S is for Shields

Claressa Shields would be considered a Cinderella story, if Cinderella could be described as a brutish annihilator who liked “to make the girls cry.” Whose nickname is T-Rex. Who talks trash like crazy and is dismissive of anyone who dares challenge her. Still, Shields overcame odds just to make it into the Olympics, then accomplished what no American had ever done, winning back-to-back gold medals in boxing. Even now, with a lifetime record of 87-1, she could be considered an underdog. Because Claressa Shields is from Flint, Michigan.

Claressa Shields, double gold medalist in boxing. Photo from ESPN, “Made in Flint.”

Though some people chose to focus on my hair, my body and the way I talked, I couldn’t care less about a hairstyle or the way I spoke. If you asked me about college, family and my upbringing, I was mute. I didn’t want to talk about anything I didn’t understand or anything that was hurtful. Now, if you asked me about boxing, we could have a conversation.

Shields, “A Letter to Boxing Fans,” in TheUndefeated.com.

A Long Line of Boxers Redefining the World

Boxing once was one of the most popular sports in America. Wrestling and boxing both go back to ancient times, and Olympic boxing has been a cornerstone sport since 1904. Before Mixed Martial Arts and other sports opportunities spread across airwaves, boxing was one of the pre-eminent entertainments. It even attracted movies like 1933’s “The Prizefighter and the Lady,” with Myrna Loy cheering on heavyweight Max Baer in a cinematic fight against an opponent he would go on to beat real life.

Myrna Loy in the blazing frock, when boxing was in its heyday. Photo at Pinterest.

Boxers emerging from tough backgrounds almost seems like a definition in terms. Struggling out of poverty and discrimination would make an athlete a fighter, figuratively and literally. Famed boxer Joe Louis came from an Alabama sharecropper family who moved to Detroit to escape the KKK. Muhammad Ali dug himself out of racist rural Kentucky and was both outspoken in his beliefs and a champion against war and inequality. He called himself “The Greatest,” and backed it up with a fighting record and lifetime of philanthropy.

Shields, who labels herself the GWOAT–Greatest Woman of All Time–seems to be following in Ali’s footsteps.

Gun Violence, Bottled Water Showers, and Curfews

Flint, Michigan was first brought to prominence in Michael Moore’s documentary, “Roger and Me,” where he described how General Motors’ abandonment of its auto plant turned its back on the city. Twenty years later, the city was awash in poverty. The environment where Shields grew up was rough beyond imagination. Her father spent time in prison for breaking and entering; her mother had substance abuse problems. She grew up hardly able to speak and likely abused by strangers wandering in and out of the house. The mean girls at school threw her homework in the trash. She lost friends to gun violence and drugs. Even after Shields had found success in boxing, things got worse for Flint.

In 2013, because the city could not meet financial obligations, emergency managers decided to switch to a cheaper source of water. They chose an option where the source was untreated, and, within a few months, lead from aging pipes leached into the water supply, poisoning the community. Four years later, after lengthy court battles, outbreaks of Legionnaire’s disease, and under the spotlight of disgrace, the city started replacing the pipes. Meanwhile, pre-Olympics interviews showed Shields delivering bottled water to family and neighbors for everything, including bathing. Even as late as April of last year, Shields was still headlining bottled water drives for the city.

Flint and other densely-populated poor communities in southeast Michigan have also been hit unduly hard by Covid-19. Stories of the inequities in the health system have shown illness and death rates among the black community much higher than elsewhere. The first black superintendent of schools died from Covid-19, and, recently, the mayor instituted a curfew to combat rising infection and crime. The pipe-replacement project, projected for completion by summer 2020, has now been put on hold.

Should They Box in Skirts?

In contrast to Shields’ tough environment, boxing seems stuck in another century. While its popularity rose to prominence twenty years ago, in part from participation by headliners like Laila Ali, Games organizer were slow to embrace the sport. It was viewed as too unladylike in an environment that had barely agreed to allow women weightlifters and pole vaulters.

That changed finally in London 2012, when three women’s weight divisions were added. At the time, the worldwide boxing federations proposed that the women wear skirts, both to make them more “womanly” and because spectators might “confuse” them with men. Amateur London boxer Elizabeth Plank had to petition to end the sex-based uniform.

Shields earned a berth in the first middleweight contest in London with an amateur record of 25-0. Still, at the qualifying 2012 World Amateur Championships, age 17, she was still untested and raw. London’s Savannah Marshall beat her on points, and Shields seethed. She still qualified, hoping for a rematch with Marshall, but her British opponent was taken out by Kazakhstan’s Marina Volnova.

Disappointed not to face Marshall, Shields easily beat Volnova to advance. When she faced Nadezda Torlopova in the finals, the Russian boxer could only cover her face as the quick-footed Shields ran circles around her, taking shots at will. While one announcer gushed, “She’s going to restore luster the American program,” all the other one could say was, “My goodness!”

