At her height, Christy Martin fought on Mike Tyson undercards, was promoted by Don King as “The Coal Miner’s Daughter” and graced the front cover of Sports Illustrated (April 15, 1996 issue) with the cover line “The Lady Is A Champ.” She punched women’s boxing into the mainstream spotlight.
At 24 years old, Claressa Shields walks into her ninth pro fight this weekend having already collected the WBA, WBC and IBF women’s middleweight titles, plus two Olympic gold medals (2012 and 2016). Shields (8-0, 2 KOs) faces Christina Hammer (24-1, 11 KOs) at the Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City, N.J. on Saturday. A win would earn the Flint, Mich. native the German boxer’s WBO championship and vacant The Ring and lineal female titles needed to become just the second undisputed champion in the four-belt era. The only other woman to do that is current welterweight champion Cecilia Braekhus.
That said, Sporting News thought it would be a good idea to bridge the gap ahead of this weekend’s mega fight and tab former world champ Martin to interview Shields, who’s knocking on the door of boxing history. Here, Martin speaks with Shields about the Hammer fight on Saturday, her infamous sparring session with Errol Spence Jr., the self-proclaimed GWOAT title (Greatest Woman of All Time) and more.
Christy Martin: Why did you move your camp to South Florida?
Claressa Shields: I was just like, ‘I want to make sure that I’m in shape and that I can pull out the extra bit if I need to for this fight. The last week I was there I sparred 10 rounds on that Tuesday and then, on that Thursday, I sparred 11 rounds. I wasn’t fatigued and I felt strong, I felt good and I was like, ‘Yeah, we accomplished what we wanted to accomplish here. I’m ready to go.’ So, we came down here to Florida just to kind of wind down, but to also … I guess doing the same thing every day with the weather in Colorado Springs — it’s snowing, it’s raining, it’s hailing — I was like, ‘Let’s go to Florida.’ So, we just came here.
CM: I understand. I lived in Florida for 20 years. I’m actually in Florida right now. I miss it like crazy. So, John David Jackson is your coach. What is it like having someone like him as your coach? He has great credentials as a professional himself. Does that make you work harder or keep you on your Ps and Qs because you know of his accomplishments?
CS: Gladly he thinks I’m a great fighter, just like myself, so we kind of put our minds together and figure out what the game plan is for the fight. He’s added just being a professional, it’s certain ways that you have to turn your punches to make sure that they stick. We’re just making sure that he’s able to pinpoint those kinds of things like, ‘When you throw your hooks sometimes, you have your wrist up, put your wrist down.’ He’ll bring it to my attention and we’ll work on it together. We work on it, we perfect it and move on to the next thing. He’s pushing me. (This past Friday), we did 20 rounds in the gym: I did 10 rounds on the bag and another 10 rounds on pads. He’s still like, ‘I want you to be sharp. This is the time for you to have your head movement and have your legs.’ He pushes me and sometimes after training, I’m looking at him like, ‘I don’t like you.’ We just kind of laugh it off and I feel it the next day.
CM: As you train for this, what special challenges have you seen as you prepare for Hammer? Have you done anything differently getting ready for her because of her style, her size or are you looking at it more like, ‘Let her worry about what I do?’
CS: We watched film and for me, this camp, I’ve made sure that my legs and cardio are very up to par. I could go and run miles within 45, 50 minutes. I made sure my cardio is up to par because I know that once she feels my power, she’s not going to stand there and I’m not looking for her to stand there. So, it’s already in my mind that I have to cut the ring off and that I have to take her down to get the win and I’m willing to do that. I know the first couple of rounds, she may try to stand there, but after she feels the power, she’s going to take off. And once she takes off, these legs got to be ready to go.
I had a great strength and conditioning plan. I trained twice every day for the first four and a half weeks and only took off Sunday. This has been my hardest training camp, Christy. I’ve really pushed myself. It was me trusting them (coaches) to guide me and them to know how the body reacts and what the body needs. I never do that and I got great results. I’m super close to weight and usually (a week from a fight) I’m a lot higher. I had a great nutrition plan. It has been a camp that I haven’t been in my comfort zone in.
CM: That being said, I’m glad to hear you say that because that’s what I try to tell the young fighters that I’m promoting. You have to train outside of your comfort zone. When you’re in your comfort zone, then that’s just where you are and as good as you’re going to get. But when you’re training where you’re uncomfortable, then you make some strides. I’m looking for a different Claressa to show up against Hammer because you already told me that you’re uncomfortable with this camp. I think that’s a huge statement and it says you’re growing as a fighter.
CS: Thank you.
CM: When I fought on the Tyson cards, it was crazy — a lot of hoopla. When I got ready to fight Laila (Ali), it was a lot of excitement, the arena was basically jam-packed against me. It was exciting. This is the biggest fight of your career and it’s a great opportunity to showcase your skills on Showtime against another really good quality fighter. Do you think it’s going to feel different in the arena and do you think you’re going to feel different?
