And then what?
In boxing, no matter how big the fight, no matter how intense the rivalry, no matter the outcome, the question of what comes next often comes just as soon as the bell rings to bring an end to the contest.
It will happen this summer. As soon as fans know whose hand was raised in the clash between Errol Spence and Terence Crawford, the long wait for their showdown will evaporate into questions about who will invoke the rematch clause and whether one of the other will move up to challenge Jermell Charlo for the Jr. middleweight crown next year.
It’s how these things work.
And that’s ok.
What’s next is a hell of a question, especially when what’s next might be as exciting as what is in the moment.
But what happens when what’s next doesn’t provide the sort of fresh, unexplored answer fans can sink their teeth into?
This Saturday on DAZN (9 PM EST), undisputed middleweight and lineal Jr. middleweight queen Claressa Shields (13-0, 2 KO) will begin her journey into ‘and then what?’ It’s a homecoming of sorts for the Flint, Michigan native in Detroit, well earned after two successful trips to the UK in 2022.
The latter of those two trips was the big fight the career of the two-time Olympic champion was seemingly built toward. Matched in a middleweight unification with the lone woman to score a victory over Shields as an amateur, Shields handed undefeated Savannah Marshall her first professional defeat. It was a crowning achievement in a career that has seen Shields win titles from 154-168 lbs.
She’s widely seen as the best fighter in the sport, pound for pound, especially in the wake of her lone real rival for the claim (Katie Taylor) suffering her first defeat. In women’s boxing, there are combatants above super middleweight but where Shields sits is the genuine top of their scale in terms of quality.
It’s fair to equate Shields as the equivalent of the men’s heavyweight champion. She may garner a pound-for-pound rival but, until someone defeats her or she walks away, she’s also the literal baddest woman on the planet. Challenger Maricela Cornejo (16-5, 6 KO) enters as a late replacement after original opponent Hanna Gabriels tested positive for a banned substance.
It’s an unfortunate shift. Gabriels wasn’t expected to win but she at least had the allure of having dropped Shields in their first fight in 2018.
That’s also part of the Shields dilemma.
She’s back to previous opponents in lieu of the next exciting threat.
More rematches could emerge. Marshall will challenge undisputed super middleweight champion Franchon Crews-Dezurn in July. Crews-Dezurn, like Marshall, has only lost once…to Shields in both of their professional debuts. A win over Marshall would certainly make Crews-Dezurn an interesting threat, posing the question of whether she has evolved enough to change to the outcome of a four-round affair in 2016. A Marshall win would set up a rematch that would be big business.
Shields has taken to calling herself the GWOAT, or Greatest Woman of All Time. Time may prove her right but for now all Shields can do is keep winning. Short of a new rival to overtake the recyclable ones, Shields will now embellish her argument by continuing about her business for as long as she wants to go on.
Call it the greatness marathon.
Certain special fighters are able to keep on top of their game for extended periods of time even when the world around them is so easy to take for granted. Joe Louis ran through contenders for the better part of a generation, long after he lapped the field. Larry Holmes kept punching out from under the shadow of Muhammad Ali, reigning for seven years to establish greatness on his own terms without the rivals Ali had to define him. Bernard Hopkins fought through a forgettable middleweight era until Tito Trinidad came along.
Shields arguably now enters a phase of her career where she will build on her defining win as much through her displays of professionalism, focus, and consistency in continuing to perform at her highest level as she will in picking up victories.
It’s a task she appears built for. Shields didn’t falter on her way to two Olympic titles and has risen to every occasion as a pro. Her greatness marathon is here. It will be interesting to see how long it takes for someone else to really enter the race.
Cliff Rold is the Managing Editor of BoxingScene, a founding member of the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board, a member of the International Boxing Research Organization, and a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org