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Claressa Shields talks shift to MMA, training with UFC's Jon Jones

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Claressa Shields, who makes her mixed martial arts debut Thursday at PFL 4 in Atlantic City against Brittney Elkins, explains why she pivoted to MMA after an illustrious boxing career.

Video Transcript

KEVIN IOLE: Hey, folks. I am Kevin Iole. Welcome to Yahoo Sports. And my next guest you may know from the boxing world. But you certainly don't know her yet from the MMA world. But on Thursday in Atlantic City in New Jersey, you will see her, Claressa Shields. Claressa, this is amazing. I see all these guys all over the internet saying, hey, why don't some of these boxers come into MMA, they forget all about Claressa Shields is doing this.

CLARESSA SHIELDS: Yeah, and Amanda Serrano.

KEVIN IOLE: She's done it too. And it's pretty amazing. First of all, I guess the question, you're one of the greatest fighters of all time and here you are moving into a different sport. Why?

CLARESSA SHIELDS: I don't know. I just feel like I never got my just due in boxing. And I just was being a 12 time world champion and then you think about becoming a 20 time world champ and it's very easy for myself to do. But it was like, what would that do for me? Would they make me a bigger star? Would they make me a household name? Or would they make me a millionaire? And the truth is no. It wouldn't open up any more doors to me than what's already been opened. And I would have to keep fighting this war of equal pay and equal opportunity and give women equal fight time.

And it just got to a place where I was like, you know what? I've been working so hard and boxing for so many years that if I'm going to work hard at something, at least let me reap what I sow. So I reaped all I can sow in boxing. And the highest I've been paid is 350 K with all my accomplishments. And now with the PFL I have a chance next year or the year after to go and fight in the PFL season and make $1 million.

So to me, that was the thing where I was like, see? I can work my butt off, work hard, get some experience, and then and go for the million dollars within a year and a half, two years. And I just wouldn't get there with boxing. So I decided to try my luck in MMA and just our training. Because my work ethic is like no other. And my mind strength is way different. And it's stronger than what people give me credit for. I'm a disciplined fighter and a disciplined person. So I think MMA is the route for me now.

KEVIN IOLE: Claressa will make her, as I said, her PFL MMA debut on Thursday in Atlantic City. Brittney Elkin is the opponent, who, kind of a trivia question, she was the first opponent for Kayla Harrison. So that Kayla Harrison-- she was in camp last year. So that is kind of going to be an interesting look to go at that.

Here's what I don't understand. You're training in Albuquerque with Jackson Wink. Holly Holm is there. I've seen some stuff, you working out with her. She made the same transition. She went on to become the UFC champion. Holly may have an opinion on this, Claressa. But you look at it, in women's MMA is basically just as popular as men's MMA. But you look at boxing and women's boxing certainly is not as popular as men's boxing. Doesn't get the TV ratings, doesn't get the media coverage. Why do you think that is?

CLARESSA SHIELDS: I think women in boxing are looked as less than because of the rules that are put in place for the women. Everything in MMA between the women and the men are the same. When they fight for world championship fights, it's five five minute rounds. When they're fighting for non-world championship fights, it's three five minute rounds. Then you go to boxing, the men's boxing, it's 12 three minute rounds. And the women's boxing world championship is 10 rounds for two minutes.

So it just shows-- I mean, I just feel like in boxing that we don't fight the same time as the men, so they'll always be the networks and people excuse to why they pay us less. And I mean they make this look like we're such-- that we're too weak to be a part of the real boxing, to have those championship rounds. And they put all these rules in place. And the women before me and before them, they all follow these rules because they wanted to be in boxing.

And I think that we've all done a great job trying to change these rules and trying to get equal pay and equal opportunities. But it's just way too much to fight against. And even in MMA on every network, I mean, you see women MMA fighters either headlining, open in the card, or that are co-main event. When do you see women's boxing on TV?

Now you can catch it on DAZN because DAZN is putting the UK fighters on. But where in the US? Premier Boxing Champions you don't have not one female fighter registered under their roster. ESPN has Mikaela Mayer. And Showtime had me. Other than that, you don't really see women boxing on TV. In order for women's boxing to grow, we need to get the same fight time, same amount of rounds, and we need to be on every fight card, whether we're the main event, co-main event, or TV opener. People need to know that women's boxing exists.

