The Real Million Dollar Baby

June 23, 2017
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“Claressa Shields is the Real Million Dollar Baby,” Sarah Deming’s piece from our new anthology The Bittersweet Science: Fifteen Writers in the Gym, in the Corner, and at Ringside, first ran at Deadspin. Here’s an excerpt from that essay below. More at Deadspin, of course.

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Claressa Shields was born in Flint, Mich., the middleweight champion of hard-luck towns. Her dad was an underground fighter called Cannonball who went to prison when she was two. Her mother was an imperfect protector. When Cannonball got out, Claressa was nine years old and already a survivor.

Father and daughter drove around Flint in his big burgundy van, trying to make up for lost time. Cannonball told Claressa it was a shame nobody else in the family boxed. All the Shieldses could fight; most of the men had gone to jail, and some of the women, too. He said prison was a cycle somebody had to break. He said it was sad how Muhammad Ali had all those sons and none of them followed him into the ring.

“Laila did,” said Claressa.

“She’s a bad girl,” said Cannonball.

Claressa thought he was telling her to box. Her favorite cartoon was The Powerpuff Girls, about three little superheroines who flew around smashing things and defeating evil. She loved how they were each a different color and they could all fight. One time at school, Claressa threw a chair at a teacher. They made her take anger management classes, which helped a lot, but sometimes she still felt like smashing things.

She was 11 when she walked into Berston Field House, the small community center that had already produced two Olympic medalists at middleweight, Chris Byrd and Andre Dirrell. The coaches worked her out the first day but would not let her return without written permission. She knew her mother would never sign, so she took the paper to Cannonball.

“Hell, no,” he said.

When Claressa asked why not, he said she was too pretty to box. Claressa had never thought of herself as pretty. Her father’s words pleased her a tiny bit, even as they made her furious. She would not speak to him for several days. When he showed up after school one day to pick her up, she refused to get in the van.

“Shut up, little girl,” said Cannonball. “We’re going to my house.” Her father’s entire family was arrayed in the living room: his wife, Lisa Allen; Claressa’s sisters Tiffany and Kaya Gray; her brother Tray. “We took a vote, and you won,” said Cannonball, handing her the permission slip. He was the only one who had voted against her.

The workouts at Berston were hard but fun. Jason Crutchfield taught her to throw the right cross. He made her do it over and over, turning her knuckles every time. Jason’s tubby belly and gentle smile belied his perfectionism. He had gone 8–1–1 as a pro lightweight at Kronk before life got in the way. He was especially strict about Claressa’s balance. He taught her to step out to the side, shift her body weight, know good position so she was always ready to punch. He taught her straight shots and classic combinations. She had that strength of will that cannot be taught.

Claressa left her mother’s house and went to live with Jason, because boxers need order in their lives. He made the most delicious barbecued chicken, but Claressa always told him it was bad, just to mess with him. Jason had a wife and kids and no room to spare in his house, but he could not turn ‘Ress away. She was the best boxer he had ever trained.

She burned her way through the junior ranks. Her father didn’t see her fight until her fourth match. Claressa was warming up in her street clothes when the opponent, a 12-year-old named Chloe Kinsley, walked past with her mother and remarked, “I’m gonna stop her.”

She was the first of Claressa’s opponents to go the distance. Claressa almost had her. In the final round, Chloe was backed up against the ropes, crying. The ref jumped between them to stop it, but the bell rang. After that, Chloe Kinsley switched to soccer.

Cannonball told his daughter he had never seen a girl fight like that.

Claressa made the age cutoff for the London Olympics by two months and four days. She qualified for the U.S. Trials by winning the Police Athletic League National Championships, the first tournament she entered as an adult. She was 16 years old and had a record of 19–0.

She flew out to New York City for an event hosted by the public radio station WNYC. She didn’t know what to expect, just that it had to do with boxing. A crowd of local media and boxing fans turned out to celebrate the sport’s new Olympic status and hear Rosie Perez tease Claressa gently about dieting and boys.

Claressa knew she had seen Rosie’s face before, but it wasn’t until later that she remembered Do the Right Thing. When Rosie asked if she ever worried about head injuries, Claressa said no, but that got her thinking. Sometimes she got headaches, especially when Jason doubled up her workouts, which meant she would spar twice a day against men who hit hard. Claressa didn’t like to complain, but after Rosie asked her that, she cut back on sparring.

