The plan is in place for Claressa Shields, the face of women's boxing in the United States. Now all she needs to do is execute it.
She was the best female amateur boxer in the world for years, fashioning a 77-1 record (loss avenged) and becoming the only American fighter, male or female, to win back-to-back Olympic gold medals in 2012 and 2016.
Shields struggled with the decision to turn pro because she liked the idea of going for a third consecutive Olympic gold medal in 2020, but she ultimately entered the paid ranks in late 2016 with the goal to become the best in the world and to win titles in three weight classes. She is well on her way.
Last August, Shields won two super middleweight world titles in her fourth fight when he she knocked out Nikki Adler in the fifth round. Shields defended the belts by shutout decision against Tori Nelson in January, and now is moving down in weight to middleweight as she moves on to the second part of her plan.
"This will be my toughest fight. She's the most skilled and has the most experience. She's a three-time world champion. I've fought former world champions but she's a three-time world champion to date... I'm always confident going into fights. I'm not leaving the ring without having two new belts." Claressa Shields
Shields will face Hanna Gabriels, the unified women's junior middleweight world titleholder who is moving up one weight class, for two vacant middleweight titles on Friday (Showtime, 10 p.m. ET/PT) at the Masonic Temple in Detroit, not far from Shields' hometown of Flint, Michigan.
"This will be my toughest fight. She's the most skilled and has the most experience," Shields said at a workout for the media this week. "She's a three-time world champion. I've fought former world champions but she's a three-time world champion to date. The girl that beat her, Hanna avenged that loss. I'm looking forward to her coming out and putting 100 percent in and I hope for us to have a great fight. I'm always confident going into fights. I'm not leaving the ring without having two new belts."
Also on the card, Christina Hammer (22-0, 10 KOs), 27, of Germany, will defend her two middleweight world title belts against former titlist Nelson (17-1-3, 2 KOs), 41, of Ashburn, Virginia, in a prelude to a major women's showdown on Showtime in the fall. If Shields and Hammer both win they will meet next for the undisputed women's middleweight title.
Also recently added to the telecast was a 10-round light heavyweight bout between Umar Salamov (21-1, 15 KOs), 24, of Russia, and Brian Howard (13-1, 10 KOs), 38, of Atlanta, but it is the women who are on center stage, which was not lost on Shields.
"We have a women's main event. We have another women's fight for world titles as the co-main event and then, we have a male fight opening up the show," Shields said. "I've never seen anything like that before.
"After my second fight, I told (manager) Mark (Taffet) what my dreams were. My goal was to fight Christina Hammer in my seventh fight to take all of her belts. That was the way that I saw it going but my professional career took off very fast and that's why I'm the greatest female fighter of all time. I say that because where I'm from in Flint, Michigan, people have dreams all the time but we're not given that opportunity."
The 23-year-old Shields (5-0, 2 KOs) has earned the opportunity with a lot of hard work, including the difficult task of going down in weight.
"It's been seven weeks of really hard work," said Shields, who is now being trained by John David Jackson. "A lot of people don't know and I really don't like to be open about it, but I got to 183 pounds after my last fight in January and now I'm 160. That's 23 pounds. I was in camp running and getting ready for the fight and having to focus on weight was very different for me.
"I feel good and ready to go. I'm happy that (Gabriels) made it in safe and all that but now I'm just excited. You all know how I get before fights. The champ is here."
"It's been an amazing journey and I came prepared for this fight. When you are a true competitor and you like to push yourself to the fullest, then you like great competition. I am glad that Claressa and I will be facing each other on Friday. I hope everybody enjoys the fight." Hanna Gabriels
Costa Rica's Gabriels (18-1-1, 11 KOs), 35, who is married to junior lightweight contender Bryan Vasquez, has a lot more professional experience than Shields but far less overall experience when their amateur backgrounds are taken into account, not to mention that she is smaller.
Gabriels, however, has become one of boxing's best female fighters and is up for the challenge Shields poses.
"I think Claressa is a great fighter. I think she has accomplished a lot," said Gabriels, who will be fighting in the U.S. for the first time. "I wish that I got the chance to go to the Olympics, but when I started, women's boxing wasn't an Olympic sport. I didn't have that chance and I'm just happy that so many women are now able to dream about that and accomplish that.
"I only have one amateur fight and people laugh at me for that. I didn't have the same opportunities coming up in Costa Rica. I didn't have that privilege and it's very difficult. I didn't have the opportunity to fight anybody so I turned professional and here we are. My path has been difficult and unexpected. Many people thought I was too old by the time I got started (at age 24). It's been an amazing journey and I came prepared for this fight. When you are a true competitor and you like to push yourself to the fullest, then you like great competition. I am glad that Claressa and I will be facing each other on Friday. I hope everybody enjoys the fight."
In the other bout, Hammer, who is making her U.S. debut, will look to punch her way into the bigger fight as the favorite over Nelson.
"Right now, I'm only focused on my next fight and Tori is my target," Hammer said. "Whatever Claressa does, I'm not focused on that. After the fight, I'm looking forward to fighting her but at the moment it's only Hammer and Nelson. I saw Tori fight against Claressa. Tori is a tough fighter who likes to come forward and land some punches from the outside. I'm a longtime champion and I know how to fight against these types of fighters who come forward.
"I think Shields is looking forward to fighting me and is not so focused on Gabriels like she should be. I am focused only on Nelson and that's who I prepared to beat."
Shields said that, of course, she is looking forward to fighting Hammer -- but first Gabriels on Friday.
"I really hope Hanna has trained hard because it's not going to be an easy task," Shields said. "I really hope that Christina Hammer has trained hard because in the future it's not going to be an easy task either. To beat me, you're going to have to kill me. I'm not going to go down."
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