If there is any bad blood between unbeaten 130-pound champions Shakur Stevenson and Oscar Valdez, it stems from Stevenson's belief that he has long been avoided by the man he will square off with in Saturday's unification fight from the MGM Grand in Las Vegas.
Stevenson (17-0, 9 KOs), a former featherweight titleholder who was once Valdez's mandatory challenger at 126 pounds, believes Valdez only moved up to junior lightweight to avoid him. And even after Valdez upset long-reigning WBC champion Miguel Berchelt in 2021's knockout of the year, Stevenson feels Valdez tried everything he could do not to have to cross paths with him.
The 24-year-old southpaw, who captured a silver medal at the 2016 Olympics, even went as far as saying he felt Top Rank, which promotes both fighters, was more interested at first in matching Valdez against WBO featherweight champion Emanuel Navarrete, who is considering moving up in weight.
"I speak the truth every time," Stevenson said at Thursday's final press conference. "I feel like he didn't want to fight me at 126. Now, we're here at 130. He was trying to fight Navarrete before fighting me. But we're here now. We can't keep talking about that.
"The fight is Saturday, and I'm ready to fight."
Can't get enough boxing and MMA? Get the latest in the world of combat sports from two of the best in the business. Subscribe to Morning Kombat with Luke Thomas and Brian Campbell for the best analysis and in-depth news, including a complete preview of Stevenson vs. Valdez below.
For the record, Valdez (30-0, 23 KOs) has denied even the mention that he was hoping to duck Stevenson, who has been compared to a young Floyd Mayweather after scorching the competition en route to two world titles in as many divisions.
Valdez, a native of Nogales, Mexico, was the headliner of a Top Rank card that doubled as Stevenson's 2017 pro debut and said he has been preparing for a possible pro meeting against him ever since first watching Stevenson in the amateurs.
"Just like in this fight, I was very focused on the fight I had in front of me," said Valdez, on the night he defended his WBO featherweight title four years ago against Miguel Marriaga. "I had known about Shakur Stevenson. I saw him in the Olympics. He was a great fighter then, and he's turned into a great champion now."
Like Stevenson, the 31-year-old Valdez also had a decorated amateur career and represented Mexico at the 2012 Olympics. He also captured world titles at 126 and 130 pounds but is entering this fight fresh off a tumultuous year of equal highs and lows.
Valdez began 2021 by exceeding all expectations in his upset knockout of Berchelt, which was viewed as a triumph largely for how much the influence of perennial trainer of the year Eddy Reynoso, who helped Valdez sharpen up his technique to pair with his trademark toughness and aggression. But just as Valdez appeared to be closing in as a possible pound-for-pound level talent, controversy soon followed.
Ahead of a September return against unbeaten Robson Conceicao, Valdez tested positive for a banned substance yet was controversially allowed to still fight. The negative headlines appeared to mess with Valdez's focus as he struggled to a close decision win.
Although Valdez continues to stand firm upon his belief that the positive test was caused by his consumption of herbal tea, Stevenson hasn't forgotten and has gone as far as reminding Valdez to "make sure you're not cheating" during all public events featuring the two champions during fight week.
"He is the type of fighter that talks a lot and is always running his mouth," Valdez said. "I'm not like that. I let my fists do the talking. He is the type of fighter that is not willing to go to war. I'm the type of fighter that always wants to give the fans what they want. Since he is not willing to give the fans what they want, this will be more of a chess match. It will be more of a technical fight.
"The smartest fighter inside the ring will win."
Both fighters have welcomed elite talent alongside them to help prepare as Valdez has worked in the same camp as Canelo Alvarez ahead of his May return and Stevenson has welcomed "big brother" Terence Crawford into camp for quality sparring.
Although it's clear Valdez believes in his chances, the oddsmakers disagree. Stevenson, who produced the most thorough performance of his career in stopping WBO champion Jamel Herring last October, has been installed as a massive betting favorite as high as 8-1.
"The odds are against me and everyone thinks he will walk all over me," Valdez said. "But just like against Berchelt, I will use that as motivation. I know I have a tough fight in front of me but this is not something that I haven't done before. Like we say in Mexico, I'm willing to die on the line just to win. That's all that matters to me."
As expected, the brash Stevenson has no shortage of confidence entering his toughest test to date.
"The world hasn't seen everything that Shakur Stevenson can do in a boxing ring yet," Stevenson said. "I am boxing's next superstar and my performance [on Saturday] is going to prove that."
Before we get to Stevenson vs. Valdez, a pair of prospects gets their chance to shine again on the undercard. Former Olympic silver medalist Keyshawn Davis takes on Esteban Sanchez in a lightweight contest. Davis, 23, earned his medal at the 2020 Tokyo Games and has gone 4-0 with three knockouts since turning pro in February 2021. Plus, Nico Ali Walsh, the grandson of Muhammad Ali, makes his fifth trip to the ring when he takes on Alejandro Ibarra at middleweight. Ali Walsh, 21, turned pro in August 2021 and also has three knockouts in four pro fights.
"Of course, we all know I'm on a fast track," Davis said during a conference call earlier this week. "I don't really wanna move too fast, honestly. I feel like as of now, yeah, I have the skill and I have the ability to beat a lot of these fighters now, maybe some champions. But how I'm thinking right now, as a business, honestly, I'd rather just – not rather, but I want to build myself first as a fighter. I want more people tuned in to me and I just want a bigger fan base for myself, just so, you know, when I do get to that big world title fight or that fight to get me to the world title fight, I'm already, you know, a star, or at least close to it."
Below is the complete fight card for Saturday night on ESPN along with the latest odds from Caesars Sportsbook before getting to a prediction and expert pick on the main event.
Fight card, odds
- Shakur Stevenson (c) -800 vs. Oscar Valdez (c) +550, junior lightweight unification
- Keyshawn Davis -1300 vs. Esteban Sanchez +800, lightweight
- Nico Ali Walsh -1500 vs. Alejandro Ibarra +850, middleweight
- Date: April 30 | Location: MGM Grand Garden Arena -- Las Vegas
- Start time: 10 p.m. ET
- TV channel: ESPN | Live stream: fuboTV (try for free)
Valdez is talented and versatile enough to make this, at least on paper, a potentially interesting style matchup. But make no mistake about it, if Valdez is unable to slow down and discipline the sublimely quick Stevenson, this also has the potential to be a surgical dissection.
The comparisons to a young Mayweather, particularly the "Pretty Boy" version from the turn of the century, appear to be apt for Stevenson. He's far from a big puncher yet the speed and accuracy of his combinations have proven to be lethal.
If Valdez has trouble dealing with that speed and is unable to time Stevenson, similar to how Marquez learned to punch with Pacquiao throughout their four-fight rivalry, the possibility of cuts and sustained damage will be likely. Lucky for Valdez, he has shown tremendous punch resistance in the past, fighting through a broken jaw to outlast Scott Quigg in their 2018 featherweight thriller.
The biggest problem for Valdez, however, is he may have already shown how great he could be by raising his game against Berchelt. And even that version likely won't be enough to defeat Stevenson should the native of Newark, New Jersey, continue to raise his performance on the level he has each time the quality of his competition has increased.
It's easy to make a comparison to a 23-year-old Mayweather facing fellow unbeaten (and massive puncher) Diego Corrales in their own 130-pound title showdown in 2001. Five knockdowns later after Corrales' corner threw in the towel to end a one-sided dismantling in Round 10, Mayweather had cemented himself as a top P4P threat.
Expect Stevenson to do the same.
Pick: Stevenson via TKO11
Who wins Stevenson vs. Valdez? 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 crushed his boxing picks in 2021, and find out.