Claressa Shields headlining on ShoBox is a boon for boxing

Claressa Shields, America’s only ever two-time Olympic gold medalist in boxing, is now eyeing professional stardom and will encouragingly headline a ShoBox card on March 10 in Detroit, Michigan.

For those who, for whatever perplexing reason, aren’t already on board, it’s time to get used to Claressa Shields (1-0) setting new benchmarks in boxing. With the news that Shields will fight Hungarian Szilvia Szabados (15-8, 6 KOs) for the NABF middleweight title in the main event of a ShoBox card, the prodigious American will become the first woman to headline on premium cable.

What’s even more remarkable is that Shields will only be contesting her second professional bout, and her opponent, the experienced Szabados, is a former world title challenger. But don’t think for a nanosecond that Shields will be out of her depth; her first pro fight, after all, came against amateur stalwart and rival Franchon Crews.

Shields’ amateur credentials are remarkable to the point of bordering on unbelievable: a 77-1 overall record, two World Amateur titles, Pan American Games gold and the aforementioned double Olympic triumph. And at this rate, Shields, assuming she continues winning, will be a world champion in fewer than five fights. Oh, and she’s only 21.

Sports fans are always searching for generational talents, which means that it’s time for boxing’s beleaguered supporters to collectively pause and consider what they have in Claressa Shields. What we are witnessing now — and are already in the midst of, to be perfectly honest — is something historic — something that could (and will likely) be looked back on as a watershed moment in women’s boxing.

It’s no secret that female boxers are left to languish as second class citizens in a sport known, at this point, as much for its blatant exploitation of fighters as the quality of its world champions. Perpetually in need of redemptive narratives, boxing has miraculously stumbled upon one in Shields. The question, up until now, had been whether the embattled sport would give her a fair shot.

The decision to allow Shields to headline a ShoBox card finally shows a keen understanding that fight fans are a discerning lot. To wait for Shields to miraculously become “big enough” to ascend to such a stage is the kind of magical thinking that has led to maddening inertia when it comes to promoting women’s boxing. The formula is simple: find the best female fighters and shine the spotlight on them.

Those who were able to watch the unfortunately buried Claressa Shields-Franchon Crews fight will understand this sentiment. Although Shields and Crews were making their pro debuts, they waged a hellacious, skillful battle that packed in far more compelling action than the litany of Prospect vs. Tomato Can mismatches that bookended it.

As Yahoo! Sports’ Kevin lole’s above-cited report also indicates, Shields and her team have begun preliminary discussions with WBC/WBO middleweight champion Christina Hammer (20-0, 9 KOs), which could easily sell out a large stadium in Germany if the United States is still waffling on the “issue” of women’s boxing by then.

With fighters like Hammer and pound-for-pound boss Cecilia Braekhus (29-0, 8 KOs) enjoying rabid followings across the Atlantic, it’s time for America to back Claressa Shields in a manner worthy of her immense talent — or risk driving her away. Holly Holm serves as a stark cautionary tale in this regard. A gifted, elite boxer who strived for the recognition she deserved, Holm was ultimately discarded by a sport stuck in the Stone Age. And it’s this harsh reality, coupled with Holm’s popularity in the UFC, that ought to serve shameful notice to boxing’s power brokers.

There are encouraging Stateside signs, with the likes of Heather Hardy (18-0, 4 KOs) gaining traction and promoter Lou DiBella serving as a voice of reason and progress — not to mention the brass at Showtime, who also recently televised the Amanda Serrano-Yazmin Rivas title fight. It seems, then, that Claressa Shields’ professional career could not have started at a more critical juncture.

But as great as Shields is, or could become, she can only be a catalyst. The serious challenge will be to use her stardom and potential as a starting point to invest more broadly in women’s boxing. This includes nurturing the talented amateurs vying for Olympic team spots, turning them pro with promotional backing, and giving them consistent slots on important fight cards. Claressa Shields and the generation inspired by her could change boxing. Can the sport keep up?

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