By Corey Erdman, photo by Stephanie Trapp
Every step Claressa Shields takes, every punch she lands, is in uncharted territory. As the first woman to ever headline an American premium cable card, a feat she’s now accomplished three times, Shields is paving a brand new path.
On Friday night, Shields made her third appearance on Showtime, dominating the consensus top women’s super middleweight in the world, Tori Nelson en route to a unanimous decision victory. In just five professional fights, Shields is already fighting the ten round distance, holds two world titles and has completely cleared out a division.
It’s a remarkable accomplishment in a long line of them for Shields, who is also the only American boxer of the modern era to have won two Olympic gold medals. Her professional achievements have been equally as impressive—she is tied with Veeraphol Sahaprom as the second fastest fighter to ever win a world title, capturing the full IBF and WBC super middleweight titles in just her fourth fight.
“This scenario doesn't surprise me at all because Claressa is exceptional. Claressa has a style people like watching and she is willing to compete against anyone, and that is a rarity in the fight game in general. Knowing her, I'm not surprised at all that she's willing to step up and fight anyone they put in front of her,” said Dr. Christy Halbert, who coached Shields on the US National team. “(Many) people don't know the women's fight game at all. They don't know enough about Claressa at all, and they know even less about her opponents. So it doesn't surprise me that they don't understand the magnitude of what she's achieved.”
The 22-year old’s accomplishments extend far beyond her own trophy case however—they trickle right into the bank accounts of many of her fellow fighters. In headlining Showtime telecasts, Shields has helped open up the marketplace for women’s boxing in the United States, in the same way Katie Taylor is doing in the United Kingdom.
Shields is the greatest female amateur fighter ever, and many believe she’s the most talented female fighter to ever lace up the gloves, period. As Sarah Deming wrote in her indispensable essay in the anthology Bittersweet Science, “to watch Claressa box was to believe that women did belong in the ring after all: not because it was sexist to exclude them, but because they could be so damn good.”
Thanks in large part to Shields’ attention and success, American viewers are finally getting the ability to see how damn good women boxers can be, and have been for quite some time. The market has now been opened up and more eyeballs have been turned to Shields’ amateur teammates such as Mikaela Mayer and Marlen Esparza, as well as mainstays such as Heather Hardy, Layla McCarter, Jennifer Han and Alicia Napoleon.
“In the past, women's professional boxers have not been treated well, and that's no secret. They're not paid what they deserve to be paid, it's very rare for them to make living wages, it's hard to get promoters to put them on cards. What Claressa has done is that she's removed those excuses promoters have been able to use in the past, and she's called them on their bluff in a lot of ways,” said Halbert.
Shields alone cannot fully erase systemic sexism in boxing, much less in society as a whole, and for some her arrival has been little more than a chance to air their archaic views. But the impact she has made has been swift nonetheless. The ShoBox telecast during her bout with Nelson didn’t feel like a “special attraction” or something offbeat the network was trying out—it felt like exactly what it was: An elite fighter with a substantial following fighting in the main event, as they are meant to do. For the first time in the history of boxing in the United States, the normalizing of women in coveted television slots seemed to be underway.
“For some people, women’s boxing is a novelty, and it’s not a novelty on Showtime. Because (Shields) has obvious star power, now it’s about her and her fights, it’s not about women’s boxing all the time,” said Showtime boxing analyst Steve Farhood.
What may be unprecedented about Shields’ run as a professional so far is the fact that she’s not just having an economic impact on her fellow female athletes, she’s also helping her male stablemates in Salita Promotions and in her home state of Michigan. No female fighter has ever been able to have such an impact, and it’s rare that any female athlete has been able to—or even given the chance to—better the economic environment and visibility for her male counterparts. Shields turning pro has turned Detroit into a regular stop for ShoBox and has afforded many Detroit-born and Detroit-based fighters, many from the Kronk Gym, an opportunity to fight on television. Prior to her, Detroit’s vibrant club scene remained buried off television, with networks only having made sporadic appearances in the city in the past decade.
Her promoter, Dmitriy Salita, relocated from New York City to Detroit, and has focused his promotional efforts in the Motor City. Check the Salita Promotions roster page on its official website, and the first fighter listed is Shields, even before top heavyweight contender Jarrell Miller. Also listed are the three female fighters Salita has signed subsequent to Shields: Her rival Christina Hammer, former teammate and opponent Franchon Crews, and Elena Savalyeva, the first woman to win an Olympic boxing match, who recently told Ring Magazine she’s “honored to be on the same team with such a historic athlete as Claressa Shields.”
“It’s definitely unprecedented. When we first had her on ShoBox we talked about the long-term impact it would have for so many women. A lot of these male fighters from Detroit and from Dmitri’s stable, would they be on Showtime if not for her? Probably not,” said Farhood. “Another offshoot of that is that the MGM is a nice place to have a show in Detroit, but is it big enough anymore to hold a Claressa Shields fight? That’s an issue, and it’s a positive issue for boxing in Michigan.”
If the promotional machine works the way it’s being programmed to work, Shields vs. Hammer could turn out to be the biggest women’s fight on American soil ever, and one of women’s boxing’s true superfights. If Salita has his wish, as he recently told The Detroit News, the bout would be the first to take place at the new Little Caesars Arena in downtown Detroit.
It would seem that the path Shields has paved so far is too long and the doors she’s opened too plentiful for this to be just a temporary surge.
“She's been able to open things up so quickly, and I think permanently,” said Halbert. “In the history of women's boxing, we've seen popularity kind of lapsing and waning and various personalities driving it. But I think the changes Claressa is making are permanent ones.”