Claressa Shields is not a pedestrian name in the world of combat sports.
Hailing from Flint, Michigan and nicknamed “The G.W.O.A.T.,” the 25-year-old Shields is one of the most highly decorated women’s boxers ever. Her accolades include becoming a two-time Olympic gold medal champion, two-time gold medal world champion, and the 2015 gold medalist at the Pan Am games.
On Thursday, June 10, the 5-8, 155-pound Shields will make her mixed martial arts debut in the Professional Fighters League versus Brittney Elkin, a journeywoman with nine fights to her name. Shields took some time to sit with us and share how she prepped for her first MMA fight, why she always feels ready to go to war and her feelings when it comes to the haters.
CASSIUS: What do you think of people who think you’re arrogant or full of yourself? I’ve admired how you said you want to work your way up in mixed martial arts and not simply jump to the front of the line based on cachet or callouts. But where do you think all your confidence comes from?
CS: I don’t think it’s anybody’s job to judge me, and I’m not gonna judge them. I like to give people different avenues; one minute, you’re up, and [you’re down] the next minute. I just feel like my life is my life, and I’m gonna be happy doing whatever I feel like I wanna do and not dumb it down because people have something to say about it. This is my life – I make all the decisions in my life. I’m grown! I just really believe in living and having fun while I can because when my life is over, and I’m old and shriveled up and can’t do much, I wanna be able to say I did it my way and I did everything I wanted to do. And I didn’t let outsiders’ judgments stop me. That’s just in me.
CASSIUS: Last year, on ESPN’s Max on Boxing, you said you love the art of war. That’s a very philosopher-fighter, Mike Tyson-esque thing to say. Can you elaborate on that for a bit?
CS: When I said I love the art of war, [what I mean by that is] you go to [training] camp, right? And when it comes to war, you know that you’re ready to go to war. And you know that [the opponent] is preparing for you as you’re preparing for that person. And that’s how it is in boxing, except that it’s not a group of people but more of a one-on-one war.
You literally have a person who’s watching film of you, doing their homework on you, studying you, and listening to what you said. You’re getting ready for each other [so you can] get inside the ring and be one-on-one. There’s nobody who can save you in there. You can say whatever you want in the media, you can make YouTube videos or whatever. But when it comes to a fight, it’s me and you in there – and it’s either going to be you, or it’s going to be me. And I’m always like, “I’d rather it be YOU!” That’s my attitude: I’d rather it’d be you who’s crying after you lose, I’d rather it’d be you who’s all bloodied up and hurt, y’know? I don’t want it to me be.
So when it comes to that “art of war” mindset, I’m willing to put it all on the line, especially when it comes to that last round. People have doubts all the time and think to themselves, “This is not a fight I should [get into, and maybe] I should take a different route.” I’ve heard some girls I’ve fought say in their interviews, “Let the best woman win.” And whenever I hear that, I think, “Ugh, soft! Soft!” (laughs) You just told me you don’t think you can win, you just gave yourself away. When it comes to me? I am the best woman. So when I say let the best woman win, I mean let the best woman win – which is me. I’m not giving you the chance to win the war mentally, physically, or emotionally. I’m not giving you the win over me in anything. That’s what war is. It’s about who wants it more.
That’s what war is. It’s about who wants it more.
CASSIUS: Boxing and mixed martial arts have their overlap but are still fundamentally two different sports. Fighters of all disciplines talk about what habits they may have had to unlearn since, under pressure, people tend to revert to those old habits? So what did you have to unlearn in your move to MMA?
CS: I didn’t have to unlearn anything. We actually added everything [else] to my boxing because that’s where I’m strongest and most skilled. Even when I was boxing, I’ve always wanted to clinch. I’ve always been able to throw girls where I wanted to throw them. Coaches did their homework on me and told me that, so now when I watch my fights, I’m like, “Oh, okay… She was trying to sneak an uppercut in, and I did stop her and wrap her arm up.” So I am pretty good in the clinch already.
