By Cliff Rold
Women’s boxing had some interesting developments in 2017 on the US side of the Atlantic.
For the first time, the Boxing Writer’s Association of America has awarded a female fighter of the year. Amanda Serrano, a titlist in four weight divisions, brought women’s world title action back to premium cable.
And, by the end of the year, two-time Olympic Gold Medalist Claressa Shields (4-0, 2 KO) of Flint, Michigan, had not only joined Serrano on Showtime’s airwaves. She was in the main event.
Shields will do it again this Friday night on ShoBox (10 PM EST/PST). On paper, she’s not wasting any time in terms of opposition. For the second fight in a row, she’s facing an undefeated opponent with more professional experience. Last time, it was WBC super middleweight titlist Nikki Adler, then 16-0. Shields defeated her to win not only her first title but also a vacant IBF belt as well.
Now she has seven year pro Tori Nelson (17-0-3, 2 KO), a 41-year old former WBC middleweight titlist. For any professional just four fights into their career, Shields is being matched well.
But well isn’t used as a reflection of a developing fighter with an eye towards the toughest fights later. Shields is being matched arguably as well, and as tough, as can be with some of the best around her weight right now.
At the professional level, the ranks of super middleweight women are limited. BoxRec, as an inexact sample, rates only 18 active women in the super middleweight division. Now, there could be more who perhaps just haven’t had a fight in the last year.
It’s probably not going to create a huge shift even if all of those fighters were factored in. Nelson is one of the 18 and has fought only once in each of the two previous years. Before 2016, she’d often fought below the welterweight limit and never above 160 lbs.
For contrast, the men’s division lists 975 fighters.
The dilemma Shields career will face is already apparent. The most accomplished US amateur boxer since Andre Ward could run out of opponents quickly.
This was something that could be noticed last year and will grow more apparent with each win. Time could solve some of this. New faces will emerge, new amateurs will come out of the Olympics, and Shields at only 22 could sit atop the field for years to come waiting for their arrival.
In the meantime, she’ll likely have to look down the scale. The seeds were planted after the Adler win for a showdown with unified middleweight titlist Christina Hammer (22-0, 10 KO) of Germany. Hammer was supposed to be on the card Friday night but work visa issues scuttled the plan. According to Hammer’s social media, she will instead debut in March.
Assuming there will be an attempt to pair her with Shields again, we may be looking at a showdown in the summer or fall. That’s a positive. For women’s boxing to develop in the US, storylines will matter. Creating interest, a point of destination, something people can talk about along the way, will only help to grow the women’s game in the US.
Even hardcore fight fans have largely struggled over the years to follow the women’s game but they all know they never saw Christy Martin-Lucia Rijker or Laila Ali-Ann Wolfe. Those were fights that generated enough interest to become something to talk about.
Shields-Hammer has the chance to do that and be paid off.
If Shields wins there, the hunt will be on for the next foe.
Ali, who was a super middleweight like Shields, dealt with some of the same issues in terms of depth of opposition available. Assuming Shields doesn’t follow Ali’s lead and duck the most dangerous foe that emerges down the line, she may still find herself looking for names over size. Ali made a big fight with Martin, who somehow managed, officially, to put on 15 pounds between appearances at 144 lbs.
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, men’s boxing saw pairings all over the scale. It wasn’t unusual to see middleweights fight heavyweights, giving up forty or fifty pounds in the ring. Could a situation emerge where it makes sense to find a weight that allows for Shields to face someone like women’s welterweight queen Cecelia Braekhus (32-0, 9 KO)?
It’s ‘too soon’ to discuss now but already not wildly outside the realm of the possible.
Women’s boxing has shown tremendous growth this century, its place in the Olympics exhibiting an expanding foundation and population. It’s not yet what it could, and likely will be and we could see some nights that look a little like Jack Johnson-Sam Langford along the way.
Shields is in the perfect position to both dominate the landscape and help the sport grow. She’s facing who’s out there and we’ll see how much the cast grows over time.
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]