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How PFL's Claressa Shields Plans to Conquer MMA and Boxing at the Same Time

Tom TaylorContributor IDecember 8, 2020

Claressa Shields poses for photographs after defeating Ivana Habazin in their 154-pound title boxing bout in Atlantic City, N.J., Friday, Jan. 10, 2020. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
Matt Rourke/Associated Press

At just 25 years old, Claressa Shields has already accomplished more than most people do in a lifetime, yet the boxer has no interest in resting on her laurels.

After two Olympic gold medals and expeditious title wins across three weight classes as a pro, she's set to don a different kind of gloves and chase championships in mixed martial arts. 

The unbeaten pugilist (10-0), widely hailed as boxing's pound-for-pound queen, will make this bold transition in 2021, under the bright lights of the Professional Fighters League (PFL). 

"I'm a little nervous because I have to start seriously training, but it's a good nervous," Shields told Bleacher Report from a hairdresser's chair—which might as well have been a throne—shortly after her deal with the PFL was announced.

The Flint, Michigan native has been plotting her move to MMA for quite a while and was even briefly mentioned as a possible opponent for two-division UFC champion Amanda Nunes. After a period of careful consideration, though, she decided the PFL was the ideal setting for her transition and inked a three-year deal with the league. 

The PFL presents MMA in a seasonal format like those used by the NFL or NBA and hands its champions million-dollar checks at the culmination of each year. Shields will compete in several "special attraction" lightweight bouts before gunning for her first million-dollar prize in the 2022 season, but the promise of huge paydays was a major factor in her decision to sign with the league.

"I love how the PFL has a season where they give all their fighters the chance to control their own destiny," she said. "You get to fight for a million dollars if you work your way up to it. In boxing, I've done everything you can do: world titles, multiple divisions, broken records, undisputed. I still haven't made a million dollars for a fight yet." 

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While Shields is seeking the biggest purses possible, that's only part of the reason she decided on the PFL. She wants to conquer MMA—not just try it—and sought to align herself with an organization that would help her chase that goal in a realistic and practical way. 

The PFL met that description.

"People wondered if I'd really do [MMA], and I always said it had to be the right opportunity and the right conversation," she said. "The right conversation is giving me the chance to actually train, get ready and learn to [the point] where, when it's time for me to get into the ring with an elite MMA fighter, I'm ready.

"I don't think anybody could ever throw me to the wolves—I'm the wolf," she continued. "We're just going to take my time and learn. I'm not going to go in there and give myself a disadvantage." 

In the long history of fighters moving between boxing and MMA, only a few have managed to thrive in both sports. Some, like Holly Holm, have successfully moved from the ring to the cage, but many have experienced the same fate as James Toney, a former boxing champ who was taken down and throttled by Randy Couture in a humiliating 2010 fight.  

Despite the discouraging track record of fighters moving between the two sports, Shields feels well-positioned for the task for a number of reasons, from her youth to her diet to her lifestyle.  

"I'm young," she said. "I'm 25 years old. I haven't even come into the prime of my boxing career. I just went from benching 135 [pounds] in June—struggling—to benching 185 now. I'm building up my strength. I'm building up my legs, my core. I'm more efficient with how I eat. I'm only eating fish, I don't eat any other meat, I'm huge on vegetables, I'm huge on water.

"I don't smoke or drink. I know fighters aren't supposed to smoke or drink anyway, but there are elite fighters who smoke and drink. I'm one of the ones who never abused my body. I'm taking this serious."

Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

Shields' confidence is also buoyed by the MMA training she's done. After gradually acquainting herself with the MMA toolkit over the last year, she's now ramping things up at the famed Jackson Wink MMA Academy in Albuquerque, New Mexico alongside Holm and former UFC light heavyweight champ Jon Jones.

"I'm really good at the wrestling part now," she said of her training. "I know how to defend a single-leg [takedown], a double-leg. I know where to position my head, my legs.

"I actually enjoy wrestling more than anything else. Jiu-jitsu still kind of confuses me a little bit, and the kicks. I need to get my flexibility in my hips, so I've been doing some yoga, doing small things just to make the transition easier."

While Shields is plunging head-first into her MMA training, that doesn't mean she's abandoning her other sport. Far from it. She plans to continue training—and competing—in boxing even as she begins her MMA career. It's certainly a lot to juggle, but it's all in the name of achieving her ultimate goal: becoming the first fighter ever to hold major boxing and MMA titles concurrently.

If Shields is able to pull that off, she feels there will be no refuting her status as the greatest female fighter of all time—in any combat sport.

"MMA fans need to bow down and kiss my feet and throw rose petals because I'm actually making the transition," she said. "I'm not just saying it. I'm actually doing it. So give me my props. Never say that Claressa Shields is scared of nobody. 

"I could just stay in boxing and make my money," she added. "But before I turned pro, I read this quote and it said: 'If your dreams don't scare you a little bit, they're not worth dreaming.'

"When I read that, it's what made me sign a contract to turn professional in boxing. That's why I turned pro, and I did exactly what I said I would: I'm the greatest woman of all time [in boxing]. I aspire to do the same thing in MMA."

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