Claressa Shields hungry to start MMA career with win at PFL 4

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Claressa Shields knows the pressure, the nerves that come before a fight.

Winning a pair of Olympic gold medals in boxing will do that. Ditto for becoming a three weight class champion, the undisputed middleweight and light middleweight title holder and, quite likely, the greatest woman in boxing history — the self-dubbed greatest woman of all time a.k.a. GWOAT. All by age 26, no less.

With credentials such as hers come great expectations ahead of her mixed martial arts debut, crossing over into a sport she only formally began training for half a year ago. As the headliner against unheralded Brittney Elkin for Thursday’s PFL 4 event at Ocean Casino Resort in Atlantic City, N.J., which will air on ESPN2, she understands why so many expect big things from her. But she doesn’t feel the need to go out there and get a highlight-reel win. A 1-0 MMA mark once she leaves the Jersey Shore will do just fine.

“I made a decision early on, when I decided to do MMA, I wouldn’t put pressure on myself like I do in boxing because it’s so new,” Shields recently told The Post via Zoom. “And I know everybody’s expecting me to go out there and, I don’t know, be this super spectacular MMA fighter, but that is not possible. I think right now, for myself, it’s just getting my first ‘W’ and then moving forward from there.”

Claressa Shields lands a right hand against Ivana Habazin during their fight on January 10, 2020
Claressa Shields lands a right hand against Ivana Habazin during their fight on January 10, 2020
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The bout with Elkin (3-6, 1 finish) is more about Shields having the chance to apply all the skills she’s added to her peerless pugilism since beginning her training at vaunted Jackson Wink MMA Academy in Albuquerque, N.M. It’s a move the Flint, Mich., native made to train in the same room as and learn from former UFC champions Jon Jones and Holly Holm, herself a former boxer who successfully crossed over.

That’s taken the champion boxer Shields (11-0, 2 KOs in the ring), who found time to train four weeks specifically for her championship victory over Marie-Eve Dicaire in March, well outside of her comfort zone. Training kicks essentially never entered the equation before. Grappling and Brazilian jiu-jitsu? Forget about it. Who needed those when the only necessary weapons were a pair of gloved fists?

But as much as grappling was a disparate challenge to acclimate to, Shields says she’s had the most fun thus far in her MMA journey soaking in that element of the sport.

“When I started understanding it, I enjoyed the jiu-jitsu, and I enjoyed the wrestling a lot,” Shields said. “The wrestling is … because I’m already a strong girl, but it’s muscles that I’ve never used before. Now I’m using those muscles and I’m seeing, ‘Oh, I do got strong hips, and I do got a strong back, and I do got a strong [feel for] when I get you on the clinch on the inside.’ If I do want to hold you, I can hold you there because I know the grips and how to use body weight and stuff.”

Shields credits growing up in Flint for a little bit of an informal base. That included fighting with her four siblings, who she claims could never beat her as kids.

“I was a tomboy. I always wrestled with the guys who were on the wrestling team,” she said, punctuating the peek into her youth with a laugh. “I never wrestled, but me just being friends with them, I had to know a little something so they wouldn’t throw me around too much.”

Serviceable wrestling and jiu-jitsu would likely come in handy against Elkin, who competes in grappling in addition to MMA. Shields’ first opponent also welcomed PFL’s current leading lady Kayla Harrison to the sport three years ago. Two-time gold medal-winning judoka Harrison, a longtime friend of Shields dating back to their days as dominant Olympians for Team USA, leaned heavily on her grappling base to neutralize Elkin in under 3½ minutes.

Claressa Shields
Claressa Shields
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It’s easy for most to write off Elkin as fodder to build Shields up because of the Harrison fight, but the contrast of styles in this classic striker vs. grappler scenario makes it less of a lamb-to-slaughter matchup than it might appear. And Shields is in no way looking past her opponent, although she appreciates what it means for people to expect great things immediately from the MMA newbie.

“Congrats to Kayla for doing that,” Shields says with a smile, “but I’m not Kayla.”

“I hate that people hold me to such a high standard, but I put myself here,” Shields adds. “I hold myself to a high standard too, just not too high a standard when it comes to MMA because I know that, for me, the time and the work hasn’t been put in yet. Now, I’ve put in a lot of work in the past seven months, but it’s still only seven months and it’s five different arts.”

Win or lose, Shields knows she’ll need time to progress in her training to be ready for competition in a women’s lightweight regular season for PFL, be it next year or in 2023. She is discussing with the league a potential second MMA bout in August, when the league holds its playoff events, but also has designs on competing in the ring near the end of the year.

But even now, the confident Shields believes there are plenty of women competing in this year’s 10-woman field who are beatable. She was in Atlantic City last month when the 155 pounders competed, handicapping 2019 PFL champ Harrison and runner-up Larissa Pacheco as the runaway top two. As for the other eight women, let’s just say there was a hungry glint in the eye of the woman nicknamed “T-Rex” at the prospect of facing many of them, even at her current stage in MMA development.

“I thought, ‘Wow, there’s a few I could beat now,’ ” said the grinning Shields.

Does that mean she’s already a lock for the 2022 season? Unclear. That decision will be made with heavy input from her coaches, Greg Jackson and Mike Winkeljohn.

“It’s not about beating a few, it’s about being able to beat all,” Shields said of when the timing is right to compete in a season. “Me and my coaches are gonna, next year, look at all the girls who I could fight against, potentially, who are in the season, and we’ll look at each one of them individually.

“And if we feel I can beat every last one, then we’ll go. But if they feel, ‘Hey, we need to work on this [or] we need to work on that before we go to the season, I’m gonna respect whatever they say because they know MMA better than me, regardless of whether I really want it.”

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