Colbert knows what rates. He had Claressa Shields on Sept. 25. But to be real, there probably should have been more of a hubbub surrounding Shields' gold medal, and her skills. She deserves better, and more.
It’s Saturday night, and not just any. Tonight is fight night at the McCarson household. My wife and I have the popcorn and drinks ready, and we’re sitting on the couch. We’re watching Andre Ward fight Chad Dawson on HBO. It’s one of the biggest fights of the year, and it’s on regular HBO, not PPV.
All is right in the boxing world.
During the telecast, HBO analyst Max Kellerman says something I agree with. He says Andre Ward is the last American boxer to win a gold medal.
But Max and I are wrong.
My wife turns to me with a look of almost-horror on her face. I wonder if I’ve spilled something on the couch or said something stupid, but no, it’s what Max said.
“What about Claressa?” she says. And she’s right. What about Claressa?
I see from Twitter that Claressa is thinking the same exact thing. I don’t know Kellerman personally, but having been around him a few times at fights, I know enough to think he didn’t mean it that way. Kellerman is the type of guy who talks and takes pictures with fans for as long as they want him to be there. He smiles and seems genuinely interested in what people have to say to him when they talk, and he doesn’t hurry off when he’s approached by someone. He makes eye contact, smiles and chats it up with them like it matters, because he knows it does.
He’s just made a mistake.
The two connect and Max apologizes to her. He says it’s his mistake, congratulates her and tells her she’s made everyone proud. The only problem is that he says this to her via Twitter where only a few people can see, and what he said on HBO that night was to millions of fight fans who might not have been sitting next to someone like my wife to let them know he’s wrong – we’re wrong.
Max and I are wrong because we operate under that same stodgy old paradigm that’s been in place for years: it’s had its moments, but for the most part, women’s boxing is just a sideshow.
Life Goes On
Honestly, I never really think about the series of events again until I’m talking to Claressa this week. I set up an interview with her publicist and make the call. She answers herself, probably tired after a long day from being at school. She’s a senior at Flint Northwestern High School in Michigan, just a kid really. Over the summer, she carried on her shoulders the hopes and dreams of women everywhere, but now she’s back to carrying normal things like school books.
For some reason, I’m nervous talking to her.
I ask Claressa what it’s like being an Olympic champion. I’ve talked to all sorts of fighters and sports figures before, but never a reigning gold medalist and most certainly not one as important as her.
“When you first win the gold medal, it’s so special,” she tells me. “It was my dream for so many years, and now I’ve accomplished my dream.”
It’s always nice to hear stories like this, so I’m genuinely excited to listen to it firsthand. But then she continues.
“Then, for like a week or so, I was like ‘what’s next’?” she says. “You know, after having the same dream so many times and then one day you lay down and you have the same dream but you wake up and you’ve got the gold medal wrapped around you, you get to thinking…why I am still having that dream? I already made it a reality, you know?”
It is at this point I start to think about Kellerman and that look on my wife’s face. Claressa keeps talking.
“I’ll definitely continue boxing,” she says. “The Olympics were just the first step. I still feel like I need to get my recognition. You know? I felt like I would get more recognition because I’m seventeen and I won the gold medal, but I didn’t.”
The knife begins to go in, but I don’t really feel it yet.
“It just seems like a women’s gold medal isn’t as valuable as a man’s gold medal. I don’t know…”
It is at this point that it hits me. We’ve failed her. I’ve failed her. Max has failed her. We. Have. All. Failed. Her.
Claressa comes from some rough stuff. She’s endured it, and she’s come out a better person for it. She’s only seventeen, but she’s wise in the way people who have to crawl from the bottom to the top are, and besides, nobody with the nickname “T-Rex” let’s little things like recognition get them down. If she did, she would’ve never started boxing in the first place.
Claressa’s father, Clarence Shields, was an amateur fighter nicknamed "Cannonball" because of his fast, hard punches. When Claressa first asked her dad if she could learn to box, he told her boxing was a man’s sport. Max and I would have probably told her the same thing; I know I probably would have. But Claressa kept at it anyway until, at eleven years old, her father finally gave in to her, thinking she’d surely get beat up and quit.
