RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL (AUGUST 13, 2016) – Two young American boxers put on a great showing in an undefeated afternoon for the U.S. Olympic Boxing Team at the 2016 Olympic Games. Bantamweight Shakur Stevenson (Newark, N.J.) and light welterweight Gary Antuanne Russell (Capitol Heights, Md.) both won their preliminary bouts on Sunday at Riocentro Pavilion 6 to clinch spots in the quarterfinal round. The pair now only needs one more victory to secure a berth on the medal stand. American light flyweight Nico Hernandez (Wichita, Kansas) received his bronze medal at the conclusion of the first session on Sunday afternoon.
Junior and Youth World Champion and Youth Olympic Games gold medalist Shakur Stevenson (Newark, N.J.) had to endure a week-long wait before finally competing in his first bout of the Olympic Games on Sunday. For the second straight day, an American boxer walked to the ring to thundering boos but Stevenson ignored the crowd and displayed his signature smile as he walked to the ring for his bout with Brazil’s Robenilson de Jesus. The crowd cheered every punch de Jesus threw but Stevenson didn’t give in to his surroundings or his awkward opponent. He took the early part of the first round to shake some ring rest and find his distance before settling in to the bout. He began landing long shots to his opponent’s body and head and ended the round strongly to take the opening stanza on two of the three judges’ scorecards. He really began to get comfortable in the second round, using his effective movement and spatial awareness to outbox De Jesus. He turned it up late in the second to take the round on two judges scorecards once again. In the third round, the two boxers clashed heads which re-opened the cut on the Brazilian boxer’s head. After the AIBA cutman worked on the cut for a short period, the two returned to action and Stevenson looked to go in for the kill. He landed three uppercuts on the ropes, sending the Brazilian’s head flying upward. Stevenson continued to land combinations until the final bell before being named the victor by unanimous decision for his first Olympic Games victory.
“Before I heard the crowd, I was really excited but when I got there and they started booing, I got a little nervous. I was excited for the most part. I didn’t really have a game plan. I wanted to see what he was going to do. I realized he’s got long arms and tries to stay on the outside and make it ugly so I had to press him out, go forward,” Stevenson said. “I started going forward, started touching his cut. I saw he had a cut so I kept hitting it. He got tired at the end and I started teeing off on him but once I started teeing off on him, I was like alright, I got this.”
Sunday drew one of the biggest crowds of the Olympic Games at Riocentro Pavilion 6 so Stevenson was greeted with an even louder chorus of boos than he expected when he was walking to the ring. “I’ve never gotten booed like that in my life. I knew it was coming but once you were there, it was a little different than what you expected. I didn’t think it was going to be that bad. Once I heard boo, I was like dang, they’re going in,” he said.
Stevenson has been waiting to compete in the Olympic Games since he was a young child so the extra week of waiting for his first bout was a bit torturous to the 19-year-old. “That was the worst part about this whole thing (waiting to compete). I haven’t fought since March so I got a little ring rust off. The whole time I was waiting. I don’t have good patience so it hurt watching all my teammates fighting and I’m not in action. The time away from the ring got to me a little bit. I’ve been sparring a lot but it’s different from fighting. It got to me a little bit but I’m gonna get there. Now we’re good, now we have Mongolia next and I plan on taking him out too,” Stevenson said.
His mother Malikah, dad Shahid and grandfather/co-trainer Wali Moses were all on hand cheering him along and he was able to see and hear them during his Olympic debut. “I heard them when they started checking his cut. I looked up at them,” he said.
With one victory in the bank, the internationally defeated boxer is looking to improve in his next bout. “That was a C minus performance, we’ve got to get it to an A,” said Stevenson.
Stevenson will face Mongolia’s Tsendbaatar Erdenebat in the quarterfinal round for a spot on the medal stand at 11:45 a.m. on Tuesday.
Russell competed in his second bout of the Olympic Games approximately 90 minutes after Stevenson’s opener. He faced off with Thailand’s Wuttichai Masuk in a highly entertaining bout in the light welterweight division. Both boxers started quickly in the bout which was high activity through all nine minutes. Russell started aggressively and looked to exert his will on his opponent, showing off his combination of power and hand speed. His efforts earned Russell the first round on all three judges’ scorecards. Russell came out aggressively once again in the second but the paced slowly slightly as he worked behind a high guard and looked to box Masuk more. He entered the final three minutes needing the third round on the scorecards and his offensive output showed his desire to win the bout. He punched off the blocks while the Thai boxer looked to land shots from the outside. Russell landed several strong combinations late to seal the victory and claimed a split decision over Masuk by split decision.
“I felt good. I got the victory. Everybody comes here with the winning mindset. I don’t think no one comes to the Olympic Games with doubt in their mind. I was just trying to change the tempo of the fight (between the first and second rounds). The change worked. I just wanted to test how much gas he had in his gas tank,” Russell said. “Honestly, I’m a big study on the body. I like studying my body. They say if you ran for 20 miles and then walk, you start sweating more. I guess that does the same for your oxygen. High tempo then low tempo, he gets gassed, winded, the third round I turn it all the way up.”
Russell always gets guidance from his father/trainer Gary Russell Sr., before his bouts and his dad had very specific advice before his second round contest that he put in to action on Sunday. “My dad told me watch out for his left hand, he favors his left hand. Actually he’s got a lot of power behind that left hand. He caught me on the glove one time and I felt his power and I said let me take him to his hook hand which is his right hand and make him throw his right hand so I can counteract that with my left hand and that was the game plan,” he said.
The youngest of his four boxing brothers, Russell is reaching the heights his family has been working toward for many years. “It doesn’t put any pressure on me. The dynasty is already set in stone. I just have to keep pushing the envelope. That’s all. By me pushing the envelope, I’m just doing what I’m trained to do,” he said.
Russell will compete for a spot on the medal podium on Tuesday at 12:15 p.m. against Uzbekistan’s Fazliddin Gaibnazarov in the light welterweight quarterfinals.
American light flyweight Nico Hernandez (Wichita, Kansas) received his Olympic bronze medal following the early session at Riocentro 6. His semifinal opponent Hasanboy Dumatov went on to win the gold medal in his championship bout.
“I’m very blessed to be here. Knowing that all the hard work finally paid off and stand on the podium. It’s a great feeling to bring a medal back home. I think it’s going to open a lot of doors for me, me and my family. After this, I’m just going to take a little break and go on from there,” Hernandez said.
Hernandez opened the Olympic Games with three strong victories and set the tone for his American squad. “It’s a great feeling getting the team off to a good start. Starting us off strong, I know it’s going to make my team want to do even better also,” he said.
After receiving his bronze medal, Hernandez had some perspective on his first Olympic Games. “Keep your mind right, stay focused and chase your dreams, and you can do whatever you want as long as you put the work in,” he said.
Male flyweight Antonio Vargas (Kissimmee, Fla.) and female lightweight Mikaela Mayer (Los Angeles, Calif.) will be back in action on Monday at Riocentro Pavilion 6. Vargas will kick off the day for the U.S. team in a preliminary contest with Uzbekistan’s Shakhobidin Zoirov at 11:45 a.m. Brazil time (10:45 a.m. ET). Mayer will compete for a medal in her quarterfinal bout with Russia’s Anastasiia Beliakova in the first bout of the evening session at 5 p.m. Brazil time (4 p.m. ET).
123 lbs/56 kg: Shakur Stevenson, Newark, N.J./USA dec. Robenilson de Jesus, BRA, 3-0
141 lbs/64 kg: Gary Antuanne Russell, Capitol Heights, Md./USA dec. Wuttichai Mas