It’s not exactly a well-kept secret that Claressa Shields is adrenalized by a determination to do absolutely nothing by only half measures. Denied so much for so long because of her race, gender, and geographic location, this proud young black woman has made it a significant part of her mission to put Flint, Michigan in the headlines for reasons other than the health crisis caused by its lead-lined water pipes, or the contributing factors which have earned her place of birth and hometown the unfortunate distinction as one of America’s most dangerous cities.
To be able to ask a little boy who his top 5 favorite fighters are and have that answer include some women’s names (chiefly her own, it’s safe to assume), that is another major component that fuels the fire burning so brightly within her, radiating outward and torching stereotypes.
‘T-Rex’ took one more emphatic leap in the right direction on Friday night. Having followed up her repeat performance as an Olympic gold medal-winning middleweight in Rio de Janeiro last August with a shutout of former amateur foe Franchon Crews in the professional debut for both on the undercard of the highly anticipated and subsequently hotly debated light-heavyweight battle between Andre Ward and Sergey Kovalev, Claressa desired both a steep step up in opposition and a personally higher profile for her second paid fight. She got her wish on both counts.
Salita Promotions, the MGM Grand Detroit, and Showtime conspired to elevate Shields to main event status. Of secondary importance was the fact that Claressa Shields would be competing for the yet to be possessed NABF Middleweight Title, previously squabbled over only once by Christy Martin and Valerie Mahfood back in 2008, ending in an anticlimactic majority draw.
The far more significant achievement was the establishment of Shields as the primary participant in the first ever women’s bout to headline a boxing bill on premium cable television when Shobox: The New Generation took to the airwaves at 10pm EST on March 10. Although Amanda Serrano’s victory over Yazmin Rivas for the vacant WBO World Super-Bantamweight Title at Barclays Center in January capped off that evening’s edition of Showtime Extreme, their bout appeared on the undercard of the Badou Jack/James Degale super-middleweight unification which was featured on a separate broadcast afterwards.
Wise beyond her 21 years (Shields turns 22 next Friday), symptomatic of the volatile circumstances of her upbringing that forces an individual into a premature but ultimately necessary decision to adapt and evolve or else regress and perish, Claressa takes nothing for granted and expresses genuine appreciation for the opportunity to undertake each of her history-making endeavors. And impressive they already are, with many more to come if she has her way.
Szilvia Szabados was selected as the woman to attempt to halt that forward progress or, at the very least, provide ‘T-Rex’ a tough night at the office by testing her stamina and work ethic over six rounds. One quick glance at Szilvia’s resume was assurance enough that she had a halfway decent chance at accomplishing one or the other.
A three-year veteran of the prize ring, Szabados brought a 15-8 career record into the Motor City, dispatching six of her opponents by way of knockout. Having contested each of her fights to that point in either her native Hungary or neighboring Slovakia, Szabados added a German stamp inside her passport in July 2015 for the purpose of challenging Nikki Adler for her WBC World Super-Middleweight Championship in only her ninth pro fight. Szilvia gave a good account of herself but came up on the short end of a unanimous decision to the still undefeated Adler. She has stepped between the ropes with two other former world titlists in South African Noni Tenge and Mikaela Lauren, the Nordic super-welterweight nicknamed ‘Destiny’ who has proven the only one of Szabados’ victorious adversaries capable of a win via stoppage prior to this fight.
This would be Szilvia’s third time touching down inside the United States and she was certainly hopeful of a shot at redemption after previously unsuccessful bids against Long Island’s WBC Silver Super-Welterweight title-holder Alicia Napoleon, as well as Aleksandra Magdziak Lopes, who was similarly vying for the vacant WBC Silver Welterweight belt in Plymouth, Massachusetts.
During the customary stare-down and pose-off following Thursday’s weigh-in, Claressa walked over to Szabados and flexed her biceps right in her face then, positioned side by side as the two mugged for the cameras, took a deliberate step to her left, momentarily obscuring her opponent before Szilvia good-naturedly elbowed her way back into frame. Despite the smile on Shields’ face and the warm handshake initiated by Claressa before parting ways onstage, there was an implicit message conveyed by her body language. This is my show. You are here as a supporting player. That’s my spotlight illuminating your face. Don’t get too cute and overstep your mark. Her exact words to Szabados, spoken defiantly during an accompanying press conference, constituted a pre-emptive warning of sorts that “I’m not going to let you beat me in front of my family.”
Indeed, Shields’ family, friends, and amateur teammates Mikaela Mayer and Virginia Fuchs joined the capacity crowd on hand at the MGM Grand Detroit to lend moral support and witness Claressa achieve another bit of history in the bargain. Also back in the fold was Jason Crutchfield, her original trainer and father figure, to work once more Claressa’s corner. If they, along with Showtime’s home viewers, were hoping to see an evenly matched display of scientific skill, all (except for Shields herself, predicting and trying with all her might for a show-stopping knockout) were left wanting in that regard.
