Boxing, MMA star Claressa Shields’ next big fight is a first for women in Saudi Arabia

Claressa Shields is, without a doubt, the best women’s boxer in the world. The two-time Olympic gold medalist was the first undisputed champion in two different divisions — light middleweight and middleweight — in an era with four belts to win. At 14-0 as a professional and atop all pound-for-pound lists, she can continue doing what she’s doing and cruise into the Boxing Hall of Fame.

But that’s simply not Shields’ style.

She’s always wanted more, from the time she was growing up in Flint, Mich. One medal podium wasn’t good enough, she needed a second. One pro division wasn’t good enough, she needed more belts. One sport wasn’t good enough — she decided to join the Professional Fighters League to compete in mixed martial arts with the hopes of becoming the greatest women’s combat fighter of all time, and in hopes of bigger paydays in an industry where the gaps between men and women are often stark.

On Saturday, she’ll make an even bigger mark in combat sports by fighting Kelsey DeSantis, when they’ll become the first women to fight on a professional mixed martial arts card in Saudi Arabia, according to the PFL.

“It’s going to inspire the women there. It’s going to inspire their culture and their country,” said Shields, who will fight on the “PFL Champions vs. Bellator Champions” preliminary card, which will be televised in the United States on ESPNews and ESPN+.

“If you go and look at my story to see everything that I went through and how sports changed my life, they will feel that every woman and every man deserves sports. Sports change lives and it saves lives,” she told The Athletic, calling the bout a step “in the right direction” for the kingdom.

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Claressa Shields shows off her WBA, WBC and IBF middleweight title belts. (Mark Brown / Getty Images)

Saudi Arabia has long been criticized by international human rights groups for its record on women’s rights, even amid some loosening of social restrictions. Women could not vote or run for office until 2015. They began driving legally in 2018. Women, unlike men, still must have the consent of a male legal guardian to get married.

In terms of sports, women first represented Saudi Arabia in the Olympics in 2012, when judoist Wojdan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim Shahrkhani and runner Sarah Attar competed in London. Women were not welcomed as spectators at sporting events in the kingdom until 2018, which led to an explosion in attendance, according to the Saudi Ministry of Sport.

Saudi Arabia has used major events in part to help its reputation on the world stage. In combat sports, Saudi Arabia has in recent years rivaled cities like Las Vegas and London in hosting major fights.

Anthony Joshua vs. Andy Ruiz 2, dubbed the “Clash on the Dunes,” took place in 2019 at Diriyah Arena in Diriyah. Jake Paul vs. Tommy Fury topped a card at the same arena in 2023. Tyson Fury fought Francis Ngannou last October at the Kingdom Arena in Riyadh, the same location for a March 8 megafight between Ngannou and Joshua. The UFC will hold the promotion’s first event in the county in March.

Minky Worden, director of global initiatives for Human Rights Watch, said the high profile events were notable but not a sign of significant progress for women at large in Saudi Arabia.

“They do two things. They distract from the repression in the country, and they’re a little surprising that you’d have women fighting in a kind of glitzy event,” Worden said. “But they’re also one off events. So it’s not something that’s likely to lead to structural change in the country where there will be lots of women and girls able to participate in MMA.”

Donn Davis, chairman of the PFL, said that the promotion signed its first woman from Saudi Arabia, the first for a major MMA company, when Hattan Alsaif agreed to a multi-fight deal in January. Alsaif, 22, was a gold medal winner at the 2023 International Federation of Muay Thai Associations World Championships.

“We’ve developed her over the last 18 months,” Davis said. “She’s come out of their academy. So they are eagerly and actively developing women athletes from A to Z of all sports.”

Worden called the signing “very positive” but only because Saudi women have not always had full access to sports. “It’s from a very low bar, and it’s certainly the case that the millions of women and girls should never have been denied the right to play sports,” she said. “It’s also a positive development if they’re able to do that because sports gives you access to education, access to health, and access to a bright economic future.”

Shields’ journey to this point has been anything but typical. She has long been one of the most feared and technical strikers when on her feet, but has far less experience grappling on the mat. It’s why you rarely see boxers make the transition — once the fight hits the ground, more experienced and skilled jiu-jitsu practitioners often find a way to submit you.

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Claressa Shields, a boxing champion, is 2-0 as a professional MMA fighter. (Cooper Neill/PFL)

Shields, who trains with Murcielago MMA in Lansing, Mich., said she had to “force myself to be uncomfortable for months” while learning how to grapple. Many times she lost breath while being choked out on the mat and questioned why she made the leap to begin with.

“I have days at the gym where I tell myself, ‘I don’t know why I do this,’” she said. “I don’t know why I’m doing MMA. I get paid more in boxing. I’m respected more in boxing. Boxing is easier. Why am I here?”

But she comes back willing to learn. Nowadays, she said, she’s more comfortable and confident. Each training session helps her confidence that if she is, indeed, taken to the mat against DeSantis — a purple belt in jiu-jitsu and former U.S. Marine Corps member — she’ll be ready.

A win on Saturday would be Shields’ third in as many professional MMA fights and get her closer to her goal of fighting for a PFL belt. She said after this weekend’s bout, she plans on boxing two times in a row and then closing the year with another MMA fight. Shields’ goal is to be champion in both sports to ensure her the title of the greatest woman of all time in combat sports, a moniker (“GWOAT”) that she has often used for herself in boxing.

“Whether that’s a year from now or two or three years from now, I want to still be reigning in boxing and then fight for the PFL championship and win,” Shields said. “To hold both of those titles at the same time, to me that would be the biggest thing I could do in combat sports.”

But she thinks her bout is significant no matter the outcome.

“I feel like adding sports will bring more value to their culture and to their women,” Shields said. “It will make them feel important and make them feel like their life has a purpose through sports. That’s what I’m hoping that they can see with me.”

(Top photo: Cooper Neill / PFL)

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