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Flint, MI—Before Claressa Shields made history, before she became the first boxer—not the first woman, but the first boxer, ever, period—to win all four belts in two divisions, a feat accomplished in a mere 11 pro fights; before she stepped into the ring as the first woman in 20 years to be the featured fight on a pay per view match; before all that, Shields had already won a battle in a larger war she is fighting.
It is a war for equality, for respect. A war for a world in which female boxers (and, really, by extension, women everywhere) have the same pay and respect as men.
The event that night was supposed to be a card full of only women fighting, but it was not only women in the audience. Far from it. Reporters would later ask what she hoped little girls would learn from her, but the crowd was not full of little girls. There were plenty of women but the crowd was also largely made of men—young men and old men, and even little boys running between the socially distanced chairs waiting for the fights to begin.
Among them were Gregory Fisher, 63, and Walter Nelson, 62. Nelson wore a leather jacket and a collection of gold chains, gold earrings, and four gold rings on each hand. His hat spelled out one word—FLINT—in gold lettering. Fisher wore no jewelry and sported a brown felt fedora and matching coat, with spectacles that sat low on his nose. He held a promotional poster from a Shields fight from 2019, a fight that was canceled at the last minute, but where he still managed to get Claressa’s autograph on the back of the poster. He hoped to get another autograph that night. He has t-shirts and hoodies with Claressa’s face on them at home. Some of them cost $50, but hey, they were worth it.
The two men had been friends for—once they thought about it for a moment—17 or 18 years. They are fight fans. If you didn’t know better, they’d be guys you’d expect to be part of the problem, not the solution, among a generation of men more likely to dismiss women’s boxing as so many have, as some lesser version of the sweet science.
Not for them. They were there for Claressa, yes, but they were also there just for some damn good boxing. In fact, they were there to support not just Claressa’s fight, but her larger mission.
The card was supposed to be all female, but opened with a fight between two men, something that didn’t sit well with Nelson.
“I didn’t care for all that,” Nelson said. “It should have been all women, like they said. I don’t approve of that.”
The two were there for Shields but sat engaged through all the preliminary fights, offering their commentary, making each other laugh, standing when rounds grew intense. They were, in other words, just boxing fans, not caring one way or the other if it was men or women in the ring—women who, in the post-fight interviews, would thank Shields for making the night possible, for fighting the war she was leading.
Shortly after 11 p.m., Shields made her epic walk into the ring, preceded by two dancers who led her down the walkway. She made her way into the ring where she was introduced alongside her opponent, Marie-Eve Dicaire. Dicaire, like Shields, was undefeated. Only one would remain so after a maximum of ten two-minute rounds. Claressa had predicted it might not go past five, when she hoped to knock Dicaire out.
It is ironic that Claressa’s last name is Shields, because a shield is the last thing she needs in the ring. Dicaire came out in the first round almost spastically jittery, bouncing on her toes back and forth, her lead southpaw hand working in and out, pawing at the air between them.
Claressa’s feet were grounded, her lead hand down, her face forward—a dare. While boxers are first trained to keep their guards up, a defensive tactic many take with them into the pros, Shields, looking simultaneously relaxed and intensely aware, has an uncanny ability to slip and duck her opponent’s punches, counterpunching with powerful strikes.
That would remain her strategy through all ten rounds, her strikes becoming more and more powerful as the fight wore on. In the latter rounds, it became obvious how badly Shields wanted the knockout, keeping her right arm cocked, looking for openings and swinging with everything she had. By the eighth round, perhaps before, it was clear Shields knew she had won—she landed more punches, she kept Dicaire on the ropes or made her charge desperately into the clinch. Now it wasn’t just about the win. She wanted the knockout.
Nelson and Fisher were on their feet almost the whole round, peering over the heads of the crowd standing in front of them.
“She’s gotta get those hands up,” Fisher said.
“Whatever you say, coach,” Nelson said, and the two broke into laughter, their eyes still on the ring.
The knockout would never come, but by the time the tenth bell rang it didn’t matter—Shields won by unanimous decision, and made history.
After the fight, she seemed less concerned with history, and more concerned with the future, talking about other champions she wanted to face in the ring as well as her transition into mixed martial arts (this summer, she’ll be making her MMA debut) as well as her continued demand that female boxers get the same respect as men.
Fighting in the ring and the cage might not be a bad strategy in that regard. The cultures of the two sports are incredibly different in how they treat their female fighters, with women on the MMA cards getting the same kind of respect as their male counterparts. Asked why, she said it’s because they have some of the same things she’s demanding in boxing, like equal fighting time as the men (in women’s boxing rounds are limited to two minutes as opposed to the men’s three).
“They fight the same time of round as men,” she said. “MMA has women I am stronger than, faster than, more athletic than, but the point is they fight the same amount of time, and the same amount of rounds, as the men, and the fans respect that. In women’s boxing, we’ve always been looked at as being weaker, right? As being not as skilled, and they judge us off our records and our resume and they say, oh, it’s easy to become a champion in women’s boxing, when it’s not. But the fact that we fight 20 minutes compared to the men’s 36 …we didn’t make up those rules to fight two minutes.”
Her publicist compared her to Deion Sanders, who was famous for simultaneously playing pro football and baseball. If she can turn heads in the MMA world, perhaps she can bring some of that attention back to women’s boxing.
Time will tell. But after she handily beat Dicaire, to be standing on the floor as much the crowd gave up all pretense of social distancing and gathered as close to the ring as possible, the idea that Claressa Shields didn’t command the same respect as any man seemed ridiculous.
Nelson and Fisher hung back from the mob, standing on tip toe, trying to get a good look while Claressa spoke. Fisher still held his poster, hoping for the chance at on autograph (he wouldn’t get it that night) while Shields talked about growing up in Flint, starting her boxing career at eleven years old at Berston Fieldhouse, about running to school in the mornings to stay in shape, about how she never thought she would be where she was right now—and how she isn’t done making history just yet.
And as far as history is concerned, she said she was willing rectify it if an old opponent wants to step back into the ring with her. Before stepping out of the ring, the interviewer asked about her 2012 loss to Savanah Marshall, the only woman to ever beat Shields. The loss took place when Shields was 17, before she turned pro, at the AIBA Women’s World Boxing Championship. Almost a decade later, it struck a nerve.
Claressa has dubbed herself the GWOAT, the Greatest Woman of All Time. The name was influenced by Muhammed Ali, who called himself the GOAT. The Ali influence shows up elsewhere. It showed up in the third round, when Claressa was backed in the corner and, rather than bring her hands up to protect her head stuck it out and waggled it in Dicaire’s face, reminiscent of the time Ali similarly waggled his hips at Michael Dokes in 1977 after dodging 21 punches in a row. It shows up when she talks about being Black and beautiful—something that gave her confidence, she once said, as a child.
And it shows up in the way she talks trash—how it transcends trash talk, because like Ali, she doesn’t just claim to be the best, but rather explains—seemingly annoyed that she still has to—that she is the best. She is the GWOAT. She is making history. If she needs to beat Savannah Marshal to do that, fine.
“Savannah Marshal can’t fuck with me. Let’s keep it real. Let’s keep it real…Savannah Marshall won a lucky decision when we were kids,” Shields said. “She can come to America, I can go to the UK, we can go to Mexico—wherever Savannah Marshall wants to go, I will fuck—her—up.”
The crowd erupted.
Nelson clapped his hands. “That’s a Flintstone,” he said.
“Yes!” Fisher shouted, “That’s my girl!”