Celebrity Dining: Claressa Shields Tries to Draw a Crowd to Women’s Boxing

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Celebrity Dining: Claressa Shields Tries to Draw a Crowd to Women’s Boxing

Celebrity Dining:

On Wednesday morning, Claressa Shields arrived early for her interview at SiriusXM studios accompanied by three boxing-championship belts, two Olympic gold medals, and one personal nutritionist. Sway Calloway, a hip-hop-radio personality who has known Shields for years, intercepted her in the hallway; he was suitably impressed. “You got a nutritionist?” he said. “When I met you, you didn’t have no nutritionist—you coming up in the game!”

Shields is twenty-four, and people around her have been charting her rise since she started boxing, at the age of eleven. On the eve of the 2012 Olympics, in London, Ariel Levy profiled Shields for The New Yorker. “When she’s not boxing, Shields has the open, inquisitive face of a child, but in the ring it hardens into terrifying purposefulness,” Levy wrote. Shields made it to London as part of the inaugural class of Olympic women boxers and won gold in the middleweight division (seventy-five kilograms, or roughly a hundred and sixty-five pounds); she was the first American gold medallist in boxing since Andre Ward, in 2004. Four years later, in Rio de Janeiro, she won again. Shields is now the only American boxer ever to win gold medals at two Olympics.

This is an impressive distinction, but it is also a melancholy one. The reason American gold-medallist boxers don’t repeat is that they typically turn professional—to make money. Ward, for instance, used his Olympic victory to launch an extraordinary professional career; Oscar De La Hoya, who won gold in 1992, became one of the most popular fighters in the sport’s history. But Shields found, after her first gold, that there was no great temptation to go pro: in America, there was little money in professional women’s boxing. “I just got tired of waiting for endorsements and sponsorships,” she said, at the time.

Shields finally turned pro near the end of 2016, after her triumph in Rio; she has been winning ever since and trying to build the kind of career that a double-gold medallist deserves. On Saturday night, in Atlantic City, she is fighting Christina Hammer, an undefeated veteran from Germany; the fight is a main event on Showtime, and Shields’s promoter is claiming, plausibly, that this is “the biggest fight in women’s boxing history.” Each woman claims to be a champion at middleweight, a hundred and sixty pounds, and between them they have five championship belts from the four major organizations that recognize champions. These organizations, which collect fees from championship fights, are known for neither clarity nor fairness; one of them considers both Shields and Hammer to be champions, of a sort.

Celebrity Dining:

Shields in the ring, in Miami.

Photograph by Mark Brown / Getty

Unlike some big fights, this one may well be competitive. Shields is the betting favorite, as she always has been, but these are the narrowest odds of her career. Part of why Shields is eager to do interviews is because she is trying to convince the country to pay attention to women’s boxing—and to her. And this long campaign can only continue if she wins on Saturday night. In the radio studio, one of Sway’s co-hosts asked Shields what viewers could expect on Saturday night. Shields smiled shyly. “A ass-kicking,” she said, quietly. Later that day, in a wood-panelled dining room at Gallagher’s, a venerable Theatre District steakhouse, Shields and Hammer came together for a joint press conference. Shields speaks softly but exuberantly, as if she can’t help but say what she feels. Around Hammer, though, she grew exasperated, expressing a frustration that seemed partly feigned (for the sake of selling the fight) and partly not. “I can feel you shivering,” Shields said, tapping her own chest. “I can hear your heartbeat, right now.” Hammer, who is three inches taller than Shields, just smiled down at her.

It has been decades since the heyday of Christy Martin, who became a pioneering boxing star in the nineties, and Laila Ali, daughter of Muhammad, who retired, undefeated, in 2007. Observers seeking to judge Shields’s potential tend to compare her not to her predecessors in women’s boxing but to Ronda Rousey, the mixed-martial-arts champion whose ferocity and excellence made her seem, for a few years, like the toughest woman on the planet. (Sports Illustrated, going further, called Rousey “THE WORLD’S MOST DOMINANT ATHLETE.”) Rousey made her first twelve opponents quit or curl up and attained the kind of mainstream celebrity that typically eludes professional fighters, no matter their gender or sport. After a pair of losses, Rousey left M.M.A. to embark on a characteristically turbulent career in professional wrestling, and her celebrity does not seem to be transferable. Amanda Nunes, the woman who battered Rousey into retirement, is widely considered to be the greatest woman in the sport’s history, but she hardly registers among the general public—at least not in America. (Nunes is from Brazil, where M.M.A. is a national obsession.)

