First she conquered boxing. MMA is next

- Josh Peter

Claressa Shields is arguably the best women’s boxer of all time. Now, in pursuit of elusive paydays, she makes her MMA debut.

ALBUQUERQU­E, N.M. – Claressa Shields has a million-dollar smile but a bank account worth far less, even though she’s arguably the best women’s boxer of all time.

She has won two Olympic gold medals, world titles in three weight classes and, with a pro record of 11-0, is the undisputed junior middleweig­ht champion and unified middleweig­ht champion. Yet Shields, 26, said she has never been paid more than $350,000 for a fight – a pittance compared to what the top male boxers command.

“Where is my $1 million at?” Shields said during an interview with USA TODAY Sports. “Where is my big mansion and my nice cars at? Guys who haven’t done as much as me have more than me, and I had two Olympic gold medals even before I turned profession­al. They have zero.

“So it’s like, I could be a 20-time world champ in boxing and I would still be in the same position.”

So she traveled here.

In pursuit of the paydays that have eluded her, Shields has been preparing for her MMA debut on Thursday. ESPN2 will televise the bout (10 ET), which was arranged by the Profession­al Fighters League (PFL) and will take place in Atlantic City, New Jersey.

Training at Jackson Wink Academy, home to UFC light heavyweigh­t champion Jon Jones and former UFC champions Holly Holm and Georges St-Pierre, Shields has gotten some of the best MMA instructio­n available. Along with a taste of MMA brutality.

During a recent workout inside an octagon cage, Shields got kicked in the head by one sparring partner and headbutted by another. She inspected a knot on her forehead after the workout and gingerly rubbed it.

But apparently she has left her mark on her sparring partners, too.

“All for breakfast, I eat knuckle sandwiches,” said Kayla Yontef, a 23year-old fighter who has been working with Shields since late December. “Lunch, knuckle sandwiches. Dinner, knuckle sandwiches.

“More than anything else, I think what sets her apart is just that warrior’s spirit.”

The G.W.O.A.T

A few hours after suffering the head-butt, Shields explained how unlikely all this would have seemed in 2016. That year, after winning her second gold medal in back-to-back Olympics, Shields met UFC star Jon Jones.

“He was like, ‘You’d be the perfect boxer to come in MMA,’ ” Shields recalled. “I was like, ‘You’re crazy. Never will I, ever.’ He was like, ‘Me and my

team would love to work with you if you ever considered MMA.’ I was like, ‘Dude, it’s not going to happen.’ ”

Now it’s happening in unpreceden­ted fashion.

Over the past six months, she has been training for MMA, with the occasional break. In March, for example, Shields became the first two-division, undisputed champion in boxing’s fourbelt era. She did it with a unanimous decision against Marie-Eve Dicaire, who entered the fight 17-0.

Now, three months later, Shields will make her MMA debut against Brittney Elkin, who has an underwhelm­ing record of 3-6 but is a brown belt in jiujitsu.

Win or lose, it will be back to work for Shields, the self-anointed G.W.O.A.T. (Greatest Woman Of All Time). Her second MMA fight is scheduled for August, and she is expected to box at least once before the end of the year.

“I should be able to get inside the MMA cage and beat these girls, and then I should be able to box and continue to beat those girls,” Shields said. “Because I’m the Greatest Woman Of All Time. Is there any other woman that can do that? I don’t think so.”

Greg Jackson, who is one of Shields’ MMA coaches and has trained Jones, Holm and St-Pierre, marveled at his new prized pupil.

“To do what she’s doing is unpreceden­ted,” Jackson said. “To have a boxer who’s had zero jiujitsu, zero wrestling, nothing, just boxing, and to step in at this level this quickly is crazy.

“That being said, we 100% believe in her. But we’re jumping in with not a lot of time, and the only reason I’m doing it is because she’s so impressive, because she picks things up so quickly, because she trains and tries so hard. I really believe she can do it.”

Why she would take the risk of serious injury and failure stems from her boxing success.

She turned pro after the 2016 Olympics, has won a dozen championsh­ip belts and one day took stock of the rewards for all of her hard work.

“All I had was some belts in my drawer and not $1 million,” Shields said.

She blames the networks that televise fights for failing to pay her what she said she deserves.

But it appears to be more complicate­d than that.

Women’s MMA brings big paydays

Of the four women’s fights among the top 30 all time based on pay-per-view buys, all were MMA contests, according to Those pay-per-view numbers, reflecting fan interest, have made women’s MMA more lucrative than women’s boxing.

While Shields said she’s waiting on $1 million, at least eight female UFC fighters have reached or eclipsed that threshold, according to reports by The Richest and Worthy. Retired star Ronda Rousey tops the list, having earned at least $8 million.

In 2017, when Rousey lost to Amanda Nunes in just 48 seconds, she earned a flat disclosed fee of $3 million, according to MMA Junkie. That same year, Cris Cyborg got a disclosed flat payout of $500,000 for her victory over Holm.

And at UFC 250 in June 2020, Nunes, the reigning bantamweig­ht champion, earned $450,000 for her victory over Felicia Spencer, according to MMA Junkie – almost twice as much as any man who fought on the card earned.

