If you haven’t seen enough of boxer Claressa Shields – or if you may not even know the name – that’s her point. She’s an elite athlete in her prime, suffering from an apparent case of under-exposure.
The 25-year-old Michigan native had a glittering amateur career, winning Olympic gold medals – at London 2012 and Rio 2016 –and two more golds at the International Boxing Association world championships.
Shields then made her professional debut in 2016, winning her first title in 2017, at super middleweight, and – by 2019 – she had become the undisputed women’s middleweight world champion, winning all four of the main belts: WBA, WBC, IBF and WBO.
In her 10th professional fight, January 2020, she defeated Ivana Habazin to claim two world titles at light middleweight, becoming a world champion in three different weight classes faster than any boxer in history, male or female.
But the undefeated Shields hasn’t fought since.
“I know that we have Covid and everything,” she recently told CNN Sport’s Amanda Davies. “But boxing had been back going since about September … they told me they were going to have a fight for me in September. They had a date for me in October.
“And then to be told that I got to get put on a back burner to all the men, and I’m not going to be able to fight until 2021, in January or February, you know? And this is with the network that I was associated with, Showtime.”
Of course, the global pandemic dramatically altered the sporting landscape. Nonetheless, some of boxing’s biggest stars have stepped into the ring and answered the bell while Shields hasn’t fought – notably Anthony Joshua, Saul “Canelo” Alvarez, and even Shields’ main rival, Katie Taylor.
“I’m constantly telling my family, ‘Hey, I got big news coming,’ because I’ve been told verbal promises,” says Shields. “To be put on the back burner to fighters who haven’t accomplished not even half of what I’ve accomplished, not even a quarter, and they are getting put on main events?
“They [Showtime] just give me crap about, telling me that I’m not big enough to be on pay-per-view. But they’re putting guys on pay-per-view who I know I’m more known than.”
Showtime has pushed back on Shields’ allegations.
“Claressa Shields has headlined six boxing events on this network, which is unprecedented for any male or female fighter with just 10 professional fights,” Showtime said in a statement sent to CNN.
“At 25 years old, Shields is a tremendous talent, which is the reason we have invested heavily in her development in and out of the ring over the last four years. We wish her well in her MMA career,” added the statement, referring to the boxer’s intention to fight in the Octagon later this year.
Shields is hardly on the same page, ruing the fact that she wasn’t offered a pay-per-view opportunity, which can often lead to a more lucrative payday for elite boxers.
“For some reason, I’m still not big enough to fight pay-per-view [on Showtime],” she reiterated. “And that’s just sexist because the guys get to make the calls. They’re the ones who make the shots.
“And I got more followers than the men, and I got more people who know me worldwide than the men. But for some reason, they qualify to be on pay-per-view. But me, you know, I don’t even qualify to make a million dollars. And it’s just like, ‘What the heck?’”
According to the Washington Post, Shields was paid $300,000 for her win over Habazin more than a year ago, a fraction of – say – the $4 million Deontay Wilder received to fight Tyson Fury.
“They can respond how they want to respond,” Shields says of her dialogue with broadcasters.
“And I’m not going to go down any just one network. I mean, Premier Boxing Champions is sexist, too. They don’t have not one female boxer signed to the stable. ESPN only has one woman fighter to their stable, and that’s Mikaela Mayer.
“The only network to have multiple women signed to them is DAZN, and that’s why I take my hat off to Eddie Hearn.” added Shields, referring to the British boxing promoter.
Premier Boxing Champions declined comment, while ESPN referred CNN to their exclusive promotional company Top Rank.
in a statement sent to CNN, Top Rank President Todd duBoef said: “Top Rank has long supported women’s boxing and has promoted many of the sport’s most recognized and accomplished fighters, including Lucia Rijker, Christy Martin and Mia St. John.
“Mikaela Mayer is poised to be one of world boxing’s biggest stars, and Top Rank looks forward to promoting her bouts on the ESPN family of networks in the coming years.”
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Shields is planning to make her MMA debut in June of this year, after recently signing a three-year deal with Professional Fighters League. But she assures fans that doesn’t mean she’ll be giving up boxing.
“I think people are kind of thinking like, ‘Oh, she’s saying boxing is sexist and she’s going to MMA. She’s not boxing anymore.’ Like, I’m still boxing; I’m still world champion,” Shields told CNN.
If Shields is generally displeased with her treatment as an elite fighter in her relatively brief pro career, she has a strong advocate in long-time promoter Dmitriy Salita.
Shields will step back in the ring on March 5 in her hometown of Flint, Michigan, in an event dubbed “SUPERWOMEN,” which is being promoted by Salita.
In the main bout of the evening, she will battle unbeaten IBF super welterweight champion Marie-Eve Dicaire. If Shields wins, she’ll become the first boxer in the four-belt era to be crowned undisputed world champion in two weight divisions.
“SUPERWOMEN” will be made available via pay per view on FITE TV, marking the first time a women’s fight has headlined a pay-per-view boxing card since Laila Ali and Jacqui Frazier-Lyde – daughters of heavyweight legends Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier – fought in 2001.
Salita told CNN: “It’s important for the sport of boxing to see that an all-women’s event can be successful. I believe Claressa is the right athlete at the perfect stage of her career to take on this endeavor. There is nothing more compelling than a world title unification fight between two undefeated world champions and no better time than now to showcase that women’s boxing has arrived in a big way.
“Claressa and Marie are some of the best fighters in the world, and they deserve the opportunity to be seen on a national platform.”
Shields also has no plans to disengage from her fight for equality outside the ring. Like the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team, she believes she is shining the spotlight on what she perceives to be her sport’s inequitable treatment of women.
“I fight for equal pay, equal opportunity, equal fight time, you know? And equal promotion,” says Shields.
“And until boxing does that, I mean, I felt like they need to be held accountable for those things because boxing is our livelihood; boxing is our career. It’s like, give us the same opportunities. But, instead, they’re just acting sometime like we don’t even exist, or like we exist after all the men fight, and then we matter. And, it’s like no, we can co-exist together.”
Additional reporting by Dan Kamal and Dave Close