There are no [standing] eight-counts or ten-counts, there are no separations [of fighters during a clinch], so you do have to figure out how to work through that. But I can say the hardest part, for any boxer who comes to MMA, of course, is the ground game. Drilling that part and knowing what the ways to get up when you’re taken down are. We worked over so many different things over these past months. Every day has been drilling, drilling, drilling. The hard part is when you have to mix it all together.
So when I was first doing my MMA sparring, all I wanted to do was box and keep everyone off me with my hands. But there are so many other things you can do to keep people away from you, where you can still land your punches and still stay away from being taken down. So that’s where my boxing came into play, but then I had to learn MMA movement and about the angles, how you stop this and that. So it’s a lot. Learning everything individually isn’t the problem; it’s doing it live.
But the reason I’m confident I can win this fight is because I know how to get up from being on the ground. Six, seven, eight different ways to get up, I know how to get up off the cage. Four, five months ago? I had no idea. Girls would take me down and be like, “Get up!” And I was like, “Pshhh, I don’t know!” (chuckles)
CASSIUS: For this training camp, you worked with the Jackson-Wink MMA Academy, one of the most highly respected gyms in the sports, with names like Jon “Bones” Jones, Holly Holm, and Carlos Condit coming out of there. How’d they receive you as their newest addition?
CS: Everybody loves me here! And I say that because if you’re open to the gym, the gym opens up to you. I’m always giving a good word to people. I bring my music to the gym, and people like my music. And I think that people really respect, like… hey, I live right next door to the gym. Sometimes people see me in the gym five times a day; they really respect that hard work. You know, MMA fighters don’t really like boxers because [they think] boxers are kinda cocky or think MMA is beneath them and not skillful.
But I think my teammates here at the Jackson-Wink Gym see me getting frustrated, having a hard time sparring some days but keep on drilling and drilling five times a day, and they can see the progression over time. I think that’s where the respect came to where people were like, “You put in a whole lot of work.”
People respect hard-working athletes because, hey, I’m a celebrity. I don’t have to stay in this one-room condo! Like, I have a big three-bedroom, three-bathroom house with a boxing gym in the basement back in Michigan. I don’t have to live somewhere; I only have a TV, a couch, a kitchen, and a bedroom. Just the fact that I sacrificed so many months to be here and to train. I think people really see, okay, I’m taking it seriously. And I don’t it’s been taken seriously by a boxer before except Holly Holm.
skills pay the bills, and don’t ever forget that.
CASSIUS: You’ve sparred with guys in boxing before and have been known to regularly lay them out. Do you think there’ll be a day where maybe there is intergender boxing or mixed martial arts? Or at least held in similar esteem?
CS: The only way women’s boxing will be seen as equal to men’s boxing will be if they give us the same amount rounds and the same amount of minutes because people look at women as being weaker, not as strong as men, and not as skilled as men. There are all these different things where women aren’t seen as equal, women are seen as “less than.” And when women win a [championship] belt, they say, “Well, anybody can win a belt in ten rounds. Anyone can win a belt fighting for two minutes.”
I mean, they’ve let men like Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield and Roy Jones fight eight two-minute rounds – for charity. But it’s like, women’s boxing isn’t charity! Or is it?! So you’re telling me these older men, but with respect who are world champions, though, can fight two-minute rounds for ten rounds. But women are only good enough, in their primes to do the same thing? That’s the difference; that’s why women don’t get paid like men. Women’s boxing isn’t looked at like it’s a tough sport when, in fact, women’s boxing is hard! I’ve fought some tough girls.
There are guys who can’t beat me in boxing, and that’s just being real. Like, we get in the ring, and I put my skill on ’em? Pshhh! Come on now! (smiles) We all know that! It’s always the men who feel like, “Men are stronger, and men have stronger necks and…” they always wanna talk all that crap. But skills pay the bills, and don’t ever forget that.
Boxing is so far behind, and they put all these rules in place to keep women “in check,” but then they get upset when women voice their opinion about how much they should get paid. And I’m like, “Let me see you train for two months and have to eat clean every day, and run and lose weight. Oh, and also put your life on hold.” Because a lot of us want to have kids, but we’re putting that to the side to focus on our sport in the hopes of, one day, becoming a millionaire from boxing. But boxing doesn’t give you those kinds of opportunities.
