The Meanest Fighter on the Planet Punches Her Way Beyond an Abusive Past

photo of Lars AndersonLars AndersonSenior WriterAugust 11, 2016

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — In the dark of night, she slipped out of bed. Naked, she rose to her feet.

The clock was approaching 4 a.m. in Tijuana, Mexico, on June 7, 2015. In a few hours, she would fight and vanquish a boxer from Brazil, transforming the young woman’s delicate face into a swollen, bloody mess over four rounds.

But now in the small hours of the morning—a time that is always thick with possibility for the best female boxer on the planet—Claressa Shields, the daughter of an underground street fighter, a hard man who once made $35,000 cash for cracking the jaw of a bricklayer in a parking garage, had work to do.

She moved close to the window in her hotel room on the upper floor of a high-rise, tiptoeing so she wouldn’t disturb her sleeping roommate. She stretched her arms. She loosened her neck. Then, in the quiet, she began doing what her dad taught her, swinging her fists through the air, slowly at first, then faster—a hook, an uppercut, a double jab, a cross.

The first American female boxer to win an Olympic gold medal started to bob and weave and shuffle her feet as she punched an imaginary opponent. Within seconds, the 5’10", 165-pound middleweight was in a trance-like state, her escape to another world complete.

On the other side of the room, tucked under her bed sheets, Mikaela Mayer stirred awake. She opened her eyes to see a bare figure several feet away, her outline framed by the moonlight pouring through the window. The silhouette of Shields held her eyes.

For one minute, two, three, Mayer—also a boxer on the U.S. Olympic team—didn’t lift her gaze. She watched in silence as the hard girl from Flint, Michigan, shadowboxed in the nude.

Mayer looked on in awe at the ferocity of her punches. She marveled at the quickness of her hands—it was as if she could unleash five rapid-fire punches in the blink of an eye, bam, bam, bam, bam, bam—and the lightness of her feet.

This was Shields, awash in the pale light, free-styling like a jazz musician, improvising different punching combinations and attacking different areas of the body of the make-believe fighter in front of her.

Shields has been shadowboxing since she first started fighting as an 11-year-old, and now Mayer was astonished by the rhythm and beauty of her movements—Shields was part dancer, part performance artist and 100 percent badass.

But more than anything, there was a release of rage that Mayer could feel from the other side of the room, an explosion of emotion in those punches that were delivered with the fury of someone who has been wronged. There was anger in her movements, an anger that those close to her say boils and rises from the darkness of her past—from her shattered childhood, from being bullied in school, from the trauma of sexual abuse.

Oh yes, her friends will tell you, those old horrors are now her fuel, the combustible octane that nourishes the fire that strikes so violently out of Shields’ hands—even when she spars with nothing but air.

“It is both very beautiful and very scary to see Claressa shadowbox,” Mayer said. “I don’t get angry when I fight, but Claressa literally gets angry, like in a rage. She wants to tear her opponent apart with no mercy. She comes from a hard, hard background where she was disrespected a lot. And now it’s like every punch she throws comes from a place where she wants to get that respect back.

"In a way, she’s hitting everyone back who ever messed with her.”

LOS ANGELES, CA - NOVEMBER 19:  Boxer Claressa Shields poses for a portrait at the USOC Rio Olympics Shoot at Quixote Studios on November 19, 2015 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
Harry How/Getty Images

To understand 21-year-old Claressa Shields—to know what flames that full-blast internal furnace—you need to travel to the hardscrabble north side of Flint, Michigan, to the neighborhood where she grew up, which is filled with burnt-out shells of houses and other decaying homes that have been long abandoned and are surrounded by tall grass.

An intensely shy child, Shields rarely strung together more than two words before the age of five; she essentially spoke in monosyllables. Her father, Clarence “Bo Bo” Shields, missed most of her early years; he was in prison from 1996 to 2004 for a breaking-and-entering conviction. Her mother, Marcella Adams, abused alcohol and struggled to keep a job. Claressa said Adams would disappear for days at a time, leaving her alone with her three siblings.

