Claressa Shields fighting for gender equality for women boxers
Claressa Shields is perhaps in the prime of her career, establishing a big enough name as a two-time Olympic gold medalist and world champion in three weight classes to headline the first boxing card in the six-year history of Little Caesars Arena in the Motor City.
The undisputed middleweight champion became the first woman to earn a seven-figure payday in her last two fights and is expected to make another $1 million Saturday night when she faces top-ranked contender Maricela Cornejo in the home of the Detroit Red Wings and Pistons.
Shields grew up poor in Flint, Michigan, and has earned enough money to become rich at 28.
Still, she laments the gender inequities in boxing.
TV and streaming deals are 10 to 20 times more lucrative for men than women, according to Shields' promoter, Dmitriy Salita. Typically, male boxers make about $3 million per fight while female fighters just recently started getting seven figures for a night in the ring, while some earn more and many make much less.
“We don’t get the equal TV time, the equal promotion, equal pay," Shields said earlier this week in an interview with The Associated Press. “That’s what I’ve been trying to do with my platform, make sure I get all of that.”
Shields is boxing in a marquee event in part because sports-streaming service DAZN stepped up enough financially to help facilitate the fight.
Women in boxing have shown they can sell out big arenas, as Katie Taylor and Amanda Serrano did 13 months ago at New York's Madison Square Garden, but they're not compensated as well as men in the same sport.
“It’s like any other profession where the women still haven’t caught up,” said Jackie Kallen, a 77-year-old former boxing publicist and manager, who was commissioner of the International Female Boxing Association when it was founded in 1997. “It’s got a ways to go.
"They take a beating just like the men. They bleed just like the men, but they don’t get paid just like the men.”
Boxing Hall of Famer Christy Martin, whose bloody nose in the ring 27 years ago landed her on the cover of Sports Illustrated, said she would've never imagined women in the sport headlining cards in big-time arenas as they do now.
Martin, though, said the lack of a deep talent pool limits opportunities.
“If you look back at the real old-timers in the sport, they would fight every other week,” the 54-year-old Martin said in a telephone interview from Texas. “Now, we're lucky to see champions once a year.”
Shields (13-0, 2 knockouts) turned pro in 2016 after becoming the first U.S. boxer — female, or male — to win consecutive Olympic gold medals and is averaging two fights a year. Cornejo (16-5, 6 KOs) replaced Hanna Gabriels (21-2-1, 12 KOs) last week in the 160-pound division title fight after the Costa Rican was removed from the card due to results from a Voluntary Anti-Doping Association test in May.
Shields' last boxing match was last year in London, where she topped Britain's first all-female card and beat Savannah Marshall in a sold-out arena.
Making the most of her finite fame, Shields plans to compete in mixed martial arts for a third time later this year with the Professional Fighters League.
“To have to fight mixed martial arts on the side just to pick up the money because there’s not enough money in boxing, that makes me sad because that’s not really her sport,” Kallen said.
While it may seem like another sign female boxers face financial challenges, Shields insists it's simply part of her mission to be known as “The Greatest Woman Of All Time,” now and in the future.
“It’s an opportunity that I can do something that’s different and special," said Shields, who is 1-1 in MMA. "Being the GWOAT, isn’t just about boxing. It’s about my life and being able to go outside the box.
"I don’t know another world champion who is fighting against MMA fighters and taking that risk.”
Shields' manager, Mark Taffet, who previously led HBO's pay-per-view division, said Shields competing in boxing and MMA is like Deion Sanders and Bo Jackson juggling jobs in the NFL and Major League Baseball at the same time.
“We thought, particularly as a woman who wanted to make a statement about how great she was, that having her participate like Deion and Bo did would separate her from women and men," Taffet said. "And, it separates her as an athlete for the ages.”