“Anyone who thinks they’re going to beat me is going to have to do a lot and endure hell, because I’m not quitting,” the boxing icon tells Boardroom ahead of her second PFL MMA bout.
Claressa Shields is just 26, but she’s already got more history to her name than a stack of social studies textbooks. A two-time Olympic gold medalist by the age of 21, the Flint, Michigan native went on to become the fastest three-weight world champion in all of boxing history and the first woman to reign as undisputed, lineal champ in two divisions simultaneously.
So, what does such a powerful, prolific pugilist and self-styled Greatest Woman of All Time do with herself when there are preciously few worlds left to conquer? She takes her talents to the ground and becomes a mixed martial artist, naturally.
After notching a TKO victory in her June MMA debut against Brittney Elkin, the newest star of the Professional Fighters League’s women’s lightweight division is set to return Wednesday night. And before the GWOAT enters the cage to take on Abigail Montes, she spoke with Boardroom about her ongoing education in MMA, what remains on her boxing bucket list, and a prediction for her second star turn in PFL.
SAM DUNN: What lessons do you take from your first-ever MMA bout this summer?
CLARESSA SHIELDS: I can say that I learned a lot in my MMA debut. And from the minute we started back training again, it’s like things just kind of click more and I just became more urgent on the ground, just more belief in myself and the things that I can do. Because when you never been inside the cage before — something I never told anybody [is] that I never even seen myself spar before my first MMA fight.
I would spar, would work out, but I wouldn’t record any of it except for pads. I didn’t put that much pressure on myself, so I didn’t know how I actually would fight inside the PFL. I just knew that I had been training and I had been practicing, and look, if I gotta get the win and it’s ugly, you know, it’s going to be a war. That’s just what I was going to do.
SD: What was your “welcome to mixed martial arts” moment?
CS: Oh, hell, nah. I had my MMA moment the first time I sparred. I sparred against this girl named Kayla at our gym. She’s a brown belt, and she’s been doing jiu-jitsu and wrestling for, I don’t know, five, six, seven, eight years. And in our first sparring session with the big gloves, I was like, coach, what do you want me to do? And he was like, ‘just go.’
And her hands were nowhere as good as mine, but she took me down like 20 times. 20. And I’ve never been so frustrated in my life.
SD: How’s your grappling right now? How’s your jiu-jitsu game?
CS: Definitely still working the ground game. Somebody the other day when I was doing some jiu-jitsu and rolling around on the ground, was like, ‘Claressa, you’re really like a purple belt.’ And I was like, ah! How dare you? Don’t ever disrespect mixed martial arts like that, jiu-jitsu like that. No, I am a white belt.
But I do know a lot, and I have spent a whole lot of time on the ground.
SD: Is your ground game the biggest change we can expect Wednesday night against Abigail Montes?
CS: I’ve gotten way better since my first fight. It’s to the point now that people are worried about me taking them down in the gym. So it’s been a very, very good camp, and I’m excited to fight against a fighter who thinks she can out-strike me with the punches and with the kicks. She probably feels like she has better jiu-jitsu than me and better wrestling. And all that doesn’t matter.
I’m a mixed martial artist, but on the flipside, I’m a fighter. And I think that people don’t understand that fighters are born, not made. I get in the ring or I get in the cage, and no matter who I get in there with, it’s going to be a fight. Anyone who thinks they’re going to beat me is going to really have to do a lot and endure hell, because I’m not quitting. I’m not giving up.
I always feel like [there’s] another way to win. Might not be this round, but next round, something’s gonna happen. I’m gonna make something happen. I’m working on punching harder, kicking harder, just being more explosive with my get-ups and everything.
SD: What kind of game plan are you expecting from her?
CS: I’m expecting Abigail to come out there with that same kind of bully attitude that she has every fight. Come forward, throw her punches, throw her kicks. She bullies a lot of her opponents from what I saw. I just expect her to come out there and try to out-strike me.
Now, will she try to take me down and things like that? That’s yet to be found out. But what I do know is [that] it was scary for a lot of girls to see me on the ground in the first fight. Well, I was able to get up sometimes against Brittney. I just kept making the mistake of jumping back on her and she kept flipping me over.
So, this fight, we definitely worked on that. Know when to stand up, know when to go to the ground. Like, the girl is real jiu-jitsu-y, just stand up, you know? But if I was Abigail and I was fighting me, if you think that out-striking me is the way to beat me, she’s wrong.
She has to do a lot of things to beat me. A lot. And the first thing is she’s gotta hurt me. And I don’t think that there’s no woman in this world who can do that.
SD: They didn’t play music for your first walkout in PFL. Is that going to change this time?
CS: I have no idea. I actually have my own song that I made that I want to come out to. It’s a rights thing, so if I’m wondering if I walk out to my own songs, would that be okay for them to have that playing? Because walking out with no music, it’s dreadful.
SD: If you could have any musical artist singing you out or rapping you out to the cage, who would it be?
