It shouldn’t come as any surprise that boxing is a sport that draws far more participants from the so-called wrong side of the tracks than from more prosperous zip codes. Put it this way: Henry Milligan, the former light heavyweight and cruiserweight from Wilmington, Del., who held a master’s degree from Princeton University, is like the tail that wagged the dog, not the other way around.
By those commonly accepted standards, middleweight contender Curtis “Showtime” Stevens fits the description of what an up-by-the-bootstraps fighter is supposed to be: Hard, tough and a product of his environment. And that is even more likely to be the case when the environment in question is the famously mean streets of the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, N.Y., incubator of some of the more accomplished fighters the world has come to know.
Brownsville, whose 2010 population of 58,300 constitutes a tiny sliver of Brooklyn’s nearly 2.6 million residents, is 76.7 percent black; only 29.9 percent of 18-and-ups are high school graduates and the median household income is a well-below-poverty-level $15,978.
Two-time former heavyweight champion Mike Tyson unquestionably is the most famous product of Brownsville’s pugilistic school of hard knocks, but the neighborhood also birthed many other world titlists, including Riddick Bowe, Shannon Briggs, Zab Judah and Eddie Mustafa Muhammad.
Now along comes the 28-year-old Stevens (25-4, 18 KOs), who takes on Patrick “The Machine” Majewski (21-2, 13 KOs) in the 10-round main event of a fight card at Resorts Atlantic City. The other bout which will be televised by the NBC Sports Network pairs cruiserweight contenders Thabiso Mchunu (14-1, 10 KOs) and Olanrewaju Durodala (17-1, 16 KOs) in another scheduled 10-rounder.
“I think it’s something that must be in the atmosphere in Brownsville,” Stevens said when asked about the aforementioned list of top-tier fighters to have emerged from the always-raging turf wars there. “Growing up in Brownsville, you find out fast that the streets are rough. We learn how to fight, how to defend ourselves, at an early age. Some of us decide to put those fighting skills to better use by going pro. Instead of letting our talent go to waste, we take it to the gym and make something of it.
“I imagine it’s like that in North Philadelphia and anywhere else where you got to fight to survive. The streets can eat you up, man. You got to make sure your mind is right and your body tight.”
Tyson, when he was in Tokyo in the days leading up to his Feb. 11, 1990, title defense against Buster Douglas, regaled some media members with a tale of some of Brownsville’s other feisty creatures. “One day I was out running at 3 a.m., near the Imperial Palace, and I saw this big rat run out from under the wall,” Tyson said. “Now, I couldn’t believe there would be rats where the emperor lived.”
Asked to rate Japanese rats against the domestic version he grew up around, Tyson could only smile. “There’s no comparison,” he said. “The rats in Brooklyn would eat these rats. One time I saw a rat and a cat, and they were fighting hard! There was a crowd of people standing around, watching. People in Brownsville will watch any kind of fight.”
Stevens can relate. In his only shot at a world title to date, back on Nov. 12 in The Theater at Madison Square Garden, a curiously detached Stevens was stopped at the end of eight rounds by WBA/IBO middleweight champ Gennady “GGG” Golovkin. It is a performance that still haunts Stevens, who said he did not allow the full measure of his Brownsville side to come out.
“I was thinking too much and not reacting,” he said. “When I got home the next day, I looked at the replay of the fight and seen at times I was able to back him up when I let my hands go. But I didn’t do it enough. That was me being nervous and over-thinking.
“We went back to the gym, made our corrections. What I learned from that fight was this: Don’t think, just react. This fight, you’ll see. I’m going to do less thinking and more reacting.”
Nobody is liable to confuse Majewski, who is 34 and unranked by all the major sanctioning bodies (so is Stevens, for that matter), with an instrument of destruction like Golovkin. The impressive record of the Atlantic City fighter, by way of his native Poland, has been crafted mostly against second-level opposition, but he knows this is his big chance at something better and he doesn’t intend to blow it. “This is my shot in the middleweight division,” Majewski said. “Curtis Stevens is a known fighter. I’m not – yet. To be known, I have to pass through him.”
Stevens understands that his image as a gritty Brownsville homeboy was smudged against Golovkin, and he is aware that anything less than a spectacular effort against Majewski is apt to push him further out of the spotlight in and around a weight class that is teeming with talent and potential big-money, high-visibility matchups.
“I don’t know too much about (Majewski),” Stevens acknowledged. “But it’s not the opponent that I’m fighting; it’s me, myself. As long as I’m comfortable, relaxed and having fun, my night is going to go great.
“Would I like to fight Golovkin again? Yeah. I wanted that fight the first time. Look, I’m not mad that I asked for the fight. I’m not mad at what happened. I’m mad that I didn’t let my hands go and do what I know I’m capable of doing. But I’m going to climb right back up to the top of the ladder. If I get another chance at Golovkin, I’ll know better what to do and what not to do.”
Making some of the most obviously attractive bouts, though, isn’t as easy as it should be, as Stevens is quick to point out. Fighters fight, but they aren’t promoters or television executives, who more or less deal the cards the guys in the ring are obliged to play.
“Some of those fights might never happen because some promoters don’t get along with each other, and HBO doesn’t get along with Showtime,” he said. “Can everybody just put aside their differences for the good of boxing? If they can just try to do that, you’ll see boxing back where it needs to be.”
And maybe Brownsville, and Stevens, will be, too.