My Goodness, Indeed

After London 2012, people started to take notice of the brash young fighter. A documentary, “T-Rex: Her Fight for Gold,” made its way to the public TV channels. Shields herself expected more in the way of sponsorship and endorsements with a gold medal hanging around her neck, though nothing was forthcoming. Finally, in a meeting with agents and U.S. Boxing, they asked her to tone down the rhetoric. She was too mouthy and too aggressive. She shouldn’t say things like, “I like to make the girls cry.” But Shields, who didn’t talk much when she was growing up, had plenty to say now. She switched trainers to Irish boxing legend Billy Walsh. If the corporations didn’t back her, she could at least support charities and bring attention to Flint. The cameras did follow her, even if the sponsors did not. And she prepared for Rio.

Easily outscoring Dutch fighter Fontijn for the 2016 gold medal. Photo by Brent Lewis.

During the 2016 Olympic tournament, there is no more talk of skirts. There had been a change in scoring, rewarding the overall quality of the fight rather than just counting punches. It was an attempt to reduce cheating, although nearly as many referees and judges ending up under a cloud of suspicion. Shields herself adapted her style to the new format, breezing through the opening rounds, hardly touched. In the semi-final with another Kazakhstani fighter, Shields delivers what the announcer calls “a bit of schooling.” The other semi-final, between Nouchka Fontijn of the Netherlands and Chinese Li Qian, includes a lot of clinching and illicit blows to the head by Qian. Fontijn wins on points.

When Shields meets Fontijn in the gold medal match, she can do something no American boxer ever attempted. Although American Oliver Kirk won gold medals in two different divisions in 1904, no U.S. boxer has ever won consecutive golds. Fontijn is inches taller, with a longer and potentially deadlier reach. She is no cream-puff; in a Dutch TV profile, a smirking reporter lasts ten seconds in the ring with her.

In Rio, though, it is Fontijn’s turn to get schooled. She lands a few punches, but Shields’ agility is like a snake’s. Somehow she is able to lean away and deliver a blow with the other fist at the same time. Near the end of the match, Fontijn backs away, until Shields stands back and waves, come and get me. Perhaps it’s playground stuff, childish, but you can’t help think of the bullies, the poisoned water, the indifferent officials from home.

When Shields’ wins her second gold, she does a cartwheel. During the TV interview the next day, she pulls the gold from London out of her pocket, clearly folded from being carried around at the ready. She slings both around her neck, grinning with audacity.

The Best is Yet to Come

Opportunities for women boxers, like corporate sponsorships, continue to be rare. Shields has been outspoken on the point as HBO and other networks refused to schedule fights or pay prize money close to the men’s events: “All the respect to all the women that box, we have more than one fight… [we are] fighting for equal pay and equal time on T.V… we don’t get enough sponsorships or endorsements as the men”.

Yet in spite of her brashness or perhaps because of it, in the three years since that double gold, Shields has pushed her way into match after match. Boxing has multiple associations, which allow for multiple “world” champions to exist simultaneously. Shields has plowed systematically through the WBA, WBC, WBO, and IBF divisions to become the fastest holder of all three championships in history.

Shields now holds multiple middleweight professional titles. Photo at Visisj.com.

Controversy still surrounds her. A fight for a title with Croatian Ivana Habazin was scheduled to come to Flint, and Shields was thrilled to bring pride and money flowing into her hometown. Yet during one of the pre-fight interviews, Habazin’s coach was sucker-punched in the back of the head. The culprit, arrested and sentenced to a year in jail, was Shields’ brother. One more family failing to break her heart.

 My heart is with my city of Flint, a city desperately in need of some good news — desperately in need of a moment of relief from the every day chaos and trauma of living with poverty and violence. My heart is with the team at Showtime and the hundreds of people who invested in my dream and stood behind me when I desired to give back to my hometown.

Shields, commenting on her brother attacking her opponent’s coach.

The fight with Habazin did finally take place in January 2020, as one of the biggest billed fight in recent Showtime history. Shields won the title, appropriately enough, with a female referee.

At the end of last year, Shields won the Sportswoman of the Year for the second time, sharing the Individual award with Team winner Megan Rapinoe. She’s not the first double awardee, but since she plans to keep fighting and advocating, it’s possible to imagine more to come.

Shields Sportswoman of the Year for the second time in 2019. Photo by Theo Wargo.

There has been talk of Laila Ali coming out of retirement for a fight but that seems more publicity stunt than athletic competition. There’s talk of Shields finally getting her rematch with Savannah Marshall, also gone pro. Shields is still begging to be tested. She’s working on kicks so as to venture into MMA, which seems to be where the real money is going these days. She already has the trash-talking game for it.

No matter what shade is thrown at her, Shields continues to take and give as much in return, both in the ring and in life, advocating for gender equality and against discrimination in echoes of those who came before.

My definition of a strong woman is a woman with big, in-shape muscles, is strong-minded, and has a beautiful smile and a voice so loud that she can never be silent in a room of inequality. The world is changing. Accept me and accept us! This is the year of the overcomer.

Shields, “A Letter to Boxing Fans,” in TheUndefeated.com.

Shields even extols her own personal slogan: The best is yet to come.

There’s no doubt of that. She’s only just turned 25 years old.

This post continues the A to Z challenge focusing on the Olympics. We’re on the home stretch!

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