Boxing and MMA, Claressa Shields says, are like apples and grapefruits.
The latter are more laborious to eat. But, at least with some sugar sprinkled on top, there’s more fruit to enjoy.
Shields, with little room to argue the most successful female boxer in history, had come to feel the fruits of her labors in the ring were not commensurate with the effort she’d put in.
She still, however, likes apples. So, having taken up the cage without renouncing the ring, the Flint, Michigan, native who trains in Albuquerque at Jackson-Wink will make her MMA debut Thursday on a Professional Fighters League card in Atlantic City, New Jersey.
She oozes with confidence, and not just because her hand-picked opponent, Wyoming native Brittney Elkin, has a 3-6 record.
Her seven months at Jackson-Wink, Shields said, have provided her with the MMA base she needed to combine with her singular boxing skills.
“At first,” she said during a news conference, “I didn’t like anything that wasn’t boxing in MMA because I’m human and I love what I do. What I did was boxing, and it always consisted of my jab, right hand, uppercuts, hooks. And then, now (in MMA) somebody can take that away from you, and I don’t like feeling helpless.
“… Now, when I spar, I don’t feel helpless at all, because I know prevention. I know what to do if something happens.”
Even her boxing skills, she said, have been modified for MMA purposes.
“I don’t think you guys (the media) are really gonna recognize me come Thursday,” she said, “because I’m gonna be so different.”
Her work at Jackson-Wink, she said, with coaches Greg Jackson and Mike Winkeljohn and with training partners Holly Holm, Jon Jones, Arlene Blencowe, et al, has given her both the skills and the confidence she needs.
“I can say that now I actually enjoy the wrestling part of MMA and enjoying being able to mix in the boxing,” she said. “I enjoy being able to see when I can throw kicks and being able to catch kicks.”
Elkin, for her part, says she’s happy to be a part of Shields’ highly publicized MMA debut and doesn’t at all mind that the spotlight is trained on her opponent. But she insists she has a winning game plan.
“Everybody putting all the attention on her has let me just kind of slide in and get to work,” said Elkin, who has lost four of her last five MMA fights but has won several grappling bouts of late. “I feel very confident and ready to walk in that cage, let the door close and get to the fight.”
In the ring, Shields has been beyond dominant. As an amateur, she won 64 of 65 listed bouts and two Olympic gold medals (2012, at the age of 17, and 2016). Since turning pro after the Rio de Janeiro games, she’s 11-0 and has won world titles in three weight classes.
It wasn’t enough.
“I just felt like in boxing I had accomplished everything already,” she said. “… I was dominating all the girls, three different weight classes. But it was like, boxing didn’t give me the opportunities.”
Seeing the money and status gained by the top women MMA fighters – Ronda Rousey, Amanda Nunes and Holm, Shields’ Jackson-Wink teammate – Shields, in frustration, considered retirement as the COVID-19 pandemic sidelined her in 2020.
“I was just tired of not getting my just due,” she said, “not reaping what I sowed.”
She credits prayer and her uncle, 2004 Olympic bronze medalist and longtime world boxing contender Andre Dirrell, for both comforting and motivating her.
“(Dirrell) just said, ‘Put your career in God’s hands,'” she said.
That career, she said, will continue to include boxing as she pursues an unprecedented double: world titles simultaneously in the ring and the cage.
There are still, she said, “some girls in boxing I want to beat up.”