FLINT, Mich. -- It was a little past 8 p.m. on Friday and the music inside Claressa Shields' dressing room started to heat up. She grabbed her portable speaker, thumbed with her phone and hit play.
Cardi B's "Up" came on. Shields turned her space into a dance party, twisting her body to get her mind and her muscles loose. She had waited 13 months for this -- gone through travails with networks and fights being rescheduled -- all leading to this moment.
"I get excited to fight," she said as she moved. "I'm here to fight."
She wasn't nervous despite the long layoff. In a few hours, she would be walking out to the ring flanked by two dancers while others in her entourage carried her world title belts. She'd be wearing a robe bearing the name of the late actor Chadwick Boseman, and trunks honoring the late Kobe Bryant and his daughter, Gianna.
But first she needed to be prepared for what was coming next, good or bad. She understood the risks of this night coming in, the first all-women's pay-per-view card in American history, and the first American pay-per-view fight to be headlined by female fighters in 20 years.
She knew if she won -- which she did, by unanimous decision over Marie-Eve Dicaire -- she would add the IBF and WBA junior middleweight titles to her WBC and WBO belts to become the first fighter in boxing history to be an undisputed champion in two different weight divisions in the four-belt era.
All that was going through her mind, but first -- she danced. A variety of visitors came in-and-out of her locker room. Her pastor spent a few minutes with her. Her friend and fellow fighter Franchon Crews-Dezurn, who fought Shields in their shared professional debut in 2016, came by to say hello and take photos. Her dancers came in. The music only stopped when referee Michael Griffin entered the dressing room to give Shields pre-fight instructions, where she specifically asked about holding and head-butts.
Shields knew the risk she took, not only for herself but for her promoter, Dmitriy Salita, who footed the bill for Friday's pay-per-view, but was not in attendance because the fight was scheduled for the Sabbath. She knew the risk for women's boxing.
She also knew what success could create. If she needed any reminder, all she had to do was look at the blue gothic lettering on the wall meant for the Flint Firebirds, the hockey team usually playing in the Dort Financial Center: Persistence can change failure into extraordinary achievement.
A half-hour earlier, Shields pulled up to the back of the arena in a white passenger van large enough to fit her and her small coterie. Waiting for her was her manager, Mark Taffet, who was also running the television production, along with two security guards and a camera crew working on a documentary on Shields expected to be finished later this year.
Fans milled around the arena -- socially-distanced for now, although that would gradually change throughout the night. Shields walked in, stepped out onto the main floor and looked at the two LED big screens featuring her face opposite Dicaire's.
She barely settled into her locker room when a mini-crisis happened. She'd forgotten tickets at the hotel they had stayed in and needed them for her parents and her pastor. Shields and her publicist Julie Goldsticker sorted the problem out, and Shields set her sights on the next task: "Miss Corey" was trying to find the right spots to sew white WBC and black Everlast patches on her trunks. "Miss Corey" is Corey Taylor, Shields' mentor, whom she met when she was 16. Together they made decisions on where the patches would look best. Then Taylor hand-sewed them on.
Coming back to Flint to fight, where she was born and raised and still lives, had been a goal for Shields since the start of her pro career. It was supposed to happen in 2019 against Ivana Habazin, but an assault on Habazin's trainer, James Ali Bashir, by Shields' older brother, Artis Mack, the day before the fight postponed the bout. It was eventually moved to Atlantic City.
After an extended delay, this was her next fight. Returning to Flint had been important to her. To her family. To her community.
"I'm literally holding back tears tonight," Taylor said.
As Goldsticker handled ticketing and Taylor worked on the trunks, Shields and her coach, John David Jackson, went over strategy. They wanted to focus on the jab and consistently working at Dicaire's body early in the fight.
From there, things happened in quick succession in her locker room. Various representatives from the belt-holding organizations stopped by to talk. Her ring walk dancers showed up. Her cutman, Glenn "Doc" Gilbert, checked in. They had worked together before, but Shields says she's rarely needed him. Maybe he put ice on her face once, she said.
She briefly left the locker room to meet with family in the crowd, and security guards kept people from trying to take photos with her or get her autograph. Camera phones still went up and the socially-distanced crowd followed her every move.