KEVIN IOLE: I wonder if you think about this, especially in your case. You being a special fighter, a two time Olympic champion, the only American ever to win two Olympic gold medals in boxing. If you had been, say, 125 pounds and came into boxing, would you have had a greater impact for this reason? You would have had a lot more women to choose from to fight, where, where you're as big as you are, fighting 54 to 68 pounds, there weren't a lot of women. And you even looking at MMA and that's the issue.

Amanda Nunes is the only person in the division for the UFC at 45. There's not a lot of bigger women in the sport. And so did they blow an opportunity by when you came in, if you had been in the traditional women's weight classes, I guess that's the best way to say it, would you have been able to make a bigger impact and kind of break that glass ceiling? Because now everybody knows, hey, there's a ton of great women boxers at 35 down.

CLARESSA SHIELDS: No, I mean it's a ton of great boxers at 54, 60, and 68. I don't think that weight class is the problem. And I don't think that the number of women in the weight class is a problem. Because for me, I wouldn't have fought the best. It doesn't matter about what weight class. And I did it backwards, 168, 160, 154.

So I don't think that [AUDIO OUT] that's the problem, 125, or 130, whatever. I will be in a weight class with Katie Taylor or something like that. So I don't think that that would have had changed nothing. I mean, yeah. I would have had more opponents. But it doesn't matter about how many people are in the weight class. We fight the number ones and number twos anyway. I would understand if I was fighting girls who were ranked 10, 15, or 20. But it's like, I've never fought a girl who wasn't in the top five.

So for me, it's about fighting the best no matter what weight class you're in and being able to do it. Because it's hard to do that. It's hard to be at 168 and then go to 116, then go to 154. It's hard to do that. So I fought the number ones and the number twos at every weight class in all three of those weight classes. And I fought other girls at 147, who people say are the most skilled or whatever the case may be. And those girls normally at about 147 that I can make 147. But I'll smoke their boots. You know what I mean? I'll beat them with just my jab.

So I think that it's kind of a stereotype to say that bigger women aren't as skilled as the smaller women. That's a stereotype because I'm the most skilled woman in boxing. And that--

KEVIN IOLE: I didn't that they are. I mean there's not as many skilled women as there are-- that's the only thing I meant.

CLARESSA SHIELDS: Yeah, I mean-- I mean, when I look at skills, the only woman who I say have really great skills at 135, 140, I can say Katie Taylor, Mary McGee, Chantelle Cameron is on the way up. I never thought Cecilia Braekhus was a skilled fighter. I thought she picked her opponents. So she wasn't skilled to me. 154's Hanna Gabriels is a hell of a fighter. 160, where we at, 160? Myself.

KEVIN IOLE: I'm not going to mention Savannah Marshall.

CLARESSA SHIELDS: Savannah Marshall to me, she's not skilled either. I mean, she beat me when I was 17. But it wasn't like she blew me out the water. She barely won. But it was a lot of politics too. But I let people let her hold that win. Because when I come back and beat her in the process, people not going to have nothing else to say. So I'm just--

KEVIN IOLE: It's the trash talking. I see that a lot. They trash talk you quite a bit.

CLARESSA SHIELDS: She trash talking now because she done fought her few tomato cans and then knocked them out. And now she's some kind of knockout artist. But truth be told, we sent Savannah Marshall a contract back in 2018 to fight for two of the belts I had at 168. And her and her team turned it down. So that's just the real there. So I haven't turned down a fight with her. I just told Eddie Hearn to get the money up. So that's just that right there.

KEVIN IOLE: Let me ask you this. Now I asked this question. You mentioned Amanda Serrano before. Amanda's one of the best boxers in the world.

CLARESSA SHIELDS: Yeah, I also mentioned her when I mentioned the skill girls. Yeah, her. So I mean--

KEVIN IOLE: And she's a huge puncher, right?

CLARESSA SHIELDS: Yeah, she's a huge puncher. Yes.

