The best boxing prospects from the 2016 Rio Olympics: Claressa Shields

Claresa Shields is now a two-time Olympic gold medalist. A major motion picture based on her life story is in the works. And she’s still just 21-years-old.

Victory in Rio made Shields the first U.S. boxer to ever win back-to-back gold medals.  She was 17 when she she cruised to the London podium, and the path to her second middleweight (165 lb / 75 kg) gold looked even easier than the first.

Shields trounced Nouchka Fontijn of the Netherlands 3-0 in the final, three months after defeating the same opponent to win her second consecutive World Championship. She also became the first woman to win the Val Barker trophy for best boxer at the Olympics.

Maybe I’ll go pro and I’ll come back and still fight in 2020 and 2024.

Shields leaves the Games with a record of 77-1, and remains the only gold medalist from the USA since Andre Ward in 2004. Her only loss came in 2012, at the Women’s World Championships in China, to eventual gold medalist Savannah Marshall of England.

While her technical skills are impressive, it’s her physical abilities that make her so dominant. None of her rivals can match her speed or her power.

Shields had a troubled youth that was traumatic even by the standards of a sport that’s built on them. While her father was in prison during seven of her first nine years, Shields was sexually abused by three of her alcoholic mother’s boyfriends.

Gold at London 2012 didn’t bring an end to her problems. The expected endorsement deals  failed to materialise, and Shields’ attempts to start her own family met a painful end. A cousin of Shields had fallen pregnant. With two kids already, she felt unable to provide for a third, and was considering an abortion. Shields convinced her cousin to keep the baby and let her adopt the child. But months later, her cousin changed her mind. She accused Shields of kidnap, and the baby was returned to her birth-mother.

Things have gotten better for Shields since then. Her relationship with her parents is repaired, and Universal Pictures have acquired the rights to produce a feature film about her life. After the Olympics, the Michigan native plans to leave her Flint hometown for for Florida.

Last October, Shields told USA TODAY that she hopes to sign a professional contract “with Al Haymon or Golden Boy” and fight on HBO and Showtime. But earnings for female boxers remain comparatively meager, and mainstream broadcasters have shown little interest in their sport. Showtime hasn’t televised a women’s boxing bout since 2001, and HBO never has.

At Rio, she was unsure about her next move. “It depends on the opportunities that come here,” she told the Detroit Free Press after advancing to the final. “If they allow professional women to come back and fight in the Olympics, maybe I’ll go pro and I’ll come back and still fight in 2020 and 2024. But it depends.”

The phenomenal success of Ronda Rousey in the UFC proves there’s a huge potential audience for women’s combat sports. Shields could be the first crossover star for women’s boxing. Or she could become the greatest Olympic boxer of all time.

Amateur boxing hasn’t made Shields rich. She took home a $25,000 gold medal bonus from Rio, and is currently paid about $5,000 a month by USA Boxing. But it offers a financial stability that professional boxing can’t promise. At 21, the Olympic records could prove more tempting than the professional prospects.

Previous: Joshua Buatsi | Next: Julio César La Cruz

 

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