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Claressa Shields fighting to be undisputed champion inside and outside the ring

Claressa Shields

NEW YORK — Claressa Shields is sitting at the bottom of the stairs of the Title Boxing Club in the Turtle Bay neighborhood of midtown Manhattan, an hour early for the event of which she is the star, waiting. The first one here other than the promoters of the event, she’s not sure how this is going to go.

She’s been brought in to teach a boxing class and provide a question-and-answer session to a small group of women. In a gold blouse, black pants and heels all purchased earlier that day, she has a moment to relax. Shields hasn’t done something quite like this before.

She stares at both of her cell phones. Starts to organize.

For a few hours, this will be a paid escape from her hectic schedule of bouncing between travel, training and figuring out her future. This event and Q&A session where she’s boxing and inspiring will give her that. After taking photos, she changes into her workout clothes, including a T-shirt with her own likeness on it.

On this February night, Shields is on the cusp of stardom, of reaching a crossover appeal reserved for only the highest class of athlete. She can do tutorials like this now, and no one makes a big deal about it.

“I just know that women’s boxing will be bigger. I’ll be more known and I think it’ll be a huge push for women’s boxing, but I don’t know exactly what it would do for myself.” Claressa Shields

She’s garnered enough fame where Paramount Pictures wanted her to help promote a movie she’s not in, “What Men Want,” because of a boxing tie. Yet she’s still able to go to Walmart to buy butter on her own without being bombarded.

A year from now, if everything goes according to the plan that Shields and her managers have, it might not be as possible. It’s Shields’ flash point of her career. She’s weeks away from announcing her middleweight unification title fight against Christina Hammer. Her promoters dub it the biggest fight in women’s boxing history.

Usually that would be hyperbole, but it might not be. Shields is the sport’s biggest star and most well-known name since Laila Ali. She’s headlining a Saturday night card in Atlantic City on Showtime. Her promoter, Dmitriy Salita, said the fight will have a ring mat “like NASCAR” because of the amount of sponsorships it brought in.

This is the fight, the moment, that Shields and her team planned for since her third professional bout. Matching up with Hammer was the culmination of the first part of the idea that her manager, Mark Taffet, had since the beginning.

It leads to an open question with a bunch of possibilities. In a sport fighting for attention and viewership — with only one real female star — where does Claressa Shields go next after Christina Hammer?

Ask her the question and a bunch of answers fly past, the eagerness of a 24-year-old who dreamt about this for a decade and the youthful exuberance of someone who wants to be involved in everything. A multitude of plans exist, both short and long. Plans small enough as to who she could fight next to broader-based goals that, if she pulls it off, would turn her into one of the most influential athletes of the 21st century.

Shields is smart enough to recognize discussing the future too much is dangerous.

“I don’t know,” Shields said. “I just know that women’s boxing will be bigger. I’ll be more known, and I think it’ll be a huge push for women’s boxing, but I don’t know exactly what it would do for myself. For myself, I think as far as I can think is, is being more known and being able to plan my next fight.”

Unlike her contemporaries in men’s boxing, Shields doesn’t think she can afford to take a long layoff. Not with the momentum they’ve built. If she stopped for a year or more, the fickle, short-attention-span audience could move on.

The strategy exists — and as her promoters say, there’s always another fight. Whatever happens next will be part of a multiyear, broad-based plan devised by her team to create the largest reach possible.

One possibility, which would be the start of the next stage of her career, would be dropping down to 154 pounds to fight Cecilia Braekhus — the undisputed welterweight champion. It could shatter another barrier — a pay-per-view event, something usually reserved for only the biggest of stars in the biggest of fights.

“It is Claressa’s desire to win world titles in three weight classes and to be the quickest to achieve that, male or female,” her manager, Mark Taffet, said. “Vasiliy Lomachenko won his third world title in a weight division in his 12th fight. Claressa has three or four fights to equal or exceed that, and that’s the goal.

“The next goal for us after the Hammer fight.”

