Even at the early age of 17, you can already call David Stevens one of the greatest boxers to hail from Reading, Pennsylvania. Stevens, a ten-time amateur national champion, has put himself on the map in the boxing world. Last December, Stevens was crowned the Youth National Champion in the 201 lb weight class, earning him a spot on Team USA’s Youth National Team.

While Stevens’ career is taking off, there was a time when his path in life could have resulted in a much different direction. Had it not been for his new-found passion for boxing, a rising star could have never found his true potential.

Stevens sits outside of his childhood home on Jan. 20, 2018 in Reading, Pa. Stevens and his younger brother grew up at 552 15th Street with his godmother.

A Street Kid from Reading

For much of Stevens early childhood, he grew up in foster care with his younger brother and sister. Stevens recalls growing up in several different foster homes until he and his brother were ultimately placed with his godmother. Their sister was separated from the boys and placed in a different home.

When Stevens was around 6 years old, he first moved into his new home on 15th Street. After living in foster care with many other children, simple things such as not having to fight over the television with other kids or not having to share a bed was a much-welcomed change. “It was good having a mom, dad, dog…It was the best day of my life moving in here,” Stevens recalls.

Most of Stevens favorite childhood memories took place in this neighborhood. Stevens made his first friend and eventually became one of the kids in the neighborhood. Stevens and his friends covered almost every inch of the block. If they were not in the parking lot playing games, they were in the woods exploring.

One of Stevens’ favorite spots was at the park a few houses up the street from his house. Stevens and his friends spent many days there: climbing on the jungle gym, playing King of the Hill, or any other games they could think of.

Stevens poses for a portrait at the Fairview Street Park in Reading, Pa. on Jan. 20, 2018.

When Stevens was in third grade, the effects of growing up in foster care began to emerge.

Stevens cites most of his antics were a result of being bullied, and not getting his way. “My first fight I got into at 16th and Haak [Elementary] was over who got first in the recess line… I got tired of [being bullied] and started acting out like a kid. Then just every time I didn’t get my way then, it just got worse. It would be the simplest things. I just acted like a brat.”

Ultimately, Stevens had to attend school in King of Prussia, an hour away from his home, because he was suspended from every other school in his neighborhood.

Stevens shadow boxes during a portrait session on Nov. 18, 2017, at the East Reading Boxing Club, in Reading, Pa.

Finding a Home

Seeing that Stevens was heading down a dark path, Stevens’ godmother enrolled him at the East Reading Boxing Club (ERBC), two blocks from their home. Stevens’ godmother was hopeful that boxing would help her godson develop discipline and stop him from acting out in school.

“It was like hardcore gym class,” Stevens recalls his first impressions of boxing. Being around the bigger fighters intrigued him, then age 11, but he was still a kid at heart.

“It was cool and all. I saw how other people hit the bag, and I wanted to hit the bag just like them. I wasn’t really stuck to it. I didn’t really fall in love with the sport as soon as I came in. I would leave, sneak out when the coaches weren’t looking. Go back to the streets acting up first chance I got. I would tell my parents I was coming, wouldn’t come…I just rather spend my time out on the streets, with my friends. I wasn’t really attached to the sport at all. Sure, I wanted to be like this guy hitting the bag, and like this guy, but I didn’t have the dedication. I lacked it, and I was alright with it. I didn’t like being told what to do.”

This continued until Stevens perspective on boxing changed when he attended his first boxing match.

“I went to a [friend’s] boxing match…I saw how they got their hand raised…How they were the center of attention…I wanted that. I wanted to be just like that. I wanted to be a winner. I wanted to be in there showing people my skills, people cheering for me. I wanted that spot.”

Stevens stands at the corner of 17th and Cotton outside the East Reading Box Club on Jan. 20, 2018 in Reading, Pa.

With new-found determination, Stevens’ focus shifted from hanging out with his friends to spending more time in the gym. A couple months into training, however, Stevens lapsed from his regimen and returned to his old ways. It was during this time Stevens was first introduced to marijuana.

“It was real bad. I got introduced to weed for the first time. I don’t know. It was fun, but I think I ended up missing boxing for some reason. ‘Cause, I did put in like a lot of, not a whole lot, but a lot of work in the gym. And I guess one day I just stopped…I was starting to miss it. I called Andre [ERBC Coach] and said I was going to come back. I did.”

From that moment forward, Stevens dedicated his life to boxing. “We were gym rats, sitting here eating, laying around. When I say gym rats, we were really gym rats…we’ve had a sleepover, spend the night at the gym…we brought a bunch of covers and slept in the gym. It just feels like home.”

Stevens would later look back at that moment as a turning point in his life. From the moment on, other than a recovery day, he was in the gym every day. Had Stevens not returned to boxing, his life may have unfolded much differently. “Yea, I see myself either dead…or in jail,” Stevens reflects.

