Boxing is a star-driven sport. More so than most. All sports to one degree or another are star-driven. Whether it’s the NBA with LeBron, Curry and Durant, the NFL with Brady, Newton and Rogers or MLB with Ortiz, Kershaw and Trout, the health of any major sport is tied directly to the magnitude and luminosity of its stars. Professional boxing’s mainstream popularity is more fluid than other major sports because fans root for, and casual observers follow, individual fighters, not teams, making it more susceptible to sweeping ebbs and flows in public interest.Women’s professional boxing, for a variety of reasons, is even more dependent upon having a name attraction than male boxing. If you look at the recent periods of greatest health for women’s boxing, they correlate directly to the peak years of Christy Martin, Laila Ali, and to a lesser extent, Mia St John. In large part, this is because women’s boxing has never quite received acceptance from the general public, so without name attractions it recedes almost completely from mainstream consciousness. Enter Claressa Shields.
Forget everything you think you know about women’s boxing. Claressa Shields is a very good fighter by any measure; a blue-chip prospect if there ever was one. Blessed with raw physical ability, a fighter’s mentality, and as solid a set of intangibles as you are ever likely to find. A true phenomenon. At 21, she is already a two-time Olympic gold medalist (the only one in the history of US Olympic boxing) with an amateur record of 78-1. That is not a misprint. 78-1. Shields is a fighter’s fighter. A fighter that at one point was advised by a US team official not to be so quick to tell reporters that she “liked to beat people up.” She will be the dominant force in women’s professional boxing for at least the next ten years. Probably longer if boxing continues to be what she wants to do with her life. She is likely already a better fighter than Ali, Martin or St. John, and a near lock to become the greatest female boxer of all time.
Thanks to the exposure she received in the Olympics and a genuinely inspiring personal story, she is, before even making her pro debut, one of the most recognizable boxers in the world, behind only a handful of well-established male fighters. She has a more impressive list of national product endorsements than all but a few male fighters too, as well as an award-winning Independent Lens documentary, “T-Rex, Her Fight For Gold,” about her road to Rio. No fighter in the last ten or fifteen years, male or female, has been as well-positioned out of the gate for boxing stardom as Claressa Shields is right now. Her timing couldn’t be better, with the soaring popularity of boxing among women as a workout or fitness regimen boosting participation levels. Because of her youth, the likely length of her reign, and prodigious skills, Shields is that athlete that could finally bring women’s boxing the respect and public acceptance that it has long deserved but not always been given.
Which of course would be great for boxing as a whole, male and female. For a star-driven sport starved for stars, Shields is “can’t miss.” In a larger sense, this determined young woman, a survivor of the dangerous streets of Flint, Michigan, is on a fast track to become for boxing what Serena Williams is for tennis–the most dominant athlete in the game and the face of the sport. Take a long look at Claressa Shields. You may well be looking at the future. No other prospect has that kind of upside.