“My mom was an alcoholic, and she didn’t know how to keep her priorities straight,” Claressa said. “A lot of days we went without eating. Other times me and my sister would leave the house at six in the morning to go looking for Mom because we hadn’t seen her for two or three days. We had to fend for ourselves.”

Adams was not made available to Bleacher Report for this story.

Little Claressa’s goal in life was to have 10 kids by the time she was 26. She would tell herself that she would be an ideal mother—loving, doting, nurturing. She was determined to one day show her own mother what responsible motherhood really looked like by having one baby a year for a decade.

In grade school, Claressa was scarecrow thin and one of the quietest girls in her class. Beginning in first grade, she was bullied by a handful of other students, who made fun of her small stature and her frizzy hair. Students often would take her school papers, rip them in half and toss them into the trash can. Other times, they would shove her to the ground.

For several years, Claressa didn’t fight back. She was still trying to process and make sense of what happened to her when she was five. At that point, her mom had a job at Wal-Mart, and several times when she was at work, Claressa says her mom’s boyfriend led her into a room and raped her. Claressa later believed she was targeted because she so rarely talked.

“My mom didn’t believe me when I told her I was raped,” said Claressa, who first went public with the rape allegations in the August 2012 edition of Essence magazine. “But my grandmother knew that I was telling the truth. She gave me a baby doll, and I explained to her what happened to me using the doll.”

Overcome with feelings of shame, guilt and embarrassment, Claressa moved in with her grandmother, Joanne Adams. Claressa eventually was taken to the hospital, but too much time had passed to detect any sexual abuse. No charges were filed against the boyfriend, but Flint street justice was administered: According to Clarence Shields, a family member beat up the boyfriend.

“The guy who did it disappeared and left town,” Clarence said. “When I got out of prison, I looked into it. I promised my family I wouldn’t do anything to make me go back to prison. But that’s my baby he did this to. If I ever see him, I will slide a knife into him.”

Photo by Cyrus McCrimmon

On the day he was freed from prison in 2004, Clarence was reintroduced to his nine-year-old daughter. Seeing her dad for the first time in her memory, Claressa was thunderstruck. Suddenly it was as if she had unlocked the answers to so many questions. This is why I am the way I am, she thought.

“My dad just looks mean, and I have that same demeanor,” Claressa said. “Suddenly a lot of things started to make sense to me.”

“I saw my twin,” Clarence said. “I saw my beautiful twin.”

Clarence started picking up his daughter from school on most afternoons. Claressa had lived like a nomad for years—she’d stayed in nearly a dozen different houses and apartments in the first decade of her life—but now having her father back in her life rooted her in a routine.

But Claressa didn’t tell her dad that she was being bullied at school. Then, one afternoon when she was in fifth grade, another student finally pushed Claressa over the brink. For the first time in a school hallway, Claressa raised her fists, her blood hot. With a few swings, 11-year-old Claressa had a crossed a pivotal line of demarcation in her life. No longer would she take it. The bully ended up on the ground in a whirling daze, and Claressa won her first school fight.

“I didn’t want to fight at first, but I finally just told myself that I needed to stick up for myself,” she said. “I was sick of being messed with. I quickly found out that people won’t bully you if you fight back. That was the beginning for me.”

On their after-school drives together, Clarence regaled his daughter with tales from his boxing past. After a brief amateur career—he had a record of 27-0—he joined an underground fight club.

“I traveled around the country to fight guys in places like hotel parking lots, underground garages and in ditches,” Clarence said. “Most of the time we wore six-ounce gloves." But if they didn't have gloves, Clarence said it would just be his two fists "doing the work themselves.”

He estimates that he had 55 unsanctioned fights against tough guys who by day were construction workers, security guards and bricklayers—and that he won 54 times. He said he routinely earned $5,000 to $20,000 for each victory.

“They called me ‘Cannonballs’ because I had a bad habit of trying to break forearms with my fists,” he said. “My face is still pretty, though. Can’t say that about those boys I took down.”