 

Life of a Boxer

Early in Stevens development, he learned the hard reality that sacrifices must be made to be a successful boxer. “I didn’t realize like if you want to be a boxer you couldn’t have a social life,” Stevens explains. Still, to this day he struggles with missing out on parties and going out with friends, but he knows sacrifice is part of the process. “I’m not doing this for just me. Like I’m doing this for me for my better. I’m not cheating anyone, but myself.”

Over the next few years, Stevens all but lived in the gym. Stevens trained nearly every day and started to see the results. Thanks to his trainers always keeping him on his toes, the once “skinny shrimp,” grew into a muscular young man.

Stevens reflects on his training candidly, “it sucks.” When it comes to strength and conditioning Stevens tries to accomplish his training as fast as possible. Stevens keeps himself motivated by comparing himself to other boxers, and how he can better himself.

“Sometimes I’ll be chilling, laying down watching boxing, and I’ll be like ‘I need to get my conditioning up like this guy. Guess I should get up and run.’ So, I end up going and running. Then I can come back and watch boxing. Because if I get that thought in my head, and then don’t do it, ‘I can’t watch this. I can’t see myself doing that [boxing on television]’… It sucks sometimes. Having that battle with yourself. Like that in your head, like ‘do this, don’t do it, get it over with so you can sleep tonight.’ ”

Becoming a Champion

Stevens quickly made a name for himself in the boxing world picking up eight national championships at various tournaments around the country. Upon winning the USA Boxing Youth Open National Championship in Charleston, WV in July 2017, Stevens was invited to the USA Boxing Youth National Championship in Salt Lake City, in December 2017. The Youth National Championship serves as the trials for the USA Youth National team. If he were to win his weight class, Stevens would be invited to join Team USA at the USA Training Facility in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

Left: Stevens walks toward the Berks County Services Center building on Dec. 1, 2017, in Reading, Pa. Right: Stevens, left, and Xavian Ramirez enter the Juvenile Probation office in Berks County Services Center building. Ramirez accompanied Stevens to his final meeting with his probation officer before traveling to the Youth National Championship in Utah.

While Stevens’ career was taking off, there were a few bumps along the way. Stevens has been on juvenile probation since he was eleven. Still battling to control his emotions, he would get into arguments with his probation officer causing him to accrue more community service time.

As Stevens matured, he learned to master his emotions. Leading up to the Youth National Championship in Utah, Stevens had his final meeting with his probation officer. He turned in his remaining community service hours and put his troubled past behind him.

Stevens poses with his USA Boxing Youth Nation Championship belt on Dec. 28, 2017, at the East Reading Boxing Club, in Reading, Pa.

Team USA

Arriving in Salt Lake City there were three entrees registered in the 201 lb weight class, including Stevens. By the time the brackets were released, Stevens was unopposed. Many would say Stevens’ knockout power has left the last impression on his opponents. Seeing opponents jump weight classes is all the confirmation Stevens needs. “They know,” he says.

Stevens is certainly grateful for a spot on the Team USA Youth National Team; however, he still feels that he has something to prove. His last fight on the national stage was not up to the standard he holds himself to. Even though he won in the final round, Stevens reflects on the match as “horrible.” Salt Lake City was a chance for Stevens to leave no doubt where he sits in the amateur boxing world, but unfortunately, the only time he stepped into the ring was to accept his championship belt.

Moving forward to international competition with Team USA, Stevens goals are simple: dominate the completion. He sees the upcoming year with Team USA as an opportunity to catapult himself into the Elite division when he turns 18 in July. If all goes according to plan, Stevens will be in a position to compete for a spot on the 2020 Tokyo Olympic roster.

Leaving Home

Leading up towards Stevens departure for Colorado, he has continued to train at the only gym he has ever called home. The thought of leaving his hometown and moving 1700 miles away has yet to sink in. Stevens’ boxing career has taken him all over the country, but this would be the first time he has left Reading for an extended period.

Reflecting on his hometown, Stevens recognizes he is representing more than his gym in Colorado.

Yeah, I feel like I’m representing Reading. I wouldn’t really want to represent anywhere else…Reading is my home. You don’t pick your family, you don’t pick your home…Reading is my family.”

Stevens poses for a portrait at the Mt. Penn Pagoda that overlooks Reading, Pa. on Jan. 23, 2018. Stevens would run up Mt. Penn to the Pagoda during his conditioning workouts.

With that responsibly comes great pressure. The expectation Stevens holds himself and being an icon for the city certainly weighs on his mind.

“I’m scared to fail. I really am. Like, I have these high expectations…Everybody knows I want to be a boxer, everybody knows I’m doing all this. I don’t want to not end up a boxer. What would they say?”

Say what they will, in six short years the skinny kid from 15th and Cotton has become an inspiration. Win or lose, Elite Nationals or Olympics, the city of Reading is proud of their young boxing prodigy. Regardless of what happens in the ring, David Stevens is already a champion.