Then she returned to her dressing room. The dance party was about to begin.
While Shields prepared, the undercard got underway.
All of the fighters on this card ended up here, in part, due to the allure of Shields and the idea of being part of an all-women's pay-per-view.
Marlen Esparza, a former Olympic teammate of Shields, had complete control of her bantamweight fight she used as a tune-up for a potential flyweight title fight later this year. Jamie Mitchell, also fighting at bantamweight, scored the only knockout of the night. Danielle Perkins, in her third pro fight, won the WBC's silver heavyweight title.
"In the back of my head it did feel different," Esparza said. "I knew there was something different, but it was still just the fight. I was still just worried about the boxing, but I could feel the atmosphere was just a little bit different than usual."
After Mitchell knocked out her opponent and Perkins won a title, they both thanked Shields during their in-ring, post-fight interviews. Mitchell and Shelly Barnett, who lost to Esparza, both pulled out of other fights they were training for to get on this card.
They understood the exposure Shields could bring and what the pay-per-view could potentially do.
"It continues to elevate us. It shows we're working just as hard and even harder," said Logan Holler, who was supposed to fight Friday before her bout was scratched due to an opponent's injury. "We deserve the recognition that we're starting to slowly get and the fans are backing us. The fans are here and want to see it. Just like the women's movement that's happening right now in the world, we just have to keep working, keep pushing for what we want."
After spending 25 years as an HBO executive, Taffet used his experience to put the entire show on in conjunction with Salita and Shields. Besides managing Shields and Perkins' careers, he's aiming to be something else.
"The role I want to play," Taffet said, "is CEO of women's boxing."
Friday was a start with Shields' pay-per-view. As Shields stepped onto the main floor, a giant cheer went up inside the small arena that resembled a giant, white-walled warehouse. Phones were held up to record the ring walk, and Shields took her time. This was her moment.
"It meant everything to be on pay-per-view," Shields said. "Like never in a million years growing up here in Flint where I was poor; we didn't have lights sometimes; we didn't have water; we didn't have food.
"To see that young Black girl could turn out to be who I am. Sometimes it's mind-boggling to me."
She never dreamed of this. At first, her plan was to win gold in the Olympics. Then, it was to do it again. When she turned pro, it was to fight on television. Now she's made boxing history and headlined a pay-per-view.
Leaning back in a folding chair as part of a post-fight press conference, and wearing her green WBC belt and the robe honoring Boseman, Shields covered everything from the significance of her win over Dicaire to fighting in her hometown to the pay-per-view to her next venture, MMA with the Professional Fighters League in June.
She also talked about her next steps in boxing and the possibility of again moving up or down weight classes. What challenges she'd be up for, included fighting three-minute rounds as a way to continue a push toward equality.
"I think women's boxing can grow from this and learn from this and just continue," Shields said. "If we want to be known in boxing and want boxing to survive in women's boxing, we've got to take charge and what we did tonight was take charge with Danielle Perkins, Marlen Esparza, myself, Marie-Eve Dicaire, we all played a huge part tonight.
"Everybody who bought the pay-per-view, whether you like me, dislike me, whatever, you still played a part in helping women's boxing become equal. And that's all that really matters."
They won't know the financial reality of the fight for a few days. How many people bought the card. What the revenue will look like. Those things will all matter -- although Shields stressed whatever the number is, big or small, it's just the beginning.
"To her, the principle was worth more than the money. The principle was her value," Taffet said. "She said to me, 'Mark, if I get in the ring and we fight, it's mission accomplished and we did our goal. People are going to notice.'
"And you know what, over the next year, in the next year, people are going to be knocking on the door and asking and begging for her to come back and fight on their networks. What we proved tonight is we have an independent way to go."
The fallout from Friday night will play out in the weeks and months to come. But back in her dressing room after the fight, the testing and the press, Shields seemed tired. It was a long day. A long night. A long month. A long year.
She was told how other fighters thanked her for putting on the card. How critical it was to them that she took the chance she did for the exposure they received. It was part of why she did this. Shields made that message clear from the beginning.
"I knew it was important," Shields said as she laced up her white sneakers to get ready to go home. "That's why we made it all women, you know."
A risk, despite the question of money, she believes was worth taking.