Claressa Shields: ‘You gotta be great to survive all I did Savannah Marshall is gonna be shocked’

Claressa Shields: ‘You gotta be great to survive all I did Savannah Marshall is gonna be shocked’

“I’m never going to allow any of the kids in my family to go through what I went through,” Claressa Shields says quietly as she turns her intense gaze on me. The 27-year-old American, who fights Savannah Marshall in a riveting bout which headlines the historic all-women boxing card at the O2 Arena on Saturday night, has already told me about her harrowing past. She grew up in abject poverty in Flint, Michigan, in an area which remains one of the most deprived in America, and she was raped systematically from the age of five.

Shields pauses and then, with blazing eyes, continues to remember everything she endured. “I know what it was like. I know how it can make you very, very angry. I don’t want those kids to have the anger I had because I was very, very mad growing up. If I hadn’t have found boxing, who knows where I’d be at, with the anger I had inside of me.”

The buildup to Shields v Marshall has been bitter and affected by last month’s postponement. The fight was meant to take place on Saturday 10 September but, after the boxers had weighed-in on the Friday, it was then decided to push it back five weeks following the death of the Queen. Both women are unbeaten as professionals and their antipathy towards each other is plain. It is also elevated by the fact this contest is as interesting as any fight in world boxing, featuring men or women, this year. Yet, beyond confirming that women’s boxing now has a gravitas and a commercial clout that would have been unimaginable a few years ago, Shields and Marshall are fixated with each other.

Shields has only lost one fight, either as an amateur or a pro in a glittering boxing career, and it hurts her to the core. Marshall beat her as an amateur in China, in the early stages of the 2012 world championships, and neither woman has forgotten that formative skirmish. A few months later, Shields won gold at the London Olympics after Marshall, despite being world champion, lost her first fight and left the Games in near despair. Four years later, Shields became a double Olympic champion in Rio.

Marshall is now a formidable professional and the WBO world middleweight champion. Shields holds the IBF, WBA and WBC belts and the magnitude of their unification contest is deepened by their searing rivalry. But Shields’s personal story matters most.

When she was a little girl who was being violated, she retreated into stuttering silence. Shields, who now talks with fluidity and fire, remembers the last time she saw the man who had first raped her at the age of five. The young boxer was 16 and the passing years had not blunted her pain. “I seen him again for a brief moment,” Shields says softly. “He had a dog with him, but if he had been alone I would have knocked him the fuck out.”

Does the man live in Flint now? “I have no idea. I just know he must feel like an idiot. One to be a rapist, but also to know you tried to break a little girl in, and you couldn’t. You tried to break me and mess me up mentally and you lost.”

Would he know that she is now one of the most feared and feted women boxers in the world? “He got to know. Of course. So I feel good because he didn’t win. He didn’t keep me angry throughout my life. He didn’t make me a terrible person. I continue to be a great person, to give my life to God, to leave everything in the past behind me, and to forgive.

“Back then I had a speech impediment. I stuttered a lot, and I couldn’t get the words out. People would get mad because I didn’t start talking till I was five and didn’t speak clearly till I was nine. I was constantly being screamed at: ‘What do you want? Talk!’ It was lonely, but my grandma paid so much attention to me when I moved in with her and she would say: ‘Coco, when you want something, just ask. Don’t get upset and cry. Try to get the word out. Think of one word at a time. It’s OK.’”

Shields smiles sadly. “She was the most loving person but she passed in 2010 so she didn’t see me win Olympic gold. But I always showed her film of my fights so she got to watch me win the Junior Olympics. She knew I was on the path to greatness and she would just strut around everywhere, showing everybody.”

It helped that Shields had found a way to tell her aunt about the sexual abuse she suffered. Her aunt gave her a doll and Shields says: “This was my aunt Mary, my favourite aunt, who still protects me to this day. I just showed her, using that doll, all he had done to me and what he was doing. She jumped in and helped me. She loves me and, right now, she can’t wait for this fight with Marshall. She feels Marshall has disrespected me and she wants me to teach her a lesson. So everybody in my family is really excited for this fight. I’m happy I can do great things for them.”

That care for her family extends to Shields looking after her sister. When they were young, Claressa would sometimes go without eating to ensure there was enough food for her sister. Today that help emerges in a different way. “My sister is going through hard times and I have custody of her kids. They live with me. They’re my babies, my two-year-old niece, five-year-old nephew and eight-year-old nephew. I can take care of them because I have a lot of money saved up … I got me a three-bedroomed house, three bathrooms. I have been very smart with my money so I’m going to make sure nobody in my family goes through what I did.”

Only Katie Taylor, who is two weight classes lighter than Shields, stands above her in the pound-for-pound rankings and when generating lucrative purses. But Shields knows her fearsome aura depends on her being able to avenge her solitary loss and defeat Marshall, who is a dangerous and accomplished unbeaten world champion. If she refuses to acknowledge the talent and power of Marshall, whom she derides constantly as “Marshmallow”, Shields at least credits her opponent’s vastly experienced trainer.

“Peter Fury is doing a great job of getting her in shape,” Shields says of Tyson’s Fury’s uncle who has a close bond with Marshall. “He’s respectful of me because he’s smart and he’s not going to blow smoke up her. He really cares about her and has trained her to be ready because he knows if she’s not she is going to get severely hurt. But she’s too weak in the mind.

“She couldn’t handle losing the [2012] Olympics. She hasn’t faced it yet because she let her country down. She has tried to live off beating me and winning the world championship in 2012 – but when she loses to me now she’s going to be distraught. She’s going to take the money, retire and say: ‘Even though I lost to Claressa in the pros I beat her in the amateurs.’ That’s all she’s ever had over me.”

I show Shields a heartbreaking photograph. It was taken soon after she lost to Marshall in China. “I was crying,” she says simply. “It was my most painful moment in boxing.”

Shields’ amateur trainer from Flint, Jason Crutchfield, was not allowed to travel with her as she was on the US team. Shields believes this was “a big factor for me against Marshall. Back then I was just 17 and there was a lot of animosity and hate on the team. Jason would have protected me and made sure to show me film of Marshall. I didn’t know she was that tall or how she moved. I was also used to hearing Jason’s voice in the corner since I first started boxing. My US trainers were panicking. It was not good.

“I still did well in that fight. I chased her around the ring, I landed my punches. I thought I should have got a few eight-counts, but I was fighting against her, the ref and the judges. They gave it to her by 14 points to eight and I was just so disappointed and felt I had let my family down. But a few months later I became Olympic champion and gave them a lot of joy. I will give them even more joy when I beat Marshall in her home country.”

Marshall, from Hartlepool, seems almost as driven as Shields in her desire to prevail in this landmark fight. But she has been spared the adversity that has scarred Shields. “None of the girls in boxing have more grit than me,” Shields says. “None of them want to win as bad as I do. Marshall might be able to punch but when you hit me hard, I just hit you harder. I’m not backing down. I’ve been fighting my whole life. This ain’t nothing new.”

Even the blue braids in her hair are a sign of Shields’s fighting spirit. She has promised to wear them in protest until the end of the long-running water crisis in Flint, where thousands of people have been affected by the contaminated supply. Shields also loves to wear her glittering “GWOAT” necklace because she is convinced that, as a boxer, she is the Greatest Woman of All Time.

“You gotta be great to survive all I did,” she says. “Savannah Marshall is gonna be shocked by the truth of that. There has been a lot of pain but you’ll all see how strong it has made me.”

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