Claressa Shields Is As Great As It’s Possible To Be
3:45 PM EDT on June 4, 2023
More than the fight itself on Saturday night, it was the setting that gave special meaning to the latest step in Claressa Shields's incredible boxing career. When she was an 11-year-old in Flint, MI who had finally convinced her dad to let her train, a career in women's boxing almost assuredly meant a life spent risking your body for little pay in small clubs off the beaten path. Seventeen years later, most women, even a lot of really good fighters, remain constrained by those limits. But after two Olympic gold medals, 13 straight professional victories, and too many title belts to count, Shields became a headliner at the premier venue in her home state—where the Red Wings have played since they moved out of a building named after Joe Louis, and the place where she dominated Maricela Cornejo for the "14" in 14-0.
Cornejo was a late replacement for Hanna Gabriels, who tested positive for a banned substance. Gabriels had the honor of being the only person to ever knock Shields down, in a decision loss in 2018, but Cornejo possessed a complete lack of success against upper-tier talent, and it showed. While she displayed admirable determination in avoiding the KO that Shields clearly wanted, Cornejo could do nothing but try to minimize her own pain. A fearless Shields swept her on the scorecards, 100-89, 100-90 and 100-90, and beyond even those intimidating numbers her big punches consistently carried an extraordinarily oomf behind them that the (respectable, if far from packed) crowd punctuated with excited noise. As was necessary for an unprecedented event at this building, Shields' work was both a beatdown and a performance that showcased just how impressive she is.
The curse of being such an accomplished female athlete, though, is that it's still so easy to see the ceiling even on such a memorable night. Shields's road to true superstardom—the kind that would command PPV numbers in the hundreds of thousands—has always been so covered by obstacles that you can barely see the pavement. She grew up in a city, Flint, notoriously disregarded by the leaders of the state. She committed herself to a sport, boxing, where even the best American men haven't been household names since the '90s. Her Olympic success does not automatically make her a national hero, unlike, say, Ireland's Katie Taylor. The twenty-minute structure of women's fights makes it significantly harder to produce viral, highlight-reel knockouts. And, of course, Shields is neither white nor conforms to outdated definitions of femininity, like the women who tend to get the louder coverage and bigger endorsement deals.
The only obstacle that should be frustrating for a true fan, however, is that Shields has yet to find anyone who can hang at her level. Greatness is that much easier to notice when it's multiplied by drama and struggle, and Shields's in-ring run has lacked those crucial elements as she's gathered up middleweight belts in quick succession. Her best possible opponents in the short-term future are those, like Gabriels, whom she's beaten slightly less definitively than the others. As straightforward as it is to make an argument for her as the greatest woman fighter of all time, her legacy could use something like that magical night last year when Taylor and Amanda Serrano squared up in Madison Square Garden and both walked away better for it. (Tragically, that planned rematch hasn't come to pass yet.)
To that end, after this win Shields said that she'd be going back to the UK to watch Franchon Crews-Dezurn take on Savannah Marshall in Manchester on July 1. Marshall, who beat Shields at 17 years old and was the only one to do so in amateur competition, took the loss in a historic fight at the O2 Arena last October, though the scorecards were a very close 97–93, 97-93, 96–94. Crews-Dezurn is the undisputed champ at 168 pounds (Shields fought on Saturday at 160). Though her one official loss already came against Shields, it was the very first professional fight for each of them, back in 2016, and it was only scheduled for four rounds.
Shields didn't just single out that match-up but also hyped up the idea that her next fight could happen again at the big arena in Detroit, even if it's named after pizza now instead of a boxing legend. "Whoever wins, if they want to come meet me here at Little Caesars again, where all my fans come out and watch me fight, I'm all down for it."
If Shields can't will a legit rivalry into existence, maybe her legacy can be restoring Detroit as a centerpiece city in the boxing landscape, and establishing it as a non-negotiable destination for anyone who wants to see the pinnacle of women's fighting.