Shields on training, winning and working harder than everyone else

Claressa Shields describes her speed, power and desire to be the greatest female boxer in history as she poses for ESPN The Magazine's 2016 Body Issue.

This is an online exclusive story from ESPN The Magazine's Body Issue 2016. Subscribe today! And for more from the 2016 Body Issue, check out espn.com/bodyissue, and pick up a copy on newsstands starting July 8.

When Claressa Shields competed at the 2012 London Games, she became the first American female boxer to win a gold medal. Now, with Rio on the horizon, it's clear Shields is hungry for more. In a rare break from training, the middleweight fighter sat down with Body Issue reporter Morty Ain to discuss the water crisis in her hometown of Flint, Michigan, and what she's doing to ensure that she nabs another Olympic gold.


I got the nickname T-Rex when I was 11 years old. Back when I was younger, I was very skinny and I had short arms, but I used to always be swinging.

I'm humble and I'm confident. I think those words kind of contradict themselves because people always confuse "confident" with the word "cocky." Confident is believing in yourself. Being humble is, even though you believe in yourself and you know what you're capable of, you still work 10 times harder than your opponent to make sure you get the output you want. I train very hard to be able to say that I'm going to be a two-time Olympic gold medalist.

Boxing gave me self-confidence that I didn't have growing up. When I was young, I was super quiet and I didn't trust anybody. I didn't like having friends. I started boxing when I was 11, but I don't think I started talking much until I was 13. I started coming out of my shell, and I started transforming and I liked the way that I looked and the way that I boxed. Even though I was pretty boyish when I was younger, as each year came on I got more and more feminine. Boxing opened me up and helped me find the person that I am.

I was angry for a lot of reasons when I was a child. I was molested and raped. But I channeled all the anger from that into boxing, and I think that's why I'm so successful at it. Boxing really helped with that. It calmed me down a lot and gave me discipline and structure.

Living in Flint, poverty is an obstacle that you have to fight through. I always had to fend for my brother and sister -- I was always the one to sacrifice my meals so that they could eat. Without that struggle, I don't think I would be as strong as I am.

I'm fighting for more than just a medal. I'm fighting for my family, I'm fighting for my future, I'm fighting for my city -- to give them some hope and faith, because it's so bad in Flint. I always fight harder than I would if I were fighting for just a medal.

How people deal with death in Flint is they act like it doesn't exist. It's like an everyday thing there now, and that's not good. I don't ever want to be stuck in a situation where I have to live like that or my family has to live like that. That's why I sacrifice. Once I win another Olympic gold medal, I'm moving my family out of Flint. I have a little brother who is 18, and he can be a victim of gun violence. I have a sister who can maybe get shot. I have a nephew who I don't want to grow up there because he may be shot or killed just because of the gang violence. I don't want that for my family. I don't want that for anybody's family.

Simon McDermott-Johnson for ESPN

"I always feel like I'm the underdog, and that's what makes me fight harder."

As the training intensifies, I transform. A week before I fight, I always tell my family and my friends that I can't be around any kids -- I'm easily annoyed and I don't like to lose my focus; I'm just super freakin' in a zone. Then once I walk into the ring, the only thing I'm thinking is, "I've trained for almost six weeks, I'm pissed. I've done too much training to lose." That's where my mind is at: I've trained too hard, I've eaten right, I went to bed early, I haven't been able to hang out with my friends or my family. Somebody is going to have to pay for that [laughs]. Somebody.

Ever since I was 11, my whole life has been about boxing. Everything I do has been about boxing. I played basketball so I could be in shape for boxing. I ran track for boxing. I went to a movie theater to see my first movie when I was 14. I didn't even go to a club until I was 19, not until after I won a gold medal at the Olympics.

I decided that after I qualified for this year's Olympics I was going to take five days in Florida for myself. That's the only vacation I've had in my entire life. Literally.

I'm like Serena Williams' little twin. First of all, we look alike, how our bodies are built. She has a slim waist, big butt, come on -- she's from Michigan!

I'm training seven to eight hours a day. I'm always doing extra. I always stay after [training]. I always hit the bag after, do pushups and crunches after, or I might even go for another run. For some others, it'll probably be five or six hours or maybe even four, but for me it's seven or eight.

One thing I hate is people seeing me tired. Body language is everything. Show this person who is dead tired that you can go another round.

