Boxing, MMA and her own PPV: Claressa Shields bets big on herself in 2021

Claressa Shields looks to become a two-sport combat star as she'll fight in both boxing and MMA in 2021. AP Photo/Matt Rourke

IN A YEAR when Claressa Shields bought a house, created an expansive home gym and successfully gained a larger social media following, the one thing she couldn't do was what she wanted to do the most: fight. It had been a year of yo-yo fight planning -- dates given and pulled back, promoters and networks saying they'd broadcast her fights only to change their minds.

The pandemic had something to do with the inactivity. Shields understood that, but boxing had been back since June. She had hoped to be one of the first fighters to return, to continue building on the momentum she established during the previous two years, winning belt after belt and breaking through on more mainstream levels.

Shields wanted to be in control of that part -- to build her career, her life. She had the opponent, Marie-Eve Dicaire, set for a year, but she just couldn't find anyone to show the fight to the masses. It became dissatisfying, disappointing and disheartening. By the end of last year, she had enough.

Shields and her manager, Mark Taffet, brainstormed solutions and ultimately came up with one. It would be a risk, but if successful, it could change not only Shields' trajectory, but how women's boxing was viewed in the U.S.

Instead of waiting for a network to lead the way, Shields decided to create a night just for women's boxing. She would bring the card she created to pay-per-view -- a platform with which Taffet has 25 years of experience -- and make her bout the first women's fight to headline a boxing pay-per-view in 20 years since Laila Ali and Jacqui Frazier-Lyde in 2001. The event will take place at at the Dort Financial Center in Flint, Michigan, on Friday.

It's an effort that stemmed from overwhelming frustration with her broadcast partner Showtime and a desire to get women's boxing back in the public's consciousness. Her first fight in 2021 will also mark the start of what she believes will be the biggest stage of her career, as she hopes to become a two-sport star with an MMA fight booked this summer. Shields said she wants to fight five times this year across both sports.

"It was like, where do I go from here? Do I just wait for them to give me an opportunity or do I make my own opportunity," Shields said. "I decided it was time to make my own opportunity and create more opportunities for others.

"I'm not the only American girl who is not fighting, on the bench, waiting to get booked for a big fight with these networks, when these networks are saying, women, you come after the men even if you're more accomplished than them."


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SHIELDS HAD BEATEN Ivana Habazin in a unanimous decision in January 2020, making her the fastest boxer in history (in terms of number of fights, 10) to win titles in three weight divisions. She wanted, pre-COVID-19, three more fights in 2020 to keep busy and keep her name out there.

Her fight against the undefeated Dicaire to unify the light middleweight titles was scheduled for May 9. But it was pushed back. Shields' team immediately began discussing with Showtime how quickly Shields would be able to get back in the ring.

"They gave us every indication the fight would be rescheduled as soon as they announced their fight schedule during the COVID period," Taffet said. "But when they subsequently made their announcement, Claressa's fight was conspicuously absent."

Shields believed she was going to fight Sept. 26. Then Oct. 3. Then she was told no, she wasn't fighting on Showtime in 2020 at all. Taffet said there was never a written agreement in place, so they knew they had to move on.

"For them to string us along for a couple months made me miss out on a lot of opportunities, because I could have fought on other cards against other people and against other world champions," Shields said. "But instead we are waiting on our home team to be there with us and we kind of got overlooked."

Shields' team went to other major boxing promotions and networks in the U.S., Taffet said, looking for a place for her to fight. With each having a backlog of fighters and fights contracted, he was told there wasn't room despite Shields' status in the fight game. Her team also had discussions with the UFC about possibly streaming her fight, but those conversations didn't lead to anything either.

Shields felt like she did everything Showtime asked of her. She took big fights. She brought in numbers -- Shields said her fight against Hanna Gabriels peaked at 410,000 viewers -- at least comparable, if not better, than some of the male fighters the network put on air.

