Boxer Claressa Shields could be Olympic teen star

Updated: February 17, 2012, 6:11 PM ET
Associated Press

AIRWAY HEIGHTS, Wash. -- Claressa Shields sullenly stood against the wall, sticking out her lower lip and hanging her head. When asked what was bugging her, she gave monosyllabic answers and fiddled with the white tape on her fists.

"Cheer up! Come on, let's go!" said Jason Crutchfield, her coach and trainer. "This is the Olympic trials! You won! You're fighting in the finals! You get a day off! Cheer up!"

Under his breath moments later, Crutchfield offered commentary: "Teenagers, man."

Shields is the sensation of the first U.S. women's boxing team trials, tearing up the middleweight division with three straight victories. The youngest boxer in the field, with less than a year of big-time experience, is one fight away from a trip to China for the world championships and a shot at Olympic qualification in May.

The Flint, Mich., product is also staying up too late on her phone, talking trash with rivals at fast-food restaurants, and pouting because the judges' scores weren't one-sided enough in her latest win.

You know, generally behaving like a 16-year-old.

"She gets real emotional," Crutchfield said. "If she doesn't perform well, she's down in the dumps. She gets mad about other stuff. It's been hell for me, but I think she's going to be all right."

Shields moved to the brink of the world championships with a 23-15 victory Thursday night over Tika Hemingway, a physical Pittsburgh fighter who probably is Shields' toughest remaining obstacle in the double-elimination tournament.

There's also a juicy, high-school-style subplot: Crutchfield suspected Shields and Hemingway talked a little smack at a restaurant outside Spokane earlier in the week. Shields denied it, but she also didn't hide her disappointment when the final score didn't send a bigger message.

"She's just going to act like she gave me a hard fight," Shields said. "I wanted to stop her."

Shields, who turns 17 on St. Patrick's Day, could win the trials Saturday night. If she finishes in the top eight in China to earn an Olympic berth, she'll be the latest teen sensation hoping to capture the nation's attention at the Olympics.

This is no Mary Lou Retton, however.

She's a 165-pound dynamo with vicious power, impressive speed and a quick sense of humor paired with a chip on her shoulder. She claimed her first two opponents -- a five-time national champion and a former world champion -- were "bums," and she's still frustrated she hasn't been able to stop anybody this week, a rare achievement in top-level amateur boxing.

"We'll see a better person Saturday with a lot better attitude," Crutchfield said. "She's a great kid."

Crutchfield, a genial ex-pro fighter with a wide collection of eye-catching hats, has been on a five-year "roller-coaster ride" with the fighter he affectionately calls "Ress."

Shields' father escorted her to the famed Berston Field House in Flint five years ago, hoping to keep his daughter off the path that landed him in prison. Tired of basketball, she became interested in boxing from her father's stories about Laila Ali's prowess -- and she already knew she could fight after occasionally beating up troublesome boys at school.

Crutchfield didn't immediately embrace coaching women. He figured he would coach a champion someday, but never expected it to be a teenage girl.

"My God, you've got to deal with the boys, you've got to deal with the ups and downs," Crutchfield said. "It's been hell for me. It has."

He acknowledges testing her toughness in odd ways, too. He recalls a workout in which a male fighter backed her into a corner of the ring and rained down punches on her while Crutchfield yelled, "She's a girl! She's a girl!"

Shields fought her way out of the corner with authority, answering his taunt with, "I'm a man! I'm a man!"

While growing 4 inches to her current 5-foot-10 in the past year, Shields emphatically arrived on the amateur scene. At the National PAL Championships last fall, she stunningly won the middleweight competition and was named the top overall fighter in her first open-division tournament.

Shields drew national champion Franchon Crews for her opening fight at the trials, but dominated her opening bout. She beat fellow Michigan fighter Andrecia Wasson, a former world champion welterweight, before taking care of Hemingway, who tried desperately to use her larger frame to disrupt Shields' flow.

It worked at times -- but it didn't matter against Shields' skill and power.

"She didn't get in my head at all," Shields said. "She's coming out there and trying to be strong. She knows that she's naturally bigger than me. She's got her woman's strength, but I don't think she really has a game plan to go out there and beat me."

But just when Shields was feeling a bit better about her win, Crutchfield started picking apart their entire plan. He playfully wondered whether Shields was up all night talking on her cell phone, a charge Shields angrily denied. He also suggested a 90-minute workout on their off day wasn't enough to keep her sharp, and Shields rolled her eyes.

After more of this entertaining banter, Shields makes an abrupt move for the locker room -- but Crutchfield calls her back.

"Don't you go nowhere!" Crutchfield said with half a grin. "Come on! Cheer up! Say you love boxing!"

Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press

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