A lot rides on Saturday night. From a promotional perspective, one company suggested to ESPN a potential million-dollar endorsement deal if things go well. If it is a good fight — both are undefeated — there could be a rematch, either in the United States or Hammer’s adopted home in Germany [Hammer was born in Kazakhstan]. Taffet suggested “this could be the first great trilogy in women’s boxing.”

“She wants women all across America to be empowered, to be strong, to stand up for what they believe is right and what they deserve and she won’t stop until she reaches equality on every level in the sport of boxing and that’s what motivates her and I believe she’ll accomplish it.” Mark Taffet, Claressa Shields’ manager

Both Taffet and Salita mentioned Hanna Gabriel at 154 pounds or avenging Shields’ only career loss in amateurs in a bout against Savannah Marshall. Shields would be open to a crossover fight against MMA stars Cris Cyborg, Holly Holm or Amanda Nunes — in a boxing ring. Going to MMA, at least for now, is not an option. There’s too much to accomplish in boxing first.

“I feel like this is the second or third stage of growth of women’s boxing,” Salita said. “And obviously it’s about the big fights and good fighters fighting good fighters, and that’s what gets public interest.”

They’ve done what they can to build it up. Shields’ goals extend beyond picking up wins and belts. They are much bigger.

Shields is open about her bigger goals. She doesn’t see it as pressure, but the reality that she is trying to accomplish. It’s why her ascent is important and so is who is around as it happens. Having welterweight world titlist Errol Spence Jr. and UFC light heavyweight champion Jon Jones walk her out Saturday night while holding her belts — the plan as of the moment — shows how the larger boxing and MMA community has embraced her.

Actor Halle Berry is among the celebrities scheduled to show up Saturday night to watch her fight. Taffet said sponsors who usually don’t invest in boxing have begun to reach out about doing business with Shields.

“To me, that’s just great within itself,” Shields said. “… I know a few other celebrities have been reaching out asking where they can get tickets and booking their flights and their rooms to come, and to me, this is crossing over.”

While all this is promising, there’s another loftier, more dynamic goal — something she’s talked about often: Equality in women’s boxing. Not among women fighters, but all big-name fighters in big-name fights. In pay. In promotion. In everything.

She believes Saturday’s fight can expand the sport. She doesn’t want to be compared to other women fighters. She wants to be compared to all fighters, weight and gender be damned.

“Eliminate gender labels in the sport. She doesn’t want to be the greatest woman, the greatest female champion, the greatest pound-for-pound fighter,” Taffet said. “She wants to eliminate the gender labels across the board.

“She wants women all across America to be empowered, to be strong, to stand up for what they believe is right and what they deserve, and she won’t stop until she reaches equality on every level in the sport of boxing, and that’s what motivates her and I believe she’ll accomplish it.”

To happen, she has to keep winning. Keep drawing interest. Turn into the biggest draw possible, the way Floyd Mayweather, Ronda Rousey and Conor McGregor have done in other fighting circuits. How Billie Jean King and the Williams sisters [Venus and Serena] destroyed barriers in tennis.

A pay-per-view fight would be a big deal. Saturday against Hammer, and how it does for Showtime, matters. If she starts crossing over into being a mainstream star, her Q rating will grow — and so will her demand.

Shields was in her dressing room before her December win over Femke Hermans when she felt a different vibe. She heard this might happen — Cyborg told her about this — but when she turned around, Shields already knew who had popped by to visit.


Shields tells people in her circle not to freak out around celebrities, mostly because she knows how people act when they run into her on a trip to Walmart — a favorite shopping stop — or after her name would be announced on the loudspeaker while she was grocery shopping in her hometown of Flint, Michigan.

A crowd forms. It’s exciting and sometimes awkward. People are people regardless of status and should be treated as such. Then Berry walked in. The mood in the room shifted.

“She walked up to me and said, ‘I’m not being a distraction, am I,’ ” Shields said. “I’m like, ‘Halle, I can beat this girl’s ass in my sleep.’ She busted out laughing, like, ‘Oh my goodness.’ From there, after the fight, she was like, ‘Wow, you really can.’

“After that we exchanged numbers, and she followed me on social media.”

It led to multiple conversations. About boxing. About life. About acting?

