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Mar 8, 2017

  • Katie RichcreekESPN Close

It's been three years since two-time Olympic gold medalist Claressa Shields fought in front of a hometown crowd. She remembers being able to pick out the voices of her mom, her dad and her cousins in the crowd at Kettering University in Flint, Michigan. She remembers the instructions being shouted and, presumably, the support being offered. She also remembers not liking it.

"It's a little nerve-racking," she says.

Shields (1-0, 0 KOs) makes another homecoming on Friday, this time for her second professional fight, at the MGM Grand Detroit, about 70 miles from Flint, where she'll face Hungary's Szilvia Szabados (15-8, 6 KOs) in a six-round middleweight bout on Showtime's "ShoBox: The New Generation" card — the first women's boxing match to headline on premium television.

"Nowhere in my mind did I think they would call to tell me I'm fighting in the main event," she said. "I really thought they were going to call a few days later and say 'Hey something came up. This person is the main event; you're going to be co-main event.' I was prepared for that phone call."

It's a fight the 21-year-old Shields hadn't planned for herself. Not this early into her professional career, at least. The two-time Olympic gold medalist had laid a time frame out for herself that included seven to eight fights before (hopefully) ending the year with a main event booking. But those plans have obviously been expedited.

"ShoBox is a series that focuses on up-and-coming boxers, but I can confidently say that never in the history of the franchise (now in its 16th year) have we considered someone who is 1-0 — let alone considered someone who is 1-0 to be the main event," said Stephen Espinoza, executive vice president and general manager of Showtime Sports. "It's unprecedented, to say the least."

Shields doesn't need precedent to follow. She is special. She has potential to be a trailblazer, and she knows it. It's part of the reason she made the decision to forgo a guarantee of returning to the Olympics in 2020 to take a chance as a woman at the professional level in a sport that has demonstrated little opportunity for female fighters both before and after the era of Christy Martin and Laila Ali. But, as progress made over the past eight months indicates, the tide is beginning to change, and will only continue to pick up momentum with Shields in the professional ring.

"Nowhere in my mind did I think they would call to tell me I'm fighting in the main event. I really thought they were going to call a few days later and say 'Hey something came up. This person is the main event; you're going to be co-main event.' I was prepared for that phone call."

Claressa Shields

"You see me surpass the limitations of what a woman fighter is, or at least what they say a good woman fighter or great woman fighter is," Shields said.

Still, Shields had some concern the transition from the amateurs to the pros would be challenging if she didn't have the right people in her corner, respect within the sport and, perhaps above all else, the opportunity to prove herself.

That opportunity has taken shape in two fights: The first in November with a unanimous decision victory over Franchon Crews — just three months after becoming the first American boxer to defend Olympic gold — and the second on Friday against Szabados.

Shields is heavily favored over Szabados, but the Hungarian fighter's 23 pro fights and 134 rounds compared to Shields' one pro fight and four rounds is still glaring. Yet Shields isn't concerned about the disparity. In fact, she considers her opponent to be "in over her head."

"I think she's gonna try to test my professional experience, and I'm just really well prepared for that," Shields explained.

The task of finding an opponent of substance for Shields is understandably difficult. At 5-foot-10 and fighting at 160 pounds, the pool of ready and available talent grows even thinner. Gordon Hall, executive producer of the ShoBox series, was hard-pressed to find enough interest from quality fighters and ultimately booked Szabados after a number of others turned down the opportunity to face Shields.

"When you're as talented as Claressa is and another female fighter is looking to have a future, they don't want a piece of Claressa Shields until they have to," Hall said. But, as Hall put it, Szabados also "isn't coming from Hungary to Detroit to lose."

Shields' trainer Jason Crutchfield stressed that while he believes his fighter is "lightyears ahead" of Szabados, Shields has still trained for the fight just as she would for any other. For her, that's meant making sure she's sharp, fast, feeling strong and in the right mindset. It's working on herself because she knows what she's going for: the knockout, the one that didn't come in her pro debut but seems reasonably within reach after having trained every day for the last three months.

While her professional career has started quickly, it doesn't appear it will be slowing down. On her list of goals for the next year? To fight middleweight world champion Christina Hammer (20-0) for a world title and, just maybe, fight on pay-per-view. Ultimately it's all about the bigger picture.

"I told her she could possibly be the best woman boxer to ever walk the face of the Earth," Crutchfield said. "It's in her hands."

But for now, the ambition to reach higher doesn't mean the significance of fighting in Friday's main event is lost on Shields, who nods to the women who broke ground in the professional ranks before her as inspiration.

"I'm training really, really hard so I can go out there to make myself, my team, my city and the women who came before me proud," she said.

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