Flint's Claressa Shields embraces new challenge with MMA debut on tap

John Niyo
The Detroit News
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Claressa Shields was running low on challenges — and challengers — in the boxing ring.

So the world champion from Flint decided to find her own in a different arena, one that the two-time Olympic gold medalist hopes will ultimately earn her the respect she deserves, figuratively and financially.

Flint's Claressa Shields will make her mixed-martial arts debut Thursday, facing Brittney Elkin in Atlantic City, New Jersey.

“The men in boxing have millions of dollars,” Shields explained, rather matter-of-factly, “and I don’t have millions of dollars.”

But Shields, 26, does have a new line of credit she’s now seeking in a more lucrative wing of combat sports, as boxing’s self-proclaimed “GWOAT” (Greatest Woman of All Time) makes her mixed-martial arts debut Thursday night against veteran fighter Brittney Elkin in Atlantic City, New Jersey.

The bout will headline this week’s Professional Fighters League card (ESPN2, 10 p.m.), an event chief executive officer Peter Murray is touting as “an epic night” for his league, which was founded in 2018 and stages both a regular season and a single-elimination postseason tournament to crown champions in six weight divisions. One of those is the women’s 155-pound class, where the reigning PFL champ — a title that brings a $1 million prize — is another former two-time Olympic gold medalist, Kayla Harrison, who came to MMA from judo.

Shields, who back in March became the first boxer — male or female — to be an undisputed champion in two weight divisions, is trying to make an even bigger leap than that, though. And she knows it, which partly explains why Shields, who signed a three-year contract with the PFL in December, isn’t competing in this 2021 regular season.

She had flirted with the idea of trying MMA for the last couple of years, at least, but preliminary talks with the Ultimate Fighting Championship seemed to focus more on a single pay-per-view bout against a high-profile opponent. And Shields says she’s more interested in giving this new career path a fair shot.

“If any boxer wants to come into MMA and they think they don’t have to train any of the other arts, those boxers will always lose,” said Shields, who is undefeated (11-0, 2 KOs) since turning pro following the 2016 Rio Olympics. “Happily, I’m not one of those boxers.”

Shields has spent much of the last seven months training in Albuquerque, New Mexico, at the Jackson Wink MMA Academy, where coaches Greg Jackson and Mike Winkeljohn have worked with UFC stars Jon Jones and George St-Pierre, as well as Holly Holm, a fighter Shields refers to as her “cheat code,” given her own history as a crossover success.

Back in 2015, Holm, then a 34-year-old former boxing and kickboxing world champ, jumped into the octagon and stunned the undefeated UFC champ Ronda Rousey in one of the sport’s biggest upsets.

“But I want to be MMA champ and boxing champ at the same time,” said Shields, whose career-best payday was worth $350,000. “Holly Holm, she did it — but she did it one at a time. That’s the only difference.”

Her age is another, though, and that’s all the more reason why Shields is confident she can make history in the cage while maintaining her championship belts in boxing. It was Jones who extended an open-ended MMA training invitation back in 2018, and he's among those who've raved about what a quick study she has been over the last several months.

It's more than simply learning the basics of grappling and ground techniques or kicking fundamentals for Shields. It's also about processing all the different variables involved in what amounts to a no-holds-barred contest for someone raised in the ring.

“Boxing has always come easy to me,” said Shields, who has sparred with Holm a half-dozen times in Albuquerque. “Now, if you’re gonna go to MMA … are you prepared to start from the bottom and work your way up? And the answer I gave myself was, ‘Hell, yeah!’ It’s time to try something new, and I believe 100% in my training and 100% in myself.”

In Elkin, Shields faces an opponent with more than a decade of professional MMA experience and a brown belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu. In a pre-fight media Zoom on Monday, Elkin, who came out of semi-retirement for this fight, boldly predicted Shields won’t make it past the second round of their scheduled three-round fight.

Shields laughed when she heard that.

“I’m gonna win, that’s all my prediction is,” she said, before adding later, “I’m just not a person who thinks about losing.”

Still, with all the attention on Shields in the run-up to the fight, “I think it has done me a great service,” Elkin said. “Hearing about Claressa has kind of been like grating cheese, and the block is getting really small. So I’m (expletive) at my end and ready to fight.”

Shields says she’s ready, too. Ready for the fight, and all the challenges that come with it.

“I don’t have any nerves,” she said. “I feel like I’m prepared to be here. I would’ve had nerves if you would’ve told me this fight was gonna be happening four or five months ago, because I really hadn’t submerged myself in it yet. But now … I’m completely comfortable. Instead of having nerves, I’m actually excited.”

john.niyo@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @JohnNiyo

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