She said she spoke with Stephen Espinoza, the president of Showtime's sports and event programing division, about her predicament and about the gap she sees between how male boxers and female boxers are treated. She said they talked about equal promotion and about trying to get her opportunities the network gave male fighters -- specifically commentating jobs like they've given to welterweight title contender Shawn Porter -- and trying to get her cameo appearances in TV shows, like Deontay Wilder. She mentioned the amount of promotion given to her fights -- usually four weeks -- versus other big fighters they have, which could be eight weeks or more.

"We do not feel it would be appropriate to comment on the contents of our private conversations with athletes and talent, other than to state that we disagree with the characterization of those exchanges," Espinoza said in a statement to ESPN. "At just 25 years old, Claressa Shields is a tremendous talent, which is the reason we have invested heavily in her over the last several years. We wish her well in her March 5 fight, and we hope to work with her again in the future."

As the Showtime situation grew icier, Shields made the call.

"At this time," Shields said. "I can't put my career on hold for nobody."

THERE ARE NO metrics for this. What Shields, promoter Dimitry Salita and Taffet are attempting has not been done before. An all-women's card on pay-per-view headlined by two undefeated title holders, including arguably the biggest name in women's boxing.

It's something they believe should be intriguing to a wider audience. Something they are willing to do because of Taffet and Salita's belief in Shields.

But everyone understands they are taking a chance.

"As a promoter, I needed to put the pedal to the metal and give her an opportunity to fight," Salita said. "This pay-per-view seems to be the most immediate way to take destiny into our own hands and put on this great event."

Salita is the one footing the bill, but Shields has financial risk too. For her last fight, Shields said she made $300,000. This fight, she has no idea what her purse will be. It will be dictated by buys (at $29.99 apiece) she can't control and by an audience she hopes will show up on television beyond the 200 people who will be allowed in the stands Friday night.

"This is ... to just show the women that this is 100% about women's boxing," Shields said. "Whatever the numbers are, however much money I make with the pay-per-view splits and buys and all that, it's still me building women's boxing.

"You know, however many fans tune in, we're just going to take that number and build off of it."

The card itself was built on the understanding of tight purse strings. Taffet said some fighters they approached to be on the card were not interested because of the money involved. Others were receptive, sensing an opportunity to be in a unique showcase and, potentially, part of history -- or "herstory," as they've been saying over the past month on a card dubbed "Superwomen."

Taffet and Salita had some of their own fighters they wanted to put on the card -- heavyweight Danielle Perkins, a former St. John's basketball player being one of them -- leaving little room on the four-fight promotion for other fighters.

While other fighters will get more exposure on a card with Shields as the headliner, this could be a bigger benefit for Shields if it is a success.

"What's the hope out of this? That Claressa can be self-sufficient when she has to be. That women's boxing can be self-sufficient," Salita said. "To showcase there is interest in women's sports. There's interest in women's boxing.

"That they deserve to get more money. That they deserve to get the same amount of money as the men do or close to it."

REACHING THIS POINT came with ramifications. Sitting for a year allowed Shields to consider what she really wants, which is to advance her career.

MMA had always been intriguing to Shields. For years, she'd talked about trying it, but often as an afterthought. Then she sat and watched female fighters in other promotions, both boxing and MMA, get matches. Most importantly, she saw how MMA treated its female fighters.

Shields decided to make the move, at least part-time. In November, she signed with the Professional Fighters League (PFL) to compete in nonleague matches this year.

"I had to make a list of pros and cons with that and figure out what it was that I wanted out of MMA. Was it just to do one fight? Was it to make a career out of MMA? What was it that I wanted to do,'" Shields said. "I had the time to think about it. If I had been boxing all of 2020, I wouldn't be fighting MMA because I wouldn't really have had the time to think about it."

If all goes well, she'll potentially compete in the PFL league in 2022, where she'll have a chance to compete for $1 million -- a prize she said she's never been offered in boxing. For now, she'll fight as a special feature twice this year.

