'The fight for equal pay is the harder fight': Boxing world champion Claressa Shields makes history in Saudi Arabia

After her historic win in the first professional women's MMA fight to take place in Riyadh, the two-time Olympic gold medallist talks about what lies ahead for female fighters


Somya Mehta

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Shields celebrates after fighting against Kelsey De Santis during the 2024 PFL vs Bellator: Champs event at Kingdom Arena, Riyadh. Photo: PFL
Shields celebrates after fighting against Kelsey De Santis during the 2024 PFL vs Bellator: Champs event at Kingdom Arena, Riyadh. Photo: PFL

Published: Sun 25 Feb 2024, 5:27 PM

Last updated: Tue 27 Feb 2024, 3:06 PM

For decades, female fighters have proven time and again that athleticism knows no gender boundaries. With an impressive record of 13-0, Claressa Shields, who made her professional boxing debut in 2016, stands as a testament to what women are able to achieve in life—and sport—with unwavering determination and resilience.

The undisputed boxing world champion, who transitioned into the world of Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) in 2021 with Professional Fighter’s League (PFL), recently clinched her second victory in MMA with a split decision win over Kelsey De Santis in Riyadh.

This bout marked a historic moment as the first professional MMA fight, PFL vs Bellator in Saudi Arabia, featuring two women. And the moment became even more special for Shields, a three-weight world champion in boxing, after being declared the winner in this historic fight.

"Seventeen years ago, I never thought that fighting would bring me to Saudi Arabia, especially for MMA. Even though I always like to think about the future, I could have never envisioned this for myself. Being the first female MMA fighter to come and fight on Saudi grounds, it's surreal,” said Shields.

“I'm just super proud of myself, I caused so much damage in the first and second rounds but [Kelsey] started doing what she does best and pinned me to the ground—tried to armbar me and choke me a couple of times. And I was able to fight out of everything.”

“I was sprawling and brawling, getting out of armbars, escaping stuff. I became a mixed martial artist tonight,” said the 28-year-old, marking her first MMA fight since 2021.

From her humble beginnings in Michigan, United States, to the grand stages of international competitions, Shields has consistently demonstrated an unwavering commitment to her craft. "For six months leading up to this fight, I've been nothing but on the ground, working. There were days in camp where I was crying during practice, and Coach said, 'So what? Do it again’. I was so frustrated because I wanted to be good at it but there are days when it's just so hard,” she added.

Photo: PFL
Photo: PFL

“I've been to the Olympics twice, and I have never had a camp as hard as this, even at the world championships. There were days where I really felt defeated but my team pushed me so hard, gave me good energy and made sure I kept coming back. I have to give a shout out to my team—Team Murcielago. This one’s for them,” said Shields, who’s been recognised as the best active female pound for pound boxer.

As a two-time Olympic gold medallist, Shields etched her name in history as the first American boxer—male or female—to claim consecutive Olympic gold medals in boxing. However, with a career marked by unparalleled achievements and groundbreaking victories, the athlete has not only shattered barriers but has also redefined the landscape of women's boxing on a global scale and she hopes to carry that forward to MMA.

Kelsey De Santis throws a kick against Shields. Photo: PFL
Kelsey De Santis throws a kick against Shields. Photo: PFL

MMA, being the newer sport as compared to boxing, has brighter prospects for women fighters, says Shields. "Women's MMA continues to grow because MMA organisations care about women. They give us equal pay, and offer exciting fights. We have great weight classes. They even feature Olympic gold medalists like Kayla Harrison, who was signed with the PFL, and myself, a two-time Olympic gold medalist in boxing.”

As an advocate for gender equality, Shields' impact extends far beyond her victories in the ring, breaking down barriers and challenging societal norms along the way. Addressing some of the key challenges that continue to exist for women fighters, she mentions, “I believe the fight for equal pay still exists. That's the harder fight. Equal opportunity, equal TV time—In MMA, we get equal fight time. But in boxing, we don't.”

“Women fight 10 two-minute rounds, while the men fight 12 three-minute rounds. Women get paid significantly less than men in boxing, and we also don't get the same opportunities. I have been fortunate, but it's still something that I deserve in boxing, considering all my accolades and accomplishments,” says Shields.

To the young girls who aspire to grow up and follow in the footsteps of the boxing world champion, Shields has a message. “Work hard, believe in yourself, and don't be discouraged. Keep going no matter what the obstacles are. This is something I try to follow in my life, too,” she added, sharing a special moment with the heavyweight titan Mike Tyson, who was also present at the inaugural MMA fight in Saudi Arabia.

“I'm really happy that I met Mike Tyson before the fight, he said to me ‘Just because you lost one fight, doesn't mean you have to get discouraged in MMA. Don’t let one loss discourage you’. That is so important. If I gave up when I felt defeated, I wouldn't be standing here for the fight tonight, with Mike Tyson, right there, watching me! You need to keep moving forward.”



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