The double Olympic champion headlines the biggest womens boxing match in a generation against Christina Hammer on Saturday night in Atlantic City
It’s just before midday as Claressa Shields enters the second-floor banquet room in Gallagher’s Steakhouse in midtown Manhattan. The two-times Olympic gold medalist from the embattled Michigan city of Flint is fielding the last of her promotional obligations ahead of the fight that could propel her star, and women’s boxing, to new heights. Saturday can’t arrive fast enough.
Shields, who’s captured three of the major world titles at 160lbs in the last year, and Christina Hammer, the German émigrée from Kazakhstan who has owned the fourth for nearly a decade, will meet on Saturday night to unify the belts and determine an undisputed middleweight champion at Atlantic City’s Boardwalk Hall.
It’s been pitched as the most significant women’s boxing match in at least a generation and it may well be: a summit meeting featuring two of the world’s best prizefighters defined by fascinating contrasts in styles, temperaments and experience levels, elevated by network backing unprecedented in the American market.
The winner will become only the second champion in the history of women’s boxing to unify all four major title belts after Norway’s Cecilia Brækhus, the welterweight queen regarded as the best fighter pound for pound today. So rare is the feat in a decentralized sport all but engineered to keep the titles divided that only four men have managed it: the current cruiserweight champion Oleksandr Usyk, junior welterweight Terence Crawford and middleweights Bernard Hopkins and Jermain Taylor.
Those material stakes for Saturday’s scheduled 10-round scrap, which had initially been made for November only to be postponed after Hammer was forced to withdraw because of an undisclosed medical condition, are compelling enough.
Yet Shields know she’s fighting not only Hammer but the perceptions that for years have weighed down women’s boxing, which has been all but ignored in the United States aside from odd flashpoints – Christy Martin landing the cover of Sports Illustrated or Laila Ali trading on the family name to supplement her talent.
“I trained so hard because with this being called the biggest women’s boxing match of all time, I don’t want to let my fans down,” says Shields, who spent her six-week training camp at the US Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs under trainer John David Jackson. “I don’t want to let the women who came before us down and don’t want to let them say it was all hype. I have to go out there and put on a show.”
The dual burden is one that Shields, who turned 24 last month, acknowledges even as she tries to remain focused on the immediate task.
“I do feel the need to uplift the sport,” she says. “I’m not just here to get to where I can make the million dollars and the other women don’t matter. I’m doing this for all of us to where they know that we matter, that we work just as hard as the men, that we train and we sacrifice. If not the same, more than them. Just to show that a woman can be a fighter and we can make this our career. Boxing is the easiest part of the whole thing.”
The broad strokes of Shields’ backstory were well-documented amid the press deluge of the two Olympics where she gained international renown. She overcame a transient childhood, poverty and sexual abuse to become the first ever American boxer, male or female, to win back-to-back Olympic titles with victories in London, aged 17, and Rio, where she earned the Val Barker Trophy as the top overall female fighter in the tournament, an honor not won by an American since Roy Jones Jr in 1988.
She left home after graduating from Flint Northwestern High School in 2015 as the tainted water crisis that’s made the city the center of a national scandal left one of her cousins diagnosed with lead poisoning. “A lot of my family still breaks out (in rashes) from the water,” she tells the Guardian.
“Coming from Flint and the upbringing I had, I wasn’t supposed to make it this far,” Shields says. “I was supposed to be one of those statistics or one of those girls who didn’t graduate, get pregnant, go to jail. Instead I’m on a huge platform with a great story a great upbringing and now I’m fighting for the undisputed title. I’m like a diamond in the rough, a rose that grew from concrete.”
Showtime, which has thrown its full promotional heft behind Saturday’s event, is betting Shields can light a fire under women’s boxing the same way Ronda Rousey lifted women’s mixed martial arts from sideshow to headline attraction. Stephen Espinoza, the premium cable network’s boxing czar, said Shields’ two fights last year that headlined the Friday night ShoBox series were the franchise’s two highest rated broadcasts of 2018, surpassing even the US telecast of Anthony Joshua’s title defense against Joseph Parker.
“The biggest challenge going forward is the availability of high-quality opponents,” Espinoza says. “Because she is so strong and so skilled in her weight division, the talent is not that deep just because of the physical size. She’s gonna have to go up and down in weight and prove her mettle against a range of opponents.”
Standing in the way is the 28-year-old Hammer, a classy operator more than capable of upsetting the oddsmakers’ 3-1 price against her – and Showtime’s best laid plans with it. The Dortmund fighter, who’s knocked out two of her past three opponents, enters with two-inch advantages height and reach, underrated power and a level of experience that far outstrips her opponent.
But Shields, whose lone career setback came way back at the 2012 world championships against Britain’s Savannah Marshall, insists she’s left nothing in the gym.
“I worked so hard in this camp, harder than ever before,” she says, her eyes narrowing. “I’m pissed off. I’m ready to release my rage on the inside and let it all out on her.”
Read more: www.theguardian.com