“Boxing is for men, and it is about men and it is men. A celebration of the lost religion of masculinity all the more trenchant for being lost.”
Joyce Carol Oates wrote that in her 1987 book, “On Boxing.” Though she may change her tune after watching Claressa Shields in the ring.
In 2012, Shields became the first American woman to earn an Olympic gold medal in boxing, a monumental achievement for anyone, but especially for a 17-year-old who discovered the sport just six years prior.
In hearing her story, it’s abundantly clear: Nothing — not doubt, not money, not family hardship — will stop Claressa Shields. Absolutely nothing.
Long before she stepped in the ring, Shields was a fighter.
In Flint, Michigan, her family faced extreme poverty (she even went without food so her younger siblings could eat). Shields was sexually assaulted and molested as a child, and she often stayed with relatives and friends, as her own home life was unpredictable.
But with writing, prayer, and a push from her dad, she quite literally fought her way through an unthinkable upbringing.
Shields’ father was incarcerated for most of her childhood. But after his release, he introduced his daughter to his first love: boxing.
He told her all about the champ, Muhammad Ali, and his daughter, celebrated boxer Laila Ali. That was all Claressa needed to hear.
At 11, he signed her up for lessons at a local boxing gym. She took to the demanding sport almost instantly, leaving quite an impression on trainer Jason Crutchfield.
“She was catching on real quick, real quick,” Crutchfield told Independent Lens. “I said: ‘Whoa! You need to come with me.’ And I just took her under my wing from there.”
Life at home was inconsistent and uncertain, but boxing and the gym became her safe haven.
While her friends started going to parties on weekends, Shields spent her Fridays in the gym, training with Crutchfield. Her entire life revolved around boxing.
She soon earned the nickname T-Rex for her slight frame and short arms. “But I used to always be swinging,” she told ESPNW.
It’s that drive, that fire, that helped Shields earn the gold medal in London in 2012.
And she hasn’t lost a bout since. Seriously.
When she returns to the games this month, Shields will have more than a medal on her mind.
Not just silencing women’s boxing’s many critics or becoming the first American boxer (male or female) to win back-to-back boxing gold medals, but bringing much-needed attention to the city she loves. Shields is one of Flint’s hometown heroes, and the embattled community could really use one right now.
“I’m fighting for my family, I’m fighting for my future, I’m fighting for my city — to give them some hope and faith, because it’s so bad in Flint,” Shields told ESPNW. “I always fight harder than I would if I were fighting for just a medal.”
Shields’ story is one of triumph, courage, and grit.
In 2012, she shared some writing from her journal with the New Yorker. In her entry from December 2011, the then-16-year old wrote in her journal (which she named Olympia):
“It just hit me. The reason that I box is to prove dudes, men wrong. They say women can’t box? Olympia man I’m finna start training so hard there’s no male can even see a mistake in me.”
She has no time for doubts. No time for haters. She’s in it to win it. And with heart and talent like hers, she just might.
Want to see T-Rex in action? A documentary about her OlympIc journey, “T-Rex: Her Fight for Gold,” premieres Aug. 2 on PBS.
You can catch Shields in the ring when coverage of women’s boxing begins Aug. 14.