MMA Ratings Podcast

December 5, 2020

Claressa Explains It All: Why Boxing World Champion Claressa Shields Is An MMA Prospect Worth Watching

By Raphael Garcia

The biggest news in the sport over the past week involved a name that many casual fight fans may not know. Two-time Olympic gold medal boxer Claressa Shields announced that she is heading into the world of mixed martial arts, joining the Professional Fight League. Shields is making this move at the perfect time, as the door is wide open for the woman known as “T-Rex” finding success in the cage and becoming a crossover star. There is a lot of work that needs to occur between now and then, but if anyone can get the job done, it's Shields.

The first question that many MMA fans will ask, however, is “Who is Claressa Shields?” Shields won gold medals back in 2012 and 2016, and at 25 years old, she holds a professional boxing record of 10-0, after having made her debut in 2016. In the years since she has put together an undefeated record that would boast more wins if not for COVID-19 grinding much of the sports world to a halt. Now, Shields is talking about becoming a two-sport star, and competing in both MMA and boxing concurrently.

“I wanted to test myself,” Shields said while speaking to Brett Okamoto of ESPN. “I want to see if I can be a world champion in boxing and a world champion in MMA. That is something I want to test myself on. I’m not saying boxing is easy, but I’ve been on top of the world for almost 14 years now.”

That test in MMA is going to come soon. Shields is signed to a multiple-fight contract, but she is not going to take part in the PFL season in 2021, instead expecting to compete twice with an eye towards hopefully entering the season format in 2022. She is expected to compete in the women's 155-pound weight class in the PFL, a division whose current champion is two-time judo gold medalist Kayla Harrison. But before we get ahead of ourselves in that respect, the question on the mind of both skeptics and hopefuls is what Shields' ceiling is. That is going to be intriguing to watch.

Can Shields avoid the takedown? What happens when the fight hits the floor? Both great questions. During her conversation with Okamoto, Shields stated that she has begun training BJJ and is working with Olympic wrestler Adeline Gray. For the PFL, testing her developments in these areas should be slow and steady. Expect Shields to be booked initially against women who are more strikers than they are grapplers, giving her an opportunity to show off her Olympic-level hands.

Over time, that booking will progress to women that can threaten Shields in other ways. This is how the development of a prospect should occur. PFL cannot make the same mistakes that were made with Aaron Pico, Kron Gracie, and plenty of others who were rushed too far, too fast. Shields is still very young. Giving her the time and space to develop into a dominant fighter can help the PFL create major fights for her down the line, as the promotion does not have many big names to attract fans.

That turns the conversation to whether Shields can be the draw that PFL needs, though. While she admits to not being much of a talker, she has the track record of success, and highly successful fighters can draw if properly booked by a promotion. It remains to be seen whether PFL possesses that booking ability (the answer thus far would be a resounding no) but that doesn't necessarily mean that Shields has a low ceiling in that respect.

As an African American woman, she has a special opportunity to be a trailblazer in the sport. MMA is not the most welcoming space to Black women, as UFC strawweight Angela Hill would attest. But Shields – who is a very socially active athlete – can help draw attention to the sport from the fans that have followed her career up to this point. As her stature in MMA grows, media outlets like ESPN will focus more on her, and her status as a high-profile African American female fighter could become an important part of her narrative. Only time will tell whether that would translate to more viewers for the PFL, or wherever she is fighting at that point. But Shields’ pedigree and her legacy gives her more space to become a strong draw for African Americans – specifically African American women – in mixed martial arts.

Claressa Shields is going to make a splash when she makes her first steps into the cage. It will be a moment worth watching to see if she can translate her gold medal skills into an MMA run. There is a lot on the table, but Shields is more than skilled and prepared to sit at the head of it.

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