Venturing into mixed martial arts’ treacherous waters for the first time in her career, Claressa Shields knew she would be swept under. The adjustment to grappling, leg kicks, submission techniques and cage awareness has proven difficult for some of the most accomplished boxers.

But after Shields fought to stay afloat against Brittney Elkin throughout most of her MMA debut in the Professional Fighters League on Thursday night, she found buoyancy, and eventually, victory.

After struggling to mount an assault against Elkin (3-7) through two rounds, Shields (1-0) turned the tide against the veteran grappler in the third, pummeling her opponent to earn an impressive stoppage victory as she begins her journey to conquer women’s boxing and MMA simultaneously.

“I feel like I am dreaming. This is crazy,” Shields said after the fight.

“I kept telling myself, ‘It’s going to be hard,’ because it’s a whole different world. I’m like, ‘It’s going to be hard,' and 'Do not expect an easy win.’ Every time I sat down in the corner I said, ‘Dang, I lost another round.’ ... When I tell you that third round came, I said, ‘I’m bout to just dog her.’ And I went crazy after that. I am not losing.”

Predictably, Elkin, a Brazilian jiu jitsu brown belt, relied on her grappling to smother Shields in the first two rounds, limiting Shields’s offense, but the novice mixed martial artist showed flashes of solid takedown defense.

Late in the second round, Elkin’s ground work seemingly set up Shields’s demise when, with 20 seconds remaining, she tugged on Shields’s left wrist to execute an arm bar. But Shields wriggled free and spent the last 10 seconds punishing Elkin’s with hammer fists.

Elkin dragged herself upright after the bell. Shields, who seemingly suffered little damage throughout the fight despite her compromised position, gained confidence.

“I’ve been doing MMA for seven months, she’s been doing it for 12 years, so I knew I was at a disadvantage. But I also knew too that I’m just a different kind of animal. Even though I felt like I was losing, I still felt like, ‘We still have time.’ ”

Shields landed two powerful right jabs in the opening seconds of the third round before Elkin attempted another takedown. Her coaches had demanded she not succumb to a third-round takedown and she listened, sinking her hips and sprawling her legs to loosen Elkin’s hook around her left thigh.

Shields escaped to her feet. Her coaches told her to let Elkin up, to rely on her strengths and fight standing up. She refused.

“I was like, ‘For what?’ No,” she said. “I had her where I knew I could just take her, just give it to her. She wasn’t strong enough to get me up so I just kept hitting her, kept hitting her and I told myself keep hitting her until she quit."

Shields stunned Elkin with a left hook from above. Elkin rolled to her side and Shields pounced, pounding Elkin for more than a minute before referee Gasper Oliver called the fight at 1:44.

An exuberant Shields, now undefeated in both of her professional careers, rose and screamed. Her mother, using a black cane with her right hand, raised her left in triumph. Shields found her from inside the cage and shouted.

“Mama. Your daughter a dog," she said. “Your daughter a dog. C’mon!”

Review the rest of Thursday night’s card below.

Shields pummels Elkin in third round to earn comeback victory in her MMA debut

4:44 a.m.
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In what was her most sustained offensive showing of the night, Shields escaped Elkin’s grasp, scrambled to her feet then returned to the canvas to pummel Elkin before the referee called the fight. For Shields, the late flurry put an emphatic stamp on a stunning comeback in her mixed martial arts debut.

Shields remains on the defensive as Elkin continues to control fight from the ground

4:35 a.m.
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Claressa Shields opened the second round with a flurry of heavy shots. She mustered a strong defense on Brittney Elkin’s first takedown attempt but an overzealous Shields allowed Elkin to take the fight back to the ground where she took side control. Shields did well to minimize the damage after Elkin assumed full mount but was unable to generate much offense before escaping an arm bar attempt in the closing moments of the round.

Brittney Elkin’s grappling controls first round against Claressa Shields

4:29 a.m.
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Brittney Elkin delivered early leg kicks and earned her first takedown at the end of the first minute. Claressa Shields maintained her composure against the cage and returned to her feet about 30 seconds later, but Elkin controlled most of the round in mount.

Clay Collard wins second straight in split decision over Joilton Lutterbach

4:26 a.m.
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An active third round appeared to clinch a split decision victory for Clay Collard over Joilton Lutterbach in a tight lightweight contest.

The final fight of the undercard ostensibly had the lowest stakes. Collard (20-8, 1NC) entered the night ahead in the playoff chase following his upset over former UFC champion Anthony Pettis in April. Lutterbach (34-10, 1 NC) was ineligible to earn points because he missed weight at 159 pounds, four over the division limit.

