Claressa Shields defeats Kelsey De Santis to make MMA history in Saudi Arabia

Undefeated boxing champion Claressa Shields made history in another sport on Saturday, as she made her return to mixed-martial arts (MMA).

The 28-year-old earned a split decision win over Kelsey De Santis in what was the first professional female MMA bout held in Saudi Arabia.

“I had such a hard camp,” the American said afterwards, her voice breaking.

“It’s not easy what I’m trying to do and I’ve been so respectful of the sport. I put a lot of hard work in, I’m going to go back to the gym and work harder. I almost got my arm snapped in the freakin’ armbar. I had to fight out of that.

“There was days in camp where I was literally in tears. I was not considering going back to the gym because it was so hard but I forced myself to go back and that’s how I got the win tonight.”

With her win, Shields improved to a 2-1 record as a professional MMA fighter to complement her 14-0 boxing record, as she competed in her first professional MMA bout since suffering a rare loss against Abigail Montes in October 2021.

Shields throws a punch towards DeSantis during the fight. - Cooper Neill/Getty Images
Shields throws a punch towards DeSantis during the fight. - Cooper Neill/Getty Images

It was a close contest as Shields overcame a brutal submission attempt from De Santis in the first round, when she was locked in an armbar. She somehow survived after wriggling out of trouble, before recovering and taking the win.

Female MMA fighters are growing in visibility in Saudi Arabia, as the ultra-conservative kingdom has loosened some of the strict restrictions still imposed on women living there in recent years. In January, Hattan Alsaif made history as the first Saudi woman to join a global MMA promotion.

But Saudi Arabia’s extravagant spending in various sports, from backing the breakaway tour LIV Golf to attracting soccer superstars to the Saudi Pro League, has attracted critics who label it as sportswashing to distract from the country’s human rights record.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman previously said he doesn’t “care” about the country’s investment in sport being described as sportswashing.

“Well if sportswashing is going to increase my GDP by one percent, then I will continue doing sportswashing,” MBS said in an interview with Fox News which aired in September 2023.

Shields and De Santis were fighting on the undercard of the PFL vs Bellator event, promoted by Bellator MMA and the Professional Fighters League.

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