The present (and future) champ

You can hardly walk across the floor of Mendez Boxing in Manhattan alongside Stivens “Steve” Bujaj without having to stop every two feet to greet fellow boxers and their trainers. There’s always a hug, a backslap or a handshake, so friendly and popular is the cruiserweight champion in the facility where he, until recently, has been training.

As much as he’s a people person, the confident Bujaj is also driven, with the seriousness of a man who knows what he has to work at and what he wants to work for. His current record of 12 and 0 (12 wins, 9 of them knockouts, no losses, and one draw) saw Bujaj pick up a New York state title in Brooklyn in February, and, a month later, in Washington State, the vacant WBC (World Boxing Council) U.S. Cruiserweight Championship honor – a large, decorated green belt that he proudly showcases. And he’s only 24.

Born in Albania, Bujaj came to New York at 6 months old with his parents, Nikolla and Franceska, and older brother Eli. (He also has another brother, Chris.) Growing up in the Bronx, Bujaj had a way of getting into trouble in and out of school.

“I needed something to do to keep me busy,” he says. “I picked up boxing as a hobby and I just went all the way with it. I just walked into a gym one day.”

That gym was the Morris Park Boxing Club, where he trained for a couple of years, fought in some amateur tournaments and ultimately won the New York Golden Gloves as a heavyweight in 2009-10.

“It really made me stand out when I won those tournaments, and right after that I turned pro,” he says. It was at that point that the family moved to Yonkers, where he now lives with his mother and two brothers.

Bujaj boxes mainly in New York City, but is looking to stage more of his upcoming fights in Westchester County, where he is keen to build up his local fan-base. His fights, heavily attended by family, friends and local supporters, have a definite “home-field” advantage.

“Steve is a very popular and talented fighter in the New York area, billed as one of the top upcoming fighters in the world,” promoter Dmitriy Salita said at a press conference before Bujaj’s most recent fight.

That May fight – against Chicago’s Junior Anthony Wright (10 and 0, KO 9) at Brooklyn’s Millennium Theater for a vacant WBC international title – was Bujaj’s toughest to date, he says. Going into it, both boxers were undefeated, records that remain intact as the fight ended in a draw. Will there be a rematch? Possibly in the fall, says Bujaj, who, with the WBC sanctioning body behind him, is eager to contest once more for the still up-for-grabs honor.

Even though he feels he came up a little short, Bujaj is proud that he took on the challenge. “I stepped up, fought a kid 10 and 0, even though it wasn’t on TV. Most fighters don’t fight tough fights unless they have to. I didn’t mind. I took a tough fight.”

Boxing isn’t quite as popular as it was in the 1980s and ’90s and has become somewhat complicated by the bureaucracy that besets it, so few fights are televised. The ones that do get covered are often on niche channels like SNY, MSG or Universal Sports. Still, Bujaj has ambitions of getting more of his fights televised on more mainstream networks like ESPN. The trick to achieving that, he says, is “you have to be a TV-friendly fighter, an exciting fighter. The network has to want to watch you.” He mentions Roy Jones Jr., whom he watched often while growing up, as a good, charismatic fighter.

Having the right manager is essential as well. Bujaj’s manager, Don Majeski, who believes that Bujaj can go on to be a world champion, and his team work hard to get the best for the boxer. Such is Bujaj’s assurance in himself and his manager that he is determined that whatever his next fight – whether it is the rematch with Wright or another – it will be in front of a television audience.

As a boxer, Steve prefers to focus on defense.

“Not getting hit, caring about your body, because in 20-30 years, I don’t want to be damaged from the sport. So I definitely try to practice a lot on my defense and try to keep myself healthy.”

On an average day, Bujaj trains for two to three hours with a physical trainer at the gym, where he works on strength and conditioning exercises to get ready for fights. Then he rests and goes running at night. Recently, Bujaj has decided to change gyms and work out with a new trainer.

“I have to … make a lot of small changes in my life. Technical changes, get used to my new trainer, start running more, condition myself better. I was in good condition in my last fight, but I could be better. I’m my own worst critic.” His father, who passed away in 2012, also serves as a strong inspiration for him.

So what is he looking for in a new trainer? “Somebody who has a lot of experience, that’s been around the game a long time, who knows what they’re doing. I definitely want the best of the best. I’m at a different stage of my career. I have to perform the best. Who have they trained? Have they made anybody champion? Because that’s what I want to become. I want to be a champion.”

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