CS: I’m just going to live in the moment. Once I go out there, I love to get crunk with the crowd when I’m walking out and then once I step inside the ring, it’s like a light switch. I don’t like to let myself feel pressure because I think people have to come to the realization that it doesn’t matter who’s cheering for you or who’s cheering against you, when you get inside the ring, it’s just you. There’s nobody that could help you. All the trash talking you said is not going to help you in there. Your coach can yell out 103,000 combinations and if you don’t throw one … it’s just different when you get in there. I’m already accustomed to the crowd being with me or the crowd being against me, but me just going in there and trying making everything black and me just focusing on what’s in front of me. That’s just what I’m going to do. This fight is going to be a higher magnitude because just the promotion of it. I mean, it got people wearing T-Rex masks and costumes to the fight. That’s just crazy.
CM: That is actually cool. You mentioned T-Rex, the nickname. Probably because I’m old, I don’t know why T-Rex. Why the nickname T-Rex?
CS: Well, the name was given to me since I was 11 or 12 years old. It was because back then, I was tall, but I had short arms and I was really aggressive. That’s how my nickname became T-Rex. Sparring against the guys, I used to go out there and try to kill ’em. I wanted to be aggressive and I wanted to land my punches, but I was tall and lanky, but my arms were short, so I couldn’t even reach the guys. But just the fire I had just to get to them, that’s where T-Rex came from.
CM: You brought up sparring. Way back in the day, even before Don King, I had the opportunity to spar with James Toney and I’m going to be honest with you … when I got in the ring with him, James Toney was kind of of a different cloth. He sometimes could not be a nice guy. And I had just seen him walk across and hit his sparring partner in the back of the head for no apparent reason. And then, I was told, ‘OK, Christy, get in there a few rounds with James and I was scared sh—less to be honest with you. I heard you sparred with Errol Spence. What did you learn and take away from that experience?
CS: I sparred Errol Spence years ago, when I was 17. I hadn’t sparred with him since. He’s supposed to come and work out with me, but he just had the fight with Mikey Garcia. But he’ll be walking me out (Saturday night against Hammer).
But let me tell you how it came about. I was walking through everybody at the Olympic training center. Whoever they put me in the ring with — male, female, it didn’t matter — I was kicking they ass! There was a guy who was 178 (pounds) from the Army and I was out there beating on him and I was only about 150 at the time. I was beating up Raquel Miller, Tika Hemingway. Tika Hemingway got sent home because I beat her up so bad and she was trying to fight me after we got done sparring.
Guys from the Army who I fought were like, ‘Who are we going to put in here with her who’s going to make her use her boxing skills and Errol Spence was that guy. He was 152 (pounds), I was 165 … I was like, ‘I’m about to put paws on him!’ (Laughing). So, we got in there and I tried to pull his hands down and then hit him with a hook. His hands were like stuck, they wouldn’t move. I couldn’t jab through his guard. I was like, ‘Damn! This dude is strong as hell!’ (Laughs).
CM: On a skill test, we could match skills with any fighter, male or female. But when you come to the power and strength of a champion like Spence, they’re just stronger, more powerful.
CS: With him being stronger, my game plan didn’t work. We were in the middle of the ring … he made me back up and I wasn’t used to that. When I came back to the corner — I think we sparred four rounds — the coaches are like, ‘Alright Claressa, it’s time to use your jab, move your hands, move on your legs a little bit.’ Even though I didn’t want to do it, I was forced to do it because of the way that he fought and just how strong he was. You’re not going to beat him power vs. power.
I wouldn’t say he beat me up or I beat him up — I’d say we sparred and he worked with me and after he said, ‘Man, you’re so tough’ because I know somebody else he sparred — girls and guys — that he dropped with body shots. He tried to hit me with that same body shot. … I didn’t go down. Everybody was like, ‘You could go a little harder on her.’ He was like, ‘I am!’ We went four rounds and that was it. That’s why I started using my jab and other things I had instead of using power against power.
CM: Why did you start boxing? What led you to the boxing gym?
CS: My dad had been in prison for seven years. He got arrested when I was 2, got out when I was 9 and one day we were just rolling around in his car and he was just stressed out. My dad used to always talk to me about his problems and he said if he would have stuck to what he was passionate about, his life would be way different. I said, ‘What were you passionate about?’ He said, “boxing.” When my dad said boxing, it was like a light bulb kind of lit up in me. He was telling me Muhammad Ali had sons and everything, but only his daughter, Laila Ali, wanted to take after him. So, I thought my dad was telling me he wanted me to take after him like Laila did Muhammad Ali. In my mind I was like, ‘OK, I’m going to box for my dad.’ I was boxing to make my dad happy.
