GOAT debate aside, Claressa Shields' swagger and talent already make her a boxing juggernaut

Kevin IoleCombat columnist
Claressa Shields throws a right at Tori Nelson during a fight in January. (Stephanie Trapp/Showtime via AP)
Claressa Shields throws a right at Tori Nelson during a fight in January. (Stephanie Trapp/Showtime via AP)

Winning two Olympic gold medals is great, but it guarantees nothing when it comes to professional boxing success. There are too many Olympic gold medalists to count who flamed out as professional fighters.

Those two medals will guarantee media attention, but precious little else.

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But just five fights — all wins — into a professional career, Claressa Shields is already a world champion with a successful title defense and is gunning for a belt in a second weight class Friday, when she meets Hanna Gabriels for the IBF-WBA middleweight belts in Detroit in a card televised by Showtime.

Shields, who is the only American boxer ever to win back-to-back Olympic gold medals, is already a special fighter.

As good as she is, though, she’s going to get better: much, much better. She’s only 23 and a relative neophyte as a pro. Her talents are obvious, but as she learns the little nuances of the pro game, her skills will mesh and she’ll become a far more formidable package.

Promoter Dmitry Salita is a former fighter who had a successful career himself. Shields has been successful thus far, but if Salita is correct, she’s just getting started.

He believes she possesses the talent and charisma to be a transformative figure in sport.

“Claressa Shields has the ability to become a Joe Louis, Jackie Robinson, Pele, Michael Jordan, someone very special and someone who can take the sport to the next level,” Salita said.

Her new trainer, John David Jackson, raved about her work ethic and her talent. He, too, predicted a significant long-range impact.

“It’s a pleasure to work with Claressa,” he said. “She beats most of the men that I train. She comes to fight. This Friday night, she’s going to showcase her talents once again. Since Day 1, she’s been a pleasure to work with. Whatever I’ve asked her to do, she tries. She’s perfecting her craft. This fight should be a wonderful event. She’s bringing boxing back in two ways.

“One, for the female fighters, but also for the boxing community. She’s refreshing. When the bell rings, somebody’s getting hurt. Her whole intention is to be undisputed champion in multiple divisions, not just one. She’s definitely on the right path for that.”

Now, not all have flourished as much praise on her. Hector Fernandez de Cordova, Gabriels’ trainer, has been irritated by the praised heaped upon Shields.

He’s not denying her talent, but he’s been aghast by the over-the-top nature of much that has been written and said about her. Gabriels is the WBA-WBO super welterweight champion and is a former welterweight champ who is moving up to challenge for the middleweight belt.

She is 18-1-1 with 11 KOs and overcame a sexual assault as a child to become one of the best women’s fighters in the world.

Shields’ opponent, Hanna Gabriels, is the WBA-WBO super welterweight champion and is a former welterweight champ. (Getty Images)
Shields’ opponent, Hanna Gabriels, is the WBA-WBO super welterweight champion and is a former welterweight champ. (Getty Images)

Fernandez de Cordova’s gripe isn’t so much with Shields’ talent as much as it is the overwhelming attention she receives at the expense of others.

“It’s been some road getting here,” he said. “It’s been hard. Female boxing doesn’t get the attention or the money that it deserves. We have amazing warriors over here. During this two-month period, all I’ve heard is, ‘The greatest woman of all time.’ How can you call yourself the greatest woman of all time when you have five professional fights? That’s disrespectful to the fighters such as Christina Hammer and Hanna Gabriels. There are so many great champions in the past, as well. I just think it’s disrespectful.

“Hanna Gabriels is a three-time world champion and a great human being. Everybody is going to have to pay attention to her after this fight and what’s coming next.”

Shields, though, is the one with the special ability. She’s reminiscent of the legendary Sugar Ray Leonard, who was a big-time star in the pros immediately after captivating the world by winning a gold medal at the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal.

Shields isn’t necessarily humble, and she referred to herself as the greatest female fighter of all-time. She’s got a ways to go to get there, but that kind of thinking is what pushes one to be great.

She’s not settling for a couple of world title belts and a good pro career.

She wants to be a difference maker. She wants to be a legend. She wants to an all-timer, and she has the work ethic to go with the plainly obvious physical skills to get there.

“After my second fight, I told [my manager], Mark [Taffet], what my dreams were,” Shields said. “My goal was to fight Christina Hammer my seventh fight to take all of her belts. That was the way that I saw it going, but my professional career took off very fast and that’s why I’m the greatest female fighter of all time. I say that because where I’m from in Flint, Michigan, people have dreams all the time, but we’re not given that opportunity [to achieve them]. I was in a dark place from the age of 5 until I was 17.

“For someone to take away my accomplishments and say that I’m not the greatest of all time, you have to show me. When I’m in the gym training two times a day, I think about what I went through and what my family goes through and I push myself. When somebody says that they’re going to beat me, it angers me. I get mad and I punch the bag until it falls. When you tell me that I’m not the greatest woman of all time, I really hope Hanna has trained hard because it’s not going to be an easy task. I really hope that Christina Hammer has trained hard because in the future it’s not going to be an easy task, either. To beat me, you’re going to have to kill me. I’m not going to go down.”

She has that rare kind of ability and the desire to take advantage of it. It’s a unique combination and puts her in a position to do things that will be talked about long after she’s gone.

And that is true greatness.

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