Claressa Shields was the only gold medal winner for the United States in women's boxing in the 2012 London Olympics. (Elizabeth Conley//Detroit News)
Claressa Shields desperately wants to fight someone. Really, it has been too long since she punched somebody she didn’t know.
Tonight, the Olympic boxing gold medalist finally will get her chance, stepping into the ring for an amateur bout against Canadian Alison "Kangaroo" Greey at Kettering University's recreation center in her hometown of Flint. It’s the main event on a fight card billed as a "Salute to Flint's Boxing Olympic Champions,” honoring a trio of Olympic medalists, with Chris Byrd and Andre Dirrell also in attendance.
But for the 18-year-old Shields, almost a year to the day after she became the first – and only – American to win gold in women’s boxing’s debut as a medal sport at the 2012 London Olympics, it might as well be billed as a freedom fight.
Dreams of turning pro and cashing in on her Olympic success as a teenager quickly faded when Shields returned home to find few opportunities in her sport, commercially or competitively. And even after deciding to remain an amateur for now – with an eye on defending her Olympic title at the 2016 Rio Games – Shield finds herself idly waiting for something other than another sparring session in the basement of Berston Field House, where she has trained with her coach, Jason Crutchfield, since the age of 11.
The age limit for amateur fighters was raised to 19 this spring, forcing Shields – a middleweight with a 33-1 record and 15 KOs – to compete in a youth division. Shields, who’ll turn 19 next March, called it a “devastating” rule change, mostly because it left her with no one to fight. As the only youth entry in her weight class at April’s U.S. championships, she didn’t even get to lace up her gloves.
Even now, she says with a laugh, “The only people that will fight me are from Canada. Nobody from the U.S. will fight me. Nobody. I mean, we called everybody we could think of.”
And yes, says Anthony Bartkowski, USA Boxing’s executive director, “that’s where it can get frustrating.”
“She’s so competitive, and I wish there were more opportunities,” he said. “But nobody wants to get in the ring against her, except for maybe a handful of women right now. … So we need to start thinking out of the box, ‘What can we do?’”
She thought she’d done enough, honestly. That probably sounds a bit naïve now, but to Shields, whose remarkable Olympic journey – bobbing and weaving her way through a life of poverty and family trouble in Flint to reach sport’s grandest stage – certainly makes for a good story, it only made sense.
That triumphant moment last summer in London, the one where the brash, bold inner-city kid dominated a Russian fighter twice her age to win the title and then cackled with joy on the medals podium while her anthem played, that was supposed to be her golden ticket. But unlike for gymnast Gabby Douglas, swimmer Missy Franklin and others, it simply wasn’t for Shields.
“It definitely has been a life-changer,” she said. “But is it everything that I expected? No. I expected to get a lot more recognition…. I expected to have endorsements and sponsorships and commercials. But I guess it’s just not that way for a female boxer.”
Oh, sure, she has enjoyed her brushes with fame in the last year, mingling with celebrities like Terrence Howard and Kelly Rowland, and athletes like Muhammad Ali and Venus Williams. But in the London afterglow she says she watched others who’d done less receive more, from magazine covers to talk-show appearances, “And all I kept thinking was, ‘Where am I at?’”
Where she was at was back in class at Flint Northwestern. Shields jokingly says she “forgot” she still had a year left of high school to finish once she’d settled in back home. And she admits it was a “difficult” senior year, juggling priorities and battling perceptions and even clashing with a teacher or two.
But Shields credits high school advisor Mary Stewart with keeping her on track. (“I don’t know what I would’ve done without her,” she says.) And in a couple weeks, the first of her four siblings to graduate from high school – Shields’ older brother, Artis Mack, remains in jail on a weapons charge -- will be the first to attend college, as she heads to Olivet on a full-ride scholarship to study broadcast journalism and business.
“The longest I’ve been away from home was for the Olympics,” she said. “It’s gonna be different, I know. But I’m always able to adjust to my surroundings. So I think everything’s gonna be OK.”
OK, but what about the boxing career? Well, a renovated facility at Olivet includes a boxing ring, so she’ll continue to train there with Crutchfield, working around her class schedule. And while she’s still trapped in the youth division, USA Boxing has big plans for going forward.
The sport’s long-dysfunctional U.S. governing body has undergone a major overhaul after receiving a standing 8-count from the U.S. Olympic Committee and international officials following an embarrassing 2012. (Shields’ gold and Marlen Esparza’s bronze in the women’s division were the lone U.S. medals in London.) Now there’s a new board of directors, a new coach and a new plan, and Bartkowski says Shields figures prominently in it.
Still, there’s a glass ceiling that needs cracking here. Shields, like all U.S. Olympic gold medalists, earned a $25,000 bonus for her win in London. But her monthly stipend from USA Boxing was only bumped from $1,000 to $2,000, which doesn’t go very far, obviously.
“I’m not asking for the world,” Shields said. “But I have to live, too.”
She’s hopeful her new agent and promoter, California-based Rick Mirigian, can help her with that. There are ongoing negotiations with Jordan Brand and Beats by Dre, among other companies. A documentary about her rocky road to Olympic glory is in the editing stages now with plans to hit the film festival circuit this fall.
And, yes, with a full slate of international competition in place for 2014 leading up the next world championships, she’ll have plenty of chances to remind everyone in the sport what they’ve been missing. But for now, Shields says she’s content to hit the books while she keeps training, waiting for an opening, and for her chance to strike.