Boxer Claressa Shields Fights For Survivors Of Abuse And Water-Starved Flint, Michigan
Claressa Shields has spent years turning calamity into relative serenity.
Raised in an impoverished section of Flint, Michigan, where there has been a years-long water crisis, Shields witness her mother struggle with alcohol abuse. Her father was imprisoned until she was nine, two years later introducing her to pugilism.
Today, Shields, 26, is arguably the most accomplished boxer in history, male or female, as well as the Greatest Woman Of All Time (GWOAT). “T-Rex” Shields is the only American amateur boxer to earn back-to-back gold medals at the Olympic Games, doing so in 2012 in London and 2016 in Rio de Janeiro.
A three-division champion, Shields (11–0, 2 KOs) will travel to Cardiff, Wales, to defend her IBF/WBA/WBC middleweight titles on Saturday against southpaw Ema Kozin (21–0–1, 11 KOs) of Slovenia. The bout will be broadcast on Sky Sports pay-per-view (3 p.m. ET). A Shields win would likely set up a summer title unification fight with WBO counterpart Savannah “Silent Assassin” Marshall (11–0, 9 KOs) of England.
Marshall was the lone fighter to defeat Shields as an amateur, doing so in the latter’s 26th bout of an overall 77–1 career.
An advocate for women’s rights and against sexual assault, the latter of which she experienced as a child, Shields spoke to Zenger about her future, including the movie, “Flint Strong,” that is in the works about her life.
Zenger: What can we look forward to learning about you in the film “Flint Strong” by Universal Studios and Oscar-winning director Barry Jenkins?
Shields: The movie, “Flint Strong,” has a very good writer. Barry Jenkins, and I sat down for hours when we met in person to talk about my life and the message that I wanted to send off.
What do I think people will learn about me from the movie that they don’t know?
I think they’ll see that I’m really a family-oriented person, and I take care of my family. Some people box because they want money or they want houses or cars and stuff like that, but my motivation was always to work for my family.
I’ve always wanted to make a way for us not to be poor anymore, and I think that goes over people’s heads. They see all of the gold medals and the success. But they don’t know how hard my struggle really was to get me to where I am.
Shields: Ice Cube is playing my boxing coach, Jason Crutchfield, and Ryan Destiny is portraying me. I think it’s going great just from seeing Ryan Destiny in Flint, Michigan.
I’ve seen some photos they have and they match well with her wearing certain clothes and wearing scarves and how I used to dress leading up to the 2012 and 2016 Olympics.
Zenger: Are you contributing to the boxing techniques they’re using in the movie?
Shields: Ryan Destiny and Ice Cube went to Flint, Michigan, and trained with Jason Crutchfield. I guess he showed them some stuff, and they have videos to go off of.
Ryan has also used a fitness trainer. Ryan is very petite, but the fitness trainer has had her doing push-ups to help her to get stronger and to look as if she has bigger arms.
They’ve had her drinking protein shakes. I don’t know if, in the movie, she’ll move like me, but I think she’ll do a great job, regardless.
Zenger: Can you discuss your role as an advocate for social causes, including the ongoing water crisis in Flint, women’s rights, campaigning against sexual assault and representing a beacon of hope for a working-class city struggling with violence, poverty and everyday essentials?
Shields: I’m a sexual abuse survivor, having been abused at the age of 5. Being able to learn about myself and being able to deal with that. … You know, for a lot of years, it was a self-blame thing where you feel like what happened to you was your fault.
But, now that I’m older, I realize that it’s not, and I just want to speak on that, because it really takes a great deal of internal strength for you to be able to actually deal with that. So to actually hear somebody speak about it publicly before I spoke out about it actually encouraged me.
Now, I want to tell my story in order to help other girls deal with the trauma of being abused. I like to give people a different perspective and let them know that, you know, that because that happened to us, we don’t have to continue to live in that moment.
Representing Flint has always been me, and I’ll be wearing my hair blue until we get some clean water. Flint has always supported me. Whenever I’ve fought anywhere in the United States, they’ve always come out.
Flint is ready for me to fight in Las Vegas because we’re going to fill up the T-Mobile Arena. Flint has some of the strongest and most resilient people that I know. That’s where I’m from, so I will always represent them.
Zenger: Are you uniquely qualified to reach youth today given your own personal lived experiences as a female athlete in a male-dominated sport who has experienced childhood trauma and whose parents have had their own struggles?
Shields: I think what helps me to reach the youth is that I’m really one of them. A lot of the youth that I reach are kids who grew up in the same environment that I grew up in. I’m able to reach other kids, too, who probably have it a little bit better.
But I can understand those kids who come from the nitty-gritty, you know? The kids who come from the bottom and who actually had that struggle where their parents weren’t there or their father wasn’t there.
Or they had to make a way for themselves, right? I actually understand them. So when it comes to throwing events or having the school giveaways, the turkey giveaways or the Christmas giveaways, I know what I’ve got coming up when I go to those events. I know what kids want.
I know they want to have a great Christmas even though they don’t have a lot of money. They want to eat good food even though they can’t afford it. They want to be able to meet some of their favorite celebrities.
You always feel like when you come from a certain area or you come from a certain upbringing that that’s never going to happen to you, so I just present those opportunities because I know that’s what kids want and what they love because I was one of those kids.
Zenger: As a black female athlete in a traditionally male-dominated sport, is it important for African-American women to see through you what’s possible to achieve along the lines of emerging Black female leadership such as Vice President Kamala Harris and a potential African-American woman as a Supreme Court nominee?
Shields: As far as women’s empowerment, I’m not really big into politics, but I will say that representation is everything. I didn’t know I had a lane in boxing, right? I looked up to the males, which is just something I did.
