Ahead of her highly anticipated mixed martial arts debut, Claressa Shields has made it known that her game plan is rather simple.
“The game plan is to stay the f— away from the cage,” said Shields in a recent interview with ESPN. “That’s it. Stay in the center.”
Of course, it’s no surprise to hear Shields reveal this. The 26-year-old boxer turned mixed martial artist twice won gold at the 2012 and 2016 Olympics. She’s also a three-division world champion and the only fighter to become an undisputed champion in two different divisions in the four-belt era.
So in terms of pure boxing, Shields will likely always have the advantage over those she faces in MMA. It’s learning the art of the ground game, which she has focused on at the legendary JacksonWink MMA Academy in Albuquerque, New Mexico, that has been a bit more difficult ahead of her debut against Brittney Elkin at a Professional Fighters League event on June 10.
“Of course, fighting on the ground [was scary],” Shields said. “Not knowing how to get back up. Not knowing how to keep somebody from grabbing me or not being able to stop somebody from taking me down. Armbars and all of that kind of stuff.”
Training at JacksonWink alongside former UFC champions like Jon Jones and Holly Holm and under the guidance of highly touted coaches like Greg Jackson and Mike Winkeljohn will certainly help Shields progress faster than most in her new endeavor.
And for what it’s worth, Jackson, who has trained and worked with some of the best to have ever competed in mixed martial arts, has been impressed with what he’s seen from Shields thus far.
“Certainly, that’s the quickest I’ve ever seen anybody adjust to [those new skills],” Jackson said.
“I’d like everybody to understand just how brave it is what she’s doing. She had zero kickboxing, zero ground. Nothing. Just jumping in on a big stage in front of millions. It’s unprecedented courage, in my opinion.”
This new challenge also provides new opportunities for Shields that may not be as readily available to her in boxing. She’s been open about her displeasure with how women are treated in boxing, but in MMA, and especially in the PFL, she’ll have the chance to be rewarded based on her performances.
While she won’t be competing in the promotion’s “tournament” format to start, it was likely appealing to her that the PFL features a regular season, playoffs, and a $1 million grand prize to each weight division’s winner.
That’s certainly an intriguing option to a fighter like Shields, who, despite her immense talent, says she has never been paid more than $350,000 for a boxing fight.
“I just got tired of it because I was putting in so much hard work and so much time in the gym — putting in all this hard work to be dominant,” Shields said. “Putting in all this hard work to win. And it was just like, what’s my reward? Where’s my endorsement deals? Where’s my sponsorships? Where’s my million-dollar payday? Where’s the pay-per-views? I wasn’t getting those opportunities.”
Perhaps the grass will be greener for Shields on the MMA side of the combat sports landscape, but of course, it will be a process. And although she’s not exactly starting from scratch given her striking ability, she’s simply focused on improving.
However, when the time comes, one of the world’s best female boxers will be looking to leave her mark on MMA as well.
“Everybody knows I want to fight the best, but I’ll fight the best when I’m the best in MMA,” Shields said. “I don’t want to be taken advantage of and things of that nature. So, I want to get my training in and fight an opponent that’s equal to me in MMA. And then kind of build my way up from there.”
Jackson believes the sky is the limit for the Flint, Michigan native.
“All the way to the top, there’s no doubt,” he said.