A place in the Olympic boxing pantheon
Claressa Shields climbed to the top of the middleweight podium at London 2012 and Rio 2016 becoming the first US boxer of either gender to win back-to-back Olympic titles.
A tough startBorn in Flint, Michigan – a former car industry hub that had been hit hard by economic recession Claressa Shields did not have the happiest of childhoods. Her father, a former boxer himself, was in prison for the first nine years of her life, while her mother struggled with addictions.
Going without for much of her early life, during which she did not even have a bed to sleep in, she was encouraged to take up boxing after her father was released from prison and began talking to her about Laila Ali, the daughter of the legendary Muhammad Ali.
Inspired by the exploits of Laila, who won a string of world titles at the turn of the millennium, going unbeaten in 24 professional fights, Shields began taking boxing lessons when she was 11, under the guidance of coach Jason Crutchfield at the Berston Field gym in Flint.
“It just amazes me how she’s able to key in and focus,” said Crutchfield. “When she first came [to the gym] I never paid any attention to her. Then I took her on the wall and she was doing better than the boys. She would be the first one here every time. I’d say: ‘OK. Be down the Berston at 8 o’clock’. And she would be here at 6 o’clock in the morning.”
A solitary blemishShields was a brilliant junior middleweight, making the most of her speed and devastating jab. And when the IOC decided in August 2009 to add women’s boxing to the Olympic programme at London 2012, it gave the American teenager something to aim for.
“What attracted me to boxing? Winning,” she said. While qualifying for the inaugural women’s Olympic boxing competition as a 17-year-old at the 2012 World Championships in Qinhuangdao (CHN), she suffered the one and only defeat of her career, to Great Britain’s Savannah Marshall.
A unique place in American boxing historyDespite being the youngest boxer at London 2012, Shields was in a class of her own. After defeating Sweden’s Anna Laurell 18-14 in the last eight, the young American saw off Kazakhstan’s Marina Volnova 29-15 in the semis before taking on Russia’s 33-year-old world champion Nadezhda Torlopova in the gold medal bout.
Nicknamed “T-Rex”, Shields’ lightning combinations, ultra-fast jab and fleet footwork were too much for her opponent, with the American easing to a 19-12 points win to become her country’s first ever female Olympic boxing champion, an achievement that earned her a hero’s welcome on her return to Flint.
T-Rex marches onBy now a famous face and the subject of a documentary entitled “T-Rex: Her Fight for Gold”), Shields continued to make history. The first female American boxer to win two world titles, in 2014 in Jeju (KOR), and in 2016 in Astana(KAZ), she was also the first to land Pan American Games gold, in Toronto in 2015.
She celebrated her 21st birthday in March 2016 by winning the Olympic qualifying tournament in Buenos Aires (ARG), and set off for Brazil later in the year confident of retaining her title.
Tribute to the GreatestOn 3 June 2016, as Shields was preparing for her Olympic title defence, Muhammad Ali died at the age of 74. “On the day he died I felt like a huge part of me had left. I remember when I met Muhammad Ali, I felt this sense of pride,” she said, reacting to his death.
“He was the first African American who stood up and said, ‘I’m black and I’m pretty and I can fight’. He gave you that belief that you are beautiful and you are pretty. He was one of the most dangerous fighters in the game. I hope I can do justice to him when I speak about him and when I fight. Nobody else will ever be ‘The Greatest’, ever, but I can try and be close.”
Two golds on the Rio podiumShields honoured Ali’s memory in the best possible fashion, winning all her fights en route to the Rio 2016 final by unanimous points verdicts. Facing her in the gold medal bout was Nouchka Fontijn of the Netherlands, whom she had beaten to retain her world title earlier in the year. Again, Fontijn was totally outclassed, and Shields cruised to a successful defence to become the first American boxer in Olympic history (male or female) to win consecutive golds.
“I just wanted to win the first two rounds clear. That’s all I wanted,” said Shields. “When I came back to the corner they were saying you got that round, you got that round. I said I have to be smart. I’ve worked so hard to be here. You know not everybody can be an Olympic gold medallist. I’m a two-time Olympic gold medallist.”
To prove the point, she stepped up to the podium with her London 2012 gold and proudly held both medals up, one in each hand, for the world to see. “I want to let people know and let it be remembered that I am a two-time Olympic gold medallist,” explained Shields. “I won it when I was 17. I won it when I was 21. This is not a game. It’s not a joke. I can really fight. I train hard. And I’ve got both my gold medals.”
After calling time on an amateur career in which she scored 78 wins and suffered just one defeat, Shields won her first pro fight in 2016. Her stunning achievements, which are due to be immortalised in a feature film, are unlikely to be bettered for some time.