Claressa Shields was getting her hair done when we spoke. Not because she was celebrating the holidays. She was preparing for war.
The war is in the form of an extensive mixed martial arts fight camp at Jackson Wink MMA Academy in Albuquerque, New Mexico. For a 25-year-old two-time Olympic gold medal-winning boxer to now test herself in MMA with the Professional Fighters League is a task she’s willing to take on despite not needing to. This is the equivalent of a prime Serena Williams trying a new sport after several Grand Slam Championships. We were able to go 1-on-1 with arguably the greatest woman’s boxer of all-time shortly after signing her new deal with PFL and leaving for New Mexico to train with Jon “Bones” Jones, Holly Holm, and others.
Bryan Fonseca: So, for me, I’m around your same age. MMA got on my radar in the early 2010s. For you, were you even following it back then while you were also an amateur boxer, or did that come later?
Claressa Shields: I wasn’t following MMA back then, but I knew I was interested when I saw Holly Holm getting ready to fight against Ronda Rousey. And, of course, I was cheering for the boxer. I was living at the Olympic Training Center at the time, and I was just very interested in that fight. But I knew that Holly Holm had boxed at 160 pounds, and she was fighting against Ronda at 130. I was just impressed at how she got her body ready for that fight — and then knowing at the time that Ronda Rousey had been knocking out and destroying everybody. I just knew she couldn’t box better than Holly, but I wanted to see how she would do with the whole wrestling and everything. Holly made a great transition, and after seeing her, I thought she would be too big and too strong for Ronda. That’s the first MMA pay-per-view I bought. That’s when I started paying attention to the sport.
Fonseca: Yeah, and there’s a little bit of a parallel there where you won your first gold medal in 2012, and then in 2013 is when Ronda breaks into the UFC. You did win another gold medal in 2016, but I’m wondering: During that time, was there ever a thought about trying out MMA?
Shields: Mmm mmm. It was never a thought back then. I’ve always been so in love with boxing, so in love with the Olympics, just bettering my craft. It was always boxing for me until about a year ago or something when I would see people compare me and Amanda Nunes, asking who’s greater. People were saying Amanda Nunes would come over to boxing and beat me. I was like, “Are you guys smoking some kinda drugs or something?” But they were saying I couldn’t go over to MMA and ever compete with anybody on her level, or her. And I was like, “Why is it that she can come to boxing and do well, but I can’t go over there and do well?” It was a stereotype, one I’m willing to break, and it’s gonna be broken soon.
Fonseca: Yeah, why do you think that is? Because obviously it’s not fair, right? It’s like, boxers can’t take a leg kick, but an MMA fighter could come here and knock us out?
Shields: And take a punch? Yeah, it’s crazy!
Fonseca: Exactly, so, why do you think people feel that way?
Shields: I just don’t think they know how hard or how technical boxing is. They think that just because women boxers are disrespected, we’re not great athletes … They think the reason women boxers don’t have exposure is they suck. And that’s the furthest from the truth I can ever think of. Women’s boxers are not given the opportunity for those big stages. We’re not given the opportunity on the main event card or on pay-per-view. Like, I’m the main event, but I’ve never fought on pay-per-view. And there are guys who haven’t accomplished even close to what I’ve accomplished, and they’re pay-per-view fighters.
I think that’s where some of the disrespect comes from, but they also think MMA is more of a brutal sport because they get to do kicks and elbows and knees. But, in boxing, people die. One of my close friends died, Patrick Day. They don’t really respect how hard we gotta work, how much weight we have to lose, the mental preparation, and they think that for some reason, MMA is harder. If you ask me, you’ve got so many different tools in MMA to beat somebody, and in boxing, you have one and two. You’ve got your left hand and your right hand, but in MMA, if your one and two is not working, you have a chance to slam somebody and break their arm. You could do so much more stuff. But in boxing, if the left and the right’s not working, there’s nothing else to go to (laughs).
If you ask me, you’ve got so many different tools in MMA to beat somebody, and in boxing, you have one and two. You’ve got your left hand and your right hand, but in MMA, if your one and two is not working, you have a chance to slam somebody and break their arm.
Fonseca: Right. You know, you brought this up, and it’s something you’ve talked about before, and I’ve asked other women about this like Heather Hardy and Amanda Serrano — just the pay disparity as far as women in boxing compared to women in MMA. How much did that factor in your decision to embark on this?
Shields: I would say that the million-dollar season is really something that I liked about the PFL. Women get to fight at the same time for the same amount of money. My first year is still very lucrative, but it’s also that you control your own destiny. In boxing, the networks control your destiny. The people that make the decisions, the man who’s sitting in the office — who is kinda sexist and thinks that women’s boxing is a charity case — he gets to make all these decisions. He tries to give you all these reasons why you’re not good enough to be on a certain platform. They just tell you lies, like, “You need to do this for exposure,” or “You need to show more sexy to get more views.” But without doing that I still get more views than the guys.