KEVIN IOLE: I remember when she went in to fight in Combates America in MMA. And I said to her, what is it going to be like for you to go with those 4 ounce gloves. And she did not even say one word. She just had a big old smile on her face. And I wonder, now you're going into MMA and getting in a fight somebody and punch them with a 4 ounce glove on your hand. What's that feel like?

CLARESSA SHIELDS: It definitely feels different. You get a little more protection on your hands when you have on the bigger gloves. But I mean, the punches will definitely be felt. But it's like it's so many different ways to win in MMA. So my punching matters of course. But we've been doing so many other things than just my punching. It's been so many other drills we've done just in sparring, stuff that we've worked on. But I'm definitely going to use my boxing. But we added some more strikes just not beside my jab and my right cross. But we added some more strikes, added some take downs, added some defense, it's a lot.

So I'm looking forward to landing those 4 ounces. But I'm just going to keep my mind open to using everything and get the W.

KEVIN IOLE: That's what's so awesome about MMA because you never know what can happen and there's so many different ways to win and so many ways to lose. In boxing, it seems like-- and I've loved boxing since long before you were even born. But in boxing, if you get-- take yourself. If you're winning a fight, it rarely-- and you're way more skilled, you rarely see the course of the fight change. I mean, once in a while, somebody lands a big shot that changed the course of the fight. But the more skilled fighter, if he's racking up the rounds for she's racking up the rounds, it keeps going that way.

In MMA, they try something different because they have different techniques to try. And you can see--

CLARESSA SHIELDS: Yeah, but one thing is the same is it's a fight. And if you are the opponent who is wearing your opponent down physically, mentally, you're wearing them down-- listen, everybody wants to win. But there are some people who get broken more easy than other people. so I think that for me, that my mental strength will be one of my biggest things in MMA, and not just my physical attributes. I know how to-- if I sense weakness, I go for the kill.

So if I sense any weakness in any of my opponents, I'm definitely going to go for the kill. And I'm not going to let them even be able to think about, oh now-- I'm not going to give them enough space to think about, oh, now it's time for me to switch game plan and try to take her down. I'm going to have my hands, and feet, and everything in they face the whole time that they're just going to be thinking, oh defensively, oh I don't want to get punched by her. I don't want to get kicked by her. I don't want to get kneed by her, and keep them thinking like that to where they just mentally break and try to and give in.

So when they give in, that's when I go for the kill. But boxing and MMA, it's the same thing in a way. It's a fight. It's a fight. I would be super worried about Brittney Elkin if this was a jiu jitsu match. But this is a boxing match where she don't know how to throw hands like me. She don't have strikes like me. Let's just put that out there. I may not be no wrestling person who came from wrestling. But I know how to wrestle. I know how to slam people.

So I'm not just a weak person. So I think that she'll be in for a rude awakening on a lot of things because I'm not dismissing what she knows. We worked a lot on jiu jitsu but we also made it clear that this is a fight. And the fight doesn't start on the ground. It starts standing up.

KEVIN IOLE: What did you find was the most difficult thing in making the transition?

CLARESSA SHIELDS: The most difficult thing, so many different arts, right? And everybody try to make it seem like, oh you have to learn everything individually. And you do. But the hardest part was actually putting it all together.


CLARESSA SHIELDS: Yeah. So for everything in MMA, it's just so many different arts. And yeah, you have to train each of them individually. But really, the hardest part is putting all of them together, especially in sparring. Because one minute, you go from fighting and the next minute, the person you are sparring, you're like, forget this. Her hands are too good. So they go for take down. And then they go for the take down. Now your mind has to switch from fighting to now you're in wrestling because now you're sprawling trying to keep them-- hello. Can you hear me?

KEVIN IOLE: We got you.

CLARESSA SHIELDS: Yeah, so trying to keep them from taking you down. And then at the same time, you got to make sure they don't get you in nothing. So when you go in for the take down, or let's say you do get taken down. Now you might have to go to jiu jitsu to where you're like, OK, how do I get up? Do I use wrestling to get up? Or do I use jiu jitsu to get up? And it really depends on what kind of position they have you in. And they can be up on top of you and a half mount or you can have them in full guard, or half mount, or whatever. But it's still ways to get up. And you have to figure out which one is the best way to get up without them getting behind your back, without them trying to choke you.

