It may have fallen a bit under the radar this weekend but nonetheless, the top two fighters in a talented 130-pound division will face off on Saturday in Atlanta with the WBO junior lightweight title at stake.
Fresh off a thrilling knockout of two-division champion Carl Frampton, Jamel Herring (23-2, 11 KOs) will look for the fourth defense of his WBO title when he welcomes rising star and former featherweight champion Shakur Stevenson (16-0, 8 KOs) inside State Farm Arena (10:30 p.m. ET, ESPN).
The main storyline entering the fight has been the pausing (or dissolution, depending upon your vantage point) of a growing friendship between them thanks to their overall boxing circles.
The 24-year-old Stevenson, a silver medalist at the 2016 Olympics, has developed a tight bond and mentor/mentee relationship with unbeaten welterweight champion Terence Crawford. Herring, 35, has been trained in recent years by Crawford's co-head coach Brian "BoMac" McIntyre, which means the pair of junior lightweights have congregated in the same extended friend group for some time despite knowing this day could become possible once Stevenson chose to move up in weight.
Neither are known as big trash talkers and both have been respectful yet direct toward one another in the fight's build, which included a giggle-heavy face off between them at Thursday's final press conference. Yet, if you listen close enough, there has been an underlying level of tension threatening to boil over given the stakes.
"It's definitely not personal and it's all business at the end of the day," Stevenson said. "I don't care for him like, he's not my friend. I don't talk to Jamel Herring outside of boxing."
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Herring, who served two tours of duty in Iraq as a member of the U.S. Marine Corps, agreed.
"It's nothing personal and it's just business," Herring said. "We are building a fight, that's all it is to me. I've heard worse and I have been through worse. We are just two top competitors in the division trying to prove who is the best.
"It just feels like another high, elite level fight in a loaded and talented division. For me, we just take it one fight at a time and put all of our personal feelings aside. We do what we have to do."
Despite Stevenson's decorated success through 16 fights as a pro, he enters his shot at becoming a two-division champion in need of a breakthrough performance. If boxing has long been an unforgiving sport in which each fighter is only deemed as good as their most recent performance, Stevenson endured plenty of criticism for his June decision win over hard-hitting Jeremiah Nakathila.
Although Stevenson went on to score identical 120-107 scorecards across the board in a shutout performance that featured a knockdown in Round 4, the performance was anything but inspiring or exciting. The proud native of Newark, New Jersey, disagreed, however, when asked if he needs to knock out Herring in order to win back praise from his critics.
"Definitely not. At the end of the day, this is an elite and championship level fight," Stevenson said. "You can't judge me off of one fight when I have performed time and time [again]. I can't say I am going in there looking for a knockout but if he makes a mistake, I'm going to capitalize."
Herring knows a thing or two himself about what one night can do for a fighter's reputation. His 2020 title defense against Jonathan Oquendo, which Herring won by disqualification for repeated head butts, was marred by criticism that Herring milked the effects of the fouls and essentially asked out of the fight knowing he would get the victory.
Yet with his credentials suddenly in question, Herring responded in as large of a way as possible this April when he traveled to Dubai and not only finished a future Hall of Famer in Frampton, he sent him into retirement following a thrilling sixth-round TKO.
It's part of the reason why Herring isn't bothered by hearing how oddsmakers have made the defending champion as high as an 6-1 underdog against Stevenson.
"It just plays into my story," Herring said. "I have always been the underdog, not just in boxing but in life. I don't really get into the whole oddsmaker thing, I'm not a gamble anyway. It doesn't bother me at all."
Stevenson believes this will be his coming out party and it's on Herring to put a stop to it.
"It's going to feel real good beating the whole team. I can't wait to go against [Herring trainers Brian McIntyre and Red Spikes]. It's not just Jamel that I'm fighting. I've got to beat Bomac and Red, and it'll feel good doing that," Stevenson said.
"You're going to see a special night, my coming out party. It's going to be a great night, and he said he's going to spoil the party, so let's see if he can do it."
The undercard is also a feature of some of Top Rank's rising prospects. Look no further than the co-feature bout where 19-year-old sensation Xander Zayas is back to face Dan Karpency in a junior middleweight bout. The two are set for a six-round affair. Zayas has been nothing short of impressive since turning pro in October 2019 with a perfect 10-0 record and seven knockouts to his name. The Puerto Rican native is still slowly building his name up before stepping up to the higher levels at 154 pounds.
Plus, some relatives of legends in the ring are in action on Saturday as they continue their own burgeoning careers. Evan Holyfield, son of former heavyweight champion Evander Holyfield, is back in a junior middleweight contest when he takes on Charles Stanford. Holyfield has followed in his father's footsteps with a perfect 7-0 record and five knockouts in his young career. Also, the grandson of Muhammad Ali, Nico Ali Walsh, is back in a featured contest at middleweight when he faces off with James Westley II. Ali Walsh made waves in August with a TKO victory in his pro debut. Saturday's contest is set for four rounds.
Fight card, odds
Odds via Caesars Sportsbook
- Shakur Stevenson (16-0, 8 KOs) -900 vs. Jamel Herring (c) (23-2, 11 KOs) +600, WBO junior lightweight title
- Xander Zayas (10-0, 7 KOs) -4000 vs. Dan Karpency (9-3-1, 4 KOs) +1500, junior middleweights (six rounds)
- Nico Ali Walsh (1-0) vs. James Westley II (1-0), middleweights (four rounds)
A former amateur standout who represented the United States at the 2012 Olympics, Herring deserves nothing but credit for how he has been able to turn around his pro career in recent years after a pair of defeats took him from future contender to borderline journeyman status.
A gritty southpaw with a high boxing IQ, Herring has won seven straight and remains one of boxing's best feel-good stories. But there's a reason why the betting odds are where they are entering this fight and that's because Stevenson has shown the kind of long-term potential of a future pound-for-pound great.
Unless Herring is successful at slowing Stevenson down by going to the body, this has all the makings to be a long night at the office. Stevenson's speed and footwork are simply sublime, which means that even if he's unable (or unwilling) to go for the knockout, the default fallback of boxing from the outside regardless of the entertainment value it creates remains an option for him.
Stevenson's ability to hit without being hit can only be compared at this point to a young Floyd Mayweather. Expect that natural gap in speed to be more than enough to outpoint Herring.
Pick: Stevenson via UD12
Who wins Stevenson vs. Herring? And which prop is a must-back? Visit SportsLine now to see Brandon Wise's best bets for Saturday, all from the CBS combat sports specialist who has crushed his boxing picks in 2021, and find out.