Fonseca: It’s true.
Shields: You know? I got over 450K views on Showtime when I fought against Hannah Gabriels. That was the second-highest on their network over the past 2-3 years. But I’m still not great enough to be on pay-per-view.
Fonseca: What do you think has to happen internally to fix that? It’s a big issue that MMA figured out sooner, that you could have women main-event. The UFC, once Ronda got there, they started doing it, and now they’re doing it regularly. Strikeforce was doing it before them. So what do you feel like boxing has to do to fix that?
Shields: I feel like the networks need to be held accountable. I feel like they shouldn’t be able to just act like the women don’t exist and put us on the backburner. The thing is, they make all these verbal promises, and of course, without a contract, you can’t really say anything when it doesn’t happen. But they still need to be held accountable as far as women speaking up in the media, and even women saying, look, we’re gonna take you guys to court because you’re so unjust and you’re so freakin’ sexist that this is affecting our lives. I’ve only boxed one time this year, and that was in January. I was supposed to fight in May, but coronavirus canceled it. I was promised a September 26 fight date, October 3, October 26, and then I was told, “You know what, we don’t have any availability for you. We’ll get you next year.” And then I was like, “It’s not like you guys pay me millions of dollars to where I could go without getting paid like that all year.”
I just think it’s a bigger opportunity with MMA, especially when I do the PFL season. And I feel like they really care about the process because I’ve taken some big challenges in the professionals early on. I’m only 10 and 0. I have nine world championship belts. And I fought against girls who were 17 and 0, 18 and 0, 24 and 0 with 11 knockouts, girls who were, pfft, sleeping people. I fought against them when I was 3 and 0, 4 and 0. I knocked out Nikki Adler who was 16 and 0 with nine knockouts in my fourth professional fight to become world champion. What man you know with four fights could go in there and knock out a world champion?
Fonseca: And to get titles in three different weight classes in only 10 pro fights.
Shields: Psh. And that’s record-breaking. But they still don’t give you that respect.
Fonseca: Yeah, and this was a point I had made. I feel like a lot of people we’ve seen go from boxing to mixed martial arts do it late. Leading up to it, you’re not only the most accomplished boxer doing this, but you’re also very young. You’re not making this transition later in your career. So how do you feel like all of that’s gonna help you, and what else sets you apart — other than the accomplishments — from everyone else who’s tried this before?
Shields: I think that my work ethic will set me apart. People that know me closely know that I hate losing. I hate the thought of it. I hate losing in a race. I hate being outdone in the gym. I hate feeling like somebody is working harder than me. You know you have (a small) window to be great. And once that window is gone, it’s over with. So I wanna take advantage of my time right now. I’m super young, but I’m also mean. I’m hungry, and I just really got something to prove. I’m not doing it for some money, I’m not doing it to not be successful and move on, I’m getting in there to show I’m one of the best combat sport fighters to ever live.
Fonseca: This will be my last question: I saw that you told Brett Okamoto from ESPN: “If your dreams don’t scare you, then it’s not worth dreaming.” I always say, if it makes you nervous, it just means you give a shit. So I’m just wondering, has the thought entered your mind, like, what if this doesn’t work out? Or are you not even allowing yourself to think that, and instead you’re saying, “This is gonna work because I’m me, and I’ve proved people wrong my entire life?”
Shields: I’m not a person who thinks negatively, and I’m a person that feels like, if you study for a test, and you take that test, you pass. But if you don’t study and you just go in there, read the book, you don’t go back and double-check and do the multiple question-and-answers, then you don’t get the result you want. For me, life is a test. MMA is a test. Boxing is still a test. I’m still in that preparation phase where I have to prepare for this test. And my test will be in June on a PFL MMA ESPN card. And I know it’s gonna do well because of what I’m doing leading up to it. I go to Albuquerque tomorrow to train with Jon “Bones” Jones, Holly Holm, and their coaches there. I could be getting ready for Christmas right now. I just bought a Christmas tree yesterday. I could put up my Christmas tree, I could be making milk and cookies for my nieces and nephews, but instead, I’m getting my hair braided (laughs), because I gotta go to MMA camp tomorrow for 11 days. I have another camp set up from January 3rd to 18th in Florida with Din Thomas. All my down time, I’m using it wisely, and that’s why it’s gonna be different. I’m gonna prove so many people wrong that I’m not gonna be able to sleep with how happy I’m gonna be.