(Illustration by Joseph Alessio for The Washington Post)

 

Claressa Shields felt as if she had hit a million-dollar jackpot when she won gold in the Olympic debut of women’s boxing at the 2012 London Games. But the 17-year-old returned to her hometown of Flint, Mich., to find her future held no more promise than before.

“I had so many expectations,” Shields, now 24, recalls. “I thought I would be on magazine covers, TV shows. I thought I would have a lot of endorsement deals and sponsorships. And it didn’t happen — not because of the person I was, but because women’s boxing just wasn’t something that people found attractive.”

So, after graduating high school, Shields doubled down and bet on the only person who had never failed her: herself. With a second Olympic gold, she decided, her greatness couldn’t be ignored. At the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro, she gained just that, becoming the first American boxer, man or woman, to win two Olympic gold medals.

Then she took off the padded headgear, turned professional and girded for a bigger fight: to demand more exposure for women’s boxing — more chances to fight on TV, headline events, command respect and earn purses that paid a living wage.

In lifting her sport, Shields also vowed to lift the children of Flint by proving that they didn’t have to be defined by the poverty, violence and darkness around them any more than she was.

Three years into her pro career, Shields is 9-0 in the ring and the world’s undisputed middleweight champion, with six world titles in two weight divisions and a suitcase full of title belts that she carries wherever she travels.

Outside the ring, a decision is pending on how far she can go to lift her sport and hometown, even if she proves, as she loves to proclaim, that she’s boxing’s “G.W.O.A.T.” — Greatest Woman Of All-Time.

CHANGE AGENTS

About this series: Female athletes are speaking out, demanding a more level playing field with their male counterparts even as they continue to train and excel in their sports.

Equity: The U.S. women’s soccer team files suit for equal pay and working conditions.

Opportunity: In Kansas, girls didn’t have a wrestling championship of their own. Mya Kretzer changed that.

Exposure: Claressa Shields keeps winning boxing titles. But she is still fighting for visibility.

All this — and two more belts, for the vacant WBC and WBO 154-pound titles — was on the line for Shields’s fight against Ivana Habazin of Croatia on Oct. 5.

It was to set the stage for the two-time Olympic champ to make history again — or “Her-story,” as her promoters called it — by becoming the fastest boxer, male or female, to win world titles in three weight divisions. The bout was to headline a Saturday night broadcast on Showtime.

Moreover, the fight represented Shields’s gift to Flint, staged, at her insistence, in her hometown’s minor league hockey arena rather than glitzier venues in Atlantic City or Detroit. And 300 children from local youth groups had been invited so they could cheer a woman who had been handed nothing in life but nonetheless spun gold through hard work and her two fists.

It was a coronation-in-the-making, with the leanest-ever Shields, having pared her powerful, 5-foot-10 frame from 168 to 154 pounds, heavily favored. But it was derailed at the weigh-in the day before, when an assailant’s sucker punch sent Habazin’s trainer to the hospital, becoming the latest episode of unsanctioned violence that over the years has come to define Flint.

Claressa Shields warms up with Team USA boxer Jajaira Gonzalez during a workout session at The Gym Boxing and Fitness in Pembroke Pines, Fla. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

Boxing was an outlet

Vehicle City, as Flint calls itself, was dying when Shields was born in 1995.

The exodus of General Motors had begun in the 1980s, and the devastating blow followed when the automaker shuttered Buick City, the last of its assembly-line behemoths, in 1999.

A spike in unemployment, poverty and crime followed, with Flint topping FBI statistics as the country’s most violent city from 2010 to 2012.

Today, 41 percent of its residents live in poverty, according to the latest census figures.

The median value of owner-occupied homes is $28,200. An untold number of homes sit vacant, buckling on crumbling foundations, awaiting demolition.

A renaissance is underway downtown along Saginaw Street. There’s a buzzing coffee scene, a creperie and the homegrown Bedrock Apparel, whose T-shirts and hoodies assert Flint’s resilience. But there’s no trace of renewal on the city’s north side where Shields grew up, reared primarily by her grandmother because her father was in jail much of her childhood and her mother battled addiction.

The house that had stood at 602 Spencer St., where Shields spent part of her childhood, has been razed, replaced by weeds.

Its saving grace was its proximity to Berston Field House and its cramped basement boxing gym, which Shields claimed as her true home when she was 11.

“Once she found it, she said: ‘It’s safe here. I could sleep here,’ ” recalls trainer Jason Crutchfield, who still works with Flint’s young boxers.

Many mornings he would arrive at 6:30 to find Shields sitting on the curb outside, having walked in the early-morning dark from whatever house she had spent the previous night, waiting for the door to open.

Shields, who later revealed she had been molested by her mother’s boyfriend at age 5, rarely spoke as a child. But she listened, taking in everything Crutchfield told her about boxing .

The gym was the only place where anyone told her, “You did good today.”

Said Robert McCathern, pastor of Flint’s Joy Tabernacle Church, where Shields worships: “The boxing was an outlet. If she didn’t have that, she probably wouldn’t have made it through.

“She took the pain, the hurt, the abuse and channeled it in a positive way. That’s why she is so powerful.”

Shields, right, prays with youth members of Joy Tabernacle Church in Flint, Mich., during a service on Oct. 6, 2019, the Sunday after her fight with Ivana Habazin was cancelled. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)