Claressa Shields felt as if she had hit a million-dollar jackpot when she won gold in the Olympic debut of women's boxing at the 2012 London Games. But the 17-year-old returned to her hometown of Flint, Mich., to find her future held no more promise than before.
“I had so many expectations,” Shields, now 24, recalls. “I thought I would be on magazine covers, TV shows. I thought I would have a lot of endorsement deals and sponsorships. And it didn’t happen — not because of the person I was, but because women’s boxing just wasn’t something that people found attractive.”
So, after graduating high school, Shields doubled down and bet on the only person who had never failed her: herself. With a second Olympic gold, she decided, her greatness couldn’t be ignored. At the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro, she gained just that, becoming the first American boxer, man or woman, to win two Olympic gold medals.
Then she took off the padded headgear, turned professional and girded for a bigger fight: to demand more exposure for women’s boxing — more chances to fight on TV, headline events, command respect and earn purses that paid a living wage. In lifting her sport, Shields also vowed to lift the children of Flint by proving that they didn’t have to be defined by the poverty, violence and darkness around them any more than she was.
Three years into her pro career, Shields is 9-0 in the ring and the world’s undisputed middleweight champion, with six world titles in two weight divisions and a suitcase full of title belts that she carries wherever she travels.
Outside the ring, a decision is pending on how far she can go to lift her sport and hometown, even if she proves, as she loves to proclaim, that she’s boxing’s “G.W.O.A.T.” — Greatest Woman Of All Time.
About this series: Female athletes are speaking out, demanding a more level playing field with their male counterparts even as they continue to train and excel in their sports.
Equity: The U.S. women's soccer team files suit for equal pay and working conditions.
Opportunity: In Kansas, girls didn't have a wrestling championship of their own. Mya Kretzer changed that.
Exposure: Claressa Shields keeps winning boxing titles. But she is still fighting for visibility.
Civility: Online culture can be toxic. These women gamers are fighting back.
All this — and two more belts, for the vacant WBC and WBO 154-pound titles — was on the line in Shields’s fight against Ivana Habazin of Croatia on Oct. 5. It was to set the stage for the two-time Olympic champion to make history again — or “Her-story,” as her promoters called it — by becoming the fastest boxer, male or female, to win world titles in three weight divisions. The bout was to headline a Saturday night broadcast on Showtime.
Moreover, the fight represented Shields’s gift to Flint, staged, at her insistence, in her hometown’s minor league hockey arena rather than at a glitzier venue in Atlantic City or Detroit. And 300 children from local youth groups had been invited so they could cheer on a woman who had been handed nothing in life but nonetheless spun gold through hard work and her two fists.
It was a coronation-in-the-making, with the leanest-ever Shields, having pared her powerful, 5-foot-10 frame from 168 to 154 pounds, heavily favored. But it was derailed at the weigh-in the day before, when an assailant’s sucker punch sent Habazin’s trainer to the hospital, becoming the latest episode of unsanctioned violence that over the years has come to define Flint.
Boxing was an outlet
Vehicle City, as Flint calls itself, was dying when Shields was born in 1995. The exodus of General Motors had begun in the 1980s, and the devastating blow followed when the automaker shuttered Buick City, the last of its assembly-line behemoths, in 1999. A spike in unemployment, poverty and crime followed, with Flint topping FBI statistics as the country's most violent city from 2010 to 2012.
Today, 41 percent of its residents live in poverty, according to the latest census figures. The median value of owner-occupied homes is $28,200. An untold number of homes sit vacant, buckling on crumbling foundations, awaiting demolition.
A renaissance is underway downtown along Saginaw Street. There’s a buzzing coffee scene, a creperie and the homegrown Bedrock Apparel, whose T-shirts and hoodies assert Flint’s resilience. But there’s no trace of renewal on the city’s north side where Shields grew up, reared primarily by her grandmother because her father was in jail much of her childhood and her mother battled addiction.
