Claressa Shields unifies middleweight titles, then calls out Savannah Marshall

Two-time Olympic gold medalist Claressa Shields remained undefeated with a unanimous decision over Christina Hammer to unify all four belts at 160lbs

What had been pitched in the broad strokes of boxing promotion as the most significant women’s fight in a generation was, more immediately, the biggest test of Claressa Shields’ nascent professional career. Turns out it wasn’t much of a challenge at all.

The two-time Olympic gold medalist from the United States is now a four-belt world champion after overwhelming Christina Hammer and winning a 10-round unanimous decision with a comprehensive exhibition of hand speed, effective aggression and much-improved defense in Saturday night’s highly anticipated middleweight title unification fight inside the Adrian Phillips Theater at Atlantic City’s Boardwalk Hall. Ringside judges Guido Cavalleri and Robin Taylor handed down scores of 98-91 while Lynne Carter had it 98-92. (The Guardian scored it 99-91.)

Shields, who had already won a belt at super middleweight in her fourth professional fight to back up her London and Rio golds, added Hammer’s long-held WBO title to the IBF, WBA and WBC straps that she’s collected since dropping down to 160lbs less than a year ago, becoming only the second champion in the history of the women’s section to simultaneously hold all four major title belts in any division after Norway’s Cecilia Brækhus, the welterweight queen regarded as the best fighter pound for pound today. So rare is the feat in today’s decentralized climate that four men have managed it: the reigning cruiserweight champion Oleksandr Usyk, junior welterweight Terence Crawford and middleweights Bernard Hopkins and Jermain Taylor.

Afterward the cocksure 24-year-old from Flint, Michigan – undefeated in nine paying fights and a winner in 77 of her 78 amateur bouts – animatedly called out both Brækhus and Savannah Marshall, the unbeaten British super middleweight whose defeat of Shields at the 2012 world championships represents the lone blemish on her lifetime ledger.

“I’ll go to the UK and beat Savannah Marshall,” Shields said afterward. “Bring me her. Bring her to me. I’ll kill her.”

Hammer (24-1, 11 KOs), a German émigrée from Kazakhstan and a world champion for nearly a decade, entered with two-inch advantages in height and reach and, crucially, the brand of seasoned pedigree in the pro ranks that made the 28-year-old seem more than capable of upsetting the nearly 3-1 odds against her.

Shields (9-0, 2 KOs) showed an appropriate measure of respect throughout a cagey first round, keeping safely out of range as Hammer looked to establish her educated jab. But after two minutes of careful observation, the American had seen everything she needed to know.

“I was just calculating: what is her jab like, how fast is she?” Shields said. “I was just calculating in the first round and after that I started picking her apart. I knew I could hurt her.”

Shields began stepping into the pocket and throwing punches in combination in the second round, connecting with a pair of cracking right hands toward the end of the frame that brought the audience of several thousand to its feet. Hammer was not seriously hurt by the shots, but they were enough to make the Dortmund fighter appear tentative from as early as the third as she circled back and to the left away from Shields’ powerful right. The German was trying to work off the jab, but Shields slipped one offering after another with deft head movement.

Shields continued to score with the jab and the right hand in the middle rounds as Hammer, drifting into survival mode, seemed to expend all her energy keeping her opponent at bay. For all the questions surrounding the American’s power, it was Shields’ defense, an upgrade on Saturday from even her most recent fights, that stood out as Hammer looked confused and without a plan B as the fight reached the midpoint.

An emotional Claressa Shields holds her belts after defeating Christina Hammer by unanimous decision on Saturday night. Photograph: Julio Cortez/AP

A thudding overhand right by the American to end the seventh ignited the crowd but it was a mere prelude to the gripping eighth, where Shields poured on the punishment and knocked Hammer’s mouthpiece loose before trapping her prey in the corner and opening up with a dozen unanswered shots to the head and body as referee Sparkle Lee leaned in, a split-second from intervention. Thorough enough was the violence for Cavalleri and Taylor to score it a 10-8 round.

“I thought I finished her in round eight,” Shields said. “I thought the fight should have been stopped. She was holding onto me. I just told myself: ‘Stay cool, stay cool.’ I was trying to get the perfect punch to get her out of there.”

Hammer, knowing she needed a knockout entering the final round, showed a champion’s grit by stepping into the breach and firing off combinations from the bell, at last finding purchase with a left hand flush on the jaw that appeared to stop Shields in her tracks. But the American took Hammer’s best punch of the night well and was more than content to box her way to the finish line of her signature victory to date.

“I am the greatest woman of all time,” said Shields, who connected on 112 of her 387 punches (29%) according to CompuBox punch statistics, nearly double the 49 of 366 for Hammer (13%). “I did everything I wanted to do. They say 98-92. Give me 100-90. I won every round.”

Said a downcast Hammer in the aftermath of her first professional setback: “I didn’t fight very good or fast. That’s boxing. Anything can happen. I wanted this fight. She won, respect to her. She’s a tough, strong woman and that’s all I can say.”

Showtime, the premium cable network which threw its full promotional heft behind Saturday’s event, drawing even the attention of Halle Berry, is optimistic that Shields can elevate women’s boxing the way Ronda Rousey lifted women’s mixed martial arts from slagged-off sideshow to headline attraction. Yet Shields’ one-sided supremacy opposite a long-tenured world champion lays bare the obvious complication.

“The biggest challenge going forward is the availability of high-quality opponents,” Stephen Espinoza, the network’s boxing czar, said earlier this week. “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 going to have to go up and down in weight and prove her mettle against a range of opponents.”

Such a move would appear to be a prerequisite for either Shields’ targeted opponents. A fight with Brækhus, the longtime champion at 147lbs, would almost certainly be staged at junior middleweight. And Marshall, unbeaten in five professional bouts since debuting on the undercard of Floyd Mayweather’s circus maximus with Conor McGregor, campaigns a division up from Shields at 168lbs. Whichever direction she decides, Shields’ showing on Saturday will no doubt have people watching.

“Women’s boxing, we’re on fire,” Shields said. “I cannot wait to see the next super fight.”

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