At long last, the (mostly) undisputed Biggest Women’s Boxing Match Ever is here. Now all that remains is for the two undefeated principals — who see themselves as fighting not only to advance their own level of stardom but for the higher purpose of benefitting their gender in a sport long dominated by men — to produce a riveting, two-way performance that comes at least reasonably close to justifying the hype.
But neither Claressa Shields (8-0, 2 KOs), the two-time Olympic gold medalist from Flint, Mich., who holds the women’s WBA, WBC and IBF middleweight championships, nor Germany’s Christina Hammer (24-0, 11 KOs), the WBO middleweight titlist, is predicting a fiercely competitive matchup that will resemble Hagler-Hearns in sports bras. Each sees herself as winning comfortably, perhaps even brutally, in the Showtime-televised 10-round main event Saturday night from the Adrian Phillips Ballroom in Atlantic City’s Boardwalk Hall.
“Christina doesn’t know what’s coming for her,” Shields, 23, said recently from her training camp in Miami. “I’m going to break that Hammer in half. I’m just glad I’m going to get my chance to show her what a real champion is. Someone is going down on April 13 and I promise it’s not going to be me.”
Hammer, 28, holder of at least one sanctioning body’s version of a world championship since 2010, has heard such bluster before and silenced it where it counts, inside the ropes. She figures that Shields, her two gold medals and three pro titles notwithstanding, is too inexperienced and tightly wound to solve the riddle the statuesque frauleinhas always posed to opponents who are unable to back up their bold talk with action.
“I know I have the skills to beat her,” Hammer said of Shields, “and my goal is to beat her badly.”
For the sake of a cause both women hold close to their hearts, here’s hoping that the clear demonstration of ring superiority each hopes to inflict upon the other is replaced by the kind of classic confrontation that happens all too seldom in women’s boxing, and especially when presumably elite fighters are involved. When it comes to sheer entertainment value, a case can be made that the best female bout ever took place on Aug. 21, 2016, when Heather “The Heat” Hardy came away with a scintillating, 10-round majority decision over Shelly Vincent at Brooklyn’s Coney Island with the vacant WBC International featherweight title on the line. Each woman entered with an 18-0 record, but with a combined total of just five victories inside the distance. They squared off again on Oct. 27 of last year in the Hulu Theater at Madison Square Garden, with Hardy winning a 10-round unanimous decision and the vacant WBO featherweight crown, but despite the popularity of Hardy, a Brooklyn native, in the New York City area, she is 37 and at this stage of her career unlikely to ever command the kind of global attention that Shields, Hammer and very few other female fighters ever come close to achieving.
Two women’s fights that might have held the distinction of being the Best Ever never came off. One would have pitted Ann Wolfe, arguably the hardest-hitting, ass-kickingest woman ever to lace up a pair of gloves, against Laila Ali, the beautiful and skilled daughter of Muhammad Ali who obviously inherited part of her genetic makeup from her dad. The other was to have paired Lucia “The Dutch Destroyer” Rijker and Christy “The Coal Miner’s Daughter” Martin, the only female fighter to have appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated,on July 30, 2005. Each woman was to be paid $250,000, with promoter Bob Arum vowing to reward the winner with an additional $750,000, making her, if you’ll pardon the reference to the 2004 Academy Award-winning flick about a fictional female fighter, the real Million-Dollar Baby. That potential bit of history never came to fruition when Rijker suffered a ruptured Achilles tendon in training and retired without ever having fought again.
With those distaff megafights forever remaining theoretical, it fell to the clash of celebrity offspring, Laila Ali and Jacqui Frazier-Lyde, daughter of Smokin’ Joe Frazier, to square off in what was ambitiously labeled “Ali-Frazier IV.” The two went at it on June 8, 2001, at the Turning Stone Casino Hotel in Verona, N.Y., as if they somehow had been able channel a bit of what had made their fathers great. Laila came away with an eight-round majority decision in a scrap that was better than many had expected, but nonetheless was dismissed by some skeptics as an exploitation of the hallowed names of the participants’ fathers.
Now Shields and Hammer come along to build on all that had had been, or might have been, involving predecessors who at least had conferred a sheen of legitimacy on women’s boxing. They still face an uphill fight to reach whatever might be considered a summit, but there can be no denying that progress is being made in increments. On May 31, in midtown Manhattan, Shields will receive the second annual Christy Martin Award as Female Fighter of the Year (for 2018) from the Boxing Writers Association of America, which should add some additional incentive for her to follow through on her promise to introduce Hammer to the disappointment of defeat. No matter the outcome of Shields-Hammer, however, it is not a given that the winner will be universally hailed as the best woman boxer on the planet, not with the 2017 Christy Martin Fighter of the Year honoree, Norway’s undisputed world welterweight champion Ceciilia Braekhus (35-0, 9 KOs) and WBA/WBO lightweight titlist Katie Taylor (13-0, 6 KOs) of Ireland getting votes from their share of precincts.
Battles are won or lost, and barring a draw the Shields-Hammer fight will produce one of each. But winning wars of acceptance are quite another thing, and the stated goal of both women is to elevate their version of what used to be called a manly art to something at least within hailing distance of parity with their brothers.
“Of course this is our biggest fight ever,” Hammer said of the implications attached to her date with Shields. “We’ve never had a fight like this before. It will be a game-changer for women’s boxing.
“Times are changing. (The fight is on) Saturday night, prime time, with all four belts on the line. This is huge for women’s boxing. It’s going to change everything, and will show the world that women can be strong and earn good money.”
Shields is anxious to lead the way to bigger paydays for women boxers, but there are other things she wants from the fight game that will no longer consign her to the relative second-class citizenship that comes from having been born with two X chromosomes. She thinks women champions should also be scheduled for 12-round title bouts, at three minutes per round. Presently women fight two-minute rounds, with championship bouts limited to 10 rounds.
“I fight three-minute rounds in the gym, and against men, except when I get closer to a fight and I try to get reacclimated to the two-minute rounds,” she said. “I guess (the powers that be) want to protect us from ourselves, but that’s the stupidest thing I ever heard in my life. I’m just keeping it real. For one thing, I am a woman who chose to box. Two, I’m a grown woman. Three, I don’t need nobody to protect me but me.
“The only way women’s boxing will ever get paid the same as men, and be as respected, is for us to boxing three minutes for 12 rounds. There would be more knockouts.”
Photo credit: Jose Pineiro / SHOWTIME
Bernard Fernandez is the retired boxing writer for the Philadelphia Daily News. He is a five-term former president of the Boxing Writers Association of America, an inductee into the Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Atlantic City Boxing Halls of Fame and the recipient of the Nat Fleischer Award for Excellence in Boxing Journalism and the Barney Nagler Award for Long and Meritorious Service to Boxing.