Two of the best junior lightweights in boxing will meet on Saturday to unify two world titles. Shakur Stevenson, the WBO champion, faces WBC titlist Oscar Valdez in the main event of a Top Rank card at the MGM Grand Garden Arena (10 p.m. ET on ESPN/ESPN+, with prelims at 6:25 p.m. ET on ESPN+).
Stevenson (17-0, 9 KOs), 24, of Newark, New Jersey, won the belt by dominating Jamel Herring in a 10th-round TKO victory in October. Stevenson was coming off a decision victory over Jeremiah Nakathila in which he was content with winning rounds instead of keeping the pressure on. Against Herring, he was very aggressive from the start, winning all the rounds except for one, in one of the three scorecards.
Valdez (30-0, 23 KOs), 31, of Sonora, Mexico, scored an upset victory over Miguel Berchelt in 2021 to win the WBC belt, but he tested positive for phentermine, a stimulant prohibited by the Voluntary Anti-Doping Association, ahead of his first title defense against Robson Conceicao. He was allowed to fight and struggled in a decision victory.
Can Stevenson keep Valdez at a distance and fight on his terms? Or will Valdez find a way to frustrate his opponent and land his powerful left hook?
Two-division champion and current ESPN boxing analyst Timothy Bradley Jr. breaks down the junior lightweight matchup and picks the winner.
Shakur is a master of controlling the distance, and being able to do that is the first line of defense. When you are able to do that, you have the clear advantage in the fight. We saw it with Floyd Mayweather, how he was able to master distance and get the fight in his favor. If your opponent can’t land on you, you take away their strength. If you can’t land your jab, how can you set up and land your offense? It’s almost impossible. And Shakur is brilliant at this.
Shakur can do it all. He can box off his back foot, and set traps and control distance and range, but he also can move forward, like we saw against Herring. If I’d train Shakur, and because I know Valdez very, very well, I would tell Shakur to step up to him, and I think we will see that at times. If you have a fighter like Shakur, the style and tempo of the fight depends on what the other fighter is doing. Whatever Valdez is trying to do, Shakur should have something to counter that. If Valdez is moving back, I would tell Shakur to go forward — and Shakur should — because he has a longer reach and he can dictate the distance by moving Valdez backward. And Valdez is not a superior boxer; he can move and he can find the spot to land his offense, but he’s not slick like a Mayweather, like a Shakur. He does have physical skills, a lot of strength and a lot of knowledge, and he can pick up his feet and move. He’s not the best off his back foot.
Valdez is much smarter in the ring than some people give him credit for. His timing is great, he understands how to land his best punch to make it count — which is the left hook, his bread and butter. He also understands positioning and where he needs to be and how he needs to be positioned to land that left hook.
Valdez can do a little bit of everything. He typically likes to fight for the crowd and be entertaining, so he’ll take more risks, even when he doesn’t have to.
Valdez has shown in his past couple of fights that he’s more committed to his defensive responsibilities, and in this fight Valdez is going to have to be that and more. He will have to bring that deceptive type of defense that would force Stevenson to miss and not land clearly and repeatedly. Valdez has to be smart and savvy in the ring and look to make Stevenson overly aggressive, because he can’t land or place his shots effectively when he’s doing that.
There are going to be those times when Valdez is going to have to attack and close the distance quickly, and I would say he’s going to have to attack off rhythm to be able to get in the inside or midrange of Shakur. Does Valdez have the capability and the ability to do that? Yes, he does. He has some quick footwork, he’s strong and has punching power as well.
A plan for Shakur
Shakur has to fight the whole fight on his terms. If he wants to move forward and dominate he needs to just do that and control Valdez. Don’t let Valdez have any control at all, because that’s what Valdez likes. If you look at Valdez’s history — and you look at how he is a person — he always likes to be in control. That’s why he has those exotics pets, the alligators and snakes; he’s in control of that environment, he’s in control when he swims with the gator. He likes to be in control. And when you take that control away from someone that likes to be in control, that’s how you beat him.
When Valdez is boxing, Shakur needs to press forward. When Valdez is attacking, Shakur needs to take that away from him by using his brilliant distance control. Manipulate the offense by making Valdez miss and making him pay every chance he gets. And he can do that.
Shakur’s straight left hand down the middle will be an important punch for him. Valdez punches wide and he’s open to those straight shots right down the middle. His body is open too. Shakur will be able to land the straight left hands to the body, because Valdez’s body is exposed because of the high guard he uses to deflect shots. When Valdez is moving forward, Shakur can use angles, don’t go back in a straight line and roll under those hooks and then fire, because Valdez will be throwing those hooks, left and right.
Stevenson has to be careful with the body shots as well. That’s where I believe Valdez is going to have some success. He’s going to have to break down that body of Shakur’s. Valdez will try to slow him down, slow his feet down and make Shakur fight him on the inside. And Shakur doesn’t need to fight on the inside — there’s no point to do that at all. Like I said, he needs to fight on his terms — outside, midrange, get out, move, come forward, control the distance that way, and should never, never fight on the inside with Oscar Valdez.
A plan for Valdez
There’s not just one thing Valdez has to do to beat Shakur, but there’s an area where I see weakness in Shakur and where Valdez can steal some of the early rounds. Valdez has to figure out ways to keep Shakur moving his feet, picking up his feet. Because when Shakur’s feet are planted and he’s sliding his feet on the floor, he’s there to counter and he’s quick and able to control range. But I’ve noticed that when he picks up his feet and he moves and tries to change locations, the more you put him in those situations, the more opportunities you’ll have to land on him.
