By Arne K. Lang
All told, nineteen U.S. boxers competed in the 2012 and 2016 Olympic Games. Only one brought home a gold medal. That would be Claressa Shields. She actually grabbed two, winning the middleweight competition in London at the age of 17 and then winning the coveted medal again this summer in Rio. She is the first U.S. boxer to win the gold in two different Olympiads.
Shields hails from Flint, Michigan. Once an automobile manufacturing powerhouse – Flint is the original home of General Motors – the Michigan City has fallen on hard times. Roughly a quarter of the population lives below the poverty line. The crime rate is seven times the national average.
Shields had a tough upbringing in this hardscrabble city and that’s putting it mildly. When she was two years old, her father was sent to prison on a breaking and entering charge. A repeat offender, he served seven years. Her mother, who dealt with drug problems, bounced from one address to another and from one boyfriend to another. Shields remembers that as a young girl there were times when there was no food in the house. Moreover, she was sexually molested by several of her mother’s male acquaintances.
Escaping this environment wasn’t easy, but Shields succeeded and, pardon the cliché, has become a role model. Her rocky road to her first Olympic triumph was captured in a low-budget documentary and now Universal Pictures plans to take her story to the big screen in a full-length feature film.
It was almost inevitable that Claressa’s story would pique the interest of a major Hollywood studio. So-called underdog movies where the hero or heroine overcomes great odds are a Hollywood staple. And, unfortunately, underdog movies, in the main, are banal, suffering from a paint-by-the-numbers plot.
The Claressa Shields biopic, however, has the scent of a very good movie. This impression stems from the news that Barry Jenkins has signed on to write the screenplay.
You probably haven’t heard of Barry Jenkins. He doesn’t have a Wikipedia page. But if you are the sort that reads movie reviews you will be reading a lot about him in the coming days and weeks. Jenkins’ second feature film, “Moonlight,” opened this weekend at theaters nationwide. The film knocked the socks off viewers at the Telluride and Toronto film festivals, attracting so much buzz that it unofficially ushered in the Oscar season, a “season” that rarely gets going before Thanksgiving. A 2003 Florida State University graduate, Jenkins may not win the Oscar for Best Director, but it will be a major surprise if he isn’t among the nominees.
Loosely adapted from a play by Tarell McCraney, “Moonlight” is a poignant coming of age movie with a twist. The setting is the overwhelmingly black and impoverished Liberty City neighborhood of Miami. Jenkins knows the turf. He was raised here by a mother addicted to crack cocaine. If anyone has the empathy and acumen to lift the Claressa Shields story into something more than a formulaic, feel-good movie, it would seem to be this guy.
The movie, which as yet has no working title, is bound to boost the boxing career of Claressa Shields, but there’s a potential roadblock in the mere fact that she’s a middleweight. Virtually all of the noteworthy female boxers compete in lower weight classes. In fact, the middleweight division is so thin that Dee Williams, who formulates computer rankings for the Women Boxing Archive Network, isn’t able to flesh out a full “top ten” list. In the words of Bernard Fernandez, the 5’9” Shields (who is a big middleweight; the amateur limit is 165 pounds) is “the queen of a mostly unpopulated island.”
A larger question is whether the hubbub surrounding Shields will elevate female boxing into a mainstream sport.
We have been down this road before.
In March of 1996, Christy Martin overcame a badly bloodied nose to overcome talented Deirdre Gogarty in a rousing 6-round bout on the TV portion of the Tyson-Bruno PPV card at the MGM Grand. That led to a cover story in Sports Illustrated which, in turn, led to a slew of appearances on TV talk shows. She was even profiled on “60 Minutes,” America’s top-rated TV show.
The mania surrounding Martin suggested that female boxing was about to cross the threshold into a mainstream sport. There was a bump, but it wasn’t sustainable.
When “Million Dollar Baby” became a critical and commercial success, there was more talk that female boxing was on the cusp of a great surge. The 2004 movie, based on a short story by LA cutman Jerry Boyd (aka F.X. Toole), was nominated for seven Academy Awards and won four: Best Picture, Best Director (Clint Eastwood), Best Actress (Hillary Swank), and Best Supporting Actor (Morgan Freeman).
Bob Arum seized the moment, inking Christy Martin and Lucia Rijker to a match he billed as “Million Dollar Lady.” Each was guaranteed $250,000 with a $1 million dollar bonus going to the winner.
The match fell out when Rijker, who had a bit part in “Million Dollar Baby,” suffered a torn Achilles tendon. At that point, advance sales were so weak that there was speculation that the injury was bogus; that Arum purchased Rijker’s cooperation in a charade that served as an escape hatch. The match, which was never rekindled, never resonated with hardcore fans. Christy Martin was very good but Lucia Rijker, the Dutch Destroyer, was in a league of her own.
Proponents of female boxing would argue with some justification that cynics have a shallow view of a global sport. While female boxing has been slow to gain traction in the United States, it has made great gains elsewhere, in particular Mexico, Argentina, Germany, and Scandinavia. The Sept.10 match in Stockholm between Mikaela Lauren and Klara Svensson was a hot ticket in Sweden. The Oct. 1 match in Oslo between Cecilia Braekhus and Anne Sophie Mathis was a big news story in Norway.
As for Claressa Shields, it’s too soon to speculate how her boxing career will unfold, but our hazy crystal ball sees her competing in the 2020 Summer Olympics (turning pro won’t preclude that) where she will join amateur boxing immortals Laszlo Papp, Teofilo Stevenson, and Felix Savon as the only three-time Olympic gold medalists.
If this prediction holds up, female boxing worldwide in 2020 will invariably be far more “mainstream” than it is today.