The house that once stood at 602 Spencer St., where Shields spent part of her childhood, has been razed, replaced by weeds. Its saving grace was its proximity to Berston Field House and its cramped basement boxing gym, which Shields claimed as her true home when she was 11.
“Once she found it, she said: ‘It’s safe here. I could sleep here,’ ” recalled trainer Jason Crutchfield, who still works with Flint’s young boxers.
Many mornings he would arrive at 6:30 to find Shields sitting on the curb outside, having walked in the early-morning dark from wherever she had spent the previous night, waiting for the door to open.
Shields, who later revealed she had been molested by her mother’s boyfriend at age 5, rarely spoke as a child. But she listened, taking in everything Crutchfield told her about boxing. The gym was the only place where anyone told her, “You did good today.”
Said Robert McCathern, pastor of Flint’s Joy Tabernacle Church, where Shields worships: “The boxing was an outlet. If she didn’t have that, she probably wouldn’t have made it through. She took the pain, the hurt, the abuse and channeled it in a positive way. That’s why she is so powerful.”
Narrowing the gap
The nominal attention Shields received for her 2012 Olympic gold reflects well-documented truths about the coverage of women's sports.
While women account for 40 percent of sports participants in the United States, women’s sports receive just 4 percent of TV broadcast and highlight-show coverage, according to a study, Gender in Televised Sports, tracked by the Women’s Sports Foundation. Moreover, most of that coverage focuses on sports perceived as feminine, such as gymnastics, figure skating and tennis. Far less media exposure is given to women competing in traditionally male sports such as boxing, hockey and basketball, which many regard as slower, inferior versions of the men’s games.
Stephen Espinoza, president of Showtime sports and event programming, acknowledges the tension of covering sports that fans already follow vs. a sport they might like if exposed to it. “In terms of the push or pull of demand versus exposure, it’s definitely a chicken-or-egg question,” he said. “It’s tough for people to know that they are fans of women’s boxing until they see it in the flesh.”
Showtime, which has become a leader in broadcasting women’s combat sports, helped make UFC champion Ronda Rousey a mixed martial arts star. Although boxing has an older, more tradition-bound audience, Showtime is investing heavily in Shields — not simply because she’s a two-time Olympic champion but also because of her outsize personality.
“I’m going to stand up for myself and other women. If I have to speak loudly for that, I will.”
Claressa Shields professional boxer
“The icing on the cake is that she’s fearless outside the ring as well, whether addressing issues of equal access for women athletes, the Flint water crisis, taking on the personal issue of sexual assault and abuse or proclaiming herself the greatest women’s boxer of all time,” Espinoza said.
Boxing historian and analyst Steve Farhood suspects some older boxing fans will never be comfortable with women in the ring, which he doesn’t understand. But if anyone can alter those views, he believes, it’s Shields.
“As time advances, you’re going to get audiences more willing to accept women’s boxing,” Farhood said. “And Claressa is the right woman for that time. She’s an excellent boxer with a larger-than-life personality.”
One benchmark Shields is chasing is the first million-dollar purse for a woman. While it would be historic, it would still be dwarfed by the top purses for male boxers. Floyd Mayweather was guaranteed $100 million for his 2017 fight against UFC champion Conor McGregor. Forbes put Mayweather’s total windfall from the spectacle at $275 million.
But Shields is willing to do whatever is required to narrow that gap. If fighting for three minutes over 12 rounds, as men do, would elevate women’s boxing, she would favor that over the two-minute, 10-round fights that women are permitted. Otherwise, she fears, promoters will always have an excuse to pay female boxers less for less work.
In November, she announced she was starting mixed martial arts training, presumably to prepare for a crossover fight in the octagon later in her career.
Barely a week goes by that Shields isn’t on the phone or sending emails to her manager, Mark Taffet, or network executives about how to better promote the sport.
Why, she recently wanted to know, did a WBC commercial highlighting its champions only include men? She was a WBC champion, too.
