SALT LAKE CITY — When Claressa Shields steps into any boxing ring, when she squares off against any opponent, she is always fighting for the same thing.
It’s not a medal, a title or money that’s most important to her.
And every time she puts on the gloves, she’s fighting for a life that no one saw for her — not even those who loved her most.
“I have always known I can fight,” the two-time Olympic gold medalist told the Deseret News last fall, almost exactly a year before USA Boxing inducted her into its Hall of Fame in Salt Lake City on Dec. 7. “I felt like I lost enough in life, so I wasn’t going to let you beat me in boxing. When it comes to boxing, I feel like I will never lose. I’ve won the biggest battles already.”
When she was sexually assaulted as a child, she fought not to let that control or define her.
She fought to get out of Flint, Michigan, where poverty, pregnancy and violence make finding even the most modest success extremely difficult.
“Everything that happened to me, being raped, being poor, I found a way in my mind not to let it hinder me, not to give the person who did it power, and just to be able to do that within myself, that’s the biggest win I’ll ever have. … It’s like I’m a winner regardless of losing in boxing. When I’m fighting, it’s always a bigger fight.”
Shields jokes that she won her first fight without even throwing a punch.
“I started boxing when I was 11-years-old,” said the 23-year-old, who grew up in Flint. “It started with my dad. He told me a story of Muhammad Ali and the story of his daughter, Laila Ali, who took after him. So I thought my dad was telling me to take after him because he was a boxer. I was wrong.”
When she first asked, he said no.
A couple of days later, she was sitting at a table with her father, stepmom and two siblings when her father put the decision of whether or not she could box to a family vote.
“My dad said no, but everybody else said yes,” she said. “So I won, majority decision. It was my first fight.”
Her father pointed out that it would cost him $60 for her to train for a year at a local boxing gym.
“He told me, once I spend my $60, you can’t quit,” she recalled. “But I fell in love with boxing the first day I walked into the gym. The first day.”
Shields watched two men sparring and started day dreaming about doing that herself.
“I thought, ‘I could do that,’” she said. “I thought I could do it easy. What I didn’t know was the hard work that comes behind it — the running, crunches, weights, punching a bag until your arms are ready to fall of. The part I wanted to do was get inside the ring.”
Her passion is palpable.
A smile spreads across her face, and she emanates joy.
Listening to her describe what it feels like to fight — the strategy, the stamina, the way getting hit energizes her — could convince the most sedentary, contact-avoiding person to follow her into the ring.
But then the rest of us are not Shields.
They don’t call her T-rex because she’s skilled. She is powerful, relentless and so tough that even the nervous anticipation most fighters battle is something she looks forward to feeling.
“Some people get nervous when they’re getting ready for a fight,” she said, grinning. “But I get excited. Especially when it’s somebody who is really good, who is supposed to beat me up.”
Shields has been sparring men — not boys, grown men — since she was 11. She didn’t really have a choice. She was 13 and weighed 135 pounds, and in women’s boxing, it’s easier to get fights if you’re smaller.
“So I was sparring guys since I was 11,” she said. “It made me more physical.”
Some athletes have to earn confidence. They have to find their way to believing in themselves. Shields' challenge was just the opposite.
She oozed confidence. She was full of rage.
Her struggle was discipline.
“Boxing, it requires an inner confidence,” she said. “But I’ve always had it, from the first time I got into the ring.”
What she didn’t have was the ability to restrain herself, to discipline herself. She let any rage or powerlessness free in those first few years in the sport.
“When I started, I was just being aggressive,” she said. “I wanted to compete. And at a young age, I wanted to beat somebody up. I wanted to make you cry. It was aggression for a long time, maybe until age 16. Then it was, I wanted to box to win, to show my skill. But I think because of my rough upbringing, I was kind of angry, and boxing was my outlet. Until I felt like all my anger was out, then I could look at boxing for the bigger picture.”
That picture included Olympic glory.
The sport was included in the Olympic program when Shields was 13. It became her dream and eventually her goal.
When she was 16, she was training to fight in the elite female category, in hopes of qualifying for the first Olympic Games for boxing in 2012. Her coach told her that her birthday would come just a couple of months too late for her to qualify.
“I thought, ‘My dream is over,’” she said, her voice softening. “I am not going to be poor and hungry until 2016. I think I even quit boxing for about three days.”
She went back to the gym, and that first day of sparring jarred her back into reality.
“As soon as I got hit, it was like a lightbulb switched on,” she said. With two spots left, she entered the qualifying tournament in October 2011. The entry forms said she needed to be 17 by May 21, 2012.
“I printed out four copies,” she said. “I ran around the whole school with this paper saying, ‘I get to fight!’”
She won her weight division and earned her spot on Team USA’s eight-woman squad. “All of a sudden, I was ranked No. 1 in the country,” she said. She won gold in 2012, a world championship in 2014 and then gold in the 2016 Olympics, the only American boxer, male or female, to win back-to-back Olympic medals.
She also won a world championship in 2016.
Her amateur record was 77 wins, 1 loss. She went pro in November 2016, and is now 8-0 and the owner of three titles.
Shields’ faith has sustained her throughout her struggles, and it’s the reason she believes boxing has brought her more than medals and money. She speaks honestly about her history of abuse and poverty because she wants those struggling to escape to know that there is a way out.
It may not be boxing, but it’s something unique to them. And they may be the only ones who can see it, but that’s enough.Comment on this story
When Shields steps onto her stage, she hopes to inspire people of all genders, races and situations to ask more from life than the ability to survive. She believes her success is a testament to what happens when purpose meets commitment.
“It’s a different hunger when you know you’ve worked hard for something,” she said of what drives her to achieve even more success. “It’s not really about boxing anymore. It’s about bringing hope to the hopeless. … God gave me this platform and I’m going to use it.”