We’ve seen the future of women’s boxing, and it’s Claressa Shields
After winning her pro debut easily, and with her skills, endorsements and potential, the sky’s the limit
The future of women’s professional boxing was dressed in a red-and-white jumpsuit, as she walked to a family seated in a row of seats on the floor of the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas. The venue was about half-filled, as the crowd watched an undercard of dreary bouts and waited for the Sergey Kovalev-Andre Ward main event.
The future of women’s boxing, Claressa Shields, had made her professional debut in the ring about an hour earlier, but now she was walking through the crowd, chatting with friends and family, swinging small children in her arms.
Shields, the first U.S. amateur to win two gold medals, defeated former teammate and sparring partner, Franchon Crews, by a four-round unanimous decision. She hopes Nov. 19’s fight will be the first in a career of high-profile pay-per-view television fights that will mark a renewed interest in women’s professional boxing that has waned since Laila Ali’s last fight nearly 10 years ago.
That’s a lot of responsibility to place on anyone’s shoulders, especially a 21-year-old who grew up in the desolate cityscape of Flint, Michigan.
“Well, I can’t really say that I feel it,” Shields said. “When you’re doing something great, you don’t really think about it. You just do it. And I’m just doing right now. I’m not really trying to think of making a bigger deal than what it really is. You know, I’m just trying to go out there and give my best performance, like, every fight and they’ll take to women’s boxing and they’ll take to me. And they’ll put me on more cards and, hopefully, in a year or two, I’ll be the main event here on HBO.”
That seems to be a realistic goal for Shields, judging from her professional debut.
Fighting for the first time without headgear, Shields won all of the four two-minute rounds on all three official scorecards, but the bout itself was less than an artistic success.
Shields, who weighed in at 167 pounds, entered the ring to polite applause. Dressed in a white-and-gold vest and trunks, the Olympic gold medalist did not seem nervous during either the ring introductions or the referee’s instructions.
As the bell rang, the two women rushed out to the center of the ring and started throwing leather — unlike most of the men’s preliminary bouts. Crews waded into Shields, throwing wide, heavy punches, most of which missed. Shields countered with straight punches, staying close to her opponent, weaving under the heavy punches.
The real difference between the two fighters, however, could be seen shortly after the opening exchange. It was Crews who gave ground, her mouthpiece visible, and she took heavy breaths. Shields, however, was in condition and steadily pressed forward.
Already desperate, Crews sought relief. About halfway through the opening round, the two women got tangled in a clinch and Crews threw Shields to the canvas. Later, Shields said she wasn’t surprised by her opponent’s rough tactics.
“No, she was tired, when she pushed me down, in the first round,” Shields said. “She was huffing and puffing in the first round. And when she pushed me down, whenever I got in close, she didn’t want me to hit her to the body or hit her with any combination, so she pushed me. I don’t think it was to psych me out, but I told everybody before we got out here, that’s how she fights. She does that. If she needs a break, she will slam you to get some wind. She’s a survivor.”
Teammates, now opponents
The two women had been amateur teammates since 2014, fighting together on the national team, sparring against each other frequently. They fought three times in the amateurs, with Shields winning each time.
Still, Shields said, Crews was a dangerous opponent.
“Her jab is way longer than mine,” Shields added. “I’ve known that since the first time we’ve ever fought. That’s why I wanted to get the timing of her jab. When she did throw it, she would throw it for a little while, but she’s longer than me. So, I wanted to get my timing on her. I knew she wasn’t a slouch from the time they told me she wanted to fight.”
Even with two-minute rounds, instead of the regular three-minute ones, Crews was visibly tired as the fight continued. Shields was the aggressor. Fundamentally sound, Shields stalked her opponent, started and finished the exchanges, and threw accurate punches to Crews’ body and head.
The winner was never in doubt. The only question was whether Shields would score a knockout, the perfect way for a fighter to celebrate her professional debut. Despite the pounding, Crews remained on her feet at the final bell.
After the bout, Shields graded her performance.
“I think I could have picked a few shots more better, but the altitude out here is a killer,” she said. “And I just did as much as I could do, but I definitely felt the altitude during the fight. But during the fight, I was just concerned with focusing on the win and landing a lot of shots. But I got head-butted. I think I got head-butted twice.”
Shields added: “You know, I think I could have done a lot better. I got hit with a couple of shots that I shouldn’t have got hit with. But I still feel that I landed the cleaner shots. I almost got a knockout a couple of times. It didn’t happen, but it came close. I think it’ll just come through experience.”
Where she’ll go to get it is a big question. While women continue to fill the amateur boxing ranks in the United States, as well as overseas, the professional ranks are especially thin in quality opponents. Shields has trained regularly with male sparring partners, including members of the past two Olympic squads.
A bright future
Besides winning Olympic gold in London and Rio de Janeiro, Shields lost only one of her 78 amateur bouts. There are simply not enough quality opponents around for Shields to polish her skills.
And the lack of competition could hurt her marketability, and, by the same token, the commercial success of women’s professional boxing. But that situation may be changing.
Women’s boxing is becoming more visible, despite competition from the men and the growing popularity of other combat sports such as wrestling and mixed-martial arts.
But Shields has a compelling personal story, growing up amid the poverty of Flint, surviving sexual assault as a young girl, and getting involved in the sport of boxing through her father, who re-entered her life after spending time in prison. Stories of her work ethic and personal perseverance have attracted national media attention during her rise through the amateurs. But Shields’ goal has always been to win a professional title.
Shields wanted to turn professional after winning her first gold medal, but didn’t, in part because of the lack of endorsements. Four years later, she’s already lined up a slew of endorsements. She entered the ring wearing advertisements for Dole on her trunks and robe.
“I feel great.” Shields beamed. “I had Powerade in the corner. Dole has been sending me big bundles of fruit. Zappos has been a great support. Their whole team showed up. I’m endorsed by Dick’s Sporting Goods and MINI Cooper. So, I have a lot of things going on for myself.”