Stephan Shaw (R) looks towards the taller Efe Ajagba (L) at Thursday’s press conference. Photo by Mikey Williams/Top Rank Inc via Getty Images)
“Big Shot” Stephan Shaw has been waiting for this big shot for his entire career. While much of his nine-plus years as a pro have been spent toiling away on obscure club shows and buried deep on undercards, the 30-year-old from St. Louis now has the opportunity to interject himself into the heavyweight contention picture this Saturday when he faces Efe Ajagba in a ten-round bout at the Turning Stone Resort in Verona, N.Y.
The ESPN-televised main event will be a significant step-up in exposure for Shaw, an unbeaten but mostly unknown fighter. By contrast, Ajagba, a 2016 Olympian from Nigeria, has been fighting on stages like this since turning professional in 2017. Shaw feels he has been overlooked in comparison to a less-seasoned fighter.
“It definitely gives me the incentive to go out there and beat him up even worse because I feel like he’s had that push and I haven’t,” said Shaw (18-0, 13 knockouts).
“This is America for you; guys can come over from overseas and they can get a push from the so-called machine. But this is my time and this is my opportunity, and I’m ready to seize the moment and be victorious come Saturday night.”
While Shaw dismisses Ajagba as a “converted soccer player” who had worked in a bakery before being directed towards boxing, he points out that he was born into the fight game. Shaw has been in the boxing gyms from age 4, after his father brought him to work out with his grandfather Buddy Shaw, a St. Louis legend who had helped train Cory Spinks. He fell in love with the smell of the gloves and the posters on the wall of his grandfather’s gym, and studied the VHS fight tapes in his grandfather’s basement. Roy Jones, Mike Tyson and Pernell Whitaker were his casual viewing while other kids were watching cartoons.
“I’ve been around boxing my entire life, this is my first love. I fell in love with boxing before I fell in love with a woman,” said Shaw, who is now trained by former U.S. Olympic head coach Basheer Abdullah and managed by David McWater’s Split-T Management.
Shaw started boxing at age 9 and went 51-9 in the amateurs, culminating in 2013 U.S. National and National PAL Championship wins. As a professional, Shaw has had good wins against Jonathan Rice (best known for twice defeating Michael Polite Coffie), plus experienced trial horses Joey Dawejko and Rydell Booker, but the fight with Ajagba will be just his second scheduled ten rounder.
The 28-year-old Ajagba (16-1, 13 KOs) has been fighting primarily at the ten round level since his tenth pro bout. He also has a lot to prove, having lost in his previous step-up, a 2021 unanimous decision loss to Cuban boxer-puncher Frank Sanchez in which he was knocked down and outboxed. Afterwards, Ajagba underwent surgery to repair both of his elbows before returning to the ring last August to stop Jozsef Darmos in two rounds.
“I don’t see anything that he really does well besides being a puncher, but he hasn’t knocked out guys on my level. He hasn’t fought any fighters that are of my caliber other than Frank Sanchez and he came up short. In his last fight after that he fought a guy that looked like a Hungarian taxi cab driver,” said Shaw.
“Yes he has some power because he is a big man, but I’m a big man as well and I definitely have power. I have the skills and speed and ring IQ as well.”
Shaw says he isn’t concerned about Ajagba’s power, having spent five years as a sparring partner for former WBC heavyweight titleholder Deontay Wilder.
“He’s probably considered by certain writers to be the hardest puncher ever, certainly the hardest puncher right now, so I’m not new to what a puncher is,” said Shaw, who has never been down as a pro or amateur.
“It just let me know where I was at. I hung with him, got the best of him, even though it’s always sparring.”
Ajagba, who at 6’6” looked visibly taller than the 6’4”, showed no signs of intimidation as he signaled with a hand gesture that Shaw talked a lot. Ajagba says his style is to do his talking in the ring.
“I have the name ‘The Silent Roller’ because I don’t talk much,” said Ajagba. “Since I came back from my surgery, I’ve tried to do everything to fight more. That’s why I only had one fight last year. I’ve been trying to get more fights.”
Both fighters had been expecting to fight different opponents. Ajagba had been set to face Colombia’s Oscar Rivas before Rivas withdrew (and subsequently retired) due to an eye injury, while Shaw was originally expected to face another Olympian, Italy’s Guido Vianello. Vianello (10-0-1, 9 KOs) will instead be fighting the aforementioned Rice in the co-featured bout.
Shaw hopes a win on Saturday will move him into position to contend for one of the heavyweight title belts, which he expects to become vacant should RING champion Tyson Fury and unified titleholder Oleksandr Usyk eventually settle their business.
“I hope it opens up a world title opportunity. I feel like it should be a world title fight on the horizon after I beat Efe Ajagba. Because the exposure that he has had, and him being a former Olympian and him having a good record and being a decent opponent,” said Shaw.
“That will be a dream come true and I’ll be ready for that opportunity once it presents itself.”
Ryan Songalia has written for ESPN, the New York Daily News, Rappler and The Guardian, and is part of the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism Class of 2020. He can be reached at [email protected].