One afternoon in the car, not long after Claressa had stood up to the school bully, Clarence began talking to his daughter about Muhammad Ali. “None of Muhammad’s sons took up after their dad and became fighters,” Clarence told Claressa. “But his daughter, Laila, did. She became a great fighter just like her old man.”

Clarence didn’t intend to encourage his daughter to fight, but his comments planted the seed of a dream in Claressa’s imagination: Maybe she could box just like Laila Ali?

The rush of pride that had coursed through her when she bested that bully was unlike anything she’d ever experienced. She wanted more of that feeling, that natural high, so two days after her dad mentioned the name “Laila,” Claressa asked if she could sign up for boxing lessons.

“Hell no,” Clarence replied. “You just gone and lost your mind, little girl. Boxing is a man’s sport. There’s no future in it for families.” Hearing her dad’s stern reply, Claressa cried.

But Claressa already was something of a fighter, and she pestered him for days. A week later, after Clarence had talked to some of his old fighting buddies and learned that the sport of female boxing was growing, he told Claressa he was taking her to McDonald’s for an after-school snack. Instead, he drove her to Berston Field House.

Together, father and daughter walked into the musty basement gym, where there was one ring, three heavy bags and a heater that was on the fritz. Clarence figured his daughter would last a few days, maybe a week.

Patrick Semansky/Associated Press

The opening bell rings.

It’s six weeks before the start of the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, and Claressa Shields leans in close to the bluish glow of the 60-inch television screen, her eyes wide, as if she’s never experienced what is about to unspool before her, frame by frame, punch by punch.

Shields, who has a career record of 74-1 and will compete in Rio in the 165-pound weight class, stands on the second floor of the Sports Center 1 Building at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, the home of U.S. Olympic Boxing. Next to her are two practice rings. Beyond that are a few heavy bags.

On this June afternoon, Shields is watching a television that is replaying her fight from this spring against Taiwan's Nien-Chin Chen at the 2016 world championships in Astana, Kazakhstan.

“In my fights, the first round is just a warm-up, just a way for me to let my opponent know the s--t that is about to come at them,” Shields said. “They’ll understand pretty fast that I’m going to kick their ass.”

One minute into the first round against Chen, Shields connects with a thumping right hand to the head, staggering the Taiwanese fighter. “Bam! That was on the money!” Shields yelled. “But I still look a little tired out there. I’m usually more active.” Shields wins the round on the scorecard of every judge.

Moments later, on the screen, Shields marches out of her corner for the second round. “Everyone says I look mad when I fight,” Shields said as she looked at herself. “And damn, I do look pissed. But look at that—I drill her with a hook and now I know I got that all f--king day.” Shields wins Round 2 on every judge’s card.

The third round begins. “Oh look at this,” Shields said. “I drop my hands. Now I’m f--king with her. When I drop my hands in any fight, you know I’m in control and the fight is over. One hundred percent over.” Shields sweeps Round 3 on the judges’ cards.

By the start of the fourth round, three male boxers on the U.S. team have gathered around Shields. Like her, they are riveted by the bloodbath that is now unfolding on the dusty screen.

“Damn, I kicked that girl’s ass,” Shields said after the bell for the fourth and final round sounded. “I remember she hugged me after the fight and said, ‘I love you so much. You are my idol.’ That almost made me feel bad whipping her butt. Almost.” Shields then let out a laugh that filled the gym.

Shields won that bout in a unanimous decision. A day later, she defeated Nouchka Fontijn of the Netherlands to capture the world title. Combined with her 2012 Olympic gold medal and her 2014 world championship, this made Shields the first U.S. boxer—male or female—to claim three global titles.

“Claressa doesn’t bow down to anyone,” said Kay Koroma, an assistant coach on the U.S. boxing team. “If she fights someone bigger then her, she’ll figure out how to beat her. If someone hits harder than her, she’ll figure out how to beat her. It doesn’t matter who is in front of Claressa. She’s strong and quick and loves to hit. That right hand of hers is always there, always waiting to be unloaded.”

Koroma continued, “But what truly separates Claressa and makes her the best in the world is her desire. She’s from a rough place, Flint. It’s a place that can swallow you. Boxing gave her an out. She has anger from her childhood, and she uses that. She uses that hate as her motivation. Her story can touch so many people because she made it out of the ‘hood. She made it out.”