Things took an immediate turn for the worse for Szabados as Shields smothered her from the opening bell, allowing little open space to breathe or mount any sort of offensive of her own. Although the punch-count statistics would tell a somewhat different story, it certainly seemed as though Claressa connected with almost everything she threw, a tireless barrage of concussive power punches unloosed by both hands that would have floored a lesser foe. Had Shields employed the uppercut that Crutchfield was urging her to add into the mix, Szabados just might have ended the evening flat on her back.
Illogically, and much to Shields’ consternation, her Hungarian counterpart remained vertical. That, however, was about the only thing going in Szilvia’s favor. Claressa’s over-exuberance abated somewhat in the second round as she settled down and, initially anyway, looked to pick her shots a little more studiously. The embodiment of confidence and composure known only to most seasoned pros, Shields was very aware that she could have her way with Szabados and wound her right arm in circular fashion bent at the elbow, Kid Gavilan style, working up to a bolo punch that won more points for style than substance. So as not to be engaged in a strictly head-hunting expedition, Claressa stomped on the gas of an ambidextrous body attack and, unafraid of catching the few counterpunches coming her way as she did so, continued her forward march, armed with left and right hooks and the knowledge that volume and impact were the key to a knockout–Szabados simply helpless to defend herself in such a pressure cooker situation.
If her opponent was not equal to the physical aggression, neither was Claressa’s sports bra, a strap of which came unfastened in what 2017 IBHOF inductee Steve Farhood joked was a “wardrobe malfunction” early in the fourth and soon to be final round. Before it could devolve into a Janet Jackson at the Super Bowl type debacle, Shields landed yet another brutal left hook which prompted referee Harvey Dock to jump between the combatants, waving the fight off and walking a disappointed but beleaguered Szabados back to her corner with 30 seconds left on the clock, thereby sparing her two additional rounds of needless abuse. It doesn’t require a comprehensive understanding of Euclidian geometry to jump to the conclusion that, having landed only 8% of her 137 punches which paled in comparison to the fact that just one of those was a jab, Szilvia was fighting in a perpetual state of frenzied self-preservation with little else left to accomplish.
Although she disagreed with Farhood’s post-fight assessment that she began unnecessarily assertive and was forcing her way to a knockout to the abandonment of an engineered game plan, Shields admitted that attention to defensive strategy is what needs primary focus in the future. Surely we are witnessing a work in progress, but the raw materials required to build a sustainable infrastructure are all present and must be lovingly nurtured and cautiously monitored so that the train does not steam ahead of the tracks being laid down before it.
Let’s stop for a second to consider the ongoing college basketball exploits of the UConn women Huskies. Stay with me here. Against all expectations, the 2017 squad has pulled off the continuation of a 107-game winning streak, which includes two national titles and one more AAC Tournament victory on the way to another presumed #1 seed and probable championship. All to the delight of themselves and their fans and to the utter astonishment of their critics as well as their head coach. In fact, Geno Auriemma has repeatedly expressed his regret that his girls had not fallen to defeat during the regular season. Why is that, one might wonder? Because Auriemma knows all too well that endless gratification is a breeding ground for the virus of complacency, harmful to the mindset of any athlete or ordinary human being and, when one punch can be an abrupt and violent game-changer, a potentially fatal flaw.
So long as Claressa and Team T-Rex are cognizant of this, and there is no evidence to suggest that they are not (endearing braggadocio notwithstanding), the gears should start soon grinding more efficiently and compliment one another’s individual virtues, turning the compelling fighter that Shields most definitely is into a more complete fighter who will thrive at the professional level.
Well before the match with Szabados had been confirmed, Claressa had put WBC and WBO World Middleweight Champion Christina Hammer on notice, a brazen move for anyone with one lone pro fight under their belt. But, as she has exhibited time and again, Claressa Shields is not just anyone. Hammer and Shields met for some amiable small talk and an impromptu photo opportunity at December’s WBC Convention where the seeds may have first been sown for negotiations which are rumored to be presently underway.
Assuming all goes according to plan and Hammer holds onto her belt following an April 1st tussle with Maria Lindberg, while Claressa stays active, shows constant improvement, and remains unbeaten, a championship match is rumored to potentially take place as early as this autumn.
If there is a detriment to Shields’ ascension, it may well be the lack of character-building opportunities available within the relatively incomprehensive middleweight and super-middleweight female divisions as opposed to the far more talent-heavy weight classes below hers. Less quality competition might mean fewer warm bodies to have to dispose of as she is presumably fast-tracked to world title contention and international super-stardom. However, it also presents a problem wherein Claressa is given a compromised yardstick against which to measure her own progress as her upward mobility is charted.
Be that as it may, ‘T-Rex’ storms ahead, shouldering burdens damn near equal to the weight of the world and yet remaining unshakable and unimpeded by obstacles whether physical and ideological.