T-Rex: Her Fight for Gold

T-Rex: Her Fight for Gold (documentary)
directed by Zackary Caneperi and Drea Cooper
Universal Pictures, 2016

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She doesn’t think that anybody can beat her. Nobody. And some people would take that as cockiness, but I just look at it as confidence.”
-Jason Crutchchfield, manager for Claressa Shields

In her book On Boxing, Joyce Carol Oates wrote, “Boxing is a purely masculine activity and it inhabits a purely masculine world.” Well, a lot has changed since the book’s publication in 1987: women’s boxing was sanctioned by the Swedish Amateur Boxing Association a year after On Boxing was published, and by the 1990s, female bouts became both frequent and popular. As professional women’s boxing continues to grow, it occupies more and more undercards, even for big-ticket fights; there is tremendous appeal among fans with female MMA fighters, with stars like Ronda Rousey already garnering book deals; and a recent television show centered around women’s wrestling titled Glow that is disturbingly touted as “Porn you can watch with your kids, finally!” (One to wonders just who has been waiting for this opportunity with such impatience.) A level of fetishization has long spoken to what men - as the "true warriors" - expect when it comes to the ring, though the days off women's relegation to novelty-entertainment are finally over. Unwritten, quasi-Freudian/Eriksonian laws claim a predisposition among women as nurturers while men are instinctually protective and aggressive (among humans, at least). But there is tremendous appeal among fans with female fighters within MMA, and a recent television show centered around women’s wrestling titled Glow is disturbingly touted as “Porn you can watch with your kids, finally!” (leaving this writer to wonder just who had been waiting for this opportunity). Women’s boxing is reported with the same scrutiny and gravitas as male bouts, albeit with considerably less frequency. But when it comes to the ring, many men still believe that the true warriors rest with their own gender, and despite the above-mentioned advancements,  women's boxing is confined to the realm of fetishization - novelty-entertainment rarely watched by said men who remain unaware of this sea change and prefer to graze over (or skip altogether) broadcasts and reports of female fights. As to Oates’ assertion, boxer and scribe Sarah Deming writes in her essay The Real Million Dollar Baby (from the 2017 book of boxing essays The Bittersweet Science) “Oates uses fighters for her own peculiar project… one of establishing herself alongside such serious, masculine names as Mailer and Hemingway.” This is utterly plausibility - especially upon revisiting Oates' slender volume in all of its, as I call them, "apologetic quotes," and her Tourett's-like compulsion to insert the words "brave" or "courageous" in any sentence in which Ali comes up. Deming proceeds to point out the author’s change of tune in the 90s, when Oates conceded that her focus in On Boxing had been directed to boxing’s Golden Age, and that “It is not unreasonable that a gifted young woman athlete chooses to take up amateur boxing [italics mine] in 2012.”

Claressa Shields was 17 years-old in 2012, the year women’s boxing was first added to the Olympics, and her manager Jason Cruchfield had no doubt that, were Claressa to qualify, she would bring back the gold from London. She did. She also brought it back four years later from Rio de Janeiro to become the only boxer - male or female - to clinch the Olympic gold two times in a row.

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Claressa at the 2012 Olympics in London

Hailing from Flint, Michigan - one of the most violent cities in the country - Claressa decided to take up boxing after watching Laila Ali fight on television. But her father, Bo Shields (who was in prison from the time Claressa was two until she was nine), had boxed in underground leagues and introduced his daughter to the sport with the tacit understanding that this was men's work. There was no way he was going to let his girl get punched around a ring, or punched period. Punches, whether meted out or absorbed, occupied a seedy, violent male world, and it was her grandmother who convinced her that she should pursue what had become a singular focus and passion, regardless of her gender. Bo went from an initial “Hell, no” when asked by his daughter to fight to a compliment of the highest order in acquiescing to her wish: “Truth be known, little mama," he told her, "you’re awesome.” Unfortunately, T-Rex: Her Fight for Gold does not introduce us to Bo, whose inclusion might have made for further insight to Claressa’s exposure to the sport at a young age.

Training at at Berston Field House in Flint with Jason was Claressa’s only escape from a caring but gloomy - and less-than-nurturing - home life. Her mother is an addict (the same seems true for her sister Brianna, who looks thirty years older than her 14 years at the time the film was released in 2016), and her father’s relation with the law remains on tenuous ground. Brianna complains about her mother’s “disrespectful” boyfriend: “I don’t feel safe around him.” Though it is not mentioned, or even implied here, the sexual abuse Claressa suffered at the hands of her mother's boyfriends growing up is perhaps another impetus for her life pursuit (for once, there will be no Freudian readings here). Watching T-Rex, we are privy to a city that does not offer even the illusion of safety among any of its nearly 100,000 residents. While Michael Moore exposed layoffs at General Motors in his first film Roger and Me and a water crisis continue to plague the city, there are other pressing day-to-day matters at hand, and Claressa opts to do her morning roadwork at sun-up to avoid Flint's regular nighttime gun fire.

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Claressa does her roadwork at sunup in Flint.

