Martin wasn't proceeding with the bout in early September. It would have represented both a career-high payday and the first title shot of Martin's career.
"Verbally I agreed ... it's a green light. ... I didn't know what the money was ... once everything come about I saw what the money was and I wasn't cool with it," Martin told AKHi TV when asked why he ultimately declined the offer. "I wanted more. I agreed to everything, stipulations, everything."
Stevenson, an Olympic silver medalist from Newark, New Jersey, isn't buying that explanation.
"I think Frank Martin got scared," said Stevenson, ESPN's No. 8 pound-for-pound boxer. "He got a little nervous about the fight. He got to talking and saying things and putting himself in the situation for the fight to happen. And then once it came to fruition, I think that he just only knew to back away from it.
"I think that [his excuse on] the money side was cap. You was gonna make four times as much as you was gonna make in your entire career? Why would anybody turn that down? They offered me four times as much in my career, there's no way I could turn down a fight like that."
Next up in the rankings was Lomachenko, but he, too, passed on the fight, and won't fight a second time in 2023 after a controversial decision defeat to Haney in May. Stevenson sparred with Lomachenko early in his career.
Isaac "Pitbull" Cruz was up next. He's aligned with PBC and could be headed for a rematch with "Tank" Davis in early 2024, so he didn't want to risk an untimely loss ahead of another big payday. William Zepeda, a volume puncher with Golden Boy Promotions, also passed since he had a fight scheduled against Mercito Gesta on Sept. 16, the main event of the Mexican Independence Day weekend celebration. He, too, sparred with Stevenson on several occasions.
That left De Los Santos, the No. 6 contender in the WBC rankings.
The 24-year-old southpaw fights under the PBC banner, but boxing politics didn't impede his first title shot. He jumped on the opportunity after Martin declined and will now be the one in the biggest fight of his life.
"They call him the boogeyman; the real boogeyman of the division is me," said De Los Santos, a boxer-puncher coming off the two best wins of his career. He scored a third-round KO of Jose Valenzuela last September to hand the prospect his first loss.
De Los Santos (16-1, 14 KOs) followed up with a unanimous-decision victory over fringe contender Joseph Adorno in July. De Los Santos lost only one round total across three scorecards in the 10-round bout. Now, he's a 7-1 underdog, per ESPN BET, to upset Stevenson in his first scheduled 12-rounder.
"We are not here to hesitate; we are here to fight," De Los Santos said. "We accepted the fight, and we are going for it. I think at one point I was being underestimated. But now he has accepted the reality that he is going to have a very tough fight."
Many in boxing circles rate De Los Santos above Martin. Stevenson is one of them.
"I think that De Los Santos is a better fighter anyway, to be honest," Stevenson said. "Martin just had [training mate] Errol Spence [hyping him up], right? So, he got somebody that was behind him and pushing him. So the public knows of Frank Martin more because of Errol Spence. But truth be told, I think that skillfully, De Los Santos is a better fighter.
"He's a boxer-puncher, he's got good boxing skills. He's a thinker. He is not just punching for no reason, but I think that he do make some mistakes."
IN THE FOUR major league sports in North America -- the NFL, NBA, NHL and MLB -- there's a predetermined schedule. Every team plays each other every season in the latter three. In the NFL, it happens every few years.
Since the advent of the Marquess of Queensberry Rules were published in 1867, boxers have been avoided for myriad reasons. Usually, it boils down to a simple risk-reward equation.
If a boxer like Stevenson can make opponents look silly, but doesn't offer them massive riches, it's easy to offer an excuse and fight someone else you can beat. This is generally described as a high risk, low reward fight.
Now more so than ever before, boxers have an alibi when they don't want to fight someone, between the extra emphasis placed on being undefeated in the sport's marketplace and the various de facto leagues.
Throughout the mid-to-late 90s, Bernard Hopkins racked up middleweight title victories on lower-profile shows on "USA Tuesday Night Fights" and Fox Sports following his loss to Roy Jones Jr., but the marquee matchups eluded him. That all changed when Don King introduced the middleweight championship tournament on HBO in 2001.
Hopkins, another defensive specialist like Stevenson, defeated Keith Holmes to pick up a second 160-pound title, while Felix Trinidad knocked out William Joppy in his middleweight debut to win a title.
Hopkins was an underdog when he met Trinidad later that year and delivered with a breakthrough performance, a 12th-round TKO victory to capture the undisputed middleweight championship at Madison Square Garden.
It was far more difficult to avoid Hopkins after that.
"He wasn't able to break into superstardom until there was a system like that middleweight tournament where different promoters had to come together and the best man won," said Dmitry Salita, a former professional boxer promoted by Top Rank and now current promoter himself.
