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The real reason behind Claressa Shields' jump to MMA

Kevin Iole
·Combat columnist
·5 min read
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LAS VEGAS — Claressa Shields is frustrated, angry and disappointed that she can’t be more active as a boxer. She was going to headline a show against Marie Eve Dicaire that was supposed to be Dec. 10 at UFC Apex.

It would have been a rare showcase for women’s boxing, but it fell through late in the planning stages over liability issues regarding COVID-19.

The card was filled with elite women’s boxers like Shields, Dicaire, Amanda Serrano, Tiara Brown, Sara Mahfoud, Hanna Gabriels, Raquel Miller and Elena Gradinar, and had the potential to do for them what Dana White’s decision in 2012 to bring women into the UFC did for female MMA fighters.

Showtime, which had been broadcasting Shields’ bouts, suddenly began showing little interest in women’s boxing. The Premier Boxing Champions doesn’t include women, and Top Rank, which has a deal on ESPN, really only features WBO super featherweight champion Mikaela Mayer.

So Shields (10-0) is the best pound-for-pound female boxer in the world and one of the best of all time, if not the best, and she has little outlet to showcase her talents and, more importantly, get paid.

So on Monday, Shields announced she’s going to fight in the Professional Fight League, an MMA organization currently on hiatus until April because of the coronavirus.

Claressa Shields poses for photographs after defeating Ivana Habazin in their 154-pound title boxing bout in Atlantic City, N.J., Friday, Jan. 10, 2020. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
Claressa Shields poses for photographs after defeating Ivana Habazin in their 154-pound title boxing bout in Atlantic City, New Jersey, on Jan. 10, 2020. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Shields didn’t make sense for the UFC because there is almost no way she could fight at 145 pounds, and the UFC has precious few featherweights. But the PFL, which has a TV deal with ESPN, has a 155-pound female division, and thus, it made sense to Shields.

The visibility that ESPN provides will be great for Shields, but it is only a secondary reason why she chose the PFL. That reason can best be summed up in two words:

Kayla Harrison.

Harrison, like Shields, is a two-time Olympic gold medalist. Shields won middleweight boxing gold medals at the 2012 Games in London and at the 2016 Games in Brazil. Harrison won gold medals in judo in London and in Rio.

Harrison, notably, fights at 155 pounds in the PFL, which is where Shields will fit in.

A Harrison-Shields fight at the PFL Final on New Year’s Eve 2021 would become the biggest show in PFL history. Not only would there be the $1 million prize that goes to the season winner on the line, but never before in combat sports have opponents who each had two Olympic gold medals faced each other.

Let’s be honest, though. Harrison is the defending PFL champion and will be an overwhelming favorite to reach the final again. Shields, though, has no MMA experience, and there is no guarantee she’ll get to the finals.

Given that she plans to box in the interim, there is a legitimate question about how quickly she’d be able to pick up MMA to be able to compete with higher-end women.

She’s not a knockout puncher in boxing, and only has two knockouts in 10 bouts. But in MMA, with four-ounce gloves on her hands and against women who don’t have the defense that the boxers do, she’ll be a legitimate KO threat.

That said, boxing is only one element in MMA and if she gets taken down, her only advantage is all of a sudden gone. There is no woman, not even Harrison, who would look to stand and trade with Shields in MMA.

But Shields is a neophyte in grappling and wrestling. She has never taken a kick or a knee. It’s all going to be new to her and so it’s a risk.

There’s something inspiring about a fighter who is willing to leave his or her comfort zone to take a risk like Shields is doing. She’s friends with Bellator featherweight champion Cris “Cyborg” Justino, and Cyborg undoubtedly will help her with her acclimation to MMA.

But when Cyborg fought a Muay Thai fight, even though she was good, she wasn’t the dominant force that she is in MMA. Shields can expect the same.

If she catches onto MMA quickly and looks good during the PFL season, it’s almost hard to imagine how big a fight between the two women would be.

There are no elbows allowed in the PFL, which would be to Shields’ advantage in a fight with Harrison. Harrison fought Courtney King in a featherweight bout in Invicta recently because the PFL is not competing this year, and elbows are allowed in Invicta.

Harrison annihilated King and tore her apart with elbows. That’s not something Shields would want to face.

She’ll face a lot of other obstacles in her climb toward the top of MMA, though. And if she gets to Harrison, she’ll be able to say she made it into one of the biggest fights in women’s combat sports history.

Shields has been a record-setter since she turned pro. Her rise in MMA won’t be as smooth, as quick or as seamless as it was in boxing.

If she does it and defeats Harrison, she’ll have plenty of reason to call herself the greatest women’s combat athlete of all time.

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