Photo by Cyrus McCrimmon

During Shields' first two weeks of training in the basement gym at the Berston Field House, where she was the only female fighter, she was taught the basics of the sweet science—how to throw a jab, how to protect herself, how to move her feet, how to utilize the ropes. She was performing basic drills when the 11-year-old caught the eye of Jason Crutchfield, a volunteer coach who was a former professional boxer.

“I didn’t work with female fighters, but then I saw Claressa’s natural speed and power. Right away I told her, ‘You have to work with me,’” said Crutchfield, who also worked as an electrician. “Just weeks after taking up the sport, she was throwing better combinations than the boys in the gym.”

Crutchfield put Shields in the ring to spar with boys, telling the male boxers not to go easy on the girl. She typically doled out more punishment than she received. By the time Shields was 13, Crutchfield told her that she was on her way to becoming the best middleweight fighter in the world.

On the weekends, coach and boxer traveled across the Rust Belt to boxing tournaments. In Pontiac, Michigan, Clarence first saw his daughter step through the ropes. Sitting ringside, he saw 14-year-old Claressa stare at her opponent before a fight like she was a mortal enemy.

“Ain’t no love in here, girl,” Claressa told her, her eyes narrowing. “Your momma ain’t gonna be here to save you. You better watch these hands right here, because they are about to bust you up. ”

The bell rang, and Claressa ruthlessly moved forward like a tank and threw punches like it was personal. She won the three-round bout in a unanimous decision. Clarence was flabbergasted: He swore he had just seen a smaller, younger version of himself.

“If you had ever seen me thumping, I blasted away until you dropped,” Clarence said. “Claressa was the same way. Nothing was going to stop her. It was all heart and some hate as well.”

Convinced that boxing could one day provide his daughter with a better life, Clarence began working with Claressa, showing her how to slip punches by watching her opponent’s shoulders. He taught her the art of shadowboxing by placing her in front of a mirror and having her try to punch her reflection.

Clarence emphasized the importance of visualization, how it allowed a boxer to anticipate an opponent’s movements before entering the ring. Claressa was so taken with shadowboxing that she began doing it with no encumbrances, in the nude, her freest form of athletic expression. Sometimes, Claressa would wake in the middle of the night and shadowbox an entire fight or two, the act transporting her to a place that was her own.

Every week Claressa grew quicker and stronger. When Claressa was 15, Clarence jokingly told her, “Give me a shot to the solar plexus! Give me your all.” Claressa reared back and delivered a tree-chopping right hand. Clarence sank to the floor in pain. It was the last time he ever offered his daughter a free punch.

Claressa slowly moved up the boxing food chain, winning trophies at tournaments across the country. But her home life was still unstable. At 16, she often called Crutchfield in the middle of the night, telling her coach that she was hungry and had no place to stay. Crutchfield would then pick her up, feed her in his kitchen and allow her to sleep at his house with his wife and children.

“Claressa’s become like a daughter,” Crutchfield said. They grew so close that Claressa confided to him that she had been raped as a child. Crutchfield responded by telling her that she would always be safe in his house with his family.

When she was 16, Crutchfield invited the No. 2-ranked light heavyweight fighter in the world to Flint to spar with Shields. Tyler Lord-Wilder was 26 and weighed 178 pounds. Shields tipped the scale at 156.

“How many rounds do you want to go?” Crutchfield asked Lord-Wilder as she ducked into the ring.

“Six,” she replied, looking at Shields with a cocky grin spreading across her face.

The sparring began. In the first round, Shields danced and measured her older opponent, connecting on several jabs. In the second, Shields unleashed a fury of right hands, knocking Lord-Wilder into the ropes. At the end of the fourth round, Crutchfield asked Lord-Wilder, “You good for two more rounds?”

“Nah,” she said. “I think we’re done.”

"That was the moment I knew that I was the best in the world,” Shields said. “She had more than 20 pounds on me, she was seasoned, she was stronger than me, and I still kicked her ass. It was almost too easy.”