In her downtime, Shields began taking MasterClass classes on acting and improvisation to see if she wants to pursue that as a second career. She’s been mostly quiet about it, although she has asked Berry for advice — mostly about how to remember lines for her MasterClass sessions. Right now, Shields estimates she’s “probably a four” out of 10 in memorizing lines.

She said Berry offered her assistance learning how to act, explaining how she gets into character and make emotions click. Shields laughs.

“I think,” she said. “I’ve asked Halle Berry all those questions.”

One role she won’t play is herself. She wants to do the boxing stunts in the biopic option purchased by Universal Studios and being penned by Barry Jenkins about her life — another sign of her growing fame. She doesn’t feel like she could play herself. It’d be too hard. Anyone else, though, is open.

“You have to learn what is legit,” Shields said. “I did want to do an audition, just to get my nerves out the way, but I do want to take some in-person classes and be around other people that do want to be actors and actresses and, you know, go from there.

“My goal before the end of this year is to do an actual audition.”

That, she figures, will tell her whether she has chops — or could develop them — to be on-screen.

One of Shields’ appeals is her social media interaction, including 141,000 Instagram followers she engages with daily. Keeping her fans informed is important. Without them, she wouldn’t have the opportunities she does.

While there are times — like anyone with any sort of public presence — social media bugs her, Shields says half-joking that “on social media, they give me no breaks.” It’s the chore and life she chose of being a fighter close to stardom. It is social media, too, that allows her for chances she wouldn’t normally get.

The first guest to show up in New York bounds down the stairs. She’s the youngest invitee and the one with the most connection to Shields — 12-year-old Jesselyn Silva, a relationship that started during a meeting at the since-cancelled “Harry” show. They exchanged information. Stayed connected through social media.

When Shields invited Silva to the event, her father, Pedro, drove 40 minutes each way from New Jersey in rush hour traffic so Silva could have time with the fighter who inspires her. When she arrives, Shields lights up. Pedro says his daughter looked up to Shields “since day one. Since day one. That’s why they clicked.”

They do boomerang videos and have a mini dance-off, Shields laughing as Silva “does it way better than me.” They talk about Silva’s boxing, including a decision not to fight in Silver Gloves this year. Silva follows Shields everywhere. Shields reciprocates with attention.

Silva doesn’t need the rudimentary lessons Shields is teaching. She has the confidence Shields also possesses, even blurting out during a speed three-punch jab shadowboxing drill, “I’m faster than you.” Shields laughs. Challenge accepted.

Shields wins. Silva sticks with her. Pedro took his daughter to the event because he would have loved to be able to do the same with his childhood idols, Barry Sanders and Deion Sanders. That never happened. This — for his daughter — was everything. His way of making sure Silva gets all of her possible opportunities.

“She’s blessed, man,” Pedro said. “Got right people around her. Claressa supports her.”

The Silvas are among the last guests to leave. Pedro shakes her hand, thanking her again. Shields invites her to the Hammer news conference. Says she can meet and get pictures with both fighters. Silva jokes about taking a picture with Hammer with her thumb down. Shields laughs. They hug. Promise to stay in touch. Shields’ friend and photographer, Stephanie Trapp, takes more photos of them together.

“This class was so fun,” Shields says to Trapp. “I need to do more of these.”

Then they step outside onto Third Avenue in an unseasonably warm February night. No one recognizes Shields or stops her. She walks through the New York City streets unabated, just her and Trapp discussing dinner plans.

Moments like this, shreds of anonymity, are shrinking. Stares at airports and grocery stores tell her that. Within a year, she thinks she might need a bodyguard to assist. It’s what she’s wanted, what she’s worked her whole life for. Two months later, Shields will bring up that night again, how she hopes she can do more events like that.

Everything Shields is doing — now and in the future — could be as much setting herself up for life as it is creating a larger potential boxing future for young female fighters like Silva. Shields is the influence, the pedestal and the barometer.

If she succeeds, it could change everything in women’s boxing because both in the ring and outside of it, the same mantra remains. There’s always another fight.

EltasZone Sportswriters, Sports Analysts, Opinion columnists, editorials and op-eds. Analysis from The Zone Team
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