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Claressa Shields: ‘I can drive through Flint now and not get flashbacks’

Right at this moment, Claressa Shields’ life is being made into a major motion picture. In 2016, after she won her second Olympic gold medal in boxing, Shields sold her story to Universal Pictures, who hired the Oscar-winning screenwriter of Moonlight, Barry Jenkins, to pen and produce it. Flint Strong was cast last year and recently re-commenced shooting after a pandemic hiatus. When people remark that her life should be a film, the 26-year-old Michigan native will soon be able to say that it already is – but to expect a sequel.

On Thursday, Shields makes her mixed martial arts debut against Brittney Elkin (3-6) in the Professional Fighters League in Atlantic City live on ESPN. The 11-0 boxer has trained in MMA since December under Greg Jackson and Mike Winkeljohn, who steered 18-time boxing champion Holly Holm to a UFC title in 2015. Shields’ debut is one of the most anticipated for MMA in years.

Still, Shields’ combat sports career is only a part of her story. She was sexually abused at age five, as her mother battled alcoholism. She met her father at age nine after he was released from prison and her teenage years were marred by a toxic relationship with a sparring partner. She had a close, but explosive father-daughter relationship with her former boxing trainer, Jason Crutchfield, until she switched coaches after eight years. As with most biopics, Shields’ story is just as much about her journey as her destination.

As a child, Shields’ safe haven was her grandma Joanne Adams’ house. Shields lived with Adams from age five to 10, then returned during her freshman and sophomore years, until her grandma died.

“My grandma was my best friend,” Shields tells the Guardian. “She was the only one who was patient with me. [When I came to live with her] at age five or six, she thought I was deaf. She started to teach me sign language.”

Shields marveled at Adams’ style, from the antiques displayed around her home to her pool table to the trophy case she had in her living room showcasing awards she’d collected for her poetry. Shields found comfort in stability’s little details, like the candy bowl on the coffee table that was always full of red, blue and green Kicko Fruit Chews.

When Shields began training at age 11, Grandma Adams was always clear. “Whatever you do, don’t stop boxing,” she told her granddaughter repeatedly, knowing it might be her only shot of getting out of Flint.

When Adams passed away, Shields moved in with Crutchfield and his wife for two years to prepare for the London Olympics. Just 17 years old, she became the youngest US Olympian ever in boxing – and she also won gold, the only boxer from Team USA to do so in London. In 2016, Shields became the only American boxer to earn consecutive gold medals over two Olympic Games.

“After I won the second Olympics, I thought I’d help my family get out of Flint, but the only one that came with me [to Florida] was my younger brother,” says Shields. “He finished high school in Florida and it just changed his life, his mindset and it helped me, too.”

In 2019, Shields and her brother moved back to Flint to rejoin their family. Shields bought a three-bedroom house from her professional winnings, boosted by endorsement deals and four simultaneous world championship titles in two weight classes. The basement was converted into a boxing gym.

“I have a stronger mind to be here [now],” Shields says of Flint. “Now, I’m not as bothered when I’m there, not as triggered. When I came back, I could drive through neighborhoods where things happened to me and not have flashbacks that would get me upset.”

Though boxing has taken her around the world, all roads have led Shields back to Flint, where over half the community is Black or African American and poor. Flint became a lightning rod for discord in 2014 when the town’s water supply tested positive for high levels of lead and bacteria. The water supply was unusable for drinking and cleaning. Residents weighed if they wanted a hot shower or a vicious rash – cold water kept the pores closed. After seven years, Flint houses are still being refitted with new plumbing.

“To bring awareness to the water crisis, I wear my braids blue for all my fights on the worldwide stage,” says Shields. “I told Flint I’d wear my hair blue until the crisis is over, so my hair will be blue.”

Last December, Shields relocated to the New Mexico desert, home to the Jackson Wink MMA Academy. It’s a mecca for hopeful fighters because its success rate is so high. UFC champions walk in and out daily. In addition to top-notch teaching, the gym offers high-quality training partners, at times a hard-to-find commodity in the sport.

“If you’re in Albuquerque, you should be in the military or getting ready for a fight because they’re nothing else to do,” says Shields, not that it matters to her. She came to learn correct MMA technique, she said, not go sightseeing. Holm, a training partner who made the jump from boxing to MMA in 2012, has been an added bonus.

On her first day, Jackson and Wink threw Shields into the deep end to see what she could do.

“Just do whatever you can to not be taken down,” said Jackson through the chain-link fence, right before another female fighter charged at her legs.

“I started throwing like crazy, anything I could do to get away from her, to stay off the fence, but within a minute, she took me down,” says Shields. “In those first five minutes, she took me down about 15 times.”

The exercise wasn’t meant to embarrass or discourage Shields and she knew it. “I would like to learn how to get up, so let’s get to that as soon as we can,” she told her coaches afterward, which elicited laughs from the entire gym.

Shields made an instant connection with Winkeljohn, who specializes in striking.

“I think Coach Wink thought I was a prima donna when he first met me,” Shields says. “I think he found out in about two weeks that I was the toughest woman in the building. Wink likes hardworking fighters with a no-quit attitude who want to learn. He reminds me a lot of Jason.”

Crutchfield texts her from time to time to check in. They reminisce about the day a determined 11-year-old walked into his gym and told everyone that she’d be the best female boxer ever. She gives him updates on the movie and they speculate how it will all play out on the big screen.

“I always thought that nobody could play Jason Crutchfield but Ice Cube,” says Shields. Ryan Destiny, who had a lead role on Fox’s Star for three seasons, will play Shields. In the meantime, Shields says she’ll continue gaining life experience for the sequel.

“There’s going to be more biopics after [Flint Strong],” says Shields. “That’s just how my life is. People can make movies about certain parts [of their lives], but there’s always going to be another part after it.”

Barry Jenkins will be ready.

  • Claressa Shields v Brittney Elkin will be broadcast on ESPN on 10 June. For information on how to watch the fights in other parts of the world, click here.

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