Boxing was brought to its knees in 2016. Muhammad Ali, its greatest star and most prominent humanitarian, died at 74 on June 3 in a Phoenix hospital.
Ed Brown, a 25-year-old highly regarded prospect who many experts saw as a future world champion, was murdered in Chicago on Dec. 3 in a drive-by shooting.
Another 25-year-old, Mike Towell, died from injuries suffered in the ring during a Sept. 29 bout in Glasgow, Scotland.
In the U.S., television ratings were way off, and the Premier Boxing Champions’ plan to blanket network television with quality fights seemed all but dead. NBC, which amid much fanfare in 2015 hired Al Michaels and Marv Albert to call its fights, quietly slipped out of the business and said it had decided to move the remainder of its schedule to 2017.
Perhaps even worse, major fights that fans were desperate to see weren’t made, for reasons difficult to understand. Promoter Oscar De La Hoya steadfastly refused to pit his star, Canelo Alvarez, against Gennady Golovkin in 2016, despite heavy fan and media pressure.
This despite De La Hoya standing at a podium following an Alvarez win in May and vowing to call Golovkin promoter Tom Loeffler the next day to get the bout made.
All of that, and more, made it difficult to be a boxing fan in 2016.
But an unassuming young woman from Flint, Mich., helped to keep the flame flickering, as well as to provide hope for boxing’s future.
Twenty-one-year-old Claressa Shields not only became the first American to win back-to-back Olympic gold medals, but she also became an outspoken advocate on many social issues.
Shields managed to overcome a frightening childhood. Her father was incarcerated for a long stretch, she said she was raped at age 5 and sexually molested at age 8, and frequently had nothing to eat.
Women were allowed to box in the Olympics for the first time in 2012, and Shields won the gold medal as a teenager in London. In the Rio de Janeiro Games in August, Shields repeated her Olympic victory, and won the Val Barker Award as the top female fighter in the Games.
She used her platform to speak out on the water crisis in her hometown, to advocate for women’s rights, and against sexual assault.
For all of that, and much more, Claressa Shields is the Yahoo Sports Boxing Person of the Year for 2016.
“Claressa has very broad shoulders, and she feels a responsibility to carry as much of the weight of the world as possible on those shoulders as she matures,” said Mark Taffet, the former HBO Sports executive who has become her co-manager and helped her to turn professional.
“She wants to be a leader. She wants to be a transformative figure and she wants to empower women all around the world. She does it like an artist wearing gloves, standing on a canvas instead of painting on one. She feels very strongly she’ll change the face of boxing, of sport and make an indelible impact on the efforts of women to continue to progress in society.”
Shields has fought 79 times, 78 as an amateur and once as a pro, and has won 78 of them. In addition to winning Olympic gold twice, she won the amateur world championships in 2014 and 2016 and won a gold as a light heavyweight at the 2015 Pan American Games in Toronto.
Her pro debut came against an old amateur rival, Franchon Crews, on the undercard of the much-anticipated bout between Andre Ward and Sergey Kovalev in Las Vegas.
She won going away, which was no surprise. Taffet attended the WBC convention in Florida earlier this month and all of the trainers and fighters he spoke to raved about her talents.
“There were a lot of them who told me she may be the best pound-for-pound fighter in the sport right now,” he said.
Shields hopes to have the kind of impact on women’s boxing that Ronda Rousey has had on MMA. Rousey, though, had advantages that Shields doesn’t yet have.
UFC president Dana White, after initially saying women would never fight in the UFC, became a believer after seeing Rousey compete. He promoted her relentlessly and she headlined the card on which she made her UFC debut.
There is no champion for women’s boxing like White has been for women’s MMA, and television networks in the U.S. rarely broadcast women’s boxing. Incredibly, despite her stardom, promoters opted not to put Shields on the pay-per-view undercard of the Ward-Kovalev fight despite a lackluster set of fights planned.
Shields faces an uphill task, both in her efforts to boost women’s boxing as well as in her social causes. Progress comes slowly, and doesn’t always move in a linear fashion.
But her electrifying talent and her willingness to take a stand for what she believes in provides hope to a sport with an otherwise dismal short-term future.
Shields, though, is a beacon that while the sport is down, it’s certainly not out. Despite all the storm clouds that envelop boxing as 2016 closes, the 21-year-old from one of the poorest cities in the country loudly sends a message that perhaps better days are ahead.