Women will compete for Olympic medals in boxing for the first time this summer. One of the women training hard for a shot at Olympic boxing gold is a teenager from Flint.
Claressa Shields is 16 years old. And she is scary good in the boxing ring.
Shields has won 19 amateur fights. 14 times she’s stopped her opponent by knocking them out.
On a recent night, I watched as Claressa Shields dominated a male boxer during a sparring match. He was leaning against the ropes. His gloves up protecting his head, as Shields repeatedly landed heavy punches into his mid-section.
The ring is in the basement of the ancient Berston Field House on Flint’s northside. It’s what you would expect a boxing gym to be: basic, sparse, the glare of fluorescent lights and pictures of great fighters from the past on the walls.
Claressa Shields is fast making a case for a place for her own picture on these walls, alongside other Flint boxing greats who fought in the Olympics.
“I can throw every punch," says Shields, who will turn 17 after next month's U.S. Olympic boxing trials, "I know when I’m throwing it and why…and I’m just thinking…it’s not really like I’m really thinking ‘now it’s time to throw the upper cut’…it’s a reaction. As soon as you see something ‘oh that’s open’…BOOM….and you just get it."
Her father sparked Claressa Shields’ interest in boxing. He had been a boxer. When she was eleven, her dad talked about how much he admired Leila Ali following her father, boxing great Muhammad Ali, into the ring and becoming a champion herself.
“So OK…maybe I can make my dad proud and take after him," says Shields. But she didn't get the response she expected from her father, "It’s crazy. He told me that story and then the next day I wanted to box…and he told me no. I didn’t understand. ‘what was the use of that story if you didn’t want me to box."
Eventually, her father relented.
But Shields also had to convince others who thought little girls shouldn’t be boxers.
Jason Crutchfield boxed as an amateur and a pro, before he became a trainer. He was not interested in training Claressa Shields when he first met her six years ago. But after her first week in the gym, his opinion changed.
“Oh man…I saw something in her," Crutchfield remembers, "I saw a lot of fire…a lot of desire…a lot of athleticism…and she had the ability to listen…that was one of the most important things…she would listen….she had that….where she would really listen…that meant she could learn…that means you can really learn.”
Next month’s U.S. Olympic boxing trials is just one major step toward the winner’s platform in London. To earn a berth in the Olympic tournament, the winners of U.S. trials must place in the top 8 at the world championships later this spring. In the U.S. tournament, Claressa Shields will face women boxers who are much older, many in the mid-20s, and more experienced, with many more amateur bouts on their records.
The Olympics will place women’s boxing at a level of visibility it has never had before. Anthony Bartkowski is the executive director of USA Boxing, the governing body that oversees U.S. Olympic boxers. He hopes TV viewers will approach women’s boxing with an open mind.
“You’re going to see some great athletes," says Bartkowski, "who have dedicated a lot of time and effort…and being the pioneers of their sport in getting there.”
But will that be enough to woo TV viewers?
ESPN boxing commentator Teddy Atlas says the success of the London games for women’s boxing will be judged on how the fighters perform.
“If it is not seen at a good level of competition…then obviously there’s damage done. Because people will then view it as a sport that’s not worthwhile," says Atlas.
Claressa Shields says she’s out to make people watch.
"I’m trying to do something real big… for women’s boxing," says Shields, "People always talk about women’s boxing is weak….But all the females I’ve ever seen…we actually better than a lot of the males. And I don’t understand where they coming from…all this crazy stuff… ‘girls can’t fight.’ But then they…see me fight…they can’t even tell that I’m a girl.”
Shields says she eventually plans to turn pro, but first she hopes to add U.S. Olympian to her resume.