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Preview: Claressa Shields goes for another world title against Ivana Habazin

Claressa Shields is going for a third world title on Saturday night.

Stephanie Trapp/SHOWTIME

24-year-old Claressa Shields seems to have been born for this. The native of Flint, Michigan, won Olympic gold medals in 2012 and 2016, pretty much breezing through the competition in London and Rio de Janeiro, and her pro run hasn’t been any different — she’s dominated from fight one on, and has taken it upon herself to lead the women’s side of the boxing world to unprecedented exposure.

“I’ve taken women’s boxing to a place it hasn’t been before, but it’s not where it needs to be yet,” she said. “I think that my performances are getting better and better and everything I do outside of boxing is helping to build me up as well.”

Shields (9-0, 2 KO) has her detractors for sure. Some harp on the fact that for as much as she talks about knocking her opponents out, she basically never does — she stopped her second and fourth pro foes, but otherwise has gone the distance every time out.

Some focus on her social media presence, where she seems to have taken lessons from the outspoken likes of fellow Michigan native Floyd Mayweather at best, and Mayweather wannabes like Adrien Broner at worst.

But she doesn’t seem overly concerned about “hard core boxing heads” being her biggest fans. She’s trying to find an audience that maybe just hasn’t been there at all. Let’s be honest: there are a lot of dudes out there who are never going to like women’s boxing, no matter how good anyone is, or how much more competitive the sport becomes over the years.

And it will become more competitive in time. The depth in the sport — which being frank is a major issue in selling it overall — will improve. With better amateur programs for young women and the promise or at least hope of Olympic glory in women’s boxing now, it’s natural that there will be more talented fighters coming in young than ever before. If the likes of Shields and Katie Taylor, not to mention pro vets like Cecilia Braekhus and Amanda Serrano, among others, can keep pushing the sport further into the forefront, then the pay will become more attractive. It can be seen as a viable career for more than just the top women in time.

In time.

Right now, and meaning no disrespect to the pioneers of professional women’s boxing, this is a sport still in its infancy as far as mainstream acceptance goes, and probably in terms of the talent level and depth starting to come along. If the sport does grow and reach the heights these women want it to, Shields, Taylor, etc. will be seen in 20 or 30 years as pioneers themselves.

Apart from the naysayers who just don’t like women’s boxing, Shields also doesn’t get a ton of respect so far from BoxRec’s rankings system, where she’s ranked 14th in the world pound-for-pound among all women. If she’s aware of that, it probably pisses her off — this is a woman who already styles herself “The GWOAT,” which has bunched the underpants of many fans and some boxing women of the past alike.

Stephanie Trapp/SHOWTIME

But Shields has really done all you could ask in the ring so far, perhaps apart from getting the knockouts, and on that note, she’s a proponent of women getting three-minute rounds, having said in the past that often, just as she’s building momentum in a round, it’s over, and she doesn’t have a chance to wear an opponent down further.

Even her pro debut is one worth noting, a four-round decision win over Franchon Crews-Dezurn, who was making her own debut that evening. Crews-Dezurn has since won six straight fights and a pair of world titles at 168 pounds.

By her fourth outing, Shields was a world champion, picking up the WBC and IBF titles at 168 with a fifth round stoppage of previously-undefeated Nikki Adler, a German boxer who found herself way out of her depth against the brash American.

Shields defended those belts once, shutting out Tori Nelson in Jan. 2018, before moving down to 160 pounds in search of more gold. She picked up the WBA and IBF belts with a win over Hanna Gabriels in June 2018, and added the WBC title by beating Hannah Rankin in Nov. 2018. She beat Femke Hermans less than a month later on the final HBO boxing show ever, and then in April of this year, became undisputed at 160 with a dominant win over Christina Hammer, who was also previously unbeaten and also just had basically nothing for Shields once the bell rang.

Shields-Hammer was hyped big by Showtime, the network which has taken her in and pushed hard to promote her as something of a flagship star for their boxing brand. The fight, in all honesty, failed to live up to that hype, but Shields didn’t. She was simply much better than Hammer, whose basic skill set was just no match for Shields.

It was an eye-opening experience for a woman who had been very successful to date, as Shields represented a level that Hammer had just not seen before. It wasn’t the first time Shields has done that to a pro opponent, and certainly won’t be the last.

