RIO DE JANEIRO — In 2012 Claressa Shields was 17, among the youngest U.S. Olympians in London, a largely unknown and decidedly unpolished kid from Flint, Mich., there to compete in a sport that was making its first appearance at the Games. This year, at 21, Shields arrived in Rio as one of the U.S. team’s A-listers, a defending gold medalist, the confident and charming leader of a resurgent American boxing squad, a familiar face from national ad campaigns and the subject of a widely acclaimed documentary, with a feature film based on her life already in development.
So much has changed in four years for Claressa Shields.
And yet so much hasn’t. Talk to Shields for just a few minutes, and listen to those close to her, and you quickly realize that there are aspects of her life that she has fought long and hard to change—and that there are some core elements that she remains determined never to alter.
Late last Thursday afternoon, Shields walked into the mixed zone in the boxing arena at Rio Centro Pavilion 6 a few minutes after her unanimous decision over Dariga Shakimova of Kazakhstan in the semifinals of the women’s 75kg division to meet with the media. Her headgear off, her hands still wrapped, Shields was sweaty but unmarked and apparently unwinded after a dominating performance in which she had moved inside and out at will for all four rounds, slashing Shakimova with her jab and repeatedly landing thudding combinations to the head and body. She’d closed the show in style, drawing a standing-eight count in the final 15 seconds with a long and loud left hook.
So menacing in the ring, Shields ungirded has a playful aspect, with bright eyes and an impish smile, and she greeted the knot of reporters thrusting digital recorders over the barrier at her with a cheery, “How are you guys?”
She talked about how good she’d felt in the ring, and about the noise of the crowd (“First I heard ‘U-S-A! U-S-A!’ And right after that, ‘Booooooooooo!’”); she plugged her sports-drink sponsor a couple of times (each time with a conspiratorial arching of an eyebrow and telling glance at USA Boxing media handler, Julie Goldsticker, at her side); and she even stopped mid-sentence to remark that she’d forgotten to do the Ali Shuffle during the bout. (“I didn’t do it? Dang, I was about to do it. I’ll do it in my next fight!”)
But when asked a question at one point about her “legacy”—a sportswriter’s term that can seem silly when applied to a 21-year-old—Shields turned serious. This was the change/don’t change territory.
“The legacy is definitely important to me,” she answered. “One, I want to show that women boxers need to be respected—on the amateur level and on the professional level. And also I want to tell people who come from where I come from, or a place similar to that, Don’t let your surroundings create who you are. Don’t let what your parents did or didn’t do control what you are. Your life depends on your decision and it depends on what you want to do. Growing up in Flint, there was so much darkness around me, but there were also good people around me. I was able to see things and become the person I am. I want to show people that you make your own decisions for your life.”
She paused, took a breath. “I just want to help people,” she said. “Because what I had to overcome was difficult, but look where I am.”
What Shields famously had to overcome to get to where she is now was the kind of wrenching poverty and family pain that buries countless other young people in America every day. She grew up in Flint, (which even before the water crisis was a poisoned place in too many ways) with a mother struggling with addiction and a father away in prison for seven years. She was often hungry and transient and suffered sexual abuse at the hands of two of her mother’s boyfriends. But she found boxing: When he got out of prison, her father, a former underground fighter, introduced his daughter to the sport, though he didn’t want her in the ring. But Claressa pestered and persisted and finally, when she was 10, he took her to the basement gym at Berston Field House, and there her improbable journey began.
After her historic win in London, though, Shields found herself frustrated, as none of the commercial opportunities she had expected came her way. Hopes for a lucrative professional career foundered as well. Finally she decided to make a push for another Olympic run in Rio. She separated from her longtime coach and made the move from Flint to the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. The support and stability she found there, Shields says, allowed her to grow, both as a fighter and as a person.
Billy Walsh, the new head women’s coach for USA Boxing, has been working closely with Shields and has seen the results. “She’s just 21 and she’s the leader on this program,” he says. “Not just the girls but the guys too. What she says, they all do.”
And Shields, whose record coming into Rio was 74-1 and who hasn’t lost since May 2012, has been a leader by example, as well.
Says associate U.S. coach Kay Koroma, “Claressa is a person who really likes to work on her craft. If she feels her jab isn’t working right, she’ll go downstairs and train on it all day long. If her right hand isn’t coming off right, she’ll sense it and she’ll go down and work on it. She critiques herself, that’s what I love about her.”
It’s also one of the things that Shields says she will never change.
“I believe that’s the way to become the best fighter in the world,” adds Koroma. “Know your mistakes and go to work on them.”
Is Claressa Shields the best fighter in the world, he is asked. “For sure,” Koroma says.
Walsh echoes that sentiment. “She’s the world’s best,” he says. “She’s a class apart from all the rest of ’em.”
Asked just what sets her apart, Walsh answers quickly.
“Her speed,” he says.
A moment later he adds, “And her power.”
Then: “And her head movement’s phenomenal.”
In a final burst, he says, “She hurts you every time she hits you.”
Told later that both her coaches had declared her the best fighter in the world, Shields lights up.
“They been saying that?!” she says, eyes wide, before adding thoughtfully, “Well, I definitely feel like I’m the best fighter in the world.”
She has certainly looked like the best fighter in Rio in her first two bouts here. Before her drubbing of Shakimova on Thursday, Shields had opened her Olympic campaign on Aug. 17 by scoring an easy unanimous decision win over Iaroslava Iakushina of Russia, also capped off by a standing-eight in the closing seconds. (“Are we looking for the eight-count in the last round?” Kay teases her later. “Are we looking for it, or are we just letting it happen?”)
For one thing, Shields’s emphatic performances have helped take any worry about the judging out of the equation in a tournament that had earlier been marred by a number of questionable-at-best decisions. (A note on that sore subject: Seeking to quell concerns about the officiating, the sport’s governing body, AIBA, sent home an undisclosed number of officials and on Thursday announced that it had “re-assigned with immediate effect” executive director Karim Bouzidi of Algeria. That move was unfortunately undercut by the assertion in Thursday’s statement that “AIBA… remains fully committed to a zero tolerance policy towards fair play in boxing,” a typo that was quickly corrected. Whether AIBA is as quick to clean up its act from here remains to be seen.) Shields will be looking for more of the same in the final on Sunday, where she faces 28-year-old Nouchka Fontijn of the Netherlands. Shields beat Fontijin already this year, in the finals of the world championships in May.
“She’s a really great fighter,” says Shields, sounding sincere. “I don’t think she has too much to beat me, though. But I’m quite sure she went home [after worlds] and worked on things. And I’m sure she’s going to give it her 300%.”
Even that is likely to fall short against the best boxer in the world