Claressa Shields is days away from a shot at reaching the pinnacle of her sport.
In the meantime, she’s feeling comfortable.
And there’s good reason to believe that when the Flint native steps into the ring with Christina Hammer on Saturday night at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City, N.J. with the undisputed middleweight world championship on the line, she’ll be comfortable there, too.
The two-time Olympic gold medalist hasn’t always felt like that. In fact, there was a time when outside of the ring, Shields (8-0, 2 KOs), the current 160-pound IBF, WBA and WBC champion, was very uncomfortable.
“I used to hate hearing myself in interviews, forcing myself to say things I did not want to say,” Shields told the Detroit News via phone on Monday.
Such is the life of a polarizing, young superstar — especially one looking to smash the contradictory decree of a sport that prides itself on toughness while asking its female participants to “find the in-between of being nice and mean.”
Shields, 23, has found peace regarding the public opinion of her oft-outspoken behavior. In her world, the days of being dictated by a particular standard have been over for some time.
But now, she’s on a collision course with a fighter who she views as the antithesis of an image she’s fought to bring her sport, which'll come to a head in the main event of Showtime Boxing: Special Edition.
“[Hammer] has tried to make people choose who looks better in a bikini. All this stupid stuff that don’t matter in boxing,” Shields said.
“She may be OK with people thinking that kind of stuff, but I’m more satisfied with the boxing part of it, the getting inside the ring and fighting part, because that’s what my life is built around, you know? Fighting.”
The frequent social media jabs at Shields’ appearance would suggest that Saturday’s bout is a very personal affair, though Shields has been quick to debunk that theory.
“I don’t hate her. It’s a sport,” she said.
Taking that aspect out of the equation, however, certainly doesn’t lower the stakes. Two undefeated fighters will still meet with an undisputed world title on the line, and despite Shields’ claim, cooler heads haven’t always prevailed in what’s made out to be a rather hostile relationship.
The two engaged in a scuffle during a post-fight interview following Shields’ win over Hanna Gabriels at the Masonic Temple in Detroit last June, and Hammer has been vocal about rooting for Shields to lose previous bouts.
Shields and Hammer, who holds the 160-pound title and is the WBC champion “in recess,” were scheduled to meet in Atlantic City on Nov. 17 last year. The fight was postponed after Hammer encountered an undisclosed medical issue, and in place of the fight, Shields instead earned a victory over Hammer’s top sparring partner, Hannah Rankin.
The bad blood has been great for promotional purposes — Shields and Hammer became the first non-pay-per-view event to ever receive Showtime’s All Access treatment, giving viewers an inside look at each fighters’ training camp and personal life — but the anticipation surrounding a climax of the feud has occasionally left the young Shields searching for a level of equilibrium that is often whipped into a frenzy by her tornado-like demeanor.
“It’s like I always tell myself: Stay at sea level,” Shields said. “I have had to bring myself back down to level zero, because the trash-talking, all the fans getting wound up.”
Since exploding onto the boxing scene, Shields has been rather clear about being unbothered by what people say regarding her personality: “You can’t tell a world champion how to be a world champion if you’re not one.”
Still, she’s quick to defend herself when opposing fighters and managers call the credentials of her meteoric rise — and self-proclaimed “greatest woman of all time” status — into question, because in her opinion, the “proof is there.”
“I’m about to be the undisputed champion in nine fights. That is a fact. I’m a five-time world champion within eight fights. That is a fact. I’ve beat whoever they put in front of me. Tori Nelson was 17-0. Fact: I beat her,” Shields said.
“And people want to say I’m not the greatest woman of all time. Well, who the hell is?”
After Shields and Hammer go toe-to-toe on Saturday, that question will have an indisputable answer.
Shields vs. Hammer
► What: Claressa Shields vs. Christina Hammer in a unification bout for the 160-pound IBF, WBA, WBC and WBO titles.
► Start: 9 p.m. Saturday, Boardwalk Hall, Atlantic City, N.J.
► TV: Showtime
Nolan Bianchi is a freelance writer