With 160 conquered and nothing of real interest worth going back up to 168, Shields has chosen again to move down in weight, dropping to 154 for a Saturday night matchup on Showtime against Ivana Habazin, a 29-year-old Croatian and former titleholder at 147 pounds.

Shields is not shy about making bold predictions, including another call for a knockout, something she hasn’t had in over two years.

“It’s important every time to look better than my last fight. That’s just my mentality so that I keep myself from doing too much but also doing enough,” she said. “I looked superb in my last fight. I showed people that I’m a complete fighter. I can’t show less than that on Saturday. To me, that means I have to get the knockout.

“I know that I’m faster at 154 pounds. It’s been a big jump for this one. I’m Roy Jones Jr fast for this one. I can drop my hands, throw punches and land them from any angle. This weight is beneficial for my body. It fits me well.”

Stephanie Trapp/SHOWTIME

Shields won’t take Habazin lightly, and the Showtime crew will do their best to sell her as a worthy opponent, but we have no reason to play along with that, really.

So let’s just be honest: on paper, Habazin (20-3, 7 KO) probably isn’t striking anyone as a real threat to Claressa Shields. She turned pro in 2010, lost to Eva Bajic in a 2013 title shot, and then went to Belgium in 2014 to beat Sabrina Giuliani for the vacant IBF welterweight belt by decision.

Six months later, Habazin faces Cecilia Braekhus, who was already pretty much the ruling queen of the welterweights, in an undisputed title fight in Copenhagen. Braekhus won every round on all three judges’ scorecards.

After a pair of stay-busy wins to bounce back, Habazin went to Stockholm and was stopped in three by Mikaela Lauren in a 154-pound title fight in April 2016.

Since then, Habazin has won five straight, against opponents who came in with records of 0-0-1, 0-3, 5-5, 8-5-1, and 14-14. The last of those fights was a rematch with Bajic, who had gone 3-8 since their first meeting in 2013, and has lost two more fights since then to Hannah Rankin and Alicia Napoleon-Espinosa.

“Habazin has a good record and is ranked highly, so I know what she presents,” Shields said of the Croatian. “I trained for nine weeks not to lose weight, but to be prepared for a tough match. I trained to come here and get the knockout. It should be a great fight come Saturday.”

Deep down, Shields will surely carry the supreme confidence she always has. She truly believes that she’s the superior fighter, and she’s probably correct.

Habazin, for her part, is selling confidence of her own in the lead-up, saying, “I can’t think about what’s going to happen when I win. I need to be only focused on this fight. Dreams and reality are two different things. I’m here to give 100 percent of myself. I didn’t come here to play games.”

Maybe Saturday will be different. Maybe Shields, who claimed a knee injury to postpone this fight, which was originally slated for August, hasn’t really had the easiest time getting down to 154. That could, in theory, give Habazin a shot.

But even if Shields was struggling to get down in weight this summer — which is what Habazin suspected about the cancellation — she’s had more time to correct that and get there more comfortably. And if it really was a minor knee issue, Habazin says she’s not thinking about that.

“I’ve been injured before and I get in there and fight anyway,” the Croatian said. “She’s a fighter and even if she had some problems, I know those aren’t going to be in her mind. The fight is too big to do that.”

Furthermore, even if Shields were, for the sake of argument, still struggling a bit to make 154, even if it turns out it’s not the weight for her, she’d have to be truly drained and physically screwed up to bring this fight to even odds, let alone make Habazin a favorite.

That’s how good Claressa Shields has been compared to her opponents thus far. She has earned the right to be considered a no-questions favorite in every matchup right now. In just nine pro fights, we have reached the point where we have to imagine Shields being physically diminished by a weight cut just to make her fights seem competitive on paper.

If she’s successful on Saturday, she’ll be a three-division champion in her 10th professional fight. The detractors will remain, and there will be arguments about the significance of that considering the depth issues in women’s boxing, but the concrete fact will be that she’s done that faster than anyone in pro boxing history.

This is not a fighter who has aimed to be universally loved, just universally respected. That’s at least every bit as difficult to achieve, but Claressa Shields continues to fight to elevate herself and her sport as a whole.