Claressa Shields, the only American boxer to win back-to-back Olympic gold medals, had faced virtually no adversity through her brilliant amateur career or in her first five professional fights — until Friday night.
That’s when Shields, the unified women’s super middleweight world titleholder, dropped down in weight to challenge unified junior middleweight titleholder Hanna Gabriels, who moved up in weight, for two vacant middleweight belts and found herself on her rear end in the first round.
Gabriels landed a clean right uppercut to stun and drop Shields, but she shook it off, got up and dominated the rest of the fast-paced-action fight to win a unanimous decision and claim two titles in a second weight division at the Masonic Temple in Detroit, not far from Shields’ hometown of Flint, Michigan.
The judges scored the fight 98-91, 97-92 and 97-92 for Shields, who set up a fall showdown for the undisputed women’s middleweight world championship with fellow two-belt titleholder Christina Hammer. Hammer routed Tori Nelson to retain her belts in the co-feature.
Shields and Hammer nearly came to blows in the ring after the main event during a rowdy confrontation in which Showtime announcer Steve Farhood nearly got nailed with a punch.
“I’m just tired of Hammer disrespecting me all the time,” Shields said. “She comes into the ring after all my fights, talks trash, and then she goes in there and looks like s— against Nelson. I’m sick of it. But I let her know I’m more than ready for a fight against her. She wanted me to lose tonight, but I wanted her to win because I want to fight her. We have to unify now.”
With Detroit boxing legend Thomas Hearns watching from ringside, Shields and Gabriels opened the fight at a torrid pace. During a fierce exchange in the first round, Gabriels, who is married to junior lightweight contender and her trainer, Bryan Vasquez, connected with a right uppercut that knocked Shields’ mouthpiece out and sent her to the mat, skidding on her rear end.
Shields was stunned but did not appear too hurt and easily beat the count. Then she took over the fight, her first under the guidance of noted trainer John David Jackson.
“She’s strong. She caught me with a shot in the first round,” Shields said. “I was thinking, ‘Be smart, use you jab, move your head and tire her out.’
“In the sixth round she started getting tired. I fought her some more. She had some heart and she fought her ass off and she showed that she’s a champion. I’m the greatest woman of all time. I can get put on my ass, get back up, fight 10 rounds and win. I won every round after the knockdown. I did what I was supposed to do. I’m really dangerous because I showed that I can be knocked down and get up and still win.”
Gabriels (18-2-1, 11 KOs), 35, of Costa Rica, said the knockdown surprised her.
“I didn’t expect to knock her down,” Gabriels said. “And to be honest, I don’t think I’m that powerful. I was trying to find my speed, but it was difficult because she was really strong. I left my heart in the ring. I think fought like a champion. I trained to go the distance but my heart betrayed me, because after that first knockdown, I was looking for another one. I wanted to show everyone I had a warrior’s heart. I didn’t feel I had an advantage after the knockdown. I felt I had to work round after round to even have a possibility to win.
“I don’t think I lost by so many points. I don’t think the margin was that wide. But I respect the opinion of the judges. They gave her the win. That’s fine with me. I’m still the 154 champion.”
The 23-year-old Shields (6-0, 2 KOs), the quicker, bigger fighter, landed a lot of clean shots and continually fired combinations. By the fourth round, Gabriels, who was fighting in the United States for the first time, began to slow down. In the sixth round, Shields rocked her with a pair of right hands during an exchange late in the round. Shields continued to win the exchanges but got a stern test from Gabriels, a former welterweight world titlist, in her toughest fight yet. According to CompuBox statistics, Shields landed 162 of 506 punches (32 percent) and Gabriels landed 133 of 510 (26 percent).
Germany’s Hammer, making her U.S. debut and her 12th title defense, rolled past Nelson by scores of 100-90, 99-91 and 99-91. In January, Shields won a shutout — 100-90 on all three scorecards — against Nelson to retain her super middleweight belts.
Hammer (23-0, 10 KOs), 27, dominated the shorter, slower Nelson (17-2-3, 2 KOs) with a superior left jab while mixing in a heavy dose of right hands.
Nelson, 41, of Ashburn, Virginia, could never get inside and landed nothing of consequence the entire fight.
“I’m very disappointed in my performance tonight,” Nelson said.
Hammer landed 103 of 466 punches (23 percent), and Nelson connected with only 56 of 318 (18 percent). Hammer fought well but was disappointed she didn’t get the knockout. Still, she is looking forward to facing Shields for the undisputed title.
“It would have been better to get a KO,” Hammer said. “I tried everything I could to get the knockout. She was tough. I hope the USA is good with this and I’m still the champ.
“I’m really looking forward to fighting Claressa. She will try and fight me on the inside, but my footwork, and my reach, will be the difference. The fight with Claressa will be a game-changer. It will be the biggest women’s fight ever.”
In the opening bout of the Showtime-televised tripleheader, light heavyweight Umar Salamov (22-1, 16 KOs), 24, of Russia, knocked out Brian Howard (13-2, 10 KOs), 38, of Atlanta, in the ninth round. Salamov was ahead on all three scorecards of what had been a dreadful fight when he dropped Howard for the count with two right hands at 53 seconds.