Niyo: Claressa Shields champions career in home corner

John Niyo
The Detroit News
Claressa Shields, seen working out at Berston Field House this week in Flint, puts her super middleweight titles on the line tonight as the main event for Showtime’s live telecast.

Flint — There’s a reason she’s late, Claressa Shields keeping her longtime coach Jason Crutchfield waiting for their workout Tuesday night.

Turns out she was getting her hair done — braided with a neon blue weave — for tonight’s big show in New York, where Shields, the two-time Olympic gold medalist who is now a rising star in professional boxing, will defend her world super middleweight titles as the main event for Showtime’s live “ShoBox” telecast.

But there’s a reason she’s here at all, lacing up her gloves in the cramped basement gym at Berston Field House, a place where the 22-year-old Flint native first stepped into the ring more than a decade ago.

It’s because of Crutchfield, the coach who groomed her into a champion, acting as a surrogate father as he pushed Shields through all the early-morning workouts and a chaotic home life.

Shields spent the run-up to her last Olympic triumph training with USA Boxing in Colorado Springs, and she moved to Florida to start her pro career soon afterward. But she spent most of the last two months back at Berston preparing for her first title defense against Tori Nelson, a 41-year-old former world champ who is undefeated (17-0-3, 2 KOs) in her 20 professional bouts.

“I know I can be a great fighter alone, by myself,” said Shields (4-0, 2 KOs), who won the WBC and IBF titles last August with a fifth-round TKO of Germany’s Nikki Adler at the MGM Grand Detroit. “But I want somebody that can tell me when the rounds are close, or when it’s a 5-5 fight and you’ve got to win the last two rounds. You’ve got to be able to tell me something to kick some fire in me, and Jason knows exactly what to do and what to say. He’s always been like my partner in crime.”

But she’s here because it’s home, too. This city, despite all its problems and the distractions of family, and this gym, where the sign by the drinking fountain reminds everyone to drink bottled water only. In the ring, though, there’s another reminder for Shields, and before she begins her workout, she’s busy cheering on — and coaching — a 12-year-old girl named Kristiya Smith, who is pummeling a young boy in a sparring session, much like she used to do.

‘She’s a role model’

“Without even trying, she’s a role model — every day,” said Dmitriy Salita, the Ukrainian-born former pro boxer who signed on as Shields’ fight promoter last summer. “Just by being in Flint, by being around the place she grew up and having all those kids see that. Flint is a really hard place to be. But for Claressa to be as successful as she is and come back and train there, I feel like that’s a really powerful statement.”

It’s also part of a larger plan for Shields’ budding pro career. Salita, who moved from New York to Detroit in 2016 to try to revive the once-thriving boxing scene here, says it’s “very important to establish a home fan base for her.”

And while tonight’s fight is in upstate New York — at the Turning Point Casino Resort in Verona, N.Y. — three of her first four bouts were in Detroit, including a pair of sold-out shows at MGM Grand.

Shields watches young boxers spar at Berston Field House. The cramped gym where the 22-year-old champion first stepped into the ring a decade ago still feels like home.


“A lot of times boxers can be famous and stars on TV, but they don’t attract fans and people won’t spend money to come see them fight,” Salita said. “But with Claressa, we’ve been working really hard to build the local brand for her, so that the community supports her and the fans are able to see her development and see her growth, see her win world titles.”

As that brand grows — Shields became the first woman to headline a Showtime event last spring — they’ve got some pretty big dreams about what that community support might look like.

The plan is to drop down to the women’s middleweight class after tonight’s mandatory title defense against Nelson, who says she plans to “retire as an undefeated world champion” after dethroning Shields.

“If she’s so good, why’s she retiring?” said Shields, who compiled a 77-1 record as an amateur with the lone defeat coming at the 2012 world championships. “I can guarantee you this: She won’t retire undefeated. Not fighting me, she won’t.”

Assuming she doesn’t, Shields wants a warmup fight at 160 pounds this spring to set the stage for a summer showdown that Salita’s already billing “the biggest women’s fight of all time,” with Shields taking on undefeated middleweight champ Christina Hammer (22-0, 10 KOs) of Germany.

Hammer recently signed with Salita Promotions and was scheduled to fight on the undercard tonight before work visa issues forced a postponement. But she’ll be on hand for Shields’ fight as a special guest, just as she was last August, engaging in some trash-talking in the ring after Shields claimed the title belts.

In Salita’s dream scenario, that Hammer-Shields fight — the names are a marketing pitch by themselves — would be the first boxing event at the new Little Caesars Arena downtown. That may be a long shot at this point, but then again, all of this is, when you think about it.

Transcendent figure

Shields has long talked about becoming a transcendent figure in her sport, as the first American woman to win Olympic boxing gold and the first U.S. fighter — male or female — to win back-to-back Olympic titles.

And if she can put down the Hammer this summer, she’s already given some thought to moving down another class to challenge welterweight champ Cecilia Braekhus (32-0, 9 KOs), viewed by many as world’s best pound-for-pound female boxer. (Braekhus beat out Shields for the inaugural Christy Martin fighter of the year award for 2017.)

But for all of the bright-eyed bravado, Shields knows the difficulty involved in blazing this trail. And though no one can say for sure where it’ll end, she knows where all this started. It’s right here, she says, motioning to the gym — and the noise — behind her.

Running late? Nah, Claressa Shields is ahead of schedule. And she’s only just getting started.