Crutchfield’s and Shields' top goal became winning gold at the 2012 Olympic Games in London, where women’s boxing was debuting as an Olympic sport. In April 2012, at a tournament in Cornwall, Ontario, she beat three-time defending world champion Mary Spencer to raise her career record to 25-0.

Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

Two months before the opening ceremonies in London, Shields flew to Qinhuangdao, China, for the 2012 world championships. Crutchfield couldn’t afford to make the trip. When Shields walked to the middle of the ring for the pre-fight instructions before her second bout, she’d never before laid eyes on her opponent, Savannah Marshall, a 5'11" fighter from England who possessed a quick and powerful left jab.

Not in any of her shadowboxing sessions had Shields considered what it would be like to face a boxer of this height. She had no game plan and struggled to slip past Marshall’s jab. Shields lost for the first and only time in her career by a score of 14-8.

“If Jason had been with me, I would have known what to do,” Shields said. “But I learned a lot from that.”

Shields returned to Flint after the defeat. Most mornings, she was out of the Crutchfield’s house by 6 a.m. to begin a four-mile run. Other times she’d run at night, passing in the dark the green house in her old neighborhood where she’d endured so many nightmares. As her feet pounded the pavement, she imagined the gold medal draped around her neck.

Before leaving for London, she attended an event on the Flint campus of the University of Michigan. There she heard a young woman share her story about how her mother had sold her to a man in return for drugs and how she was repeatedly sexually abused.

“That woman helped others, and I knew I needed to do the same,” Shields said. “I had to get the secret off my chest.”

Shields unloaded her story to reporter Lisa Armstrong of Essence magazine. It was the most difficult interview of her life. “It was a time for honesty,” she said. “It was hard, but it was like I was getting power back.”

Claressa Shields takes a wild swing at Sweden's Anna Laurell.
Claressa Shields takes a wild swing at Sweden's Anna Laurell.Scott Heavey/Getty Images

Unburdened, Shields felt reborn, as if she could finally move on with her life. She traveled to London for the Olympics. In her first fight, the 17-year-old faced Sweden’s Anna Laurell, who was four inches taller and 15 years older than Shields. This time, she was ready: Shields won 18-14, her first of three victories on her way to the gold medal.

Clarence, watching the gold-medal match at Blackstone’s bar in Flint, cheered so loud the walls nearly shook.

After the Olympic Games, Shields was greeted like a conquering hero by more than 1,000 fans at the Flint airport and was later feted at a parade through the streets of her hometown. She then returned to high school for her senior year. The teenager who was once bullied was now the most popular girl at Northwestern High. On a typical day, she would receive about 200 texts and dozens of voicemails from people she’d never met.

She carried her medal with her everywhere. She kept it in her book bag but would proudly pull it out to anyone who asked. “That medal was never too far from Claressa,” said Crutchfield. “She told me when she was 12 that she wanted to be remembered for doing something good in her life, not the abuse. And she did that. It was beautiful to see.”

Shields was paid $25,000 from the Olympic Committee for winning the gold. She put the money in the bank, but shortly after arriving back in Flint, she withdrew $400 and visited a collection agency to pay off her mom’s overdue water bill.

Even though she didn’t have an agent, Shields had daydreamed in the months after winning in London that she would land multiple endorsement deals and that she would become as popular as swimmer Michael Phelps and gymnast Gabby Douglas, the two brightest stars of the 2012 Games. Alas, no companies called. Shields' hard image—she relished telling reporters how much she enjoyed making her opponents cry—didn’t play well on Madison Avenue.

But even though she still struggled with her family to make ends meet, Shields became the first in her family to graduate from high school in June 2013. As she strode across the stage at Flint’s Perani Arena to receive her diploma, the P.A. announcer introduced her as “Olympic gold medalist Claressa Shields.” The crowd thundered, and Shields flashed what may have been the brightest and biggest smile of her life

Ivan Sekretarev/Associated Press

Jason Crutchfield, her longtime coach, had a cardinal rule for Shields: She wasn’t allowed to date any of the boxers at their gym. “Boxing is business, and you never mix business with pleasure,” Crutchfield said. “Claressa went against me, and I told her she had to go.”

