By BERNARD FERNANDEZ
Some TSS readers (hey, you know who you are) are enthused about the recent uptick of interest in women’s boxing. Others (you know who you are as well) believe any such resurgence of popularity is not only a waste of traditional fight fans’ time, but an abomination of the sport placed upon the altar of political correctness.
Whether the current climate is indeed reminiscent of the 1990s to early 2000s, when female stars like Christy Martin, Lucia Rijker, Laila Ali, Jacqui Frazier-Lyde, Ann Wolfe and Mia St. John commanded a level of public attention not matched before or since, is yet to be fully determined. But there are indications that two-time U.S. Olympic gold medalist Claressa Shields is the poster girl for change, leading a mini-revolution that includes the growing popularity of Heather “The Heat” Hardy in her home borough of Brooklyn, N.Y., and the high European profile of Norway’s Cecilia Braekhus, who some have depicted as an updated version of Rijker, the distaff “Dutch Destroyer.”
The 21-year-old Shields (pictured), who has yet to turn pro, is being courted by a variety of promoters who envision her as a welcome addition to their fight cards, maybe even someone capable of eventually headlining select events. The Flint, Mich., native seemingly has it all: boxing ability, better-than-decent power and a back story that is so compelling it already has been the subject of an ESPN profile and will be examined further in a movie project depicting her horrific childhood as well as her ring successes. Beginning at age five she was a victim of serial sexual abuse from “male acquaintances,” in addition to living in 11 foster homes in 12 years as the broken product of a broken system.
Shields is 78-1 as an amateur and is so confident in her abilities she is convinced she will come to be recognized not only as the best women’s boxer of her era, but one of the best of any era, or either gender.
After she clearly outpointed the Netherlands’ Nouchka Fontijn to take repeat gold at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics, Shields said she “wanted to let it be known that I’m not just one of the great female boxers, but one of the greatest boxers who ever lived.”
There is one potential problem, and it’s fairly significant: a dearth of quality women fighters in the 165-to-168-pound range, which could make the 5-foot-9 Shields the queen of a mostly unpopulated island. “She could walk out of the amateurs today and probably win a world title tomorrow,” said Thomas Gerbasi, one of two boxing journalists (the other is TSS’ own David Avila) knowledgeable of the women’s side of things contacted for this story. “She doesn’t have that dream dance partner yet.”
Which got me to thinking. Since it is regular grist for the boxing-debate mill to compare fighters from different eras in prime-on-prime matchups, which female fighter might have been Shields’ dream dance partner if such pairings could actually be made?
Two names immediately were mentioned by both Gerbasi and Avila: Laila Ali, daughter of “The Greatest,” Muhammad Ali, who was 24-0 with 21 wins inside the distance in a career that spanned from 1999 to 2007, and Ann Wolfe, maybe the hardest-punching and most badass woman ever to lace up a pair of gloves, going 24-1 with 16 KOs from 1998 to 2006. “Brown Sugar’s” one-punch devastation of former University of Tennessee basketball star Vonda Ward remains the gold standard for sleep-inducing hits authored by a fighter with two Y chromosomes.
Ali is of particular interest to me since I have been credited (or blamed, depending on one’s point of view) with helping to make the most-anticipated women’s bout ever, the Feb. 6, 2000, clash of celebrity daughters in which Laila, then 23, scored an eight-round majority decision over 39-year-old Jacqui Frazier-Lyde, whose father was Joe Frazier. After I was part of a curious media horde that covered Laila’s pro debut, a one-round blowout of a totally inept Denny’s waitress named April Fowler, I called Frazier-Lyde, an attorney and mother of three, to get her opinion of Ali’s youngest daughter entering her daddy’s profession.
“I’d kick her ass,” responded Frazier-Lyde, who decided a few days later to go into training in an attempt to do just that. Each woman – Laila went into this rekindling of their families’ feud at 9-0, with eight KOs, to Jacqui’s 7-0, and seven KOs — received a then-record $250,000 when they finally did mix it up at the Turning Stone Casino Resort in Verona, N.Y. Although some skeptics beforehand had depicted the fight as a travesty and a freak show, it actually turned out to be entertaining evidence that these ladies were indeed the progeny of their legendary fathers.
“Both women showed grit and determination,” said veteran fight analyst Al Bernstein, who conducted the post-fight interviews. “They are in the embryonic states of their boxing careers, sure, but they gave it everything they had and you can’t ask for much more than that. They’re obviously their fathers’ daughters.”
By the time she finally called it quits, the progression made by Laila was such that she was No. 1 on the women’s pound-for-pound lists of several informed observers, although she never did share the ring with her contemporary, Wolfe, in what surely would have been as big or bigger than Ali vs Frazier-Lyde had been.
But that was then, and this is now. So how about it, guys? Who gets the nod were Shields to get it on with the best of Laila?
“I think Claressa, if she fought any super middleweight right now, she would definitely win,” Avila said. “I don’t think there’s anyone who could stand in her way.
“But Laila Ali … by the time she was finished, she was pretty polished. She was strong, she was fast and she could take a punch like her dad. That would be a very good fight, a very even fight. To me, Claressa’s a lot like Ann Wolfe. She has the same very aggressive style. She’s maybe not as hard of a puncher as Ann Wolfe, but in a lot of ways they’re very similar.
“But, if I have to pick, I think Laila would beat Claressa. Laila was a lot better than people realize. She could do everything. She knew boxing inside out, but, to me, she was still underrated because of her name. She probably wasn’t taken as seriously as she might have been because of that.”
“If it could have happened, Laila-Claressa would be the female version of (Muhammad) Ali-(Joe) Frazier, more so than Laila and Jacqui,” he offered. “But I think that Laila would be too polished for Claressa, at least at this point of Claressa’s career. Claressa’s still a bit raw to beat an in-her-prime Laila.
“Claressa can knock people out, but she doesn’t have that make-your-body-shudder power that Ann Wolfe had. That’s why the fight that didn’t happen between Laila and Ann would have been so intriguing. Laila had a good chin, but she never really had to test it against anybody, and especially against anyone like Ann Wolfe.”
Gerbasi believes that being Muhammad Ali’s daughter might have been as much or more a burden for Laila as a benefit.
“The Ali name definitely gave her a stigma that she was just a marketing project, that she got to wherever she did because she was protected and didn’t have to fight the best opponents that were out there,” he continued. “But when she retired, the only fight that should have happened to her and didn’t was the one with Ann Wolfe. But a lot of people, including myself, think she would have beaten Wolfe. When Laila retired, she probably was the best female fighter in the world, pound-for-pound.
“People said, `Oh, she’s Muhammad Ali’s daughter. That’s why she’s on TV, that’s why she gets endorsements.’ And it probably was true. But the beauty of the sport is when you’re in the ring, you have to fight. I don’t care who are. Laila proved she could really fight.”
So how about it, TSS Nation? Where do respondents come down on Laila vs. Claressa, or Laila vs. Wolfe for that matter? And is Claressa Shields the pied piper to lead women’s boxing back into the kind of visibility it enjoyed 15 or 20 years ago?