Can Claressa Shields do for women's boxing what Ronda Rousey did for women's MMA?

WBA, WBC and IBF middleweight champion Claressa Shields works out for the media at 5th Street Gym on April 4, 2019 in Miami, Florida. (Getty Images)
WBA, WBC and IBF middleweight champion Claressa Shields works out for the media at 5th Street Gym on April 4, 2019 in Miami, Florida. (Getty Images)

It’s not as if there were never elite women’s boxers previously. To make that assertion would ignore history, and the fact Lucia Rijker, who had her last fight 15 years ago, is still widely regarded as the greatest female boxer to ever step inside of a ring.

Women’s boxing has never been like this, however. There are more elite boxers in more weight classes than ever before. The biggest fight of Laila Ali’s career was against Christy Martin in which there was a four-division gap between them. Now, though, women don’t need to move outside of their own class to find a good scrap.

But for whatever reason, women’s boxing has yet to catch on with the American public the way that women’s mixed martial arts did almost from the moment Gina Carano first fought on Showtime. That only increased when the UFC announced several years later that Ronda Rousey would headline its first card to feature women.

Claressa Shields aims to change that. The only two-time Olympic gold medalist in U.S. boxing history wants to be a transformative figure in her sport and is taking great risks to do so.

She was 77-1 with 19 knockouts as an amateur, culminating her amateur career by winning middleweight gold medals in 2012 in London and in 2016 in Rio de Janeiro.

When Shields turned pro, she immediately vowed to be a difference-maker, and eschewed the long, slow build so loved by boxing promoters in favor of an aggressive, challenging approach almost out of the chute.

After just eight pro fights, she already has won titles in two divisions, at middleweight and at super middleweight, and aims to unify the 160-pound belts by fighting Christina Hammer on Saturday in Atlantic City in a bout being televised by Showtime.

She has a no-nonsense personality and isn’t afraid to tackle any issue head-on, whether it’s in the ring, during an interview or on social media. She began referring to herself early in her career as the greatest women’s boxer of all-time, which irritated a number of fans who would throw names like Rijker, Ali and Ann Wolfe at her.

Shields had the two high-rated ShoBox broadcasts in 2018 on Showtime and by a large margin over the third-place card.

She doesn’t flinch, however, when she notes there is a gender gap and that her pay and her notoriety would be significantly higher were she a man.

“I work hard, really hard,” Shields said. “If I was a man, I would probably be one of the most famous boxers out there. There is a gender gap. We all know it. I'm working towards changing that. We work hard, [but] we get less money and less recognition. But the world is changing. We are changing it.”

The question is whether Shields can drag a sport that television executives have long turned their noses up at and which American fans have largely ignored to even the position that women have achieved in MMA. In MMA there is more or less parity in terms of media coverage and fan interest with the men’s game.

For all of the elite women in addition to Shields and Hammer who are boxing now — Katie Taylor, Amanda Serrano, Cecilia Braekhus and Mariana Juarez, among others — Shields is the one best positioned to save the game.

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - FEBRUARY 26:  Claressa Shields and Christina Hammer present their belts during the press conference between Claressa Shields and Christina Hammer at the Dream Hotel Downtown on February 26, 2019 in New York City. Middleweight champions Shields and Hammer are set to fight on April 13 in Atlantic City. (Photo by Michael Owens/Getty Images)
Claressa Shields and Christina Hammer present their belts during a press conference on Feb. 26, 2019 in New York City. (Getty Images)

It is Shields’ desire to achieve greatness that Mark Taffet, the longtime HBO Sports executive who now serves as Shields’ manager, believes gives her a chance to become the superstar who can help lift women’s boxing to prominence.

“Historically in women’s boxing, fans have questioned the competitiveness of the athletes and the depth of talent in the sport,” Taffet said. “In this fight, you have two women who are undefeated, in their primes, recognized as the best in their weight class and as among the best pound-for-pound fighters among all women. It’s a great fight, regardless of gender, and this match sets an example of all of boxing. We need the top stars to fight one another.

“When the best started fighting the best on the women’s side of MMA, that’s when fans respected the product and the demand increased tremendously. It’s not good enough to have top talent. They need a foil and in women’s MMA, when you had Rousey and Holly Holm and Miesha Tate and Cris Cyborg and others who were all clearly extremely talented and they were fighting each other, it helped grow women’s MMA immensely.”

Shields has outsized goals, and rubs many the wrong way with her outspokenness. There’s clearly a double standard in that men who consciously play the heel role haven’t faced the same kind of backlash that Shields has faced.

Stephen Espinoza, the president of Showtime Sports, concedes he’s surprised by the reaction to Shields on social media.

“From where I sit, Claressa is just being herself, and I don’t think she’s trying to play a heel role or create controversy,” Espinoza said. “She is just a blunt and outspoken person and she speaks openly and passionately about what she believes in. What you see with her is what you get. I’m puzzled, frankly, by some of the negative reaction.

“In playing that heel role, whether it’s a role or someone’s natural inclination, it’s something that’s worked very, very well on the men’s side. Rarely is there any blowback and there is one very notable success story in Floyd Mayweather. Whether people hold women to a different standard is a valid question. Much of what Claressa says and does would provoke very little reaction if she was male.”

In typical Shields fashion, she tackled the issue head-on Saturday. She referenced Rousey’s outspokenness in a post on Twitter where she addressed critics of the way she promotes herself:

Boxing, not just women’s boxing, needs stars. If Shields lives up to the hype and comes through with an impressive performance, it will help boost the entire sport.

She could become one of those athletes known by just one name — Michael, Kobe, LeBron, Ronda, Canelo, Floyd — with a virtuoso performance.

There are many who fail to believe that a woman can have legitimate fighting skills. It’s Shields’ job to disabuse such people of that notion, which would thereby lift the entire sport.

“This can be a game-changer for women’s boxing,” Espinoza said. “Going into it, there is a lot of momentum and on paper, you can’t discount the credentials of either woman. This clearly has the makings an an entertaining matchup. I understand that fights aren’t fought on paper and the sport needs for this to be an entertaining, high-quality fight. We have the makings of that in this one.”

This match is as significant for women’s boxing as UFC 157, which featured Rousey against Liz Carmouche, was in 2013 for women’s MMA. If Shields steps up and performs like Rousey, she’ll wind up doing a lot more than just adding another title belt to her growing collection.

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