"Some of the best fights happen at these national amateur tournaments because the guys that are going to be future world champions, future contenders, fight each other in the semi-finals and the finals and the quarterfinals, sometimes in the first round of the tournament.
"When we are young, all we fight for is a trophy and the possibility to turn pro and to be the best. So, we have to include some of that going forward as a business and as a sport for us to grow."
Today, Salita encounters the same difficulties Stevenson and Hopkins before him endured on the promotional side. Claressa Shields, ESPN's No. 1 pound-for-pound female boxer, is promoted by Salita, and despite her greatness, it's often tricky to land her big fights. Her events don't generate massive money, and she's likely to make her opponents look bad in the ring.
It's the age-old risk-reward conundrum elite fighters such as Paul Williams, Sergio Martinez and Gennadiy Golovkin have faced in recent memory. And when they do eventually reach the sort of the stardom that flips the script and leaves foes lobbying for the matchup, it's often the formerly ducked that now avoid tough matchups.
Martinez and Williams were both lobbying for big fights and found each other after Kelly Pavlik withdrew from a matchup with Williams. Martinez, once he became an attraction, showed little interest in fighting GGG, one of those high-risk, low-reward fights. "Once you get in that position where you're a pay-per-view superstar, I think that that's when everybody wants to jump in line and they wanna be on the big stage and make pay-per-view money," Stevenson said. "I think that that's what's gonna make people fight me."
WHILE STEVENSON WARMS up in his locker room on Thursday, he might glance at the TV to catch a glimpse of his potential next opponent.
Before Stevenson makes his ring walk, Emanuel Navarrete will defend his WBO junior lightweight title against Robson Conceicao, whom Stevenson defeated last year.
Navarrete is one of the sport's most exciting action fighters. He routinely throws upward of 1,0000 punches per fight, and in August, made mincemeat out of another former Stevenson foe, Oscar Valdez. He throws punches from awkward angles and is slowly catching on with fans from his country.
It could all lead to an April matchup between Stevenson and Navarrete at 135 pounds, assuming they both win as expected this week. And while it would represent the biggest bout of Stevenson's career, it would fall short of the sort of superfight Stevenson believes he deserves.
"I think Navarrete is just like a distraction -- somebody that's being thrown out there to distract us from the fact that Lomachenko is not fighting me...," said Stevenson. "I would love to fight Navarrete, but I don't think that Lomachenko should be fighting anybody else but me. I think that my next fight should be against Lomachenko. We're on the same side of the street [promotionally], it's a big fight, should be a pay-per-view fight."
However, according to sources, Lomachenko is in talks to fight George Kambosos Jr. in springtime in Australia. And that's why Stevenson doesn't blame competing promoters for the inability to land the big one.
"[Lomachenko is] on the same side," he said. "The fact that Devin didn't fight me, he already been known to do business with Top Rank, so I don't think it got nothing to do with it."
But it has everything to do with Stevenson's otherworldly ability to make opponents miss and make them pay. In his 135-pound debut, Stevenson appeared to sit down on his punches more, and put away Shuichiro Yoshino in Round 6 of their April bout.
And if Stevenson can continue to pile up wins and remain a staple of the pound-for-pound list, eventually, his star profile will catch up to his ability.
Earlier this month, Stevenson signed an endorsement deal with Reebok. He's managed by music mogul James Prince, who helped guide Floyd Mayweather to the top. And Kanye West was even ringside for his victory over Jamel Herring in Atlanta two years ago.
"He's one of the most-avoided fighters in boxing, yes, and one of the reasons for that is obviously his superior skill and he has not yet become a pay-per-view star.," Salita said. "So, when you become a pay-per-view star, the revenue that you generate makes the other fighters take a chance because after all, this is professional sports and paydays make a big difference. So, that's the challenge. The challenge is that the fighters that fight [avoided boxers] make a very good payday, but it may not be life-changing money to where they, in the back of their mind, know that they're going in the ring against someone who's superior and which may result in a loss."
For now, Stevenson must handle De Los Santos in dominant fashion, just like he has all 20 opponents who came before him. At 26, time is on Stevenson's side. And free agency is just around the corner.
Stevenson is owed one more fight by the end of April, and after that, will become a promotional free agent if he doesn't sign an extension with Top Rank.
In the meantime, Stevenson will spar ... and spar some more. That may be the only place he lands the fights fans truly want to see, though ironically, they won't be able to see them.
"The sparring was back and forth," Haney told DAZN earlier this year. "There were times when he got the best of me, there were times when I got the best of him."
And if you believe Stevenson, such sparring sessions could be the reason the marquee matchups aren't materializing in the first place, particularly the fight he covets most of all: Gervonta Davis.
"I do this for a living, so I do be frustrated, but at the end of the day, I gotta stay patient and keep my head down," he said. "It's OK. I know that these fights are gonna come."