Drugs and gangs have flourished, and the city was the country's most dangerous for a second straight year in 2011, with 2,337 violent crimes per 100,000 residents, according to preliminary statistics from the FBI. With more than 50 murders already this year, the city is on pace to break its record of 66, set in 2010.
Shields knows the sad circumstances all too well.
Her older brother is in jail. She lost a friend to gun violence over the summer, and a man was shot and killed outside her training gym last month, less than an hour after she left. She didn't get to know her father, Clarence Shields, until she was 9 because he had spent the previous seven years in prison for breaking and entering, and his presence in her life remains sporadic. Her mother, Marcella Adams, does not stay in one place for long — there are nearly two dozen addresses listed for her — and the frequent moves meant Shields was always looking for a place to call home. There wasn't much money, either, and Shields said she often went hungry.
"It showed at the gym. I wouldn't have enough energy," she said. "I performed bad and I'd get super tired. I wouldn't be able to recover. I was in great shape, but you could just tell I wasn't eating."
While her younger siblings, Brianna Shields and Dusable Lewis, leaned on her, Shields learned early on that the only person she could rely on was herself. Even if that meant walking alone in the cold and dark so she could be at the gym by 6 a.m. to get a ride to a tournament.
"I didn't want to have to depend on nobody," she said. "So I would get up and walk."
Shields gravitated to boxing because of her father, whose own career as a fighter was derailed by his troubles with the law. He would tell her about Muhammad Ali and how his daughter, Laila, followed in his footsteps.
Shields decided she would do the same.
"Normally when kids have personal issues, they respond negatively," said Cheryl Adkins, principal at Northwestern High School, where Shields is a senior. "Claressa decided this was going to be her road and she stuck to it."
Shields was 11 when her father signed the permission slip for the boxing program at Flint's renowned Berston Field House. Crutchfield told her to join the other kids in front of the mirrored wall in the cramped basement gym to practice technique, then handed her off to one of the other coaches.
He didn't bother learning her name. He doubted she'd last long enough.
Two weeks in, however, Crutchfield noticed that Shields was catching on faster than the boys. And while she didn't say much, there was a fierce intensity to her.
"I saw how good she was doing and how fast she was advancing and then that's when I grabbed her," Crutchfield said. "I said, 'What's your name again?' She said, 'Claressa.' I said, 'Nah, from now on your name is Ress.'"
Crutchfield took Shields under his wing, teaching her the same punches, footwork and strategies that had won him four Golden Gloves titles in Michigan in the 1980s. She was a natural, and when women's boxing was added to the Olympic program in 2009, Crutchfield told Shields she could win the gold medal.
She was 14, not even old enough to qualify for the U.S. championships.
"I ain't never seen a woman who boxes like me. Even the girls who won gold medals," Shields said, proudly. "I think if I was another girl and I had to fight myself, I'd be biting my fingernails."
There is a brutal elegance to Shields' fighting style. Her fists fly with a smoothness, and she delivers her punches with a rhythmic POP! POP! POP! But the blows are punishing and come with unrelenting force, a power fueled partly by rage.
Shields talks matter-of-factly about her family and upbringing and the challenges they presented. She has made peace with all parts of her story, recognizing that while others may have provided the material, it is up to her to decide how it is written.
"You really can't do nothing about stuff you can't control," she said. "You can't control other people."
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