It’s going to be about attacking off rhythm. Use feints — foot feints, upper-body feints — he’s gonna have to use his jab, various jabs, up and down, he’s gonna have to do these things even if he’s difficult against a southpaw. He needs to give Shakur different looks. He can’t attack the same way every single time. Throw double right hands, not just single right hands and then feint. That’s gonna create a little hesitation in Shakur, forcing him to miscalculate his counters and his defense at the same time. So Valdez has to act like he’s going to commit, show a little hesitation and then fully commit on offense right after, make Shakur tense, uncomfortable and attack him.
Valdez is going to have to keep changing the distance, changing the pace and making things very difficult for Shakur to be able to catch on to his rhythm. If he’s just walking in there, thinking he’s going to walk Shakur down, that’s not going to happen. He’s going to have to use head movement, side to side, move forward, feinting, using his jab, staying active offensively, even if it’s throwing caution to the wind, just to keep Stevenson thinking constantly, making him adjust. The key is for Valdez to make Stevenson unsure of what he wants to do. That’s the only way Valdez can get things done.
Valdez has to be Jose Luis Castillo in the first fight against Floyd Mayweather. A lot of people thought Castillo won that fight. But he needs that kind of approach for this fight. It was controlled aggression by Castillo; he made himself difficult to hit. When Mayweather would miss, Valdez would make him pay with counters, and he used his jab to close the distance. He fought a smart, technical, pressured kind of style, and when he got inside, he unleashed to the body of Mayweather.
Can Valdez win a decision?
Yes. I think he can. There will be rounds where he would have to get Shakur moving — and I discussed that above. So Valdez can win rounds on pressure and by letting his hands go as Shakur is looking to exit. And there’s a punch that I truly believe Valdez can land when at close range: the left hook inside. Shakur has a habit — if he sees an opponent low, he will throw an uppercut, the left uppercut — and when Shakur throws that punch, he tends to drop his lead hand, which is his right hand, and that creates a lane for an opponent to land that left hook.
If Valdez stays low and knows that the uppercut might come, he can get ready for it. As Shakur is throwing it, he can sweep with his left hook to the head, and I think he can hurt Shakur that way. But that’s the thing, Shakur has never been really hurt. There are questions I have about Shakur: What happens if he gets hurt? What happens if he goes down?
Sooner or later, you are gonna get hit — even Mayweather got hit, against Shane Mosley — and we saw how he reacted and recovered, but we don’t know how Shakur is going to react.
I don’t know if Shakur is tough enough, and I don’t say this in a bad way. I just don’t know because Shakur has never been tested like that. We know how tough Valdez is, fighting with a broken jaw against Scott Quigg. What makes champions and contenders are skills, yes, but also mental toughness. It’s not hunger. I’m talking about grit. Are you mean in the ring? Can you bite down and fight with a broken jaw, fight with a broken rib or a hurt hand? Do you have that inside you to be able to do it? I know Valdez has that, but I don’t know if Shakur has it.
Mayweather didn’t like to get hit, but he got hit and he responded. Against Mosley, in that second round in which Mosley hurt him, he fought back brilliantly. Floyd had that toughness in him. We look at Shakur. He’s very defensive, he’s publicly said he doesn’t like to get hit. We saw him get hit by a right hand by Jeremiah Nakathila and he didn’t want to engage, and that’s fine. But what happens when you get trapped in that corner? What happens when you get hit and it hurts, or get wobbled or buckled or go down? How are you gonna react? We don’t know. He’s never been down that road, and it’s up to Valdez to take him there. And if he does, Valdez has a chance of winning this fight.
The uppercut and the left hook for Valdez are going to be key in this fight. The left hook has to be in the inside. Valdez can’t throw it from the outside; it has to be in the inside because we will see Shakur put his arm almost like in an arm sling, that “Philly shell” that he uses, when he drops the lead arm and exposes the right side of his face for the left hook of Valdez. And Valdez has a fast, automatic left hook. He can throw it almost as a lead punch. He’s really good at exploding with that left hook from any position.
Then the uppercut to the body — that’s where he needs to focus the most, to the body. Right uppercut, left uppercut, left hook to the body.
For Shakur, the key punch is going to be the straight left hand right down the middle. Valdez gets exposed and punches wide, so Shakur is going to be able to get him with straight left hands up to the head and down to the body. That’s gonna be tough for Valdez. And also the right hook around the lead guard of Valdez will be another key punch for Shakur.
Stevenson’s reflexes, hand and foot speed will isolate and nullify Valdez’s offense. Valdez has lost some charge over the years, and rounds have become seemingly taxing physically for him. Rounds become longer with age. Valdez struggles with distance, and he will get left behind.
I’m going with Stevenson. And I’m going to say he’s not knocking out Valdez. I’d say eight rounds to four or nine rounds to three for Stevenson. I do see Valdez winning some rounds, but I do think Shakur is a special talent. I believe iron sharpens iron, and when you are in there with the best fighters in the world, typically what happens is that. If you are that good, you step up your game. I think Shakur will do that.
Ian Parker’s best bet
Valdez is sitting at a +300 underdog and for good reason — Shakur is a stylistic nightmare for him. Unless Valdez can stay poised, and use his counter hook that has the ability to stun anyone, I don’t see him getting the job done. Not only does Shakur have the height and reach advantage, he also has the speed advantage. Between the two, Shakur has the better defense and head movement, which will help him avoid the hook of Valdez. At -500, Shakur is the favorite for a reason, but those odds are way too high to bet him on the moneyline. I am going with Shakur by decision, and while I’m not in love with Valdez’s jaw, I think it will hold against Shakur.
Prediction: Shakur by decision.