There were lots of women boxers in the audience who stood up and asked questions. One of them was 42 years old! She could have passed for 25 in Flint. Claressa supposed that was what happened when you lived a good and happy life.

Claressa did not know how deceptive her own appearance was. From where I lurked in the back of the crowd, trying to avoid ex-boyfriends and score free drinks, the gawky teen with the huge grin did not look like my sport’s future. I had just turned 38 and given my mother a kidney. Mixed in with my happiness about the Olympics was bitterness that it had not come sooner. Not that I was good enough to qualify, but it would have been nice to try. Like Cannonball and Jason Crutchfield and anyone else who has ever quit boxing, I will always look back with longing.

When I won the New York City Golden Gloves in 2001, women’s boxing was enjoying its brief televised heyday. Christy “The Coal Miner’s Daughter” Martin had been the first marquee name, brawling on Tyson undercards in blood-spattered pink trunks. Trainers were eager to make the next star, but Laila Ali and Mia St. John rode a wave of popularity that was already dying. My girlfriends who went pro faced an indifferent marketplace.

Sadly, these days most people’s reference point for women’s boxing is the 2004 Oscar-winner, Million Dollar Baby. Based on the short story collection Rope Burns by F. X. Toole, the film tells the story of Maggie Fitzgerald, a plucky girl who climbs the pro ranks only to be maimed in her title shot by Billy the Blue Bear. From the short story:

Billy “the Blue Bear” Astrakhov was a big-busted, masculine-looking Russian girl living in Hamburg, who grew a faint mustache and dated fashion models. A former Moscow prostitute, she paraded herself in white tuxedos and lavender ties. . . . She was a big draw in Germany. Her favorite trick was to get inside and jam the palm of her glove into her opponent’s nose, breaking it. That she might kill them didn’t worry her. She promised to knock Maggie out.

“After I vip her,” she said at the weigh-in, grinning and winking at Maggie, “I take her to my room. On a leash.”

Their foul-ridden fight leaves Maggie paralyzed. From her hospital bed, she then fends off venal relatives, bedsores, and gangrene; has her leg amputated; and is finally euthanized by her trainer.

Oh, was that a spoiler? Good. If I can save a single person from watching this misogynist melodrama expecting a feel-good sports story, my work in this essay is done. (And if you think Toole is sexist, you should read how he writes about black people and Mexicans.)

Even the muse hated it. Juli Crockett is a former pro welterweight from Alabama. When she met Jerry Boyd, the Los Angeles cutman who wrote under the porny pseudonym F. X. Toole, he pronounced her the incarnation of Maggie Fitzgerald. She was less than flattered. “Jerry was against women boxing,” she says. “His fear was that they would get hurt and he would go to hell. There’s a way in which the story is all about him. The men are in control all the time. They decide when Maggie fights, who she fights, and whether she wins or dies.”

“Why can’t there be a female Rocky?” Crockett wonders. “Why can’t she just win? Why can’t she live?”

She can’t win or live because Million Dollar Baby is a women’s boxing story told by people who don’t much care for either women or boxing. Jerry Boyd’s epigraph for his collection tells us all we need to know: “Boxing is for men, and is about men, and is men. A celebration of the lost religion of masculinity all the more trenchant for being lost.”

That’s Joyce Carol Oates, of course. The most famous female boxing writer is also among the most virulent opponents of women in the sport. In On Boxing, Oates denigrates ring-card girls and female national anthem singers en route to proclaiming that the female boxer “cannot be taken seriously. She is parody, she is cartoon, she is monstrous.”

When I first encountered Oates’s mercifully slim volume, I was still boxing and took her words like a right hand to the solar plexus. Now I take them as seriously as the rest of what she wrote about boxing, which is to say, not very. Like Jerry Boyd, Oates uses fighters for her own peculiar project: in her case, one of establishing a position for herself alongside such serious, masculine names as Mailer and Hemingway. As a woman writer, she must have been particularly anxious to distance herself from the female flesh on display in the ring. All women, even intellectual heavyweights, are subject to being reduced to mere bodies. Oates watches the action from very far away and very high up. Empathy is risky in a game of pain.

Boxing is a sport of the poor, and all fighters are prizefighters. Male boxers fight for real prizes like money and belts, because real prizes exist for them, and because the poverty they come from is real poverty. Women fight for imaginary prizes like the right to be taken seriously as athletes, because there is little money in our game, and because—although plenty of women boxers come from economically disadvantaged backgrounds—we have all endured a more insidious kind of deprivation: poverty of the imagination.

