Sometimes she is a fighter beyond her years. And sometimes Claressa Shields is every bit a 16-year-old.
“She likes to go to Wal-Mart and win those toys,” her trainer, Jason Crutchfield, laughed – and most of his recollections, descriptions and ruminations about his remarkable pupil are punctuated with a laugh. “She’s on that machine, trying to win a toy.
“She love that telephone. She love drama.”
And there was some of that 16-year-old drama the other night after the sensation of the U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Women’s Boxing withstood the crowding, leaning and wrestling of Tika Hemingway to reach tonight’s middleweight final. Shields had cruised through her first two fights of the trials. Her mood had been bright, animated, uninhibited. On her day off Wednesday, she had chirped her way through a 35-minute television interview and 20 more with a newspaper reporter.
But after outpointing Hemingway 23-15, Shields’ funk was deep and implacable. Eyes lowered, she glared at floor. Answers came grudgingly, two or three words at a time. She had wanted to be more – something better, something dominant, something overwhelming.
“Be proud,” Crutchfield coaxed. “You won. C’mon now.”
This may prove to be the great psychological lab experiment of the Olympic Games this summer in London – providing Shields gets to London, of course. She must win these trials – and she is clearly the best middleweight here. In that event, she must then finish in the top eight in May’s AIBA World Championships in China or, failing that, luck out and receive a committee’s invitation.
But she is expected to be there and she certainly expects it of herself.
“I’m here to make a statement,” she said. “Just because I’m 16 doesn’t mean I’m soft or any less willing. My skill level is higher than theirs.
“The age difference doesn’t register with me because I’m the best fighter, period – I think.”
And if she makes it to London, television will eat her up because of her tender age – she’s just a junior at Northwestern High School in Flint, Mich. – charming candor and gritty backstory.
But other things could eat her up, too. Because at the international level, skill isn’t the least of it – but it’s not all of it, either.
“It’s a lot more physical,” USA coach Joe Zanders said. “A lot of things will happen to her that she will be surprised by.
“Referees will let more things go. He might not move them off the ropes, or won’t call them for holding. The judging is not always what you think it’s going to be. You’re going to find fighters who are fundamentally sound, who come from strong amateur systems.”
See, wiles qualify as a skill, too.
On the other hand, perhaps the drama that so amuses – and sometimes baffles – her coach won’t be quite so thick. The Olympics don’t figure to be the hothouse atmosphere that these trials are, throwing together women who have forged alliances and rivalries over the course of years.
“Oh, I know they’ve been talking,” Crutchfield said. “We were at Kentucky Fried Chicken eating, and she was, ‘So-and-so said this and I’m going to tell her this.’ I said, ‘No, you’re not.’ She said, ‘Why can’t I say something? They be talking about me.’ We’re not falling into that. I know there’s been some blah-blah-blah. And I know she’s been saying something to them, too.”
Why not? She has the goods.
“I think her confidence is well-deserved,” said Christy Halbert, who chairs USA Boxing’s women’s task force. “She backs up everything she says. She doesn’t make empty promises. She’s shown she has the whole package.”
And seems to have had it from the beginning.
That was at age 11, when she had a “random conversation” with her father, who had done some boxing. But Clarence Shields had also done some time in prison – seven years – and by the time he was out, his sons were past the age of being steered toward the ring. He mentioned to Claressa that Muhammad Ali’s daughter, Laila, had followed him into the ring, “and that’s when I decided I would box.”
Then Clarence Shields changed his mind.
“I was like, ‘Dad, I just don’t get it with you – you don’t know what you want in life,’” she remembered. “I don’t think I talked to him for two days.”
When he relented, she had to win over Crutchfield, who runs the boxing club at Flint’s Berston Field House.
“Back then, I didn’t agree with female boxing,” he said. “Wasn’t enthused about it or anything. Then I saw her, and saw her grow and build. And I thought never in a million years could the best boxer in the gym that I come from be a female.
“She’s a once-in-a-lifetime fighter. I believe that.”
The child and the sport certainly took to each other.
“I feel like I can’t be touched sometimes,” she said. “Up in the ring, I feel like I can fly.”
But as this year approached, she and Crutchfield thought she wouldn’t even get a crack at London – at last year’s Junior Olympics, they were told she needed to be 17 by this past October. But the cutoff for the National PAL tournament – the last trials qualifier – was actually May 23, 2012, two months after her 17th birthday. And there she was the tournament’s outstanding fighter.
The punches are long, straight, accurate and hard – effective punching, though she does not yet have the “woman’s strength” that a fighter like the rugged 25-year-old Hemingway does. But more than that, she is schooled – surprising for her age, but not for someone who prefers to watch old videos of Joe Louis, Sugar Ray Robinson and Sugar Ray Leonard to more contemporary sluggers.
“Joe Louis,” she said, “was just perfect.”
She is surprising in other ways, whether it’s a grade-point average in the mid-3s or a way with an anecdote.
Like her schoolgirl fights – the one where she bloodied a girl’s nose and yet they both were laughing as they swung, or the one against a boy after which her fifth-grade teacher, Miss Moore, wrote her up somewhat tongue-in-cheek as “extremely dangerous.”
“This teacher crazy,” she said.
So maybe it won’t be surprising if she handles all these goblins people imagine for her. It starts tonight with a rematch against Hemingway.
“I think you saw (Thursday) she got a little frustrated,” Zanders said. “Tika had a good game plan and used her experience to try and take Claressa out of her game. Pressed her against the ropes and sometimes Claressa would just stay there. She has to learn that it’s not a bad thing to move away from your opponent sometimes. … But I’m sure she feels she should have done better. And she’ll do better.”
Even boxing loves a prodigy. Meldrick Taylor won Olympic gold at 17. Wilfred Benitez was world champion at the same age.
Claressa Shields doesn’t mind if it’s harder.
“Because the harder you fight me,” she said, “the harder I’m going to fight back.”