Claressa Shields Charging Forward After Winning Fighter of the Year and More
By David A. Avila
It was a remarkable year in a burgeoning career that’s only Claressa Shield’s third year as a professional.
Just how far can she strive?
Already strapped with multiple world title belts in the super middleweight division and now the middleweight division, Shields, the former two-time Olympic gold medalist from Michigan, has also zeroed in toward propelling female prizefighting to greatness.
“I want to see women get paid more equally,” said Shields while in Las Vegas last weekend. “I’m lucky to be one of the few that get paid more than $100,000.”
She’s also one of the few that does not care who she fights. As long as fans want to see the fight, the opponent’s record does not factor into her decision. She wants to fight the best to prove she’s the best.
“I’d like to fight Cecilia Braekhus at 154 pounds,” said Shields who is promoted by Salita Promotions. “But I’m not going to go down to 147. She can come up. It’s easier for her to go up than for me to go down.”
When Shields first dropped below 160 pounds it was her second pro fight against Szilvia Szabados in March 2017. But then she moved up to the 168-pound super middleweight division and won the WBC and IBF super middleweight world titles. It was effortless.
This past June, an offer to fight WBO and WBA super welterweight titlist Hanna Gabriels for the vacant middleweight championship was made and Shields accepted. It was a quick decision that meant she had to drop to 160 pounds while Gabriels agreed to move up from 154 pounds to 160.
“I spent most of the camp just trying to lose weight,” said Shields who trained in Florida for that fight and now primarily lives in that state. “At 163 pounds those last few pounds would not come off no matter what I did.”
After starving a whole day to make weight she finally entered the ring to face Gabriels the next day. Then, in the first round, Shields was dropped for the first time in her pro career by a left hook.
The female boxing world shook.
“She had her moment,” said Shields of the knockdown by Gabriels. “After that I was trying to punch her head out.”
Shields rallied with a feverish attack something like a human tornado.
The ferocity by both female champions in their 10-round firefight was named Fight of the Year by various publications including this one. Those watching on television nationwide and the fans inside the Masonic Temple in Detroit were riveted by the massive hits and misses that the two super athletes were exchanging. Shields won by unanimous decision. But it was the first time any opponent had won rounds according to the judges.
Still, more fans were able to see the appeal of female prizefighting.
An expected autumn showdown with WBO middleweight titlist Christina Hammer was scheduled for last November and much was expected from the confrontation between the two undefeated middleweight titlists. But a sudden illness by Hammer forced the German fighter to withdraw. Instead of waiting, Shields accepted a fight with Scotland’s Hannah Rankin and the two clashed on November 17 in Kansas.
It was Shields second fight at middleweight but this time making the weight was not a problem as in her previous foray as a 160-pounder.
“I changed my diet. A lot more water intake and I’ve been in my best shape ever,” Shields said. “It’s definitely a formula I like.”
Rankin had height and reach but was unable to fend off the attacks by Shields to win any rounds. After 10 frames Shields captured every round and won by unanimous decision. She also added the WBC middleweight title to the IBF and WBA straps already around her waist.
A week later, a surprise offer to fight on an HBO card in Los Angeles was made and Shields team quickly accepted. The fight world was shocked. In less than three weeks Shields was back in the boxing ring and this time fighting Belgium’s Femke Hermans at the StubHub Center on December 8.
With film actress Halle Berry watching in the stands at the outdoor arena Shields won easily, almost too easily. But the spirit she showed in fighting 20 championship rounds against top competition was unrivaled. No other women or men had performed a feat equal to Shields accomplishment in recent years.
It was an impressive year and the 23-year-old Shields was voted Fighter of the Year by most publications including this one. Not only did she win three middleweight world titles but her willingness to strive for greatness and sacrifice her physical well-being was an eye-opener. Shields also was offered a role in Berry’s next movie and will be filming in February for a few days.
“I felt like a broken down truck after Dec. 8,” said Shields following her back-to-back fights within three weeks. “I’ve just been resting since then.”
Layla McCarter, a multi-division world champion and veteran of many years was at the fight and sees greatness in the young fighter from Michigan.
“Do you know Claressa was three years old when I had my first pro fight,” said McCarter chuckling at the thought. “It’s hard to believe. But that’s a crazy thought.”
McCarter is seen by many as one of the top fighters pound for pound. Shields has raced near the top of most pound for pound lists in a matter of two years since entering the pros immediately after the 2016 Rio Olympic Games.
“Stand in front of me”
Blessed with hand speed and Olympic athleticism, the only thing lacking has been knockouts. Though she does have two knockouts on her ledger, both were stoppages and neither opponent actually was decked. But power is there.
The knockouts will come, says her trainer John David Jackson a former world champion in his day.
“She has everything needed to be a pure knockout puncher,” said Jackson when in L.A. recently. “She just has to put it together.”
Recent opponents have claimed Shields does not pack power.
“Well, if I don’t have power why don’t they stand in front of me and stop running,” said Shields.
In Shields last fight with Hermans, a blistering left hook staggered the Belgian fighter and from that point on the dial was turned up to survival mode.
“If I didn’t hit hard then stand there and fight me,” she says.
Most of the opposition has learned quickly that Shields likes to attack. But she also is willing to promote all female boxing. It’s a trait that’s not common with all female champions. Some only care about themselves; Shields wants all female fighters to get recognition and respect.
Mark Taffet, the former head of HBO Sports, manages Shields and has experienced numerous prizefighters over the past three decades and signed her because of her mind numbing dedication toward her craft.
“Claressa is an incredible athlete. Her IQ and skill level is off the charts,” said Taffet. “She doesn’t let her emotions get the better of her.”
Despite striving confidently to be recognized as the best female fighter in history, she also wants her fellow pugilistic sisters to get recognition as well.
“People don’t like an outspoken woman,” said Shields. “But women’s boxing is coming up.”
Shields said she can foresee female prizefighters achieving parity with men financially. But she knows it will take time and effort. It also takes fighting the best and making the most exciting matchups such as her upcoming clash with Hammer in April.
“People actually think she (Hammer) can beat me. They say because she’s tall she has a good chance,” said Shields who will fight Hammer in April. “These are the kind of fights that can make women’s boxing big.”
It’s another reason Shields was declared Fighter of the Year and deservedly so.
(Photo by Jeannie Avila)