Shakur Stevenson's smile disappears. He's approached with the one question that he's thought about plenty over the past six months: What's next?
It's frustrated him. He's tired of waiting.
Stevenson sits up straight, looks ahead and without hesitation says, "I want Oscar Valdez next. Nothing else. That's the big fight. That's the fight fans want to see. Make it happen."
A Stevenson-Valdez bout is mouth-watering. A 23-year-old boxer with elite defense, speed and technique against a 30-year-old fearless champion with real knockout power. It's the type of bout we haven't seen enough of in boxing in recent years.
But before Stevenson gets to Valdez, he has to take care of business Saturday facing South Africa's Jeremiah Nakathila for the vacant WBO junior lightweight interim title. Once again, Stevenson has a big platform (10 p.m. ET, ESPN/ESPN+) and has another opportunity for him to show off the polished skillset that has many listing him as a future pound-for-pound king.
Nakathila is definitely not the bout that Stevenson (15-0, 8 KOs) wanted next. As the WBO mandatory challenger, he was waiting for the winner of the Carl Frampton-Jamel Herring title bout. But multiple delays pushed that fight to April (a fight Herring won by sixth-round TKO), leaving Stevenson waiting. Stevenson hadn't fought since December 2020, and Top Rank wanted him active so they scheduled this bout.
Stevenson says he's only watched three to four rounds of Nakathila (21-1, 17 KOs) and doesn't know much about the WBO No.2 contender outside of people telling him he's a "big puncher." But Stevenson plans to win by "breaking him down mentally and beating him up."
Then he can officially turn his attention to larger fights.
"Valdez and me is the biggest fight out there at 130," Stevenson told ESPN. "He's a young hungry lion, undefeated, never lost before. I'm a young hungry lion, also undefeated, never lost before. He's in his prime. I'm pushing up on my prime. I feel like that has to be next. It's been a long time coming.
"What are we waiting for? We are both with Top Rank. It shouldn't be a hard fight to make."
Top Rank loves the Stevenson-Valdez fight and plans for it to happen within the next year if both keep winning, but Top Rank vice president Carl Moretti said a bout with fellow southpaw Jamel Herring (23-2, 11 KOs) for his WBO title before the end of the year is their current plan for Stevenson. The winner of that match would secure a unification fight in 2022 with Valdez, the WBC titleholder.
"People are underestimating how competitive a Stevenson-Herring fight would be," Moretti said. "Two southpaws in the mix at the top of the division. As for Stevenson-Valdez, I don't see us doing that next. I don't see Valdez wanting to do that next. He'd probably want Shakur to have a title before he fights him to make the stakes higher. We want him to go one step at a time. That's Herring next, assuming Shakur gets out of Saturday."
Moretti said Valdez (29-0, 23 KOs) will probably fight in the early fall. An optional WBC title defense in his home country of Mexico, a victory lap of sorts, is a possibility, as is having a fight in the U.S.
Stevenson says the Herring fight "doesn't interest him as much" because the 35 year old has "miles on his career," plus two losses to southpaws. He says he'll happily fight and beat Herring, but he plans to go to the Top Rank office in Las Vegas Sunday or Monday to discuss with the executives his strong desire to make the Valdez fight first.
After upsetting Miguel Berchelt in February, Valdez was asked what he wanted next and mentioned Stevenson first, saying "Shakur Stevenson has been calling me out, and I wanna prove that we're not ducking nobody."
There's little doubt that Stevenson-Valdez would be the biggest and most lucrative fight involving the trio of Valdez, Herring and Stevenson. But that also provides Top Rank more reason to let it build up until Valdez and Stevenson both have titles to make it an even bigger 2022 unification bout.
"I'm trying to stay patient, keep my mind straight," Stevenson said. "But it does get a little frustrating because you're constantly saying, 'Valdez, Valdez.' Why Top Rank not pushing for Valdez-Stevenson like they pushed for Teofimo [Lopez]-[Vasiliy] Lomachenko. It's my turn.
"I'm saying this on camera, make sure it goes somewhere. I'm willing to get back in the ring September, October. Whenever Valdez is ready to fight, I'm ready to fight. He doesn't have a fight date coming up. He don't have anything in the way of us fighting so it[s] got to happen next. I'm going to Top Rank, I'm calling him out."
But if it's Herring next for Stevenson, and that seems like the most likely end result here, there will be plenty of storylines between that pair as well.
Stevenson was Herring's mandatory and essentially stepped aside to allow the Herring-Frampton fight. After Herring beat Frampton, he immediately capped for a unification fight against Valdez instead of facing Stevenson, who was owed a title shot.
However, Herring finally announced in late April that he wasn't vacating the belt and plans to uphold his requirement to face Stevenson by the end of September.
Another storyline is Herring and Stevenson are both tight with WBO welterweight champion Terence "Bud" Crawford. They often train together in the same gym so now that the two are rivals, that time together has become more testy.
Recent interactions posted on social media showed Stevenson confronting Herring about the WBO belt and his plans to beat him up.
"I've been around Bud [and his team] before Jamel even got here," Stevenson said. "There's no real beef. It's just he's in my way. Why you holding my belt hostage? All you have to do is vacate the belt I could be fighting for ... June 12. Does he plan on fighting me? If so, he should have said it. I don't know what he's doing. That man is weird."
Jamel didn't duck gotta respect him for accepting dis a** whooping we gone put on him.. But we focused on June 12th I have to handle business first 💪🏾— Shakur Stevenson (@ShakurStevenson) April 29, 2021
One thing that Stevenson and Top Rank are completely aligned on is his long-term potential.
Last week in Miami, Floyd Mayweather mentioned he hopes to find the "next Mayweather." That's a moniker some have given to Stevenson, and Top Rank is optimistic that if he reaches his ceiling he could have a comparable run.
"Shakur stacks up right at the top of the division," Moretti said. "Those big fights have to get made. You make adjustments and plans based on the outcomes. But when you see him physically, he's not much longer at 130. Over the next eight years, you can see him getting to 135, 140 and eventually 147 like Pernell Whitaker and Mayweather. That creates many years of big fight options."
Regardless of opponent order, Stevenson's path is finally clear to get his junior lightweight title shots and the opportunity to become a two-division champion before the age of 25. It centers on getting through Herring and Valdez.