April is Girls Sports Month, and as part of USA TODAY High School Sports’ fourth-annual Girls Sports Month celebration, we’re speaking with some of the most influential female athletes, coaches and celebrities in the sports world. We will also be highlighting some of the best stories from the past year as well as featuring some of the trailblazers.
Claressa Shields won Olympic gold in 2012 in London and returned home with only a minimal bump in fame.
“I’d tell people I won the gold medal and they’d say, ‘Yeah, right,'” she said with a laugh.
So what’s an unrecognized champ to do? Shields would just challenge people to Google her if they doubted that she really was one of the top boxer’s on the planet. When that dare got old, Shields simply started carrying the gold medal with her and flashed it to her skeptics.
Four years later, when Shields won boxing gold again in Rio, she hid the London medal in her warmup jacket pocket. She pulled it out after winning the championship bout and slipped two golds around her neck atop the medal stand — best in her class, best in the world. Twice.
All that’s left for Shields, who overcame a childhood of poverty and abuse, is to reach best of all time.
The 24-year-old Shields (8-0, 2 KOs) is on the fast track toward that claim, headlining one of the more tantalizing bouts in women’s boxing history on Saturday night. Shields fights Christina Hammer (24-0, 11 KOs) in a middleweight unification bout live on Showtime at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City, New Jersey.
There have been more accomplished female fighters — Laila Ali, Christy Martin, Lucia Rijker top the short list — but no bout has quite matched this one in anticipation or potential historic significance. Shields could continue to lead the evolution of women’s boxing the way Ronda Rousey did for MMA and bring the fight game into the mainstream.
Shields is charismatic, making fans and friends out of A-listers such as actress Halle Berry. She’s not afraid to give Beyonce a shoutout to attend her fight. She’s dominant, not losing a fight since her amateur career, and she’s won championships in multiple weight classes as a pro. She takes a stand, putting blue streaks in her hair to raise awareness to the clean water fight that’s gone on for years in her hometown of Flint, Michigan.
If her life sounds like something out of a movie, it soon may be: “If Beale Street Could Talk” director Barry Jenkins is writing the screenplay for a Shields biopic.
Shields and Hammer are the first female boxers featured on Showtime’s All Access YouTube sports channel. The distinction didn’t come because of the 28-year-old Hammer, who has racked up wins for a decade in the 160-pound division without fanfare. It’s the spark and the success that Shields creates whenever she fights.
“If I was a man, I would probably be one of the most famous boxers out there,” Shields said. “There is a gender gap. We all know it. I’m working toward changing that. We work hard, we get less money and less recognition, but the world is changing. We are changing it.”
The undefeated fighters were supposed to meet on Nov. 17, but Hammer postponed it because of a stomach illness.
Shields, whose father spent years in prison during her childhood, spent a day this week visiting kids from the New Jersey Give A Kid A Dream organization and the Girls in Gloves boxing program at the Atlantic City PAL gym. She tried to inspire kids who may have had a rough upbringing like she did and show them that it’s possible to achieve goals and “really see that girls can box.”
“(One of the girls) said I gave them hope and I got a little shaky,” Shields said. “I didn’t have a role model growing up. So it is a little weird to hear kids say that I am their role model. I am just trying to do a good job.”
Shields said she’s practiced her Ali shuffle and is ready to bust it out with a victory. She’ll have UFC light heavyweight champion Jon Jones and boxing star Errol Spence Jr. walk her to the ring on Saturday night.
“Me and Jon Jones are both the GOATs,” she said.
And maybe with a win, Shields will start to inch closer in popularity with some of the other greats in women’s sports. Rousey has nearly 3.7 million Twitter followers compared to about 35,400 for Shields.
“(Rousey) has one of the biggest followings in women’s combat sports. Hell, I’ve achieved double of what she have and I’m younger and the hate is off the charts “poorthetic” but I’m not changing a damn thing! And I won’t lose either!” Shields tweeted.
Shields picked herself off the canvas for the first time after an uppercut by Costa Rican Hanna Gabriels in the first round last June in Detroit. Hammer watched that fight ringside, then created a skirmish when she stepped into the ring to confront Shields.
On Saturday night, they go face-to-face for real — and with perhaps more on the line than just championships.
“This is going to be the biggest women’s fight in history,” Hammer said. “We’re both champions, she has Olympic gold medals and other accolades, so with all of that combined, it’s going to be a game changer for our sport.”