Say what you will about Claressa Shields. Staunch supporters and internet trolls alike do exactly that in equal and opposing measure and, even unasked, ‘T-Rex’ herself will gladly and brashly expound on the subject. Claressa can undoubtedly talk the talk but possesses the pugilistic goods to back up those boasts by putting her fists where your mouth is. So to speak.
Before she stepped onto the scales at Thursday’s weigh-in, Shields walked onstage wearing a track jacket on the back of which was emblazoned in gold lettering the acronym GWOAT (Greatest Woman Of All Time). Such a provocative gesture draws immediate parallels to the most divisive of boxing’s contemporary male figures, Claressa’s fellow Michigan native Floyd Mayweather Jr. On a far grander scale, and in a more general sense, Shields’ demeanor raises eyebrows, if not hackles, by shaking up the established order in a manner not dissimilar from that of Muhammad Ali’s nursery rhyme knockout predictions and voluminous praise for his own attributes, both aesthetically and athletically, before his later recognition as an internationally beloved icon.
Laila Ali has publicly passed the generational torch used to illuminate women’s boxing to Claressa, with the supplemental endorsement of Christy Martin and Ann Wolfe. Having already been spoken of in glowing terms by Andre Ward, Claressa more recently received high praise from Thomas Hearns who paid a visit to her training camp leading up to Shields’ third professional bout versus Sydney Leblanc. “I came out to see her because I want her to do well. I think it’s wonderful that a female fighter is the best from Michigan right now. The world is all about change and this is change for the better. I feel good about it,” said ‘The Motor City Cobra’ to reporters back in May. Hearns would be among those in attendance at Friday’s world title fight. “The fans in Michigan should come out and help support her because she is the future.”
Needless to say, Shields was overjoyed at the complimentary reception given to her by the legend who cut his teeth at Detroit’s storied Kronk Gym. “To have Tommy Hearns come out to my gym means a lot to me. I feel like I’m moving my career in the right direction and getting the right attention. I’m not just some girl putting on some gloves,” she acknowledged with more than a little humility. “It means a lot to be the latest big-name fighter to come from Michigan. He is very supportive and it feels great to be respected by such a great world champion.”
Claressa has also won the respect and friendship of new UFC Featherweight Champion Cris ‘Cyborg’ Justino, with whom she sparred in late June to help prepare Cyborg for her title-winning effort against Tonya Evinger. Justino accompanied Shields on Friday evening’s ring entrance and was seated next to 21-0 WBC/WBO Middleweight World Champion Christina Hammer who flew in from Germany to size up her future challenger in person.
Both Hammer and Cyborg predicted an easy victory for Claressa with the German world champion stating analytically (and, as things would play out, accurately), “I think Claressa wins the fight easy because Nikki is not so flexible, she’s very slow and I think Claressa can beat her with fast hands.” True to Hammer’s words, the ‘Battle of the Best’ at Detroit’s MGM Grand didn’t turn out to be much of a battle, not when one combatant (and a 16-0 world champion with 9 KOs, no less) lands a total of six punches over five (two-minute) rounds.
Shields frustrated and completely shut down the previously undefeated Adler by exhibiting vastly improved punch placement which only accentuated her well-established hand speed. Body blows were delivered to both sides of Nikki’s ribcage in rapid-fire fashion and Claressa’s head-shots were well-timed and thrown straight down the pike rather than looping around the long way from the shoulder of the road as had been her favored technique in past outings.
Not only was Adler unable to step on the accelerator, Shields prevented her from even getting the keys in the ignition. Unleashing over 250 more punches than the defending champion, Claressa ultimately caused Adler’s sputtering engine to seize altogether in the fifth round by connecting with 54% of her accumulated shots. The TKO victory earned Shields both Nikki’s WBC Super-Middleweight World Title and the inaugural version of the IBF’s corresponding belt in only her fourth fight as a professional, sixteen days shy of one year since she won her second consecutive Olympic gold medal in Rio de Janeiro.
GWOAT? That’s a hell of a designation to live up to and certainly remains to be proven. Beyond question, her highly-decorated amateur career was a solid opening statement. The jury on this case will be out for some time to come and probably never reach a definitive verdict, but the presentation Claressa gave on her own behalf last night makes for a convincing argument in her favor. More supporting evidence must be presented and opposing witnesses will and shall come forward to provide conflicting testimony.
Among those who will have something to say regarding Claressa’s claim to greatness is Savannah Marshall of Great Britain, the one and only woman to have defeated Shields in 78 amateur contests at the 2012 World Championships in Qinhuangdao, China. Marshall made public her professional pact with Mayweather Promotions a month and a half ago and will be debuting on Floyd’s undercard on August 26 against an adversary yet to be determined. I can only imagine that a highly publicized grudge match between Savannah and Claressa sometime down the line would have to be considered inevitable, a thinking man’s (or woman’s) no-brainer.
On a night that could very well have been all about her, Shields dedicated her historic world title fight to Kanasha Thomas, her high school classmate who was gunned down at a block party in June. Claressa paid her respects to Thomas by wearing her hair in purple braids (her friend’s favorite color) and having her picture stitched onto her ring gear which was dark green and gold, the colors of Flint Northwestern High School where Kanasha was a Wildcats’ majorette.
Flint’s escalating gun violence is a contributing factor as to why Shields splits time these days between Michigan and Boynton Beach, Florida. This past week, she personally witnessed a shooting during her promotional appearance at a softball game outside the Berston Field House.
For those who choose to trap ‘T-Rex’ in the opinionated enclosure of the reputation as a self-obsessed me-monster, I submit for your consideration these sentiments coming from a 22-year-old two-time Olympic gold medalist who took home $50,000 and two world title belts Friday night. “They don’t understand how important a life is and we have to make the kids coming up realize that,” urged Shields. “We’ve got to let them know that the most valuable thing is life. It’s not money or material things.”