Poverty of the imagination prevented Joyce Carol Oates from stepping outside of herself to see the crude women boxers of her day for what they were: pioneers. Those who go first are seldom the best, and the early women professionals were notable more for their bravery than their refinement. This remains somewhat true of women’s boxing today, but young women like Claressa Shields are proof that it is changing.

Poverty of the imagination keeps sportswriters fixated on women boxers’ physical appearance or their history of sexual abuse, as though these things had any currency at all inside the ring, as though they were the only stories to tell.

Poverty of the imagination led AIBA, the international governing body for amateur boxing, to propose that skirts be the official uniform for women’s Olympics debut. They were quickly made optional after the ensuing uproar, but Poland still made its women wear them. They were incongruous and not even vaguely hot.

Poverty of the imagination is why—no joke—the most common question men ask me about my boxing career is, “What happens when you get punched in the breasts?” And surely it was poverty of the imagination that made Jerry Boyd and screenwriter Paul Haggis look down the road of their million dollar heroine and see only a dead end.

The real Million Dollar Baby is Claressa “T-Rex” Shields, the most inspiring athlete I have ever known. She is Elizabeth Andiego of Kenya, who went without food while training for the London Olympics so her son could eat. She is bronze medalist Mary Kom, who runs a camp for youth boxers in strife-torn Manipur; silver medalist Sofya Ochigava, who reads Dostoyevsky between bouts; and gold medalist Katie Taylor, who bore Ireland’s flag.

She is Juli Crockett, who retired undefeated, sings in a band called the Evangenitals, and describes her recently published dissertation as being “about the space that creating creates.” She is Mia St. John, who posed naked for Playboy and doesn’t care what you think. She is Michelle Cook, a Mohawk who fought in the USA Nationals while breast-feeding, and whose daughter’s name, Konwanihara, means “gives words of thanks.”

She is Stella Nijhof, my old sparring partner and four-time national champ, an awkward southpaw who wore her strawberry-blonde hair braided beneath her headgear and gave me many bloody noses but many more good times. Stella tends bar now in a former beauty parlor. We drink margaritas in pint glasses and reminisce about our brutal golden age.

Stella knows something about me no one else knows. She was my companion in that sweaty hell that I like better than heaven, and she saw me more naked than any lover. I never had much defense, in boxing or in life. Sometimes when Stella clocked me with her looping left I thought I might fall, but I’m still standing. Most Million Dollar Babies never make a dime, but we still have happy endings.

The day after I saw Claressa Shields speak, I followed her to Spokane. Twenty-four contenders would meet there for the first-ever U.S. Women’s Boxing Olympic Trials. Since the action in London was limited to three classes—flyweight (112 lbs.), lightweight (132 lbs.), and middleweight (165 lbs.)—many of the boxers were fighting outside of their natural weights. Claressa was a natural 154-pounder, so she would be giving up size as well as age. She still had a 16-year-old’s soft body, lacking that nebulous thing called “woman strength.” On the flight to Spokane, Franchon Crews and her people were already celebrating. The five-time national champion at middle-weight, the “Heavy-Hitting Diva” threw her haymaker right with bad intentions born in Baltimore and educated through trips to the World Championships and Pan-American Games. Crews had beaten most of the other middleweights before. She didn’t know about Claressa Shields, fresh up from the juniors.

In the casino ballroom, the unranked boxers pulled marked ping-pong balls out of a basket to determine their draw in the double-elimination tournament. Claressa rooted through the bucket like a kid fishing for a prize in Crackerjacks. When she drew Crews, she pumped her fist in triumph. That was the moment I realized Claressa was special. When I fought, I was so scared of losing that I used to hope for the weakest possible opponent, but Claressa already knew she was going to win the whole tournament.

Before their bout, Crews’s trainers were saying, “She trash already.” Claressa didn’t mind. She looked serene as she climbed through the ring ropes, trotted over to Crews’s corner, and initiated an extracurricular stare down that the referee hastened to break. That was just to let Crews know she wasn’t afraid. Jason made a show of admonishing Claressa, but few trainers really disapprove of that kind of thing. Claressa was already in her battle trance. She was about to hurt Franchon Crews.

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To read more about The Bittersweet Science, click here.

To check out the excerpt at Deadspin, click here.

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