“I’m not really the type of person to think ‘oh I wish I had this, oh I wish I had that’”, she says. “I just accept what I have and just make the best out of it.”
Claressa is a fighter.
A Real Boxer
Claressa is old school tough. She watches fight films of the greats and she emulates them. She considers herself a mash-up of Joe Louis and Ray Robinson. She tells me during one of her first matches in London, she heard someone compare her to Sylvester Stallone’s fictional movie character, Rocky Balboa.
This offends her.
“Someone called me Rocky Balboa!” she says. “In my first fight at the Olympics, I was throwing a lot of punches…I was like…that’s an insult! He’s not even a real boxer. I was like NO, I do not box like him!”
Claressa tells me that in her first fight, her opponent’s strategy forced her to throw wider punches than normal. She says she knew she could land her hook, but in the first couple rounds she was missing by a few inches here and there, so she just kept throwing it. In the rest of her fights, she says she got back to what she does best.
“I was throwing wide punches [in that fight] but the next day, I was throwing sharp punches which is how I usually box,” she says. “I make them miss, and then I make them pay! That’s when you can see how much skill I have.”
Claressa says she looks up to the old school fighters and this doesn’t surprise me. She says she watches tapes of her idols, Joe Louis and Ray Robinson, the most, and that she has The Brown Bomber’s powerful left hook and a sweet, straight right like Sugar’s.
I tell her I’ve heard her compared to Marvin Hagler, and she laughs almost giddily and says what anyone would say to something like that.
“He was pretty good, too!”
A Brave New World
There has never been a Claressa Shields before. She’s new territory in boxing. Sure, we’ve had women boxers before, but we’ve never had a seventeen-year-old gold medalist who grows up immersed in the sport’s amateur ranks like she’s been. We’ve not had a girl who watches black and white film of the best fighters ever and then puts what she sees to use.
Claressa didn’t have someone like her to look up to, either. No one did. I ask her if she truly understands who and what she is, and what she’ll forever be to every girl who ever grows up in the United States wanting to be a boxer.
“It’s very special to be looked at as an inspiration,” she says, but she says it in a way that doesn’t give me the impression we’ve helped her understand how important she really is. This is where Max and I (and you) come back in.
You see, boxing is for everyone, and it’s at its very best when it combines the truth of tough, gritty and skilled competition with the mythologizing poetry of storytelling. It’s not that we make them to be more than they really are, rather we describe them in the most honest way we can. Gods of War, as Springs Toledo calls them, the best of the very best.
Claressa deserves to be part of that.
Her narrative is one of newness and hope. It’s something rare and unbelievable. It’s different. It’s special.She’s a pioneer of a sport that’s been around for centuries. She’s Amelia Earhart. She’s Jackie Robinson. She’s Billy Jean King. She’s Jack Johnson.
What about Claressa? Let’s give her the credit she’s due. She deserves it. It’s says something about us, the boxing community, that she hasn’t gotten it, and it’s something I don’t like. Let’s be better than that. Let’s rally around Claressa and all the other women who want to be treated as real fighters. Let’s make Claressa the show, not the sideshow. Let’s demand Golden Boy Promotions, Top Rank and Main Events start beating down her door to sign her the way they would’ve a man. Let’s demand Everlast and Grant to fight each other for her endorsement. I want her on the cover of Ring Magazine. I want Monday columns from BWAA members about her. Dan Rafael should be buddying up to her on Twitter, and Jim Lampley should be prepping for his extensive interview with her on HBO’s next installment of “The Fight Game.”
Boxing should take care of its own.
For now, Claressa has no idea what she’ll do next. She says she’s already back in the gym training, and that she’s already got a fight lined up next week in a PAL tournament. She’s a fighter, she says. It’s what she does.
“So I’ve been thinking about the next Olympics,” she tells me. “If I get two gold medals, there’s no way they cannot give [the recognition] to me then, right?”
I am not sure I know the answer to her question, and my heart breaks because of it. So should yours.