But it made me more comfortable knowing that there was a Laila Ali and that there was an Anne Wolfe. There was Mary Jo Sanders. Those women. To see a woman boxing actually gave me more encouragement to fulfill my dreams.
Growing up, as a female athlete, my representation, my role model and my inspiration was Serena Williams even though I don’t play tennis. I wanted to have achievements and commercials and magazine covers — just like Serena Williams, but just in boxing.
That’s what I see as my vision. So without the representation, some people will never be able to see themselves doing it. So that’s why it’s important for women to have a voice. That’s very important because women add power to anything we’re involved in.
I feel as if women’s boxing is finally getting its just due, even though it’s been a while. We’ve gotta keep on pushing for the future. We can’t stop now. So the more we speak up and the more leaders we have, black and white, I think it’s just better for the whole world.
Shields: Floyd is just an inspirational person to be around. He’s very funny. I can say that his words have stuck with me from our phone calls or when I see him face-to-face, him just telling me that I can be great at whatever I want to be great at.
He’s always reminding me that manifestation is everything, but that also hard work with manifestation makes it even better. He’s said a lot of things to me while I’ve been in camp.
He’s watched me hit the bags, shadow box, hitting the pads, and he’s very fond of my skills.
He keeps saying, “You are the greatest. You are a great female fighter. You’ve got power.” Talking about my record, he said: “Watching you work, hitting the pads, the bag and sparring and everything, your record is 11–0 with two knockouts. All you need to do is to simmer down.”
He said, “Once you simmer down, you’ll start getting these girls outta there.” He said, “Skill ain’t the problem and power’s not the problem.” He said it’s more about how anxious I am when I get into a fight. So we talked about ways I can relax more, and going in there and having fun and picking the shots, and it’s been a great last two weeks of camp.
Zenger: How motivated are you in returning to the United Kingdom to face Ema Kozin where you’ve had so much Olympic success, and is a knockout something you’re looking for given Savannah Marshall’s recent comments with a potential unification clash between the two of you looming?
Shields: I don’t care about what Savannah Marshall has to say. The fight is with Ema Kozin, and if the knockout presents itself, I will go for it. But I’m going to have a spectacular performance. I’m going to show my skills, show my power, show my combinations and my speed.
I’m going to show everybody a different look and remind everybody why I am considered the greatest woman boxer of all time, not just by myself. Most of the boxing world considers me, Claressa Shields, the greatest woman boxer of all time, pound-for-pound, No. 1.
That’s with skills, defense, speed, power, combinations and IQ. I plan to show all of that. It doesn’t matter whether Marshall is saying that or not. She’s gonna realize that her barking up the Claressa Shields tree was the wrong tree to bark up.
PROFESSIONAL & AMATEUR BOXING:
• Two-time Olympic Gold Medalist. Won first Olympic Gold when she was 17 years old
• The most accomplished amateur boxer in U.S. history — male or female — and the only American boxer to capture back-to-back gold medals at the Olympic Games
• Became Unified Super Middleweight World Champion in just her 4th professional fight and Undisputed Middleweight World Champion in just her 9th professional fight — becoming the fastest fighter male or female to become an undisputed champion
• Became the fastest fighter — male or female — in boxing history to win a world title in three weight divisions when she won Unified Junior Middleweight Champion in just her 10th professional fight
• Became the only boxer — male or female — to hold undisputed world championships in two weight divisions in the four-belt era when she won the Undisputed Super Welterweight World Championship in her 11th professional fight.
• At 26 years old she has won 10 professional world titles in three weight divisions and two Olympic gold medals
• A trailblazer for women’s boxing, she headlined the first women’s boxing main event on premium television (SHOWTIME) in just her second professional fight and has headlined premium television fights cards a record seven times
• In signed agreement with Professional Fighters League (PFL) to participate in MMA fights as part of goal to be two-sport star à la Bo Jackson and Deion Sanders
• In 2021 signed multifight agreement with Sky TV to fight live in the U.K. including planned superfight with Savannah Marshall for spring 2022
• Trains for MMA at iconic JacksonWink MMA Academy in Albuquerque with legendary trainers Greg Jackson and Mike Winkeljohn and alongside MMA icons Jon Jones and Holly Holm
• Participated in biggest fight in women’s boxing history against Christina Hammer on April 13, 2019 — two undefeated champions battling for the Undisputed Middleweight Championship of the World.
AWARDS & ACCOLADES:
• Included in Guinness Book of World Records as first boxer — male or female — to hold undisputed world titles in two weight divisions in four-belt era
• Named SportsWoman of the Year in 2016 and 2018 by Women’s Sports Foundation (founded by Billie Jean King) — becoming first woman in 25 years to win the award twice
• Featured in 2016 ESPN “Body” Issue
• Named 2017 Female Fighter Of The Year by USA Today, Yahoo Sports
• Boxing gloves enshrined 2017 in International Boxing Hall Of Fame as only U.S. 2-time boxing Olympic gold medal winner in history
• Featured with Mary J Blige in Walmart-produced 60-second short film airing in 2018 Oscars telecast
• Named 2018 Female Fighter Of The Year by Boxing Writers Association of America
• Generated highest viewership (410,000 viewers) of any Showtime Friday night fight (male or female) since 2014
• Named to GENYOUth Board of Directors in February 2019
• Ranked #1 Pound-For-Pound Female Boxer in the world by both ESPN and Ring Magazine
• Became female boxer ever to receive prestigious Ring Magazine Belt recognizing the best female boxer
Edited by Kristen Butler and Richard Pretorius
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