Shields is constantly being compared to Rousey, and sometimes she seems frustrated that she has not drawn a similar fan base. “I’ve achieved double of what she have and I’m younger and the hate is off the charts,” Shields recently wrote, on Twitter. (After all, Rousey’s only Olympic medal was merely a bronze, in judo.) One difference, though, is the way that Shields wins. In her eight professional fights, she has looked neither unstoppable, the way Rousey once did, nor untouchable, the way Floyd Mayweather, Jr., usually did. Last summer, a boxer named Hanna Gabriels knocked Shields onto her backside in the first round; Shields recovered and won a wide decision, but the sight of Shields on the mat made it easier to wonder whether she is as good as she is supposed to be. She carries herself like a knockout artist (she has promised to “destroy” Hammer), and she sometimes fights like one, too, stalking her opponent face-first, with her hands down, swinging wide, as if she were a moment away from landing a decisive punch. But Shields has only two knockouts in her eight fights. In general, she brawls and then relies on the judges to name her the winner; this strategy can be ugly, and, given the occasionally unaccountable behavior of boxing judges, it may one day prove disastrous.

In the build-up to the fight, Hammer has sometimes embraced the role of the heel. She has trained while wearing a mouth guard that says “F**k Shields,” and she can assume that the fans in Atlantic City will be rooting against her. In the pre-fight promotion, Hammer has often been cast as a glamorous European come to spoil the plans of a scrappy African-American. A Showtime promotional video captures Hammer receiving a sparkly golden robe with matching trunks and top, emblazoned with the name “Anita,” an underwear company that is one of her sponsors. Then the scene cuts to Shields in an apartment, wearing Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle pajama pants, beaming like a little kid as her boyfriend presents her with a birthday cake.

Because there are fewer women fighting, and because those fights are often quite obscure, it can be hard to accurately assess the women’s divisions. (Boxing is an unusually data-poor sport, because the contests are so rare and the metrics are so crude; women’s boxing is particularly data-poor.) Hammer is 24–0, with eleven knockouts, despite the fact that she has fought twenty-five times. The discrepancy was caused by an odd occurrence, five years ago, when Hammer’s opponent was disqualified for no good reason besides having had the temerity to punch Hammer in the head; the disqualification was later changed to a ruling of “no contest.” Hammer seems to have a fluid jab, pretty good power, and, usually, a knack for staying away from her opponents’ fists. Shields, of course, is not impressed. “She do not know how to fight on the inside, and she don’t have balance on her legs,” Shields said, at a joint press conference in late February. “Have fun working on that for six weeks.”

Almost since the beginning of her career, Shields has been wondering what she needs to do to get paid like the top-earning male boxers do. Last year, Canelo Álvarez, the top Mexican star, signed a five-year contract reportedly worth three hundred and sixty-five million dollars; Shields still speaks wistfully of the chance to fight for a million dollars, one day. Beyond Hammer, there are few obvious big-name opponents who are Shields’s size: Cecilia Brækhus, a Norwegian phenomenon (35–0), competes at a hundred and forty-seven pounds; Katie Taylor, a rising star from Ireland (13–0), competes at a hundred and thirty-five. The good news for Shields is also the bad news: when it comes to boxing compensation, there are no firm rules. What you can get depends largely upon who is willing to watch. Being great is necessary but not sufficient—and sometimes it’s not even necessary, as in the case of Logan Paul and KSI, two YouTube celebrities who drew a big crowd, last summer, for an evening of gloved combat that bore a passing resemblance to boxing.

In her struggle for attention, Shields has plenty of assets, including an irresistible underdog story that has been told in innumerable articles and television segments, as well as a well-received documentary, which is currently being adapted into a feature film by the director Barry Jenkins. She is on friendly terms with Halle Berry and not-so-friendly terms with Serena Williams. She wears blue string in her braids in order to draw attention to the water crisis in her home town, Flint, Michigan. And she says that she is trying to heed the sage words of her manager, who gave her a simple tip to maximize her marketability: “Don’t say the word ‘fuck’ on social media.” By now, plenty of people have heard about Shields, and no doubt many of them are rooting for her. She just needs some of those people to do something that might seem rather perverse: spend Saturday night watching a boxing match.

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