Claressa Shields isn’t naïve when it comes to her learning curve now that she’s making the move from boxing to mixed martial arts.
Despite becoming a two-time Olympic gold medalist and a multi-time, multi-division world champion, the 26-year-old Michigan native fully understood that she was starting at the bottom again when she decided to sign with the PFL.
In order to get ready for her debut, Shields called upon some of the top coaches in the sport when she began working with Greg Jackson and Mike Winkeljohn in New Mexico and that team selection also came along with training partners such as former UFC champions Jon Jones.
Learning everything required for MMA has been tough but Shields didn’t start this journey because she thought it was going to be easy.
“I’m a boxer,” Shields explained when speaking to MMA Fighting ahead of her fight at PFL 4. “I’ve been boxing since I was 11 years old, I’m 26 so 15 years. It’s definitely out of my comfort zone but I have such a great team and great coaches for them to help me be comfortable with being uncomfortable. When I first came to camp, I was having huge anxiety just about could I do the MMA training? Could I stay calm if I got taken down? Could I even stay calm against the cage? Could I learn how to get up after being down or just keeping my head?
“I learned I can do all that and more. I’m happy that we just jumped into all the things that I wasn’t good at or that I didn’t know. They just started teaching me and I’m a really great learner. That’s something I knew would play in my favor.”
Shields has been an athlete almost her entire life but she admits the aches and pains that came along with MMA training definitely pushed her body to the limits.
It’s all been for a purpose as she seeks to define herself as the greatest women’s combat athlete in history, which is why she’s pushed herself through those days when she didn’t want to go through another wrestling drill or grapple another teammate in a jiu-jitsu practice.
Her first love will always be boxing but Shields has learned to embrace her newfound skills in MMA because it’s all going to help her achieve those goals in her career.
“I have a passion for fighting. So to me that’s how I’m able to do boxing and MMA,” Shields said. “I have a passion to win and do whatever it takes to win. I have a passion to learn whatever I need to learn to win. So in MMA I have a passion to learn because I want to win the fight. That’s just what it is for me. I just have a huge passion to go to war, fight people, fight women and come out on top.
“Yes, I had the passion already but it’s kind of more passion because now I feel like I have a lot more to fight for. I feel like me just coming in and getting inside the MMA cage is a lot but to win — even win one fight or 10 fights or whatever — it’s like you really took the time to humble yourself and start back at the bottom and climb back to the top.”
A huge asset during her transition has been working alongside one-time UFC bantamweight champion Holly Holm, who was also held multiple titles in boxing before making her move to MMA several years back.
Holm obviously underwent the same kinds of difficulties as she adapted her style to become a complete fighter rather than just a boxer, which has definitely served as a shining example to Shields as she does the same.
“Me and Holly are actually friends and we’ve sparred a few rounds these last few weeks and after every sparring session, we talk about what I did good and what I messed up at,” Shields said. “Just ways to move forward in the next sparring session but she is very informational. Just really great at her job. In MMA sparring, we don’t go 100 percent but people like to see us spar. I can say that.
“They can see I have a lot of mental toughness, a lot of physical toughness and I try to match it with her even though she’s way more experienced than me with the kicks and the knees and things like that. I’m also still learning. I have a few kicks and I have my hands that are superior.”
Considering she’s just about to make her debut on Thursday night, Shields isn’t trying to live up to any unrealistic expectations but she’s also confident enough to know her true potential.
A good example was a recent trip to watch the first PFL card of the season as Shields watched the opening round fights for the women competing in the lightweight division.
Right away, Shields recognized that she wasn’t ready to face someone like Kayla Harrison, who is widely recognized as one of the best women’s fighters on the planet as she seeks her second straight PFL title this year.
That said, Shields also saw enough flaws in some potential competition to know she was ready to defeat them right now if those were the opponents the PFL handed her.
“I felt like out of the eight girls who I seen fight in the league, I felt like watching I can beat at least five of them now,” Shields said. “That was great for me to see but now we know also, too, why I’m not in the tournament this year because we’ve got these two other girls [Kayla Harrison and Larissa Pacheco] who are monsters. I really need to learn more to when I do get the chance to get inside the cage with them that I don’t go in there and it be like a flop situation.
“I respect those girls. Definitely I’m looking at everybody as an opponent who’s at 155. I have to. That’s my job. I’m really focused on Brittney Elkin and June 10 but I know that as I continue to grow in MMA, me and my team have a big decision to make next year.”
The big decision is whether or not Shields will enter the PFL season in 2022 or wait until 2023 to seek out that tournament title.
For now, Shields is just anxious to get started with her first MMA fight so she can finally add that inaugural win to her record.
“Right now, the only thing I’m focusing on is just the win,” Shields said. “People are going to see that I definitely know more than boxing when I get inside the cage. You’re definitely going to be able to see that.”