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Niyo: Flint's Shields one win from making history

John Niyo
The Detroit News
Flint's Claressa Shields will defend her London gold medal on Sunday in Rio.

Rio de Janeiro — One thing you learn pretty quickly about Claressa Shields is there are no “ifs” about her.

There is no ambiguity about her bright-eyed personality, and certainly none about her quick-twitch abilities as a boxer, which makes for a pretty good combination — speed, power and sass — in and out of the ring.

And as she noted the other day, there is no “if” about what’s next for the 21-year-old Flint native, as the reigning Olympic and world champion advanced to Sunday’s gold medal bout with another unanimous decision at the Rio Olympics.

Shields’ impressive victory over Kazakhstan’s Dariga Shakimova in Friday’s middleweight semifinals sets up a rematch with the Netherlands’ Nouchka Fontijn, whom Shields — 76-1 in her amateur career — defeated in May to win her second world title. The Dutch fighter is all that stands between Shields and history, as she tries to become USA Boxing’s first double Olympic gold medalist.

“The legacy is definitely important,” Shields said.

But so is the smile, and it was visible from the start of Friday afternoon’s bout, as Shields, who was admittedly rusty in her quarterfinals debut Wednesday, was determined to have a little more fun.

Feeling relaxed

That’s something she’d talked about with her coaches, Billy Walsh and Kay Koroma, before the fight. And that’s something that was evident as she quickly asserted herself against Shakimova, dominating the first two rounds of a four-round bout with her quickness, and even dancing a bit just before the bell in each round, winning over a mostly-neutral crowd inside the Riocentro Pavillion.

Niyo: Flint's Claressa Shields fighting for her future

“We expressed that to her,” said Walsh, the U.S. women’s coach. “We said, ‘Let’s get out there and enjoy it and relax.’ And when she relaxed, she was dropping her hands, sticking her jab out — she was excellent. She was able to take her shots and see things coming a lot easier.

“It was a bit of a step up in class of opponent, and she stepped up to the occasion. She didn’t want anybody taking her place in the Olympic final. The bigger the crowd, the bigger the occasion, the better she is.”

When it was over Friday, her arms raised in triumph, Shields’ only regret was she’d forgotten to pay homage to her idol, the late Muhammad Ali, with her feet.

“I forgot to do the ‘Ali Shuffle’ today!” she groaned about 15 minutes after her fight.

Challenge accepted

But she’d done enough, obviously, and there’s still one more chance to do it, she agreed, “if I can — it depends on how tough my opponent comes at me.”

Shields beat the 28-year-old Fontijn, a two-time world medalist, by unanimous decision for the world title in late May in Kazakhstan, and though Shields called her “a really great fighter” Friday, she added, “I don’t think she has the tools to beat me.”

It doesn’t appear anyone really does in women’s boxing. Shields completely outclassed Friday’s semifinals opponent, a veteran who made her international debut two months after Shields’ 13th birthday.

Walsh, the longtime Irish national coach who took over the U.S. program last fall, was asked what sets Shields apart, and he didn’t really know where to start — or finish, for that matter.

“Her hand speed is phenomenal, her head movement is phenomenal,” he said. “And her power, for a woman, she hurts every time she hits you.”

But beyond all that, he said, “it’s her belief.”

“There’s an old saying, ‘If you don’t believe it, you’re probably right,’ ” Walsh said. “She believes that she’s the best in the world. Sometimes I’m watching her in training and she’s not doing what she’s supposed to be doing, and I’m saying, ‘How does she have this belief all the time?’ But she believes she’s the best in the world. She believes she’s the best of all time. Muhammad Ali was telling people (that) all his life, and who was he telling, first and foremost? Himself.”

Shields right now is doing the same, and Sunday is one more golden chance to prove it. One more chance to listen — “I have full confidence in myself,” she said — and tell everyone what she already knows.