Claressa Shields Offers A Glimpse Of Greatness In Ottawa

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Claressa Shields photo by Raquel Ruiz for StiffJab.com 

by Sarah Deming

OTTAWA,—“We’re trying to keep her busy,” says Jason Crutchfield, the cherubic man out of Flint, Michigan who trains America’s only Olympic gold medalist in women’s boxing.

Claressa Shields is sprawled on a bench beside us in the boxer’s traditional pre-fight doze. Waiting is hard for a woman of action. Due to new AIBA rules, Shields has been demoted to the junior ranks, a special division for 17- and 18-year-old fighters. Nobody of that tender age showed up to face her at the USA Boxing Nationals, and she was ineligible for the Women’s Continentals last month in Venezuela.

“How long until you turn nineteen?” I ask.

“Forever,” replies Claressa.

Next year she has a full ride to Olivet, a small private college in Michigan. She worries it will be boring. Jason rummages through his bag for her abdominal protector and sends her off to change.

We’re on the second floor of the Ottowa Convention Center in a curtained-off area for fighters and trainers. Up the escalator is a ballroom filled with $500-a-plate patrons of Ringside for Youth, a charity event to benefit the Boys and Girls Club of Ottawa.

Claressa will face the seven-time Canadian champion Ariane Fortin in the evening’s amateur fight card, which has been pushed back three times to allow for the service of the Wellington County Beef Tenderloin and Grand Cru Dessert Platter.

There’s a mediocre sandwich buffet for the fighters that I am too ashamed to raid, so I go to the Westin for some onion rings and a Manhattan. I must be a pessimist, because the latter looks half empty.

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“It’s Canada,” explains my bartender.

When I get back to the ballroom, the patrons are in a moderate state of drunkenness. Girls in cheerleader outfits circulate among the tables, selling raffle tickets and cigars while keynote speaker and Hall of Famer Michael Spinks tells a story about falling asleep in the women’s bathroom of a factory where he was cleaning toilets. The whole thing is less offensive than it would be in the U.S.A.

Smoke machines herald the first of the night’s five amateur bouts, which sees welterweight Chann Thonson of Montreal outboxes hometown fighter Philip Ha. Bout two brings a second round TKO for light heavyweight Shakeep Phinn of Montreal. The third fight is a close contest between superheavyweights, but Rachid Elrhanjaoui of Laval is a bit sharper than J.P. Lecuyer and takes the split decision, the third loss in a row for the hometown fighters of the Beaver Boxing Club.

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In-between bouts, a funny, sad fat man who is a dead ringer for Chris Farley comes into the ring to auction off various items, including a guitar signed by Canada’s “top rock heroes” that goes for $2,600.

The ring announcer dedicates Claressa’s bout to Jill Perry, the beloved local promoter and coach who made the match. A former Canadian amateur champion, Perry is now fighting cancer. We wish her a great victory.

Claressa Shields steps through the ropes wearing her Olympic medal to complement the gold and purple colors of Flint’s Berston Field House. Suddenly our eight-hour drive from Brooklyn seems entirely rational.

Despite the impressive list of titles after Ariane Fortin’s name, the bout is the blowout I expected. The twenty-nine-year old from Quebec City has no answer for her teenage opponent’s handspeed and ferocity. I am reminded why the first time I saw Claressa box, I thought she was the best woman I had ever seen: It is the balance, the way she is always ready to let herself go.

“You can’t be afraid to be vulnerable in your explosiveness,” Coach Christy Halbert once told me. “You have to grab the bull by the horns, and to do that you have to reach out with both hands.”

It is not Claressa’s best performance — the jab and movement seem lacking — but it is definitive, and I am shocked when the judges award her a split decision win. The patrons give the women a standing ovation, and no one seems very interested in the men’s middleweight bout that follows.

Claressa admits to having tired out a little in the last round, perhaps due to the rigors of graduation and prom. She will do better, she promises, when she fights Fortin again next month in Michigan.

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