I didn’t know much about boxing, but I did like fights in the street. I used to get into a couple fights in school. I fought a couple of girls in a higher grade than me and some some dudes, but my dad didn’t know any of that about me. I was really quiet as a kid and I was more of a crybaby to be honest, too. I was the one who would tell if someone was messing with me. I didn’t want to fight my sister or brother. I would go and tell my dad. My dad’s like ‘You’re always crying.’
I knew a friend that boxed, I went to a gym, I trained there for a week and was told I had to have my parents sign me up. I asked my dad and his answer was ‘No.’ He told me that I was too pretty to be a boxer and boxing was a man’s sport. I was like, ‘So, you’re telling me, I can’t box because I’m a girl?’ He let me try it. My dad used to drop me off (at the gym) and pick me up the first three months. Then, after that, my dad didn’t come to my first couple of fights; he came to my fourth boxing match. I was 13 and it’s so funny … I fought this girl named Chloe. She was 4-0 with four TKOs. I was 3-0 with two stoppages. The girl’s mom said, ‘Chloe, is that the girl you’re fighting? What are you going to do to her?’ And then Chloe looked at me and said, ‘I’m going to stop her.’
I beat Chloe up! After I beat her up, she quit boxing. After the fight, my dad was like that I’m the best ever. He started crying after that fight.
CM: Is there any boxer who is a stalker kind of opponent out there?
CS: Yeah, it’s definitely Christina Hammer. She comes to my fights, she sits ringside — it’s crazy. Then, when she doesn’t get any media attention, she gets upset. She just wants to always be in the limelight whenever my name is mentioned. There’s another girl, Raquel Miller, she hasn’t fought anybody, she’s not a good fighter to me, I beat her three or four times in the amateurs, but whenever I have a big fight, she stays talking trash to me. She argues with me on Twitter. But whenever I offer her a fight, she says no to the point now where I’m not even going to mention her. She’s probably going to be at the fight ringside.
CM: Who would you say has been your toughest opponent?
CS: Franchon Crews, my pro debut. Franchon Crews is a powerhouse. We were right in the middle of the ring hitting each other with bombs. I hit her with stuff that I thought she was going to be out, but she wasn’t. I really had to watch myself. She’s one of our heavy hitters. The fight was only four rounds, but I felt like I had to be very, very sharp against her. People like to bring up the Hanna Gabriel fight. Yeah, I got knocked down, but I went out there and won every round after the knockdown. I beat her nine rounds to one (for the unanimous decision).
CM: How’s Hammer — is she a powerful puncher or is she a busy fighter?
CS: When I look at her, I see a busy fighter. Her jab is extremely strong. Her jab is her strongest punch. Really all I have to do is take away her jab and then everything else, I don’t have to be worried about. The rest of her punches are pitty-pat punches and then she’s back to her jab.
CM: Do we look for a more strategic match or a brawl?
I want to kind of do both. I do want to break her confidence mentally and the way you could do that is by taking her jab away from her and making her fight a fight she doesn’t want to fight. Her game plan is to jab me, back me up. She knows damn well that game plan won’t work out in her favor because I like to stand in the center of the ring and fight.
CM: My last question: I’m going to agree with you that you’re the GOAT when it comes to amateur boxing because you had an opportunity and you capitalized to the utmost. But I and some fighters that came before you, when we hear Claressa Shields refer to herself like as the GWOAT, we feel like you’re being disrespectful toward us because you haven’t exactly accomplished enough to consider yourself the GWOAT. Give me your rebuttal.
CS: My rebuttal to that is I don’t know why you guys feel disrespected. It’s not a thing where I think I’m better than you guys. It’s where I am. I’m a five-time world champion already within six fights and now I’m about to be fighting for the undisputed championship. I know you guys had world titles and everything, but I don’t do it to be disrespectful to you guys. I do it to show I am that and go out and do it every fight. I take on big challenges and I don’t know a man fighting for the undisputed championship in his ninth professional fight. The only woman who has an undisputed title is Cecilia Braekhus. I’m making history faster than the other women, but that’s not disrespect to them. It’d be different if I said I’m better than all the girls or I’m the GWOAT because these other women couldn’t fight. I’ve never said that. I give the respect to Laila Ali, Ann Wolfe, Lucia Rijker, you and I just feel like in women’s boxing we never had a super fight. This is one of the first. You and Lucia Rijker never fought. Laila Ali and Ann Wolfe never fought. So, I respect y’all, but I’m doing things that you guys didn’t do or things that didn’t happen.
CM: I’m thankful you gave me the opportunity to talk with you and be the interviewer. That’s cool and I will be at ringside Saturday.
CS: OK, see you then.
CM: Keep working hard, baby.
CS: I will. Thank you.
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