By Robert Aaron Contreras
Jeered as much as she is cheered, Claressa Shields is putting women’s boxing on the map. But the lead-up to her next championship fight has seen her reputation slip into infamy.
Shields (9-0, 2 KO) will presumably (fingers crossed) meet Ivana Habazin (20-3, 7 KO) on Jan. 10, from Atlantic City, after two previously-scheduled dates in 2019 were scrapped. First, Shields came down with an injury in training camp, cancelling their initial fight in August. Earlier in the year, she had unified all four major middleweight titles with a wide decision over Christina Hammer. Holding one belt herself, Hammer was Shields’ biggest test to date. So when the dust settled, the undefeated champion was out of challengers. It called for new terrain. So Shields opted to move down in weight to 154 pounds.
When injury struck, Habazin wasn’t buying it. Making her stateside debut by way of Croatia, Habazin speculated Shields, who turned professional at super middleweight, was having trouble cutting weight. Resentment grew between the opposing camps heading into their subsequent booking in early October. On the day of the weigh-ins, a verbal altercation erupted between James Ali Bashir, who is Habazin’s head trainer, and Shields’ sister. Then Ali was blindsided by Shield’s brother then rushed to the hospital and the fight was again called off.
In the aftermath Shields came off unapologetic on an impromptu live stream. Seemingly more concerned with the fight falling through, perhaps even the missing paycheck, rather than Ali’s health, social media tore into her. That Shields would find herself in the crosshairs of online trolls was not surprising—given her penchant for replying, blocking, and flying into a tizzy, just the attention anonymous boxing accounts crave. But the tension and disparagement will go through the roof when boxing fans find reason for self-serious moralizing. Which was just the case when Shields’ own brother was convicted of striking Ali, fracturing the face of the 71-year-old coach.
Shields alleviated herself by reasoning her brother wasn’t technically on the payroll. She felt no culpability. And if she didn’t put the hit out, then she shouldn’t. But communicated so matter-of-factly was bound to miss the mark.
Perhaps Shields will find solace on Friday despite the ring’s violent nature. Fighting a gloved opponent and not character accusations. After all her resume faces little scrutiny. A win on Friday would make her the fastest three-divisional champion in history. The noted “triple crown” was first accomplished by Bob Fitzsimmons back in 1903, securing the record after over 80 fights. This weekend Shields enters her 10th pro bout.
Only 24, Shields has become the face of women’s boxing in America. Following the previous decade and the success of the UFC’s Ronda Rousey, Shields is at the forefront of a sociopolitical push to equal its male counterpart. Across the pond, promoter Eddie Hearn has gone all in on Katie Taylor, a standout Olympian herself, and a two-weight world champion. Welterweight champion Cecilia Braekhus, is well considered the most talented female boxer on the planet. Mostly competing in Europe, HBO put Braekhus on center stage last year, headlining their final boxing card.
Habazin, in 2015, challenged Braekhus. But never stood a chance. Shields’ massive -8000 odds suggests Habazin doesn’t here either. Especially considering she fought the bulk of her career at 147 pounds, and at 154 pounds hasn’t battled anybody worthy of note. Her last opponent entered the ring with a .500 record. Before that? Three more nondescript opponents, with records as poor as 5-5 and 0-3 (respectively?).
Shields should take care of business, officially positioning her one division above Braekhus, boxing’s “First Lady,” and that much closer a superfight to decide the figurehead of the sport.
Jaron Ennis on tap
Ennis, 22, was due for action in support of Shields and her Michigan debut before the event imploded. He went on to front the bill himself and crushed Argentinian Demian Fernandez.
Friday, against Bakhtiyar Eyubov, will represent the first fight of the year for Ennis. No surprise given the Showtime broadcast will be the first major boxing card of 2020. It was routine last year, going 2-0, punching in two knockouts. Before pelting down Fernandez, Ennis was on ShoBox. There, crushing Bolivian veteran Franklin Mamani. Not a worldbeater, to be sure, the Mamani had been stopped twice before (including in three rounds by Dejan Zlaticanin) but never as quickly as Ennis did. The Pennsylvania prospect ended his man’s night in one round.
Eyubov, 33, has never been stopped. But he has been defeated. In fact, after opening his pro career with 13 straight victories, he went winless through 2019: drawing with the unheralded Jose Luis Rodriguez, a Mexican gatekeeper continually fed to upcoming lightweights; then outboxed by blue-chip prospect Brian Ceballo.
Ennis has quite the reputation, punching with more never than his tall frame would suggest. Standing above just about any recognizable welterweight, save for perhaps Maurice Hooker and Ray Robinson, both who lack the snapping punches Ennis possesses, he is lethal. And should mow over Eyubov.