Through her bouts in the 2011 Police Athletic League Championship when she was sixteen years-old, Shields qualified for the U.S. Olympic trials, temporarily relocating to the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. Upon completion (and qualification), her first stop was to be China, where she would fight in the AIBA Women’s Boxing Championships in Qinhuangdao to complete her final Olympic qualification before heading to the London games. When she and Jason could not afford an extra ticket so that he could accompany her, Claressa was terrified - her most important fight yet would also be her first time fighting without her manager. Nevertheless, the high school junior brought back the gold in 2012. As she looked ahead to a professional career, she amassed an amateur record of 78-1 (her only loss came by unanimous decision that year in London to the Brit Nicola Adams). While there is, alas, little glory in besting an inferior fighter, every boxer can and should lose at least once. (Take it from Floyd Patterson: "It's easy to do anything in victory. It's in defeat that a man reveals himself."). In today’s stats-obsessed zeitgeist, most contemporary fighters would rather maintain an unblemished record even if it means fighting once every 18 months. Scenes of Claressa post-loss show a weeping young woman who was clearly weaned on contemporary fighters’ obsession with perfect records (she was born in 1995, after all). They can’t all be Marcianos (or in this case Mayweathers). Nevertheless, padding one’s record with so much cannon-fodder for a set of what are ultimately shifting statistics are not lost on the serious fight fan.

Claressa's loss to Adams initially appeared a bit dubious, though close inspection reveals a fair decision. Shields may have outclassed Adams with her extraordinary footwork in which she glides effortlessly - as though on swiveling roller blades - while navigating the ring to find an in where she might force her opponent to backpedal, upsetting her balance to corner her on the ropes (vide Tyson). This was especially necessary in fighting the taller Adams. Claressa's lighting-fast body blows were effective (pleas from her corner to go for the body were completely unnecessary - she was already on it), but she never really landed a good head blow, something Jason had often kept on her for, and her rare jabs were directed at the body. Adams’ several head shots landed with more frequency that any significant punches on Shields’ part, costing her the fight. It was her only loss in her professional career, but she could still bring home the gold - she just had to win her next fight. She did. The rest, as people say, is history.

In her book Without Apology: Girls, Women, and the Desire to Fight, Leah Hagler writes that, while not necessarily better suited to boxing, women have greater endurance when working out, a better sense of balance, and are more flexible than men. This may explain the dexterity with which Shields navigates the ring - her balance is a force of nature: a Weeble that never so much as wobbles. Men may have the ability to carry more oxygen (important for stamina) and larger, leaner muscle mass, but Claressa’s guns can give even the most solid lightweight a run for his money. Still, the rules that govern women’s professional boxing seem a bit runty when held against men’s (perhaps the result of the male capacity for stamina), frequently employing less rounds of shorter duration as well as requisite headgear. (Breast guards are strongly recommended but not required.)

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Back at school, showing off her Olympic belt.

After Claressa’s return from London, the film turns its focus again to the small, mean, and cold city of Flint, where little has changed save for the signs, balloons and jumping parties celebrating her victory. It was only the beginning of her newfound fame. She appeared on The Colbert Report. (“Why Boxing?” Colbert asked her. “I love hitting people,” was her response.) A national celebrity and Flint’s native daughter, she's shown back in high school, having brought along her title belt for an old-fashioned, impromptu show-and-tell. She may be getting 30-40 emails a day (endorsement requests, fan mail), but complains that everyone thinks she must be rich. At the time of filming she wasn't, though the $1,000 Olympic stipend that barely supported her unemployed mother and sister seems like chump-change now. But sitting down with Anthony Bartowski of USA Boxing to discuss possible endorsements, she is gently scolded: her bluster on Colbert, as well as in several other interviews, have come to be viewed as a liability among potential sponsors. She's a goldmine whose entire spiel smacks of bad intentions. So long as she continued bragging about her passion for beating people up and "hearing them cry," no company will touch her. Claressa was less than receptive to these admonishments, and so endorsement deals were slow to come. How does Shields feel about this? She doesn’t really care about her braggadocio, ”'cause,” she gleefully puts it, “everybody wants a tough, strong woman in their life!” Now, at age 22, the offers still ain't coming. Shields has her own explanation for these snubs: "I wasn't the ideal woman," she told NPR journalist Sue Jaye Johnson, "I wasn't the pretty girl who wears her hair straight. I don't know. I guess I wasn't what they were looking for." (Shields is actually quite beautiful, and it is more likely her cocky talk that's kept the endorsements at bay.)

The film paints a portrait of Flint that, while incidental, sadly reinforces its image when jarringly juxtaposed with London and the glories of the Olympics. Nevertheless, T-Rex is a heartening account of a phoenix rising from the ashes of squalor, violence, and poverty into something meaningful - and not just to the disenfranchised that continue to plod and linger in that mean little Northern city.

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Claressa with her manager Jason Crutchchfield

Today, Claressa's professional record stands at and unblemished 4-0, with four fights inside of nine months between November of 2016 and August of 2017. She has since moved in with Jason as her home life grew ever-less stable. No once-a-year fighter, Shields seems to have finally accepted that amassing quantities of fights will only make her better. Just as important is her need to accept that there is no shame in the occasional loss, only a lesson. Of course, this has yet to happen, and considering her Olympic coach Billy Walsh’s conviction that “[h]er hand speed is phenomenal. Her hand movement is phenomenal. And her power, for a woman, she hurts every time she hits you” indicates her perfect record may hold for sometime. At 22, it is too early to tell how long Claressa will maintain her streak, but at the very least, she has at least another ten years of fighting in her. Possibly more. Perhaps this is harping (and that’s certainly tempting when speaking of a champion with a perfect record), but it is impossible to predict the trajectory of an entire career in its early stages, and there are - to belabor the point - upsides to losing. I hope Claressa will understand this too some day - a lot can happen in a year.

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Claressa's professional debut, where she defeated Franchon Crews.