By Cliff Rold
Sometimes there is just no need to beat around the bush.
Claressa Shields (3-0, 1 KO), still only 22 years old, ended a fantastic amateur run in 2016 with her second Olympic Gold Medal in the women’s middleweight division. She hasn’t lost a fight of any kind since a decision defeat in the 2012 World Amateurs and she won additional gold at the 2014 and 2016 editions.
That’s a level of experience most women in the professional super middleweight division don’t have. Her handlers clearly think she’s ready for the top of her class now.
She’ll get a chance to prove them right Friday night.
It’s been a quick ascent since standing atop the podium last summer.
She debuted as a professional last November on the undercard of Andre Ward-Sergey Kovalev I. There was some nice symmetry there with Ward, Shields attached to the last American before her (male or female) to win Gold. In March she became the first woman to headline a Showtime broadcast, winning on ShoBox over Szilvia Szabados. Now she’s back on Showtime (10:30 PM EST/PST), again in the main event, with a chance to add two sanctioning body titles to an already full trophy case.
Standing in her way will be Germany’s 30-year old Nikki Adler (16-0, 9 KO). Adler holds the WBC crown at 168 lbs. and is attempting her third title defense. A vacant IBF belt will also be on the line. Adler and Shields share a common opponent in Szabados. Shields stopped her in four rounds. Adler Successfully defended her title against her in 2015 over ten rounds.
Watching tape of them both, the experience of the distance may be Adler’s biggest advantage. Shields is being asked to potentially go the full ten round route, albeit in two-minute frames. Women’s boxing is beginning to do more fights with traditional three-minute rounds but not here. Shield’s last fight went the eight round distance. Adler has been ten rounds six times.
Whenever a fighter starts gunning for titles so soon in their career, it’s natural to ask if they’re arriving too early. It’s not that this is something boxing fans don’t see. Japan has several fighters holding titles right now who all won their first gold before their career was ten fights old. They weren’t arriving too early. They were already the goods. Good matchmaking allowed them to win titles as the got even better.
The same formula may be at work this weekend. Shields, while not as refined in the ring, has amateur credentials in the women’s game that could be considered an equivalent to male standout like Vasyl Lomachenko. Lomachenko challenged for a title in his second pro fight and won a belt in his third.
Shields doesn’t appear to be facing an equivalent to Orlando Salido or Gary Russell here.
Adler is a good enough fighter, tough and determined but without a ton of speed or evident athleticism. This is only Adler’s third fight since July 2015 and, at least according to BoxRec, her resume isn’t littered with wildly experienced professionals.
There are a lot of talented women in the paid ranks. Most of them reside further down the scale. Women’s super middleweight is a wide-open field and one where Shields can both begin a title reign and hope to see a division rise around her.
A fighter is often only as interesting as the opponents available to them. It would be no surprise if many tuning in this weekend have never heard of Adler or many others in the division. Shields carries a dual burden. She is building her place in the sport, hoping to carve out a market position for herself but that will require getting the public educated about her rivals.
She can get places as a show for people to tune into. The fans at the MGM Grand Detroit will be there to see the Flint, Michigan native crowned. They’re not going to be concerned with who is across the ring from Shields as much as they will be there to see her beat ‘the one with a belt.’
That novelty, that freshness, will only last so long. Shields will need a rival or three as her career progresses. She’s young enough that the possibility of a long career is there and Shields has already stirred up some fans and pundits on social media. Who will be there as the tests that add real steak to the sizzle?
The answer might come from someone rising in weight or in Shields moving down a little as time goes on. German middleweight Christina Hammer (21-0, 9 KO) is talented, quick, and taller than Shields. As Corey Erdman reported here in March, some preliminary discussion has already occurred and that could be a realistic option down the road.
While size might be prohibitive on paper, there could also be Colombian welterweight Cecilia Braekhus (31-0, 8 KO) who fights out of Norway. Braekhus is the undisputed champion of her division and widely considered the best women’s fighter in any weight class. A rise in weight down the road, should a Shields fight prove rich enough, could be a solid event.
We’re not there yet. Shields’ focus is rightly on completing her arrival. The two-time Gold medalist could well be a two-belted champion by Saturday morning. That’s plenty to take care of for now.
Cliff Rold is the Managing Editor of BoxingScene, a founding member of the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board, and a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America. He can be reached at [email protected]