The headliner of this week’s USA Boxing National Championships has come and gone already, her one-two in and out of Spokane as quick as any combination you’ll see in the ring.
One Olympic champ to showcase. And, to little surprise, boxing found a way to fumble the opportunity.
It all came down in a well-intentioned, somebody-else’s-doing, no-one’s-fault kind of way – least of all Claressa Shields’ fault. She came, she downed a chicken sandwich minutes before the weigh-in, still made the 165-pound limit for her walkover title and flew back to Michigan to resume more productive pursuits.
Spring break. Graduation. Prom.
“It’s on a Princess boat up in Detroit,” she reported. “I have a date. We’re going to wear orange.”
Bold choice. But that’s Claressa.
All she did a year ago, at the ripe old age of 17, was tell anybody who asked that she was going to win the gold medal. And then, with a style unlike anyone else, she won the U.S. trials in Spokane and went to London and did it, pounding out a clear decision over the inevitable Russian opponent who was older, wilier and purportedly more skilled.
“More skilled?” Shields protested. “She fought like a robot!”
In the process, Shields and teammate Marlen Esparza, who claimed a bronze, salvaged a little dignity for USA Boxing, which in an unprecedented flop couldn’t manage to advance a male beyond the quarterfinals.
A month ago, Shields was back in the ring, outpointing three-time world champ Mary Spencer. That was to be her tuneup for Spokane and her first chance to fight at the nationals.
Except that the International Amateur Boxing Association (AIBA) decided to raise the minimum age for the elite, or senior, division to 19, creating a youth division for 17 and 18-year-olds. There’s undoubtedly some competitive/development/ safety rationale behind it that makes sense in a general application, even as it makes none for the Olympic champ. USA Boxing, however, couldn’t ask for an exception for its wonder woman, and no same-age youth challengers stepped forward here.
“When I was in juniors, there was never anybody for me to fight,” Shields said. “I waited all those years to be able to fight against women and now you tell me, ‘Oh, you’re too young’ again? How do you make up these rules?
“The women here are happy, I know that. Because everybody knows if I’m fighting 165, I’m going to win it. I’m not going to lose again. Ever.”
Again, bold. Especially for someone who’s seen the vagaries of boxing judging on the international level.
This was the first shock of the Olympics for Shields: negative possibilities.
“You’re in this great place with all these great athletes, and you’re one of them,” she said. “But when somebody from the same place – someone you were in training camp with – loses, then it hits you: you can lose.”
But she didn’t. And then came the second surprise: accepting as real something she’d assumed would be hers.
“I was on Cloud 20,” she said. “It felt so unreal that when I went to sleep, I wrapped the medal around my hand and kept having the weird feeling that when I woke up, it was going to be silver. I didn’t want to look at it in the morning because I was afraid. Then I’d lift it up and see it and scream, ‘Aaaaaaaah!’ ”
And life turned upside down.
She joked around with NBA star Kevin Durant in the Olympic village. She posed for pictures with “every athlete from Africa, I think.” The 10 people who saw her off from Flint turned into 600 when she returned home, plus 300 more at the gym at Northwestern High School.
“I felt like Tupac,” she laughed.
There’s actual spending money in her pocket from stipends and the Olympic bonus. She has an agent trying to rustle up sponsorships, presuming the gymnasts leave any unclaimed. She’s a semifinalist for the female Sullivan Award along with the likes of Gabby Douglas, Missy Franklin and Brittney Griner.
Of course, after the whirlwind of the weeks immediately following London, coach Jason Crutchfield had to remind Shields that she needed to shop for school supplies.
“School what?” was her reaction.
Actually, Shields is assessing college choices now, even as she sets her sights on Rio and the 2016 Olympics. Turning pro was never a consideration.
“My one gold medal is respected, but not enough,” she said. “It’s going to take something huge to change women’s boxing.
“The women who are pro now, I’m not going to say they’re not skilled, but they’re getting no TV time. Somebody has to demand that. Maybe a boxer with two Olympic gold medals can.”
A bold argument. But if anyone’s going to make it, it’s Claressa Shields.