Crutchfield and Shields parted ways in 2014 after she got into a serious relationship with Ardreal Holmes, a boxer who trained with her in Flint. Shields still lived with Crutchfield, but the two would go weeks without speaking.

By her own admission, Shields lost part of her will to train when she lost her coach. Instead of working out, she would spend afternoons lying on the couch in the Flint apartment she moved into after high school graduation. And her chaotic life continued: Shields was evicted from her apartment after her younger sister and brother got into fights on the property.

By last May, Shields was finally ready to break away from Flint. She and her boyfriend had broken up—“It was the best for both of us,” she said—and then one morning, she packed up her car and, alone, put her hometown in the rearview mirror, driving 20 hours to Colorado Springs. She moved full time into the Olympic Training Center, where she now receives a monthly stipend of $3,000. Her room and board are provided on the college-like campus.

“Flint will always be a part of me, but I needed a change,” she said. “It was time to go. Someday I hope to move my family to Florida to begin a new life. We’ll see how it goes after I win my second gold medal in Rio.”

For these Olympics, Clarence won’t be watching from a bar in Flint. He’ll be sitting ringside, the proudest parent in the arena, shadowboxing with every punch his girl throws.

Riding shotgun in a car through the streets of Colorado Springs one summer afternoon, Shields fields a phone call. On the other end of line is her new agent, who needs to review the details of a contract she recently signed with Universal Pictures for a movie based on her life story.

(Shields is the subject of a documentary film titled T-Rex: Her Fight for Gold, which premiered on PBS on August 2. Directors Drea Cooper and Zackary Canepari followed Shields for two years, chronicling her journey from Flint to Olympic gold.)

“Man, the s--t I’ve been through—I never thought it would be made into a movie,” Shields said after hanging up her cell phone. “I was just trying to survive. That’s it. Just surviving.”

“It’s inspirational to me that Claressa didn’t end up bitter about everything that has happened to her,” Clarence said. “She’s taken those hardships and used that as her fire in the ring. And that’s good for her.”

She has no interest in ultimate fighting or mixed martial arts after Rio. She wants to become the face of American boxing. “The promoter who takes me on will become a very, very wealthy man,” she said. “I’m more exciting to watch than any male boxer. You’ll see that in Rio. I will win another gold. That’s a guarantee.”

Shields is living a good life in Colorado Springs. Her friends joke that she is boy crazy and is “a walking hormone.” She recently dated a young white man—a first for her—before breaking it off. “I told him, ‘You know what, marshmallow, it’s time for me to go back to my chocolate,’” she said, laughing. “He was too clingy.”

She recently went swimming in a hot spring for the first time and has been goaded by friends to get her nails done at a local salon. She now occasionally wears makeup.

And now she wants to wait until she is 26 or 27 to have kids. She hopes to have four to six children with her future husband. “Guess that shows you I’ve come a long way in my thinking,” she said, smiling. “I’ve grown up a lot in the last few years.”

Yes she has, and companies are noticing. She’s recently signed endorsement deals with Powerade and Dick’s Sporting Goods. More opportunities are sure to come if she fulfills her prophecy and wins gold in Rio.

Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

She is sitting at a picnic table in the warm Rocky Mountain sunshine. In a few minutes, Shields, who is taking a day off from training, will head to the gym to watch her teammates spar. She will stand outside the ring, and with her hands resting on the top rope, she will yell at the top of her lungs, “Kick some f--king ass.”

But now, here in the breezy quiet of the Olympic Training Center campus, she contemplates what boxing means to her. It’s a complicated, layered topic for this 21-year-old who is both young and old, who has seen so much but whose eyes are just opening to so many things.

She takes a deep breath and then softly says, “Boxing is my life. That’s all I can say. It’s the most important thing in the world to me. It makes me excited to get up every morning. It’s what I think about at night. And you know what?”

She paused for one beat, two, three.

“The best is yet to come.”


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