Don’t get it twisted: Claressa Shields has been knocking people out for a long time.
From being propelled into the boxing world as a bright-eyed 11-year-old, to a decorated amateur career that made her the first American boxer—that includes men, too—to win consecutive medals at the Olympics (they were gold, by the way), to her recent reign as the undisputed female middleweight champ, the Flint, Mich., native has made a career out of throwing hands and putting opponents on their asses.
Yet, despite being one of the very best in her sport, it’s possible that you’ve never even heard of the boxer more commonly known as “T-Rex”—even though she’s one of only eight fighters ever to hold all four major world titles in boxing—WBO, WBA, IBF, and WBC—at the same damn time.
But for Shields, not only is she tired of women not getting their due as professional athletes, she’s tired of false narratives that paint her as an “angry Black woman,” tired of women not being compensated like their male counterparts, and most importantly, she’s tired of not being in control of her own destiny. That’s why she sat down with The Root to discuss her decision to expand her boxing career into mixed-martial arts, how racial and gender inequality have impacted her career, and how she’s blazing a path for the next generation of superstar female athletes.
When you’re one of the best at what you do on the entire planet, it’s easy to find comfort in complacency. But never one to rest on her laurels, Shields signed a three-year deal with mixed martial arts outfit the Professional Fighters League in December. So now, with her Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu training underway, the streets wanna know: Why jump into mixed martial arts when you’re already a human cheat code in the boxing ring?
“My motivation is just to solidify that I’m the [Greatest Woman Of All Time] overall,” she said. “I’m just one of those boxers who don’t have fear. I’m not scared to try something new, I’m not scared of losing, and I’m not scared of not trying. [...] I have a lot of time to prove it because I have a three-year contract with the PFL and I have a lot of time left in boxing also.”
Considering that British fighter Savannah Marshall is the only person to ever emerge victorious against Shields in the ring—that 2012 Olympics defeat is Shields’ only loss as either an amateur or pro—I think it’s safe to say that fear and the 2018 Female Female Fighter of the Year have yet to formally meet.
But fear aside, Shields has faced more than her fair share of adversity throughout the course of her career. Being a woman in boxing is hard enough, but that obstacle is magnified when race is thrown into the equation.
“It’s just one of those things I didn’t know that I would have to go through,” she said. “Even after being this great and accomplishing all the things that I’ve accomplished.”
Of particular issue are the racial undertones in how she’s portrayed by the media.
“I’m a Black, African-American woman from Flint, Mich.,” she said. “People have painted my story as ‘the angry Black woman.’ I’m upset about this, or I’m upset about that, or I’m angry. And it’s like, no. Definitely not. I love boxing, I’m passionate about it. I’m highly accomplished. And I just want equal rights, equal pay, equal opportunity for women fighters.”
She continued, “Most of the time, I’m not the villain. [My opponents] are talking trash to me, belittling me. It’s been a few girls who are like, ‘She can’t read.’ I graduated high school with a 3.1 GPA. What do you mean I can’t read? [...] Or they’ll say that I’m ghetto because I’m from Flint.”
She then revisited a story in which future opponent Christina Hammer congratulated Shields on becoming world champion, only to tell her—on national television—that she could beat her.
“That was the ultimate disrespect to a world champion,” Shields said. “And now I’m on national TV and I’m supposed to hold my composure while I’m being disrespected. That kind of set me off. So I told her, ‘I’ll whoop her and her team’s ass.”
And in 2019, T-Rex followed through on that promise.
In being at the pinnacle of her sport, Shields is also acutely aware that she’s a role model for other young girls and women looking to follow in her steps as a professional athlete. So in her quest to advocate for gender justice within sports, she works hand-in-hand with the Women’s Sports Foundation to address inequities in participation and other pertinent issues.
“I’m always a part of the Women Sports Foundation,” she said. “Two of our five girls don’t play sports throughout their whole life. We want to change that number. So we throw all these events and we do different sports. We’re bringing more girls into sports. [...] And it’s not just one sport that’s going through women’s equality. It’s soccer, it’s football, it’s boxing. It’s so many sports and we all have to find a way to close the gap.”
She added, “I’m a nine-time world champion. Deontay Wilder was a WBC champion and he makes five million dollars per fight. I make $350,000. And that was my last fight. The fights before then, I didn’t make that much. Look at the inequality.”
Granted, there’s a number of factors that play into that disparity, but her point has merit. As one of the best in her sport—arguably the best—her compensation should be much more in line with her male counterparts.
“Everybody knows the genetics. Men are built bigger. They have bigger muscles,” she said. “For a woman to be an athlete, we have to work a bit harder. Especially to be a top athlete. [...] We have to continue to fight. Women are never gonna just stop doing sports, they can’t make us disappear. As soon as people realize that, they’ll give us our just due and we’ll be able to flourish better and they’ll stop holding women in sports back.”
She added, “If you believe women should have equal rights and equal opportunities in sports, you should make it your business to be a part of those conversations when it’s time to take action. And on March 5th is another way that people can take action. Women’s boxing hasn’t had a Pay Per View in 20 years. So if people tune in, even if you’re not a boxing fan, you are helping women sports close the gap. I look forward to showing you all that women are just as great as athletes as men are.”
Claressa Shields takes on undefeated IBF Super Welterweight Champion Marie-Eve Dicaire on March 5. For more info on how you can watch the fight, hit up FITE TV.