And then after you do all that, you get up and they can still have you. You got to get out of the clinch, get your space to where you want to punch. Again, and I mean I just went from-- I just went from fighting, from striking, to being on the ground, to getting up, to now I'm back boxing again. It's so many different things that you have to be thinking about.

KEVIN IOLE: Claressa, one of the things I think is interesting about you, you are known in boxing as the quote, "the greatest woman of all time". You're training at Jackson Wink in Albuquerque with the goat, Johnny Jones, the greatest male MMA fighter of all time. And what is it like comparing notes with somebody who is kind of at your level of accomplishment and sort of has that same mindset of always wanting to do something special and never satisfied? How much of a help has Jon been to you? And what's it been like to have him around you?

CLARESSA SHIELDS: Johnny Bones has been a great help. He's really one of the first people who actually said to me, you would be the perfect boxer to go in MMA. And this was back in 2017. I looked at him like he was crazy.


CLARESSA SHIELDS: Never will I ever. And he just was like, look. If you ever think about it, you can come train at Jackson Wink. And get my coaches would be happy to have you. And I just was like, Johnny don't even dream about it. I'll never be in MMA. And now to see that it's four years later and now I'm like, here in Jackson Wink, in Albuquerque, doing MMA, it's like, oh, I thought we would never-- but it's been great to have some-- it's been great to have training sessions with him and to learn from him, and just to see his work ethic and to see that we're kind of one and the same. It's just he's MMA and I'm boxing.

One, we both are great fighters. And then we don't get enough credit for our mental strength, for our strategic mindset. People look at it I mean, as just athleticism, when it's like, it's so much more than athleticism that we have. We're athletic human beings. But we have a lot of discipline. We have just a lot of grit, a lot of self belief. And we both believe in hard work and repetition. And you don't meet a lot of people like that. So when I actually came down here and me and him spent a couple training sessions together, and they were three, four hours apiece, and the coaches just sit there and look because they're like, we don't get to experience this. This is not normal.

And the coaches down here, Coach Wink and Coach Jackson have told me, we've trained thousands of athletes. But you're definitely the most teachable out of the top five, out of our top five. And that to me just reassured me that, OK. I know I learned boxing pretty fast. And I was a complete fighter before three years just growing up. And I continued to grow after that. But to see that I can also learn all these different arts and the coaches can see me put everything together and be like, wow. This is going to be a great route for you, just shows me that I am a very smart athlete, and that I make coaches teaching me very, very easy.

KEVIN IOLE: This is kind of like Roger Federer and Serena Williams getting together and playing Wimbledons double having you and Johnny Jones on-- that's pretty crazy. Well, before we let you go, Claressa, let's just get this. Brittney Elkin, she lost her last three in a row. But she's a big girl. She's more experienced than you are in MMA. I think she's 5'11" or 6 feet tall. How do you see the fight going? And how do you feel like you'll finish her?

CLARESSA SHIELDS: I definitely see me winning the fight. That's for sure. She seems like she's a bigger girl. But when they're taller and they have to come down to the certain weight classes-- making the weight, she got to do this, or she got to do that, or whatever. But I think I have more than what she thinks. And I think nothing that's going to play in my favor is me not underestimating her. I know that it's ways that she can win the fight. But I feel like I have more ways that I can win because of the things that I know.

Striking is a big part of MMA. Wrestling is a big part of MMA. And just kind of, like I said, knowing how to put everything together, [AUDIO OUT] certain things I've posted to you. So I think my boxing will play a part because she kind of just runs in and then goes for the take down. And we've been working really, really hard getting away from those take downs, standing in the center of the cage, letting her know that every time you run up on me, I'mma hit you with these hands, and I'mma put these feet on you. And I got some big strong legs.

So I think maybe middle of the second round, I think the fight will probably be over. And I'll be victorious. She said she's going to come out there and submit me in 15 seconds. That's just not possible.

KEVIN IOLE: Well, we look forward to seeing you. It's going to be a treat to see you do this, go into MMA. Claressa, many accomplishments in boxing. Wish you the best for just as many in MMA. Thank you so much. Good luck on Thursday.

CLARESSA SHIELDS: Thank you. Appreciate it.

KEVIN IOLE: See you, Claressa.