Monday 20 November 2017

Vincent Hogan: The Hollywood champ who rose above a nightmare - and the Irishman in her corner

USA Olympic boxing champion Claressa Shields (Credit: Russ Wiley)
USA Olympic boxing champion Claressa Shields (Credit: Russ Wiley)
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

America has been playing catch-up with Hollywood on the story of Claressa Shields. Some time ago, Universal Studios commissioned a feature-length movie on the Olympic champion's extraordinary life, but sponsors proved more circumspect.

Only in the last year, with Rio beginning to loom, have a handful of endorsements finally come her way. Why? Maybe it's because what she's been through makes people uncomfortable.

Maybe it shines a light somewhere that Corporate America finds hard to turn into dollars. A black kid pulled from the kind of whirling dysfunction that so much of society just turns away from. One usually leading either to prison or an early grave.

Whatever the truth, all of that commercial warmth Claressa imagined gold might bring just never reached her.

"When I saw what a lot of other gold medallists got, I kind of felt left out," she told me last Thursday in Colorado Springs. She'd gone home from London to a blizzard of high-fives in her impoverished hometown of Flint, Michigan. And there she waited for the calls that never came.

It is impossible to imagine the pain and anger this 21-year-old must store somewhere deep within. Her childhood was a horror story: a father imprisoned for armed robbery; an alcoholic, drug addict mother whose men 'friends' moved through the house like paying guests, some of them preying on an unprotected daughter. One raped her and another sexually molested her.

Never enough to eat in the house as food stamps got sold for drugs; Claressa and her sister being shifted endlessly from empty house to empty house (she had lived in a dozen places by age 11) with all the care of cheap pieces of furniture. Her life was joyless, dangerous.

She could not speak until she was five, did not meet Clarence, her father, until she was nine. The only concept of love discernible in her life was that articulated by an elderly grandmother..

But when she walked into a boxing gym, suddenly, all of that turmoil seemed, if anything, to empower her. She learned how to box from a volunteer coach and former pro, who soon became accustomed to midnight phone calls from a kid with no place to sleep and no food in her stomach.

Between the ropes, a strange music in Claressa found expression. And it sang to a resolutely simple philosophy, one the US Olympic Council have encouraged her to desist from articulating in public. "I just love beating people up and making them cry," she says with a wicked grin.

USA Olympic boxing champion Claressa Shields with former Ireland coach Billy Walsh
USA Olympic boxing champion Claressa Shields with former Ireland coach Billy Walsh

She has a beautiful smile now, but her past arms her with an independence it's best not to lightly challenge. She says that she will turn professional WHEN she wins her second Olympic gold; plans on becoming the first 'million dollar female' in boxing.

A documentary charting her life will be aired in the US next August, just before the Rio Games begin. It trawls through places that simply cannot be sugar-coated. She is now one of the athletes featured in a Powerade campaign called 'Just a Kid', celebrating sports people who have overcome childhood adversity.

I ask if she knows who will play lead in the movie on her life, but she hasn't yet been told.

A preference?

"I have no idea," she laughs. "Maybe Kiki Palmer. . . Someone beautiful, of course. Like me!"

Her record in the ring is 69-1, that solitary defeat an aberration at the 2012 World Championships. So how do you challenge that kind of arithmetic?

When Billy Walsh first tried, Shields refused to listen. Taut with resentment at his interference, she effectively disengaged. Who was this stranger picking holes? Walsh had arrived in October yet, by Christmas, he still felt he was having to drag her along, one forced step after another. Their quarrels reached a crescendo at a training camp in Sheffield last December.


"It's up to you Claressa," he told her. "But remember I've a contract to be here for the next three years!"

She says she told USA Boxing that she was going home, that this Irishman and her would never work. But to do that, Claressa would have had to walk away from the $3,000 a month salary she gets paid to be based at the Olympic Training Centre.

For Walsh, this was a battle he could ill-afford to lose.

Claressa is the star of the women's programme, the one all others follow. If she could defy the new coach, well, what tenable future could that coach logically have? The hostility spilled into January before Claressa saw the light.

She says it was just something that Walsh said in passing, something nobody had ever said to her before. Something that had, for a long time, been swirling around inside her own mind. He pointed to how she could land 90 near-perfect punches in a round, yet hadn't a single knockout on her record. Why?

"Why not hit harder with them all?" he asked.

She is laughing as she recalls it. "You know some people, it's either their way or the highway," she says now. "Me and Coach Billy, we talked a few times and then the last time we talked, it was a huge disagreement.'

"Then he said that to me and I was like 'I've been thinking the same thing for a long time. . .'

"I mean I can get stoppages and TKOs, but making somebody go to sleep by hitting them on the chin, I've never done that. He told me that I was thinking too much about the last punch.

"And that's when I think, hey, he knows what he's talking about. . ."

Their relationship has changed now from rutting heads to one of amiable irreverence. Coming to start in America, Walsh had no comprehension of the calamities that shaped Claressa's childhood.

So every time they spoke, it seemed as if she'd stiffen with defensive anger, before moving with a slow, peacock strut into position. The other girls watched, waiting for something to snap.

Coach and champion enacted this most days, almost circling one another like jungle animals.

"You know what, I wasn't so happy when he came first" she agrees. "He has a different way of training, and I feel like he thought I was an Olympic champion who's lazy and thinks she can do what she wants.

"So he was super hard on me. And I'm not used to that because I'm, like, the good kid. So I'm saying 'I don't like him!' (laughing)."

She says it took maybe half a dozen stern, sit-down talks between them to force a thaw in the relationship. Now there is an understanding that Walsh has simply being trying to improve rather than de-construct.

His first time in her corner, at an Olympic qualifier in Buenos Aires in March, captured the new dynamic. Walsh's way has always been to remain unemotional, deadpan. Shields gets drawn to the opposite side.

"I'm very confident when I fight, I know I can win," she says. "And he's like super-serious. Then a round ends and the first thing he'll say to me is 'Claressa, that round was pretty close!'

"And I'm like 'No it wasn't!' (shrieks with laughter)

"But you know he's strong mentally, so he'll tell you things to trigger something in your mind. I have that trust in him now.

"He's very smart but when he first got here. . . I wanted to go home. I was like 'I'm Olympic champ, I know what I'm doing. . .'

"I see now all he did was add to my arsenal. It was never that I didn't like him as a person. It was more I didn't understand his way of teaching. Now we're cool.

"Now I get it. He has a whole different level to him to anyone we've had here before."

Claressa wants to become the "perfect" fighter and believes Walsh is teaching her things that might take her closer to that status.

Gold in London brought her $25,000. She thought it would bring permanent escape from an American nightmare, but the US had 46 gold medal winners at those Games, the currency of one differing wildly from another.

So, today, she lives on campus, dining in the same canteen that Michael Phelps dines in (albeit with bodyguard alongside on his part), sleeping in a heavily protected compound as distinct from a bed-less tenement.

She says she has found God in her life.

Her plan is to be married by 27, have a big family and a big house. "I just see myself as being very successful," she smiles. She knows all about Katie Taylor, respects her hugely, but stresses "I want to go down in history as the best female boxer that ever lived."

From the darkest dawn, she might just have a shot at that.

Irish Independent

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