Claressa Shields is as ambitious as she is talented, but her ambitions are not merely for herself.
She fights for equality in opportunity and compensation. She fights for the disrespected and under-appreciated. She fights for her beloved hometown of Flint, Michigan.
Shields, an Olympic and professional boxing champion, is scheduled to make her mixed martial arts debut on Thursday – putting on display the skills she’s acquired and the strategy she’s learned while training in Albuquerque at Jackson-Wink MMA.
A week before the fight, the first installment of a four-part Shields documentary appeared on espn+. During those 24 minutes, she explains why she’s pursuing a unique goal: to become a boxing and an MMA world champion at the same time, something no other fighter – man or woman – has done.
“There’s no other boxer that’s accomplished more than me,” she says at the documentary’s outset, “But I just want so much more for myself and my career. I have a great opportunity right now, and I’m gonna use my youth (she’s 26) to the best of my ability to be great at MMA, be great at boxing. I can do both.”
In the documentary, there’s considerable footage of Shields training at Jackson-Wink with coaches Greg Jackson and Mike Winkeljohn and with fellow boxer-turned-MMA fighter Holly Holm – who has held titles in both sports but not at the same time.
The ESPN piece follows Shields from Albuquerque to Hollywood, Florida, where she worked with veteran trainer John David Jackson for her March 5 super welterweight boxing title-unification fight in Flint against Canada’s Marie Eve Dicaire.
It deals at some length with Flint, a city whose already-depressed economy took a tragic hit when its water supply turned toxic in 2014.
“I still wear my hair blue for the fights,” Shields says, “and that’s to bring awareness to the Flint water crisis. I told my city that I would wear my hair blue until the water was clean.”
Then, after her lopsided victory over Dicaire in Flint, it’s back to Albuquerque to prepare for her MMA debut on a Professional Fighters League card against Brittney Elkin, a Wyoming native with a 3-6 record.
Shields makes it clear in the ESPN piece that she believes she can accomplish anything she undertakes. But ESPN enlisted former UFC fighter and professional contrarian Chael Sonnen for the purpose of balance.
In training at Jackson-Wink, Sonnen – whose record includes a loss by first-round TKO to J-W star Jon Jones – acknowledges that Shields has come to the right place.
But, of her quest to hold boxing and MMA world titles simultaneously, Sonnen says flatly, “It’s not going to work.”
Why not? Well, there are indeed some obstacles.
Unlike Holm, who was a kick-boxer before she became a boxer, Shields came to MMA training armed only with her boxing skills – as impressive as they are. Says Sonnen: “The learning curve is very massive. As a whole, the tools of boxing are the single least effective in all of MMA.”
Shields’ boxing skills should be enough against Elkin, who in videos of her fights has shown great susceptibility to punches and little defense against them. Still, it could be interesting to see whether Elkin, a jiujitsu brown belt and an experienced grappler, can get inside Shields’ flashing fists and put Shields’ back to the cage or even take her to the ground.
I certainly wouldn’t bet against Shields, even in light of the handsome payday a wager on Elkin would produce, should she win as a 4½-to-1 underdog.
As for Shields’ long game, an MMA professional title, it appears she’d eventually have to deal with PFL champion and Olympic judo gold medalist Kayla Harrison, who’s 9-0 in the cage and defeated Elkin by first-round submission (arm bar) in 2018. The PFL essentially is Shields’ only avenue for now, since neither the UFC nor Bellator supports the 155-pound lightweight class in which she competes.
Shields, 75-1 as a boxer in the amateur and professional ranks, the only loss nine years in her rear-view mirror, harbors no doubt.
“The world is getting ready to see that Claressa Shields can do whatever she puts her mind to,” she says. “People say that boxers can’t come over to MMA and do well.
“They’re gonna learn their lesson.”