Bubba Jenkins clinches playoff berth with win over Bobby Moffett

3:36 a.m.
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Featherweight Bubba Jenkins’s strong start seemed to exhaust him, but it was enough to earn a unanimous decision victory over Bobby Moffett.

Jenkins (16-4), who dominated two-time division champion Lance Palmer in the 2021 season opener, appeared on track for another commanding victory through the first two rounds. The former NCAA all-American wrestler displayed solid striking and harassed Moffett (13-6) on the ground. But as he tired through the third round, Jenkins needed to escape a handful of late submission attempts to clinch a spot in the postseason.

Brendan Loughnane outguns Tyler Diamond in main card opener

3:10 a.m.
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Tyler Diamond faded and fell, but he refused to fold. The American withstood a brutal onslaught to survive the second and third rounds against Brendan Loughane. In the end, his perseverance wasn’t enough to overcome a disadvantage on the scorecard. Diamond suffered a decision defeat to the featherweight favorite Loughnane, who clinched a playoff berth with his victory.

Loughnane (21-3) is 2-0 this season. Diamond (12-2), who absorbed 74 head strikes, lost on two of three judges’ cards. The third ruled the fight 28-28.

Anthony Pettis pulled from PFL 4, rescheduled for later this month

1:59 a.m.
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Four months after former UFC lightweight champion Anthony Pettis announced his move to the Professional Fighters League, he lost to Clay Collard via unanimous decision in the promotion’s season opener.

Needing points to contend for one of four divisional playoff spots, Pettis was set to return to the cage against Alexander Martinez on Thursday, but he withdrew because of a reported illness.

Pettis will now fight Raush Manfio at PFL 6 on June 25. Martinez was pushed to Thursday’s prelims where he lost to two-time PFL lightweight champion Natan Schulte.

Also moving from Thursday’s card are 2019 featherweight champion Lance Palmer and Movlid Khaybulaev. Initially scheduled to fight separately on Thursday, they will face each other on June 25. Palmer and Khaybulaev’s original opponents, Jesse Stirn and Sheymon Moraes, met in Thursday’s prelims. Moraes won by way of a second round submission.

PFL 4 preliminary results

1:54 a.m.
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Featherweight Chris Wade (19-6) def. Arman Ospanov (11-4)

Wade illustrated why he has never suffered a knockout loss. He absorbed a round and a half of punishment from Ospanov, but hurt the Kazakhstani striker with a right leg kick in the second round, then followed up with a pair of left hooks to end the fight. Wade’s win secured a featherweight playoff berth.

Featherweight Sheymon Moraes (12-5) def. Jesse Stirn (11-5)

Moraes was in position to end a second straight round on his back, but in the closing seconds, the Brazilian reversed position and trapped Stirn’s right arm, earning the submission win by kimura lock one second before the bell.

Lightweight Loik Radzhabov (14-3-1) def. Akhmed Aliev (20-7)

Radzhabov staggered Aliev with a right hook 16 seconds into the first round, backing the Russian into the cage and forcing him to the canvas with a series of uppercuts. Aliev doubled over and covered his head as Radzhabov continued to pepper him while looking up to referee Keith Peterson to end the fight, which was called after 27 seconds. Radzhabov’s win is the fastest in the PFL lightweight division’s short history.

Lightweight Olivier Aubin-Mercier (12-5) def. Marcin Held (27-8)

Aubin-Mercier controlled the fight against Held in the night’s first bout to go three full rounds. Aubin-Mercier went on to win, 30-27, on all three judges’ cards. The result lifts Radzhabov into the lightweight division playoff.

Lightweight Natan Schulte (21-4-1) def. Alexander Martinez (8-1, 1 NC)

Schulte edged Martinez by split decision in a matchup between two fighters originally scheduled to fight different opponents. Martinez was initially slated to headline Thursday’s event against former UFC champion Anthony Pettis before Pettis withdrew on Wednesday.

What is the Professional Fighters League?

1:33 a.m.
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Claressa Shields will headline PFL 4, the fourth event in the Professional Fighters League’s 2021 season, which also features multiple men’s lightweight and featherweight bouts.

The PFL, a relaunched version of the former World Series of Fighting, debuted in 2018.

The league features five men’s divisions — ranging from featherweight (145 pounds) through heavyweight (up to 265 pounds) — and a women’s lightweight division (155). Fighters progress through regular and postseasons to a season-ending championship, with each division winner taking a $1 million prize.

