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Olympic boxers go for riches with bid for gold in past

Tim Dahlberg
Associated Press

Shakur Stevenson believes he is destined for greatness after barely missing out on Olympic gold in Rio.

So does Ireland’s Michael Conlan, and there’s already chatter about the two of them meeting in a big money fight one day.

The Olympic boxing graduate class of 2016 is taking shape, and while there’s not much to talk about in the heavier weights, professional promoters are hoping boxing fans will warm up to smaller scrappers like they once did for Olympic gold medalists Sugar Ray Leonard and Oscar De La Hoya.

Stevenson signed last week with Bob Arum’s Top Rank, and is eager to get his pro career going. Conlan is with the same company and will make his pro debut at Madison Square Garden’s theater on St. Patrick’s Day.

And then there is Flint’s Claressa Shields, who is a step ahead of both. The two-time Olympic middleweight champion opened her career in November with a win on the undercard of the Andre Ward-Sergey Kovalev fight in Las Vegas. She will become the first woman to headline a fight card on premium cable when she fights March 10 in Detroit.

The 21-year-old Shields has plans just as big as Stevenson and Conlan, even though women’s boxing has largely been ignored by most boxing fans in recent years.

“I believe 150 percent in my boxing ability,” she told The Associated Press before her first pro fight, a four-round decision over Franchon Crews. “I know I’m a great fighter. I fight better than 90 percent of the men who box now. I just know that, and I’m not at my best yet.”

Shields is the only American fighter — male or female — to win a gold medal since Ward captured one in Athens in 2004. Her story of fighting out of poverty in Flint resonates with many, and she is not afraid to speak her mind about her abilities or the state of the sport of boxing.

She also showed another side in Rio, when she gathered Stevenson in her arms after his gold medal split decision loss to Cuba’s Robeisy Ramirez. Shields, who was to fight for her second gold the next day, spent several minutes consoling her teammate and telling him there would be better things in his future.

“I trained my whole life for that one moment,” Stevenson said of his gold medal fight. “I failed and it hurt. I didn’t get to realize how far I had really come.”

Stevenson was sought in Rio by promoters who saw a lot of Leonard and De La Hoya in a fighter with slick moves and a dazzling smile. Floyd Mayweather Jr. spent time with him in Rio and talked about signing the fighter for his promotion company, but never gave him an offer.

Stevenson said he took less guaranteed money from Top Rank because of the company’s success in building up Olympic fighters such as Mayweather, De La Hoya and Miguel Cotto.

“I like the fact that they build superstars. They have the best track record around,” said Stevenson, who got his first name from the late rapper Tupac Shakur. “It’s going to take a few years, but I think I can be a star, too.”

Stevenson, the oldest of nine children who began boxing at the age of 7 in the Newark, New Jersey gym run by his grandfather, Walli Moses, does not yet have a date or an opponent for his debut. He will begin his pro career in the 126-pound featherweight division.

Conlan will fight as a super batamweight in his first bout, a scheduled six-rounder against Colorado’s Tim Ibarra, who is 4-4. He’s expecting to be the big favorite of a heavily Irish crowd in his debut at 122 pounds.

“I truly believe in my ability. I’m a fighter who speaks with complete confidence at all times,” he said. “No matter who’s in front of me, no matter what day it is, no one’s going to beat me.”

Conlan didn’t win a medal in Rio, but he did make some news. After losing a controversial decision to Russia’s Vladimir Nikitin he flashed obscene gestures at the judges, then sent a tweet to Vladimir Putin suggesting the Russian president helped fix the fight.

“Hey Vlad,” he tweeted. “How much did they charge you bro??”

Stevenson sees a possible big fight with Conlan once they both make names for themselves as a pro.

“I can’t wait for me and Michael Conlan to meet up in a big fight down the line,” he said.