SAN DIEGO, Calif., June 22, 2018 – Timing can be as important as talent for a sports breakthrough. There were no doubt many talented black American athletes before Jesse Owens or Jackie Robinson stepped onto the track and the baseball field. But the respective timing of the 1936 Berlin Olympics and post-war baseball years put their significant contributions to society along with their athletic excellence into historical context. Claressa Shields is poised for a similar breakthrough in women’s professional boxing in the United States.
The women’s super middleweight champion became the first to headline a professional boxing broadcast on a major premium cable network. She’ll do so again tonight on Showtime as one of two co-main events featuring women’s professional boxing in Detroit, with all four women’s middleweight titles on the line in the two fights.
“We have a women’s main event, another women’s fight for world titles as the co-main event and then a male fight opening up the show. I’ve never seen anything like that before,” said Shields at this week’s final news conference.
America’s two-time Olympic gold medalist making a statement as a pro
The timing is right for Shields, with pay parity in women’s professional sports an issue, the rise of popular stars such as tennis great Serena Williams, and even the #MeToo movement. But if she didn’t have the chops to back it up, you wouldn’t be reading about Shields here.
The only American boxer to win two consecutive Olympic gold medals and without question the best amateur boxer in the world for many years, Shields won two super middleweight titles in her fourth fight, and defended the titles in January. She is moving down in weight to middleweight with the opportunity to unify the division, possibly later this year.
First she’ll need to get past unified junior middleweight champion Hanna Gabriels of Costa Rica, who is moving up to middleweight for tonight’s bout against Shields.
Fight preview: Shields vs. Gabriels
Shields, (5-0, 2 KOs), age 23, says Gabriels (18-1-1, 11 KOs), age 35, will be her toughest test as a professional. Gabriels has far more professional experience, but only a single amateur fight. Shields had 78 amateur fights including two Olympic Games and multiple world championships. At a decade older and a naturally smaller opponent, Shields should have the upper hand. Now training in Florida with the well-respected John David Jackson, she’s taking the fight seriously. Having to take off some weight to make the 160-pound middleweight limit is new for her.
“I have John David Jackson now and I’ve learned so much from him since we got together back in February. I’ve had coaches in the past who tried to change my style and game, but at the end of the day, I just have to go in there and fight like I know how to,” said Shields.
Shields said of Gabriels, “I think she’s tough, but not as tough as I am. I know I’m the better fighter. I’m always confident going into fights. I’m not leaving the ring without two belts,” declared Shields. “You know how I get before fights. The champ is here!”
Gabriels is making her first appearance in the United States. “I wish that I got the chance to go to the Olympics, but when I started, women’s boxing wasn’t an Olympic sport. I didn’t have that chance and I’m just happy that so many women are now able to dream about that and accomplish that,” said Gabriel.
“Many people thought I was too old by the time I got started,” said Gabriel, who began at age 24. “It’s been an amazing journey and I came prepared for this fight. When you are a true competitor and you like to push yourself to the fullest, then you like great competition.
“I’ve never feared anyone. Words don’t do anything. When I get in the ring, I’m going to be a beast … I am glad that Claressa and I will be facing each other on Friday. I hope everybody enjoys the fight.
Fight preview: Hammer vs. Nelson
American boxing fans will also see current women’s WBC and WBO middleweight champion Christina Hammer (22-0, 10 KOs) of Germany defending her belts against former champion Tori Nelson (17-1-3, 2 KOs) of Ashburn, Virginia. Nelson’s single loss came to Shields at super middleweight in January. Should the 27-year-old Hammer win her fight over the 41-year-old Nelson, and Shields also win, it sets up a hotly anticipated women’s middleweight division unification championship bout.
Hammer is also making her first appearance in the United States. She intended to fight on the Shields card in January, but was derailed due to visa issues. In the meantime she’s been attending many of Shields’ fights and becoming acquainted with the American fight scene. She’s charismatic and outspoken with the best sort of boxing bravado. “I like to go forward and be aggressive. When you can finish, you finish. The American people will like my style. Boxing is my passion and my job, and I’m prepared and looking forward to this,” said Hammer.
“Right now, I’m only focused on my next fight and Tori is my target. Whatever Claressa does, I’m not focused on that,” said Hammer. “After the fight, I’m looking forward to fighting her, but at the moment it’s only Hammer and Nelson.”
“I really have something to prove,” said Nelson. “A lot of people have believed in me, and I’ve got to show what I can do in the ring. I think Christina is overlooking me. It’s disrespectful but I’m glad, it’s better for me that she does overlook me.”
Hammer was ringside for Nelson’s fight against Shields. “Tori is a tough fighter who likes to come forward and land some punches from the outside. I’m a longtime champion and I know how to fight against these types of fighters who come forward,” she said.
Hammer didn’t miss the opportunity for a little poke at Shields. “I think Shields is looking forward to fighting me and is not so focused on Gabriels like she should be. I am focused only on Nelson and that’s who I prepared to beat.”
Say yes to women’s professional boxing for the right reasons
If you’re tuning in tonight because you’re curious about women’s professional boxing, or you’ve got nothing else to watch, that’s fine. Tuning in to be part of a little bit of boxing history is nice too. The real reason you should watch to see one of the new generation’s best boxers and America’s greatest ever Olympic boxing champion, along with one of the acknowledged stars of women’s professional boxing in Hammer. Fans should watch Shields and Hammer in the same way they watch Serena Williams – as superbly talented athletes, not merely female athletes.
With their aggressive, fan-friendly style and power punching skills, Shields and Hammer should prevail and set up the showdown women’s professional boxing needs to earn its place among fans who couldn’t imagine enjoying a women’s prizefight – until now.
Showtime Boxing Special Edition, Shields vs. Gabriels and Hammer vs. Nelson airs Friday, June 22, at 10 p.m. ET/7 p.m. PT on Showtime.
Gayle Lynn Falkenthal is an award-winning boxing journalist covering the Sweet Science for Communities and for boxing fans worldwide. Read more Ringside Seat in Communities Digital News.
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