Only half in jest, she tossed out the idea of having “Ring Card Boys” for her fights.
Active on Twitter and Instagram, Shields urges other female fighters to promote themselves, too — in the right way.
“I try to tell the other women: ‘Get out of the mind-set of posting bikini pics and beach pics! That’s okay. But don’t forget you’re a fighter; that’s what your fans are here for. We don’t want to have fans of freak shows — guys who only tune in to see how big her butt and [breasts] is. Those are not boxing fans. We really want to attract the boxing fans. So, post some pictures of you sparring! Post some videos! Let’s get busy on YouTube! Promote yourself! Build your own brand!’ ”
Culturally, Shields wants to expand the prevailing definition of female strength and beauty.
“The first time I ever said to myself, ‘I’m black, and I’m pretty,’ was because I watched Will Smith play Muhammad Ali, and he said it,” Shields said. “Women fighters are powerful. I got muscles in my back, in my arms! I got a 32-inch waist and 45-inch butt! I’m a fighter, and I’m still a woman. And these are my great attributes being a black woman.”
She also wants to dispel the suffocating notion that, to be marketed effectively, female athletes must have gentle voices, few opinions and no apparent ego.
“If a man who hasn’t accomplished even half of what I’ve accomplished can go out there and say he wants to knock somebody out, why the hell can’t I say it, and I have two Olympic gold medals?” Shields said. “I’m undefeated. I’m the fastest boxer to win a world title, in four [professional] fights. The first woman to fight the main event. All these accolades, but they want me to just zip it and be quiet about how great I am.
“I’m like: ‘No! I’m a woman, and I box like a man!’ I’m not going to be quiet about that. . . . I’m a great fighter. I’m a great person. I just created my own lane. This the kind of woman that I am. I’m going to stand up for myself and other women. If I have to speak loudly for that, I will.”
Most of all, Shields wants the megaphone that comes with being a world champion so she can keep the spotlight on the lead-tainted water that’s poisoning Flint and the evidence of its link to the spike in children with excess aggression and special education needs. That’s why Shields competes with bright blue ribbons in her braids — to advocate for clean water.
‘Ain’t nothing for free’
The week before the fight against Habazin, Shields is putting finishing touches on her training in the South Florida gym where she's based to escape the distractions and negativity of Flint.
She is as light as she has been since 16, still shedding weight under a nutritionist’s guidance to reach 154 pounds. Her daily regimen consists of three clean meals, two workouts, a gallon of water, a run or swim and no snacks.
In the gym, Shields is an old soul with a child’s spirit, singing and dancing the samba between rounds to a personal playlist that includes Beyoncé’s “Run the World (Girls),” the Jackson 5’s “I Wanna Be Where You Are” and Jadakiss’s “The Champ Is Here.”
As part of her ongoing evolution from amateur to pro, her coach, former boxer John David Jackson, has trained her to fight like a man. That means throwing fewer punches but connecting on a higher percentage. And no flailing or slapping — just direct, nasty hits to the body.
At the sound of the bell (a boxing app on Jackson’s phone), Shields switches to fight mode for her sparring session. Like her nickname “T-Rex,” she seems built to fight — landing blow after blow on Melissa “Hurricane” Hernandez, a super bantamweight world titlist in 2006 who’s still effective at 39. The sweat flowing, Hernandez is replaced by Scotland’s Hannah Rankin, who’ll be on the undercard in Flint, to ensure Shields faces fresh legs throughout the session.
Even through padded gloves, the weight of Shields’s punches sounds like heavy artillery at staccato, unpredictable intervals — Pow! Pow! Pow! Whack-whack! Pow! Whack-whack-whack! — with her powerful jab setting up the furious combinations.
There’s no training brotherhood like this among male boxers, Jackson later explains, and he thinks it’s important that female fighters band together. “They’re fighting men for their place in the spotlight,” Jackson says. “They’re fighting for respect.”
