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Claressa Shields enters a critical stretch in her quest to become a two-sport star

Claressa Shields looks to remain unbeaten in her professional fighting career when she faces Abigail Montes in an exhibition MMA bout Wednesday. (Cooper Neill/PFL MMA)
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Claressa Shields set a new standard in 2021, becoming in March the first boxer in the four-belt era to be an undisputed champion in two divisions, then overcoming a sizable experience gap to win her mixed martial arts debut three months later.

The latter accomplishment marked the first of two MMA bouts meant to help ease the undefeated boxer’s transition to a new sport, which she eventually hopes to dominate much the way she has boxing (11-0, two knockouts as a professional). If Shields impresses again in her second MMA exhibition, she could join the nascent Professional Fighters League circuit as a formal competitor as early as next year. Her 2022 schedule also could include a long-awaited rematch against boxer Savannah Marshall (11-0, nine KOs), who in 2012 became the only fighter to defeat Shields in an amateur bout.

But both challenges hinge on how she closes 2021.

She will face Abigail Montes (2-0) in a Professional Fighters League exhibition Wednesday, part of the league’s season-ending championship card in Hollywood, Fla. She will then jump back into the boxing ring Dec. 11 to defend her middleweight titles against Ema Kozin (21-0-1, 11 KOs) just six weeks later.

Ahead of her second PFL fight, Shields spoke to The Washington Post about her preparation and her aspirations. (This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.)

From January 2020: Inside Claressa Shields’s quest to make boxing history before taking on MMA

The last time we spoke, in August, you were preparing to return to Albuquerque for prefight camp. How has your preparation for Abigail Montes differed from your preparation for Brittney Elkin, whom you beat in June?

With the Elkin fight camp, we worked a lot on my ground game, which we still did this fight, but I was more comfortable so I was able to widen my horizons. We worked on adding to my offense, being more knowledgeable on the ground and being more comfortable with my punches, knowing that I know how to stop takedowns.

So polishing your offensive skills a bit more, whereas your last camp was focused on ground and takedown defense?

Yeah. I haven’t been in MMA a full year yet, but I think I’ve grown. Fast. I’ve learned a lot, and with your first MMA fight you have some nerves, you don’t know what to expect. I was able to get those feelings and jitters out the way, so I feel more comfortable this fight.

I imagine that’s big, emotionally.

It was. Your first MMA fight, and you’ve only been doing it for six months. Some people [outside my camp] said, “We want you to train for two years, then have your first fight,” and I was like, “Hell nah.” I think they just wanted me to have an explosive MMA debut and go into it like a champion, but I was like, “I want to learn on the job.” It’s more fun that way.

That’s one hell of a job to learn on the job.

It really is, but to be able to live in that moment, win, lose, or draw, I know I’m going to put forth my best effort and learn and get better. No other boxer is willing to do this, especially on the level that I’m on. I’m making myself vulnerable in front of millions of people. I have so much to lose because I’ve gained so much in boxing.

If I was to oversimplify your last fight, it was a contest between a grappler and a powerful striker. This time you’re facing someone who is very comfortable standing and boxing. How do you view this stylistic matchup?

I think she’s comfortable throwing punches and trying to push girls backward. Looking at her fights, she’s fought against some really unathletic girls. Boxing is fighting in the pocket, so I’m definitely going to go in there and show her that she can’t out-strike me. I think when she sees she can’t out-strike me, she will try to take it to the ground. We have a lot in store for this fight, so you’ll be able to see the growth from last fight to this fight.

During last month’s PFL news conference, you told the story about [UFC champion] Amanda Nunes and how a desire to compete against her influenced your decision to try MMA. Looking down the road, who are the fighters you would most like to face? Do you have a favorite MMA fighter?

I’m just a person looking for the best. I do want to be able to say I’m the greatest in MMA, and to be the greatest you have to beat the greats, and right now Kayla Harrison is the great of the PFL, and the UFC has Amanda Nunes.

I love watching Joanna [Jedrzejczyk], Holly Holm, Michelle Waterson, [Jon Jones], Demetrious Johnson, Aaron Pico. Of the ones that I do know [Holm, Waterson, Jones and Pico], I feel like we all are hard workers and we all just put our best foot forward. You train your butt off, and you fight. We all have that in common. We don’t let age or gender, or even our past, define us. We just keep moving forward and trying to be better.

From 2019: Claressa Shields is battling for pro titles and more exposure for women’s boxing

This is maybe a better question to ask after Wednesday’s fight, but the plan was for you to compete in the PFL regular season in 2022 or 2023. Based on where you are now, when would you expect to make your official debut?

If you talk to my coaches, they’ll say next year because they have so much confidence in me. But we still got some learning curves to go. I believe that 2023 is the golden year.

I know you’ve spoken about Jake Paul before, but I’d like to ask you about him, less as a personality and more as an influence on the sport. Former UFC fighters have described lucrative paydays for headlining his fight cards, and some have talked about Paul sharing a platform that some boxers otherwise wouldn’t have. What do you make of his impact on the popularity of boxing?

I feel like people kind of misjudge me when I speak on that. They think [I have] some kind of hatred toward him, and it’s not [that]. Look, he [brought] a different crowd, a different type of energy to boxing that boxing has needed. He brought a different fan base, which is good, because it’s more fans. The only thing that I don’t like personally is when you speak of accomplishments. I look at it as, “What makes him better than me to where he can fight main event, pay-per-view on Showtime but Claressa Shields can’t?”

I have put in so much hard work, and he gets to be the main event, what, because he has a lot of YouTube subscribers and makes it a circus? I trash-talk, and I was getting over [500,000] views. So it’s like, what makes Claressa Shields not good enough to fight on pay-per-view?

It’s more an issue with how gender and social dynamics affect the difference in opportunities.

Yeah, exactly. So it’s no hate toward him. All blessings to him and his brother; they [brought] a different crowd and actually made me create my YouTube channel. They inspired me to work more on my social media platform to get bigger numbers, [and] it showed me that having a brand matters. So I’m working more on that and also continuing to work on my craft.

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