Already, Shields said, her decision to compete in MMA is paying off. The exposure led to a recent endorsemen­t deal with Bose, the company best known for its headphones, and more endorsemen­t deals are in the works, she said.

“MMA has brought so much to my career,” Shields said. “Maybe I should have done this a couple of years ago.”

Jon Jones, Holly Holm share expertise

A year ago, Shields and her manager, Mark Taffett, began to explore the possibilit­y of competing in MMA. So they started talks with the primary MMA organizati­ons, including UFC, Bellator, ONE Championsh­ip and PFL.

Ultimately, Shields signed a threeyear deal with the PFL, which was founded in 2018 and uses a regular-season and postseason format rather than year-round fighting. The PFL pays out $1 million to the champion of each of its weight divisions.

Taffett declined to provide the financial terms of Shields’ contract, but he said it calls for her to fight twice this year, twice in 2022, and in 2023 join the PFL’s regular season, which would make her eligible for the postseason and $1 million payout.

“The other organizati­ons were interested not in an MMA career or a brand with Claressa,” Taffett said. “They were more interested in single fights, onenight spectacles. And we were not interested in that.

“We were interested in developing her talents so she could get to the point where she could be not only the greatest boxer in the world but also the greatest two-sport athlete in history. And we knew that meant that it had to occur over a longer period of time.”

Signing the contract triggered anxiety, Shields said.

“I couldn’t sleep because every time I closed my eyes to go to sleep when I was lying down, I just keep imagining being on the ground getting choked,” she said. “Or I keep imagining myself being on the ground and a girl is punching me and I try to grab her, but I don’t know how to get her off me.”

Soon, Shields connected with Jackson Wink Academy. She has worked closely with Jackson and another veteran coach, Mike Winkeljohn. Jones, who broached this possibilit­y with Shields about five years ago, also has played a role.

After flying to New Mexico in December from her home in Michigan, Shields said, Jones reimbursed her for travel expenses and let her drive his Jeep for two weeks. They also trained together for a few days, with the sessions lasting up to four hours, according Shields.

“Some of the moves, he was like, ‘Oh, this is going to take you at least 30 minutes for you to get it,’ ” she said. “And I’m like, ‘OK.’ And then he shows me once and I did it once and we add the details, and then we do it a second time and he was like, ‘Oh, (expletive). You got it already.’ ”

Shields has also sparred with Holm, who years ago made the transition to MMA from boxing and in 2015 handed Rousey her first defeat.

“There were so many things I couldn’t do,” Shields said. “And now as the weeks go by, now to hear (Holm) say after sparring, ‘Man, you were hard to take down today. You were strong in the clinch.’ … Maybe I should have done this a couple of years ago.”

Clear choice: Faith over fear

For the past two months, Shields has hunkered down in Albuquerqu­e, staying in a 400-square-foot apartment at the Jackson Wink Academy.

“I didn’t want to have the big, lavish apartment or a big, lavish hotel, the suite living down here,” Shields said. “It was like, no, I want to be kind of grounded knowing that I’m actually working toward something.”

Jackson, the MMA coach, added, “You want a spartan lifestyle. Soft pillows give you bad dreams, you know?”

Of course, it’s also more affordable for a boxing star who has yet to make $1 million.

Training at least twice a day, Shields said she suffered a setback about two months ago. She spent the majority of every sparring round that day on her back.

Discourage­d, she flew back to Michigan.

“When I went home and I went to church, the pastor gave a sermon about faith over fear,” she said. “And that’s what was holding me back. I feel like everywhere I go I hear people asking, ‘Are you ready for those kicks? Are you ready for those takedowns? Are you ready for this in MMA?’ And I felt like I was kind of letting that seep in, and I was letting fear of that kind of mess me up in my training.

“Now, after I heard that sermon and I came back, it’s just been a whole different mindset, and I’ve been doing way, way better because I decided that no matter what, I’m going to win this fight.”

Elkin, who will be Shields’ first MMA opponent, sounds just as confident. “I do expect quite a fight,” Elkin said. “I hope to take her somewhere she hasn’t been.”

Shields has only lost once – an amateur boxing match.

“I’m way tougher than all the girls in boxing, and I have a high pain tolerance,” she said. “I think these girls in MMA are expecting me to be afraid of them and to be afraid of them taking me down. But I’m going to meet confrontat­ion with confrontat­ion. I’m not going to run from it.

“I chose faith over fear, and now everything is going pretty good.”

 ?? STEVEN ST. JOHN FOR USA TODAY ?? Claressa Shields, one of the best pound-for-pound boxers in the world, has been training at Jackson Wink MMA Academy in Albuquerqu­e for her MMA debut.
STEVEN ST. JOHN FOR USA TODAY Claressa Shields, one of the best pound-for-pound boxers in the world, has been training at Jackson Wink MMA Academy in Albuquerqu­e for her MMA debut.
 ?? STEVEN ST JOHN FOR USA TODAY ?? Claressa Shields has worked out with MMA fighter Kayla Yontef since December.
STEVEN ST JOHN FOR USA TODAY Claressa Shields has worked out with MMA fighter Kayla Yontef since December.

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