It took about thirty seconds for Claressa Shields to have Marie-Eve Dicaire all figured out on Friday night. A quarter of the way through the opening round of their 154-pound title unification bout, Shields landed a counter right hand that bounced Dicaire’s head back. In that moment, it was clear to Shields that whatever Dicaire threatened to throw, Shields could get off quicker, and more powerfully.
For lengthy stretches in the subsequent rounds, Shields stood in the center of the ring, or sometimes with her back on the ropes, eyes open in a stoic face, unbothered by what might come her way. As Dicaire bounced and feinted and threatened to throw, Shields simply stood firm. She was as defiant in the ring as she has been outside of it, particularly on this night.
In victory, Shields became the first fighter, man or woman, to unify two divisions in the four-belt era, adding further credence to her claim of being the GWOAT, the greatest women’s boxer of all-time. But her legacy will also include being one of the greatest advocates for women’s boxing at the same time.
With the absence of opportunities on networks that she felt suitable financially or professionally for her, Shields opted to take a major risk for this bout. She says she left potential offers of $350,000 on the table to headline an all-women’s pay-per-view for which her purse would be unknown. Shields’ take-home pay for the bout will be dictated by the numbers of buys the card received.
"I had been out of the ring for a year and boxing had been back for a good six to eight months, and I just know that the networks didn't put me first. It was like, where do I go from here? Do I just wait for them to give me an opportunity, or do I make my own opportunity? And I just decided it was time to make my own opportunity," Shields told Pablo Torre on the ESPN Daily podcast.
For Shields, the decision to go the independent route wasn’t necessarily because she felt she could match the financial offers made to her based off of her own buys. How much money she stands to make from the event is secondary to the larger cause, one she has been loudly championing - women’s equality in boxing.
“I'm actually doing work for women's boxing. I can just go to a network and take $350K and fight one time, two times a year, but instead it's like, let's build the whole sport to where not only I get those kinds of checks, but you can one day get those kinds of checks,” Shields told interviewer Dan Canobbio on the broadcast before her bout.
The checks Shields can command are indeed in excess of what almost any other women’s fighter would receive at the moment, save for perhaps Katie Taylor. But that isn’t exactly saying much. Those who reject the idea that gender plays a role in fight purses in 2021 often argue that purses reflect expected revenue and viewership and women’s bouts don’t offer much value. However, when women’s bouts have been placed in headlining roles on the same networks as their male counterparts, there is often very little difference in the ratings.
For argument’s sake, Shields hit 410,000 viewers while fighting on Showtime for her bout against Hanna Gabiels. Her most recent contest on the network peaked at 288,000, the same number Adrien Broner averaged a few weeks back on the same channel against Jovanie Santiago. Or, over on Showtime’s boxing competitor ESPN, Mikaela Mayer-Helen Joseph peaked at 380,000, which was a 3% increase from a heavyweight contest the week prior involving Carlos Takam, who had fought for a heavyweight title.
As for the money: Shields earned a guarantee of $300,000 against Habazin, while Broner claimed to have made more than a million against Santiago.
Shields also receives a level of media coverage that almost any other male boxer would dream of. Leading up to the Dicaire fight, Shields was profiled in the New York Times and CNN. In those profiles, Shields used her platform to advocate for change.
“They’re sexist and can’t handle strong women,” Shields told Times writer Juliet Macur in regards to networks involved in boxing. “They’re always yelling equality, equal pay, equal opportunities, but they don’t mean it. Because all they have to do is say yes. They can say, ‘Yes, you know what? We’re going to put women’s boxing on every card no matter what.’ That would help build women’s boxing, but they won’t do it.”
For the biggest star in women’s boxing to also be its most vocal advocate is significant. Shields’ voice has a reach that others don’t have. But the leading figures in spaces aren’t often the loudest proponents for those beneath them. As Shields herself said, she could have continued taking the proposed purses and taken a “pull yourself up by your bootstraps, anything is possible” line of messaging, but instead said no—how far we have come is great, but it’s not nearly far enough, and there are very real things preventing us from getting much further unless things change.
In doing so, Shields has made herself the lightning rod of a particularly hateful section of the boxing audience.
“It's part of who I am. I feel like I have the pride and the ambition to speak about it, and I don't really care about the judgment that comes behind it, with people being, oh she's too loud to be a woman, woman don't speak like this, she shouldn't talk trash, she shouldn't do this, it's like, I'm gonna do what the f--k I want to do whenever I want to do it,” Shields told Canobbio.
Shields’ detractors will no doubt be waiting to pounce on the eventual release of the pay-per-view figures for Friday’s event. Of course, an independent pay-per-view is a much different animal than one promoted with the backing of a network like FOX and Showtime and their build-in advertising capacity, but that won’t be taken into account by those simply looking to dunk on Shields and women in general.
Nor will the fact that Shields is acutely aware of this, and was still willing to put herself out there symbolically and financially for the sake of women in the sport.
"What were the first men's pay-per-view numbers? Whatever they were, they didn't say oh, give up pay-per-view, they did another one, and another one. If it doesn't do good numbers, people are going to say bad things, right? Well, what do we call good numbers when women's boxing hasn't been on pay-per-view in 20 years,” said Shields on ESPN Daily. “If you don't like me, if you don't like my opponent, whatever the case may be, if you believe in women's equal rights, this is the time for you to play a part.”
In spearheading this event, Shields has rejected the notion that women have to perform gratitude for the fractional rewards and promotion they receive in comparison to their male counterparts in boxing.
Shields may have a hard time finding an opponent that can compete with her in the ring. A singular, generational talent, it may take another full Olympic cycle and the prospects that enter the pros along with it before anyone approaching her level in her weight neighborhood comes along.
But she’ll have no trouble finding opponents in the fight for equality. And as she’s shown her whole career, she’ll be there standing in the middle of ring, ready whatever they throw at her.