In Hernandez’s view, Shields has already earned respect. “I know what it’s like to get your a-- whooped by the Truth!” the Puerto Rican veteran says, using her favorite honorific for Shields. “The game is in a good spot.”
Come fight week, Shields and Jackson relocate to Flint for a blitz of promotional events.
“The champ is here!” Shields bellows, flashing an enormous smile as she strides into Detroit’s Downtown Boxing Gym for a workout in front of invited media. After the session, she gathers the children who have trickled in for the gym’s free after-school youth program. With her championship belts arrayed on the apron of the ring behind her, she explains what each represents and how she won it.
“To the girls in here — in order to get any recognition, you got to work 10 times harder than all the boys. That’s just the way it is.”
Claressa Shields professional boxer
“Ain’t nothing for free,” Shields tells them. “I got to be dedicated in the gym. I listen to my coach, and I got to make sure that I do everything I’m supposed to every day.”
The children, age 7 and up, are rapt, barely able to speak.
“You’ve got to work hard,” she adds. “And especially to the girls in here — in order to get any recognition, you got to work 10 times harder than all the boys. That’s just the way it is.
“And I’m not just talking about boxing; I’m talking about in life, period. Y’all got to make the right decisions. Right now, all of y’all are young. Nobody in here should go to jail; nobody in here should be in prison. It’s all about your choices. You got to pick the right friends. You are not your surroundings. So even though there’s a bunch of craziness going on around you, as long as you walk the other way, it don’t have nothing to do with you.
“I made those kind of decisions since I was 11 and 12 years old. And when I got 15, I gave myself a curfew to be in the house at 10 o’clock every night — because after 10 o’clock in Flint, everything goes down. I’m talking about shooting, robbing, stealing and killing. So at 10 o’clock, I’m in the house. I wouldn’t even go outside on my porch.
“Your life is all about your choices. If you don’t hear from nobody else, you heard it from the champ!”
The next day, both contenders hold a news conference in the lobby of Dort Federal Credit Union Event Center, which will host the fight. With Habazin seated beside her, Shields takes off her cream blazer to reveal a skintight, black bodysuit rippling with muscle underneath as she ramps up the rhetoric.
“It’s going less than five!” Shields proclaims. “She’s goin’ to sleep!”
The audience of friends, former classmates, fellow church members and fans roars.
“Whose house is it?” Shields says. “Who house?”
“T-Rex!” they reply. “T-Rex!”
“Who house?” she repeats as Habazin stares dead ahead, expressionless.
Finding something positive
The weigh-in followed the next day in the same spot. It quickly went awry when a shouting match erupted between Shields’s sister and Habazin’s 68-year-old trainer, James Ali Bashir.
Calm was restored after the two were separated, and Shields retreated to another room. But after a lull, an assailant punched Bashir from behind, landing a blow at the base of his skull that knocked him out, and immediately fled. The trainer fell face-first on the concrete floor, nothing to brace his fall. Habazin rushed to his side and wailed as blood pooled around his head.
In time, police and an ambulance arrived. Bashir was taken to a local hospital, then transferred to Detroit for facial surgery.
The headline event was canceled. Tickets were refunded to fans who didn’t want to see the undercard. And the spotlight Shields had hoped to shine on Flint shone instead on the unchecked violence that Flint can’t seem to shake.
The following day, Shields issued a public statement of heartbreak, making clear she didn’t condone the violence against Bashir.
Two weeks later — the same day Shields was honored in New York as the Women’s Sports Foundation’s 2019 sportswoman of the year — her 28-year-old brother, Artis J. Mack, on parole after serving seven years in prison for arson and weapons offenses, was charged with assault in the attack on Bashir.
And Shields went back to the gym, as she has done since she was 11, to turn one more nightmare into something positive.
Design and development by Virginia Singarayar. Illustration by Joseph Alessio. Photo editing by Thomas Simonetti.