There’s always a lot to do in Detroit on a summer Friday night, but it was still disappointing to see empty seats in the Masonic Temple auditorium to watch Flint’s Claressa Shields take on Hanna Gabriels in a bid to become unified IBF/WBA champion of women’s middleweight boxing. The fight had everything you'd want in a public event – great people-watching, adult beverages, loud music, ring girls in stilettos and bikinis.
That Shields, who has two Olympic gold medals, isn’t on Wheaties boxes by now is a crime. She has an up-from-nothing personal story, no criminal record or embarrassing public behavior, and a tough-girl image that feels exactly in tune with the current cultural moment.
Her social-media presence suggests a disciplined athlete who’d rather train than go clubbing. She has a boyfriend, but no entourage. She’s even beautiful, with both a ferocious game face and million-watt smile.
If you take issue with her frequent self-proclamation as the GWOAT (greatest woman of all time), it’s hardly different from the rooster-crowing of dozens of male athletes.
I know, I know: It’s boxing. A dying sport, shoved to the margins, shunned for its spectacle of putting fighters, disproportionately drawn from poor neighborhoods and handed a ticket out with the catch that they have to take a lot of hits to their unprotected heads, on display to satisfy the American thirst for violence. (A disapproval strangely lacking from mixed martial arts fighting, which is booming. Huh.) Muhammad Ali’s sad decline is still fresh in the public memory. “Million Dollar Baby” didn’t have a happy ending.
Yet a spark remains. George Foreman flipped a career as a humorless, concrete-fisted angel of doom into one as a jolly pitchman for tabletop grills and Doritos. Mike Tyson circled the drain after a sexual-assault conviction and chomp on Evander Holyfield’s ear, then came back via showbiz, with a cameo in “The Hangover,” followed by a one-man show on Broadway. (He performed in Detroit Sunday night.)
And now here comes Claressa “T-Rex” Shields, 23, and women’s boxing. It may be crazy, but I think they could save the sport.
Boxers still come out of poorer neighborhoods – in Detroit, you most often see African-American, Latino and Arab-American fighters – but there’s a new group of suburban mommies who carry gloves and wraps in their gym bags, drawn to no-contact fitness boxing, which is having a moment.
Becoming a Fan
Go ahead and laugh. While it’s true that punching a heavy bag to drop baby weight bears as much resemblance to the real thing as video-game ninja fighting does to actually swinging a sword, it does give you an appreciation for the skills involved in using your body as a weapon. I became a casual fight fan in my 40s, on Saturday nights when HBO didn’t have a decent movie on the schedule but did have a three-fight card live from Vegas.
But I didn’t know about weight transfer and footwork until I started working with a trainer. Looked at one way, fitness boxing in three-minute rounds is just high-intensity intervals. From another angle, it’s an education, and the seed from which a fan is grown.
Shields’ fight with Gabriels went the distance and was ferocious for almost the entire 10 rounds. Fighting in gladiator skirts, the two women were merciless from the opening bell, with none of the early-round testing you see with men. Shields was knocked down by Gabriels in round one, a first in her career, and got up for the standing eight looking furious.
She spent the rest of the fight taking it out on her opponent, who gave it back in kind. They both ended the bout with visible facial welts, but it was Shields’ night, again. The million-watt smile came out, at least until the winner of the penultimate undercard bout, Christina Hammer, came out to trash-talk, goading T-Rex into a shoving match and setting up the new champion’s next bout, most likely. A little bit of pro wrestling for the fans.
I have no idea where that fight will be held. If it’s in Detroit, seriously, you ought to be there.