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Could Claressa Shields break the streak of boxers struggling in MMA?

Claressa Shields

Claressa Shields
Photo: Getty Images

It almost never works.

It worked for former boxing champion Holly Holm, who left the sport at 33-2-3 (9 KOs), but she also had an amateur kickboxing record of 6-0-2 and has been the ultimate anomaly.

James Toney got embarrassed. Ricardo Mayorga lost to nobodies. Heather Hardy’s (2-2) in the country’s second-biggest promotion (Bellator), and Amanda Serrano is still TBD at (1-0-1).

That’s the norm.

The history of boxers jumping into MMA seldom ends at the mountain top. Hardy and Serrano are already two outliers given their victories. Mia St. John was a decorated boxing champion who recorded a 44-second knockout in her MMA debut but never returned. Boxers typically jump into MMA — for varying reasons — after a long-standing boxing career of 10 or so years, if not more.

There’s Art Jimmerson infamously competing in UFC 1 with one boxing glove. Eric “Butterbean” Esch was up and down (17-10-1) in MMA after going 77-10-4 (58 KOs) in the Sweet Science. And former World Heavyweight Champion Ray Mercer converted after nearly 20 years of pro boxing and lost to Kimbo Slice in an exhibition that lasted just over a minute. (Though, he did knock out former UFC Heavyweight Champion Tim Sylvia in nine seconds.)

Beyond that, there are many other boxers with MMA resumes not worth mentioning because of their (understandable) struggles. The two combat sports are very different disciplines despite what casual observers may subscribe to. It’s the leading reason why athletes normally compete in one or the other. It’s also the reason why almost nobody excels in both, especially at the same time.

But no one has been Claressa Shields.

Imagine being so good at what you do, at 25 years old, that you could refer to yourself as the GWOAT — Greatest Woman Of All Time — and the evidence suggests more than her having a point, but she may be right. At 17 years old in 2012, Shields won her first gold medal despite being the youngest boxer at the trials. In 2016 she became the first American — male or female — to win consecutive gold medals in boxing, as well as the first American pugilist to win two gold medals since Charlie Kirk did it at bantamweight and featherweight in the 1904 Olympics.

After going (77-1) as an amateur, the Flint, Mich., native has gone (10-0-2 KOs) as a pro. She became one of eight boxers in history — and one of four women — to hold every title in a weight class (middleweight). She’s won 10 world titles across three weight classes, becoming a two- and three-weight champion in the fewest pro fights. The IBF created inaugural middleweight and super middleweight titles largely due to her presence, and she was atop The Ring Magazine’s first-ever women’s pound-for-pound list.

That’s entirely to say, with massive respect to all of the other warriors who’ve tried their hand in MMA, none of them have been Shields, who is also making this transition in her athletic prime. Shields, by her account, has been training diligently in preparation for her eventual MMA debut. She’s also long been vocal about the pay disparity between men and women in boxing, along with other fighters like the aforementioned Hardy and Serrano, as well as rival (and) light middleweight champion Raquel Miller.

Unlike UFC, Bellator and other standard MMA promotions, the PFL operates in a seasonal format, normally culminating at the Madison Square Garden Theatre in New York City on New Year’s Eve. While Shields will debut in 2021, intending to fight at least twice next year, the plan for her to participate in the season format is on hold until 2022, according to ESPN’s Brett Okamoto. By her own admission, Shields will also continue to box.

“I’m still gonna box and do MMA at the same time,” Shields told Okamoto of ESPN, who is a broadcast partner of PFL. “I could box in my sleep. That’s not something that I really have to worry about. I’m gonna spend a lot of time learning and just growing in MMA, but I’m still gonna accept my mandatory challenges in boxing. I’m gonna fight those girls, I’m gonna beat them, but I plan on having maybe two or three boxing matches and two to three MMA fights next year.”

The PFL is perhaps more conducive to a boxer’s transition into MMA than leaping straight into the UFC or Bellator. If anyone could rewrite history, it’s Shields, who’s already done so at every level she’s competed in. 

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