CS: First pick would be Beyoncé, off jump. If Beyoncé was to walk me out, I think it would set the whole women’s boxing, women’s MMA — I think it would set the whole thing on fire.
SD: I would have to agree!
CS: I love Beyoncé. When I became three-division world champion faster than any boxer in history — that’s still a record — she did a Super Bowl outfit in black and gold, so my outfit was black and gold. I had on my cape, I had on my crown, I had my bumblebees hanging off my chain and that was all Beyoncé.
I actually walked out to “Run the World (Girls).” I had the whole crowd in Atlantic City at the boardwalk going crazy, so that was one of my best walkouts. But if Beyoncé had actually been the one singing it? Uh!
SD: You mention being the fastest three-division boxing champion ever, and you’re also the only undisputed, lineal women’s champion in two divisions. You’re still young for this sport, but what else is out there for you to prove in the boxing ring?
CS: To me, it’s just about the places that I fight. Even though I’ve accomplished all those things, I haven’t been given the opportunity to fight the main event at T-Mobile Arena. I haven’t had the chance to sell out 25,000, 40,000 seats. I want to be given that opportunity, so that’s on my bucket list.
I want to go and fight in the UK. I’m going to accomplish that this year, Dec. 11, Birmingham, England, here I come. I’ll be defending my 160 titles there.
I want to fight in Africa just like Muhammad Ali did, and maybe have a fight in Dubai.
SD: Just locations on the boxing bucket list, then? Not any individual fighters?
CS: I’m going to have another undisputed match for the 160 division against Savannah Marshall [as] long as she doesn’t lose Dec. 11. And that’s the only fight in my life that I ever lost when I was in the amateurs and I was 17 years old, and I’ve been undefeated before then and after. And maybe a fight with me and Franchón Crews.
But other than that, more like location, location, location, fighting in these big arenas and selling out these bigger arenas they say that women can’t sell out. I may get that opportunity to sell out the T-Mobile Arena in MMA before I get to do it in boxing, just because of how much they respect their women.
I feel like maybe in 2023, I’ll be at the T-Mobile Arena fighting in the PFL tournament in the finals. I definitely feel like I’m one of those female fighters that’s the must-see fight. You know, you’re going to have your drama, you’re going to have your victory, you’re going to have your trash talk, you’re gonna have passion — and I think that that’s what’s lacking in women’s boxing.
SD: So you’re interested in competing in a proper PFL season?
CS: Next year or the year after. I’m gonna let my coaches decide; we’ve got a lot more training to do.
If I would have been in the PFL tournament this year, I maybe would have been in the finals or the semifinals, and that’s good for us to be able to see that even though I had just started, I was able to beat about six of those women.
So it depends on what my coaches think next year, because you don’t want to go there and make it “so far.” You want to go there and win. So we have to put in a lot of work, because the girls are good. Kayla [Harrison] is good, [Larissa] Pacheco is good, the girl Taylor [Guardado] who Kayla’s fighting against in the finals, she’s good. And we don’t want to disrespect those girls by showing up as the GWOAT and being unprepared.
SD: Everyone on earth and their mother would want to see what would happen if you got in there with Kayla Harrison — and she’s getting hot on the mic. She’s cutting wrestling promos now.
CS: I think it takes the people making you feel disrespected for that to come out of you. Like, I’ve always felt disrespected in boxing, so I’ve always had to have that energy.
I feel like with the PFL signing me and signing Julia Budd and then saying ‘oh, Kayla hasn’t fought the best, she’s PFL champ but she’s not fighting [Amanda] Nunes,’ I feel like that’s kind of making her speak out. Because when you’re great and you know it, you just can’t hold it in.
And I feel like right now, Kayla’s in a mindset where she’s like, ‘look, I’ve worked my ass off. I beat the girls who they put in front of me. I beat ’em quick. What do you mean I’m not the best?’
And now, it’s just inside of her. It’s like a ball of fire that if you don’t express it, it gets hotter and hotter and hotter until you finally say, ‘I’m the greatest!’ [Laughs] So when you yell it out, it’s empowering, you know? You really speak it from the inside of your heart and it just makes you feel good. And I feel like that’s where Kayla is right now and has all rights to be, because she definitely has beaten the best girls in the PFL.
SD: That’s beautiful. And the only way we can top that is ending with a prediction for Wednesday night against Abigail Montes. Are you getting your first submission victory as an MMA fighter?
CS: I will tell you what: I’m going to win the fight. I have a bunch of different ways I can win. Just be prepared to see Abigail get hurt, be prepared to see her brave and have some heart and try to find her way back to victory, but be prepared to see me just excel and be better than my last fight.
So it’s not like I got the first-round second-round, third-round prediction of when I knock her out. I really don’t have that. I just know that right now, I’m in great shape, and I definitely know I’ll get the win. Rather it’s ugly, rather it’s pretty, it’s going to be a W.
The 2021 PFL World Championship, including Shields’ featured bout against Abigail Montes, airs Wednesday, Oct. 27 at 8 p.m. ET on ESPN2 and ESPN+.