Maybe there won’t be a Joe Frazier for Claressa Shields’ Muhammad Ali.
It’s a recurring theme in the career of someone who is rapidly living up to her self-proclaimed status as the G.W.O.A.T. of her sport. As the saying goes, to be great, a fighter needs that dance partner to bring the great out of her. Most famously, Ali had Frazier, and while we likely would have been calling “The Greatest” just that without his three bouts against “Smokin’ Joe,” their trilogy enhanced what was already a stellar resume.
So the question was, who was going to be Shields’ most heated rival, the one fighter to take her to the brink repeatedly, only to see “T-Rex” dig deep and pull out the victory?
Savannah Marshall appeared to fit that role perfectly. The two were amateur rivals, that rivalry only got more heated as their pro careers progressed, and when they finally met again last October, they produced a classic in London, England.
That night, Shields had to adjust on the fly, take some hard shots to give some back, quiet a hostile crowd, and show off aspects of her game we had never seen yet. It was a brilliant performance in her biggest pro fight to date, but the prevailing feeling when it was over was that a rematch would just produce a wider margin of victory for the Flint, Michigan native.
No Frazier, but just as Shields predicted before the fight, Marshall was going to be her George Foreman.
“My George Foreman is over there in Savannah Marshall,” Shields told me last year. “I think every Ali needs a George Foreman. So I'm Ali and Savannah Marshall's my George Foreman.
"I'm gonna smash Savannah Marshall up and after that she may yell for a rematch to get beat up again, but there’s not gonna be no rematches.”
And that’s that.
Marshall will face Franchon Crews-Dezurn on July 1, and Shields is keeping things moving as well, as she prepares to face Maricela Cornejo at Little Caesars Arena in Detroit. It wasn’t the way things were supposed to be in the “Motor City” this Saturday, but when Hanna Gabriels was pulled from the bout due to an adverse finding on a recent VADA test, in stepped Cornejo.
Maybe Gabriels was going to be the Frazier, considering that she’s the only fighter to drop Shields as a pro, having done so in a 2018 bout still won by a wide margin by the current undisputed middleweight champion, but for now, that’s on hold.
Will it be Cornejo, who has come up short in three tries at a world crown? She’s a good fighter, but not likely. So, at this point, it may just be Shields against Shields until further notice.
“I had to switch my mindset up when Maricela Cornejo became the opponent,” said Shields. “She’s tall, she’s fresh and she’s fought for the world title before. This chance to fight for undisputed is once in a lifetime for her, so I’m excited to face an opponent who I know is ready to go.”
That focus may be Shields’ greatest attribute at this point in her career. Having done all there is to do as an amateur (two Olympic gold medals) and in three weight classes (154, 160, 168) as a pro, there is precious little to keep her motivated, even after just 13 pro fights. Add in the fact that she’s headlining an arena show in her home state and has been pulled in every different direction in terms of promoting the event, especially now, with a late change of opponent, and if there has ever been an opportunity for a challenger to come in and score an upset, it’s now. But again, the 28-year-old is refusing to get caught napping.
“I’m super excited to fight in front of thousands at Little Caesars Arena, but I’ve had to keep my head down and train,” Shields said. “I might put the makeup and hair and nice clothes on, but I’m not doing anything but focusing on the fight. This is a big moment for Detroit and myself, but the most important thing right now is just winning this fight.”
Again, Cornejo is a good fighter, but she’s not a “beat Claressa Shields” good. Yes, stranger things have happened and boxing is the theater of the unexpected, but odds are that Shields will leave the arena that night with all her belts intact.
But then what? Is her Frazier out there, or will she have to travel the road taken by Floyd Mayweather, an all-time great who never had that all-time great dance partner to produce a series for the ages? That’s a testament to him and what he was able to do in the ring, but there are some who hold it against him that there was no Ali-Frazier, Robinson-LaMotta or Marquez-Pacquiao series on his resume. That didn’t stop him from being a first ballot hall of famer, and it won’t stop Shields from being the same when she retires. And with Shields still a couple years short of 30, there’s still a chance for that rivalry to develop, whether it’s with Marshall, Gabriels, another former foe in Crews-Dezurn, or 154-pound champ Natasha Jonas. Then, maybe she’ll get her just due for what has been a remarkable career, thus far.
“If I was a man, I’d be the face of boxing,” she said recently. “I’ve got more accomplishments than everybody. I’m just gonna keep continuing to build myself and let the world accept me and women’s boxing.”
She’s right. Unfortunately. But maybe one day, that situation will change. Until then, Shields will keep on fighting.
“I’m from Flint, Michigan,” she said. “I want all the smoke. Whoever got the smoke, let’s go. Let’s fight.”