PFL CEO Peter Murray was familiar with Shields from his time as Under Armour's vice president of global brand and sports marketing, where one of his roles was to follow and scout USA Boxing. He also had a relationship with Taffet from Taffet's time at HBO and his 13 years with the NFL as a senior vice president of business and content development.

Those connections resulted in almost a year of conversations among Shields, Taffet and Murray, leading up to her MMA opportunity. Even after signing with PFL, the three have been in close communication, working to balance and coordinate her boxing and MMA schedules to make sure she's getting the preparation and training she needs for both sports.

Murray believes in Shields as a two-sport athlete. The PFL has experience in converting athletes from other sports to MMA. Kayla Harrison, the judo Olympic gold medalist, is now one of the organization's biggest stars.

"You see Claressa's athletic capabilities -- her fighting capabilities even though she's in boxing -- she's honing her craft in terms of not just going toe-to-toe, but other techniques obviously involved in MMA," Murray said. "We have no doubt that Claressa is going to be a big deal in this sport, but once again, she's got to earn that.

"And she knows that, and that's what's fun about the upcoming season is fans are going to get to experience that. Her debut in June is going to be one of the most highly anticipated events in combat in our view."

There is precedent for female boxers turning to MMA. Holly Holm, who Shields trained MMA with at Jackson Wink in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and is on the broadcast team for her pay-per-view, made the conversion from boxer to mixed martial artist. So did Heather Hardy, who kept boxing while also fighting in Bellator.

When Hardy went to Bellator, she saw her fan base skyrocket and enjoyed being part of something new. In boxing, she had to hustle for her own press. With Bellator, they took her on a prefight media tour. And yet, boxing is still where her heart remained.

"Boxing is her 'bad boyfriend,' right? And MMA is like the guy with the job and health insurance and the summer house and the Cadillac," Hardy said. "But, you know, boxing is the one that you really love even though he's broke and sleeping on your couch and borrowing your mom's car. You love boxing. You don't want to leave boxing, but you have no choice if you want to better yourself.

"MMA is really where the fans are. Where the corporations and stuff, they promote you. They want to see you do better because they realize that if you do better, they'll do better. It's almost like women's boxing is designed to see you fail so they can prove themselves right."

The rosters of women on the major promotions are small -- Matchroom Boxing and Lou DiBella, Hardy's promoter, have 12 female fighters on their roster, Salita and Golden Boy have four, Top Rank has one and Premier Boxing Champions has none. In many ways, that's the point of this -- to find a way for women's boxing to thrive.

There had been inroads made prior to the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, with Shields as a main event on Showtime and Mikaela Mayer's ascent with Top Rank.

COVID-19 changed Shields' outlook dramatically and led her to Friday night in Flint, Michigan. Taffet wouldn't say this is the riskiest pay-per-view he's ever done -- there have been ones where the money to pay the fighters compared to the buys needed was much greater -- but he understands there's a different level to this fight.

"This is one of the most important pay-per-view events I've ever worked on because of what it represents for the women," Taffet said. "The cause that it stands for and the timing of the event in the history of women's boxing."

Shields feels the pressure, in part because of what she can't control. She can handle her preparation, her performance and how she sells the fight. She can't control how many people buy it, what her opponent looks like or how the other fights on the card go.

And there's more at risk -- beyond the fight itself. If this fails, it provides more ammunition to those who scoff at the relevancy and potential gate that women's boxing has. It would show that one of the sport's biggest stars can't succeed on her own.

If it succeeds, it could open up new avenues for female fighters looking for work and consistency within their work. It would show women can carry pay-per-views and deserve what they've been seeking all along.

"It's not just a women's boxing match. It's a fight for women's equality and everybody can play their part," Shields said. "If you think that women deserve equal rights, equal pay, equal promotion, you will tune into this fight, even if you don't like women's boxing. You know, if you don't like me, if you don't like my opponent, whatever the case may be, if you believe in women's equal rights, this is the time for you to play a part."