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Inside Claressa Shields' Fight for Equality Ahead of 2nd PFL Bout

Tom Taylor@@TomTayMMAContributor ISeptember 13, 2021

Image provided by the Professional Fighters League

The street Claressa Shields grew up on doesn't appear on any current maps of Flint, Michigan.

It was called Spencer Street. She was brought up there by her grandmother—the most influential figure in her life—and her parents. The dining room table was crowded with friends and family around the holidays. There were fish fries and dodgeball games every summer. It's also the street she lived on when she first discovered boxing, spurred on by a friend that bet her $10 that she wouldn't last a week at the local gym—a sum she never collected despite becoming one of the most accomplished figures in the history of women's boxing and one of the brightest prospects in mixed martial arts today.   

"Everybody on the block was family," the 26-year-old told Bleacher Report of her childhood on that unassuming stretch of pavement in Flint. 

Spencer Street wasn't razed for a new condo development or strip mall. The sidewalks Shields scraped her knees on as a rambunctious kid are still there. Most of the houses she spent time in are too. But the street signs all say something different. Walk to an intersection and you'll see them. Fresh sheets of green metal honoring street's most accomplished former resident: Shields herself. 

"It was such a great experience," Shields said several days after her childhood street was renamed in her honor. "I only know three fighters who have streets named after them, and that's Terrence Crawford and Muhammad Ali, and now myself."

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Claressa Gwoat Shields @Claressashields

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Shields is deserving of all the praise and commemorations she receives. 

In the time since she first started training not far from Spencer Street, she's won two Olympic gold medals in 2012 and 2016 and a panoply of championships in two divisions as a boxer. She's also boldly committed to a career in mixed martial arts—a transition few boxers have ever attempted, let alone accomplished.

She's undertaking this journey with the Professional Fighters League, an upstart organization that presents MMA in a unique, seasonal format with playoffs, finals and million-dollar prizes for the champion of each weight class. Her MMA debut, a rousing third-round TKO win over Brittney Elkin in June, is already in the books. Her second fight, an Oct. 27 date with Abigail Montes, is rapidly approaching. 

Neither of Shields' first two bouts are part of the PFL's 2021 season, but she expects to join the fracas in earnest next year. Winning the 155-pound championship will be a monumental task—particularly if Olympic judoka and MMA powerhouse Kayla Harrison remains with the PFL—but the rewards will be massive.

For all she's accomplished in boxing, and contrary to the perception that the Sweet Science is more lucrative than MMA, Shields says she has never deposited a million-dollar paycheck. The possibility of doing so through the PFL understandably excites her. 

"I think it's super fair, and it gives you more to look forward to," Shields said of the PFL format. "I feel like the more boxing championships I won, the more undefeated fighters I beat, the more divisions I conquered, everybody would see my work and think, 'duh, we should be paying her more than a million. We should be paying her two million, three million, four million, five.' That never happened.

"I'm super happy that the PFL is giving me those kinds of opportunities, and it's all about hard work. It's all about how much hard work you put in."

Image provided by the Professional Fighters League

Shields has long been vocal about the way women are paid in boxing and has never hesitated to name sexism as the culprit. She hopes that by speaking out, she might be able to fix the situation. She also recognizes that becoming an MMA champion with the PFL will elevate her platform and make her voice all the louder.

"I think it's sexism," she said. "All it takes is the people in charge to give women boxers the opportunity. 

"I feel like I get a lot of respect, and the girls at the top get a lot of respect, but there are girls who get overlooked—girls with great records and a lot of knockouts, they get overlooked because they're women. Even with me, I feel like I deserve more in terms of how I'm paid, how I'm promoted, how the story is told. That's something that boxing has to work on. I always tell all the women fighters to build their social media [followings], build their platform and just be in charge of their brands. 

"If I can do that, I can control my destiny in boxing too."

Shields' determination to narrow the pay gap in boxing—and her willingness to venture into a brand-new sport in the name of elevating her platform—can be attributed in part to her time on Spencer Street, specifically the time she spent with her grandmother, who called her Cocoa.

Shields was in her grandmother's care for significant portions of her childhood, most notably when her father was incarcerated. It was under her grandmother's watchful eye that she was taught to ignore gender stereotypes and fight for the causes she believes in. In fact, it was Shields' grandmother who encouraged her to stick with boxing when the going got tough.

"My dad said boxing was a man's sport, but he signed me up anyway," Shields said. "I started boxing and I fell in love with it, but on my bad days, when I was feeling discouraged or upset, my grandmother knew. She always said, 'Cocoa, keep going with it. Always keep boxing. You love boxing. That's what you're meant to do. No matter how hard it gets just keep doing it.' My grandmother was huge influence for me, getting into boxing.

"My grandmother said, 'you can't do everything a man can do, but one thing you can do is sports. Whatever sports you want to do, you can do it.' So, when it came to playing street ball, running track, playing soccer, even wrestling, my granny said, 'go out there and do it.' The only thing she hated was when I used to get hurt. She hated to see me bleed, but she was a huge advocate for women in sports." 

Her grandmother died when Shields was in the 10th grade. It's a loss she still feels sharply, but she knows that if her grandmother could see all her belts, watch her boldly transition into MMA under the PFL banner or simply walk down the sidewalk on what's now known as Claressa Shields Street, she'd glow with pride.

"I've remained a humble and kind person throughout this whole process. I know she's proud of that," Shields said. "And I know that she's proud that I continue to make history, no matter who overlooks me."

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