I'm in the biggest weight class in the Olympics for the women -- I'm the 165 pounder. I'm the shorter fighter, so I have to make sure my legs are in shape. The advantage for me against the taller girls is that I'm very slick, I'm very fast and I punch harder than them. Also, my footwork and foot speed allow me to get to them on the inside when they're moving and running.

I'm always underweight. I think the biggest I ever got in my career was 171. Right now I'm 163 pounds, and I fight at 165. I'm always under. I've never really had to cut weight.

I do eat a lot. But you know, man, some days my body is working so hard that I'm not even hungry; I just want to go to sleep and rest. You need rest more than food. But once I get up, I do eat a lot.

Floyd Mayweather is my favorite fighter of this era. You don't see Floyd respond to everybody; he sticks to his game plan. Everyone wants him to get into the ring and brawl, but he's smart -- he hits people and he don't get hit. Then when he gets out of the ring after 36 minutes of rounds, he still looks fresh -- I love it.

To be honest, I want to go down in history as the best women's fighter who ever lived.
Claressa Shields

For a long time, I thought my nose was pretty big. I'd get hit in my nose and I'd think, "This nose is huge!" But now I think I'm very beautiful, even though my lips are big too, but whatever, I don't care. My dad and my sister have a big nose too. I'm fine with it.

Yeah, of course I think I'm a little crazy. I think I'm a little crazy because some people are terrified to get into the ring and box, but I'm always excited [laughs]. I'm always like, "Let's go! I'm ready to fight!" I'm excited to fight anybody and everybody. When you get into the ring to fight somebody, this is not normal stuff. It's not normal. It's like every day I walk around in my life and I'm always ready for a fight. If somebody is like, "Hey, I think I can beat you," I'm like, "Throw on the gloves!" That's a little craziness that I have in me. But otherwise I think I'm pretty cool.

Some girls will be so scared that they won't even look into my face; they'll look at the ground. You can just sense energy. Some girls will just be super, super nervous. Some girls will be tough. If they are mugging me, I just start laughing, "Man, I'm about to mess this girl up."

I fight everyone like they are the world champion. I always feel like I'm the underdog, and that's what makes me fight harder.

The first time getting into the ring was when I was 11 and I sparred against a guy. I just remember he hit me in my nose and my eyes got watery. You're like, "What the heck was that?" That's insane. I wasn't used to getting hit in my face. To me, it's just not normal.

Oh, I won that. That was my first sparring match. I had been boxing for six months and I beat him up. My first time ever getting into the ring, I won. I didn't know how good I was.

I think at the age of 15, I knew that I was capable of winning an Olympic gold medal. I knew I had it in the bag then; it was just a matter of time.

Some reporters told me that I broke the limits of women's boxing. Nobody goes in there and is super aggressive ... nobody goes in there and tries to kill their opponent -- it's always pretty boxing going on, somebody who just wants to win the match. But I go in there to seek and destroy and to win. I feel like I broke barriers doing that, and I made a new definition of women's boxing. I feel like I use beautiful combinations and I remind them of old fighters. I feel like I'm a young Sugar Ray Robinson sometimes. I think I'm a mixture of him and Joe Louis when I fight.

Simon McDermott-Johnson for ESPN

"Boxing gave me self-confidence that I didn't have growing up."

When I'm getting ready to go to the ring, you can just look at me and tell that I've been through a lot. You can just see the pain in my eyes, and you can see that I'm about to release it once I get inside the ring. When I have my friends record me walking to the ring, I'm looking like, "Who the heck is that girl?" I look totally different. I even feel like I'm taller and stronger and bigger, like I'm 6-1, 180 pounds.

I want to be a boxing icon, not just for women but for boxing period. To be honest, I want to go down in history as the best women's fighter who ever lived. Right now when you look up who the best women's fighter is you get Laila Ali, Ann Wolfe, Lucia Rijker, Christy Martin. And I feel like I'm a different breed. They are all great fighters, but I'm different, especially skill-wise. I think boxing has changed and I've changed with boxing. When you look at film of them and then you look at film of me, I want you to be able to say, "Yeah, Claressa was the better fighter. She was the best fighter ever."

Fighting is something God wants me to do. I'm built the way that I am -- with my shape and my figure, with my muscles - because God blessed me with that, and I'm grateful for it. He wants me to be a boxer and to be a fighter.

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