CASSIUS: Without giving away too much, how have you prepared for your fight with Brittney? Particularly when it comes to diet and nutrition?
CS: I generally still eat the same, but I definitely upped the greens for this fight. I didn’t have to lose as much weight for this fight because I can get as big as 180 lbs., sometimes 185 lbs. And over the past six or seven months, I’ve been at a steady 170 lbs. So I haven’t allowed myself to get that big. And then in coming down to 155 lbs., I’ve been pretty low in weight for a while now. I could make weight tomorrow if I had to.
I went vegan for a year, then I was a pescatarian, and I’ve been a pescatarian for the past eight or nine months. But with the MMA training being so intense, I eat a steak once a week to help me… I don’t know, there’s something in the red meat that helps my body recover. And I do a lot of smoothies! I have a spinach smoothie recipe that I use – but I won’t disclose it on here.
And I have oatmeal that I eat, which gives me the energy I need before sparring, the energy I need to do three workouts, back to back to back. I can go for four hours and not feel hungry in between those times. And water, water, water! I’ll even drink a gallon of water the day before the weigh-in. I’m not ever dehydrating myself to make weight.
I also do meal preps with fish, rice, and vegetables. Or it can be fish, sweet potatoes, and vegetables. But vegetables every day, every single day. So that’s kind of the secret there!
CASSIUS: In the past, you seemed to take offense at some talking heads saying Amanda Nunes has “the best hands in the game.” Are we going to have a chance to see those hands on Thursday? And is Nunes a name that’s still on your radar, or do you even care at this point?
CS: Let me correct you.
She said she wouldn’t be interested in a boxing match with me because she wouldn’t win. But then she said if I were to come to her world, MMA, that she would choke the sh*t outta me! But, for one, I do have way better hands than her. It doesn’t matter what she says about that, so I’m not too worried about that. But I’m not thinking about Amanda Nunes because I have other tests in front of me right now. And my main thing is to do everything in my power to become PFL World Champion, whether that’s next year or the year after that.
I think she’s doing her thing, and I’m doing mine. So I’m not looking at her or anybody other than Brittney Elkin. That’s my first challenge in MMA and, for me, I have to win this. For my legacy. I put in so much hard work, and it would be very devastating for me to lose or for me to not get the victory in the way I feel that I can. So I’m not worried about anybody in MMA right now except for Brittney. My overall goal is to be PFL World Champion.
But I’m just going to take it one fight at a time. So right now, Brittney Elkin, she’s my main focus. Tunnel vision.
CASSIUS: What should we expect to see from you in your debut versus Elkin, then? Any predictions?
CS: Predictions for the fight? I’m just gonna win, that’s it! I don’t know if it’s gonna be by K.O. I don’t know if I’ll try to submit her, I have no idea. I might just go for a stoppage. But I know I’m gonna give her hell, I can tell you that!
I’m not just a great boxer, I’m a great athlete. To train at the Olympic Center for two years, win both the 2012 and 2016 Olympics, I have a different kind of work ethic. And I don’t think she’s ever had to deal with that kind of work ethic. Where you’ve had to spar against the guys or had to compete with the guys who were running track-and-field.
Something that a lot of people don’t know is that I’ve actually been preparing for MMA since last June. It may have been December when I started my actual training, but I knew that I wanted to be stronger and more powerful coming into MMA, so I started working out all the itty-bitty muscles in my legs, my back, and my arms. I went from benching 135 pounds to 185 pounds within six months.
CASSIUS: And do you have any parting words for the readers? The haters and the fans?
CS: To everybody who supports me? Thank you so much! I appreciate you. Make sure you go on ESPN+ and watch my docuseries that dropped on June 3.
And, um, to all my haters? I don’t like y’all, and I never liked y’all! (laughs) And y’all can keep praying for my downfall, but Jesus is popping.