PFL’s third season was postponed last year because of the coronavirus pandemic. The 2021 season began in April.

Shields’s manager, Mark Taffet told USA Today that they explored the possibility of competing in other mixed martial arts promotions, including UFC, Bellator, and the Singapore-based ONE Championship, but opted for PFL because it afforded her the space to grow accustomed to the sport.

Shields’s Thursday fight will not count toward the league’s regular season standings. She is expected to contend as early as next year, at which point she would be eligible for the $1 million prize.

Who is Brittney Elkin?

1:23 a.m.
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Brittney Elkin is nothing if not confident, predicting a second-round victory over Claressa Shields.

After all, Elkin is a veteran of MMA, a sport in which Shields is making her debut. But she has lost her last three bouts and came out of retirement to face Shields. Elkin’s first MMA fight was in 2014 and she has gone 3-6 over the years. She retired after breaking her arm in a Jan. 19, 2019, fight against Bobbi Jo Dalziel.

Elkin, who turns 35 Saturday, knows her role. She was the logical choice to face Olympic judo gold medalist Kayla Harrison in her MMA debut in 2018.

“I knew the second that we started talking about this how big this fight is going to be for women’s sports,” Elkin told MMA Fighting. “I know who Claressa is and I know what my stylistic difference is, but I think the reason the PFL calls me is because I say yes. Simple enough. Because I make bold moves, I believe in myself, and I kept a reputable — I’m not an unprofessional person.”

And she’s ready to face another Olympian.

“[PFL President Ray Sefo] asked me and I’m not gonna lie, I went through a roller coaster of emotions in my head,” Elkin said. “I’ve been retired for almost three years and, yeah, he presented it and I kept on trying to search my head: What have I got going on?

“I’ve got an almost adult kid, who’s doing wonderful and getting good grades, so check. He’s also polite and I don’t have to work on his morals, he’s doing nice things, so great. I’m not injured. … I couldn’t find a reason to say no. I couldn’t find one.”

MMA offers Claressa Shields a chance to financially capitalize on her skills

1:16 a.m.
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Claressa Shields accumulated five gold medals and a near-spotless record throughout her amateur and professional boxing careers. She parlayed that into becoming the first woman to headline and win a card on a premium cable network when she defeated Szilvia Szabados on Showtime in 2017.

Despite the accolades and exposure, Shields, who has said she had never been paid more than $350,000 for a fight, has decried the difference in earnings and commercial opportunities that she’s received compared to less dominant and less decorated men’s fighters.

That frustration helped fuel her move to mixed martial arts, a sport that has seen several women earn greater stardom and payouts, while topping cards that include some of the biggest men’s fighters in the sport.

Former UFC champion Ronda Rousey earned a $3 million purse for her 2016 loss to Amanda Nunes, which came 48 seconds into the bout. The following year, Cris Cyborg made at least $500,000 for her victory over Holly Holm, another boxer-turned-mixed-martial-artist, who helped train Shields for Thursday’s fight. Nunes, the most dominant women’s mixed martial artist in the world, earned $450,000 for her 2020 victory over Felicia Spencer, according to MMA Junkie — a sum almost twice as much as any man who fought on that night’s card.

Shields’s move to MMA has already proven remunerative. She said she recently signed an endorsement deal with Bose, and that other deals are in the works.

Mark Taffet, Shields’s manager, told USA Today that her Professional Fighters League contract calls for two fights this year. She is expected join the PFL’s regular season as early as next year, which would make her eligible for the postseason and the $1 million championship reward.

Twice an Olympic gold medalist, Shields fights to grow boxing’s visibility

1:12 a.m.
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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 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.

The Shields-Elkin fight, by the numbers

1:07 a.m.
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Claressa Shields is an undisputed force in boxing with two Olympic gold medals. Now she’ll try to establish herself as an MMA star in a five-round lightweight bout against Brittney Elkin in PFL 4.

Tale of the tape: Shields, 26, stands 5 feet 8 with a reach of 68 inches; Elkin, 34, is 6 feet with a 71-inch reach. Shields has an 11-0 record (two knockouts) in boxing; this is her first MMA fight. Elkin is 3-6-0 in MMA.

Odds: Shields -335 (bet $335 to win $100), Elkin +245 (bet $100 to win $245) via DraftKings Sportsbook

Undercard: Bubba Jenkins vs. Bobby Moffett (featherweights); Clay Collard vs. Joilton Lutterbach (lightweight); Brendan Loughnane vs. Tyler Diamond (featherweight); Brendan Loughnane vs. Tyler Diamond (featherweight).