Tere is a yellowed newspaper clipping taped to the wall in the basement of the Berston Field House, in Flint, Michigan, that shows Jason Crutchfield with his arms in the air, winning the city boxing championship in 1983. He was nineteen years old, a hundred and twenty-five pounds, and uncommonly handsome. “I was pretty good,” he said; his professional record was eight wins, one loss, and one draw, with six knockouts. But he got distracted. “Women,” he explained, with a snort. “Women. I just realize now, I can see the things I done wrong.” At forty-eight, Crutchfield has grown stocky—“I ain’t in no kind of shape”—but boxing is still the core of his life. He trains a dozen young people in the basement of Berston’s, where there’s a ring and three heavy bags and a boom box, but no speed bags, and a broken heater that leaks a swampy puddle on the floor. Crutchfield has a job doing construction for a local cable company. “Every day when I get off work, I go straight down to the gym. I leave work at five-thirty, six o’clock, and don’t get home until nine,” he said. “And I got kids, too!”—five from his two previous marriages and “one little bitty one” from his current relationship.
For a while, he was training one of his sons to be a boxer. “He was real good, too,” he said. “But he quit to play basketball. I said, ‘You watch! I’m going to have somebody!’ ” Crutchfield grinned. “I always knew I’d have a champion,” he said. “I just never thought it’d be a girl.”
The girl’s name is Claressa Shields. She started training with Crutchfield when she was eleven, and though she is only a junior in high school, she has all the prerequisites of athletic stardom. Everyone realized it at the U.S. Olympic Team Trials this February, when the twenty-four best female amateurs in the country competed for three spots in the upcoming London Olympics—the first in history that will allow women to box for a medal. Shields weighs in at a hundred and fifty-eight pounds; she fights as a middleweight, one of the three weight classes in the women’s division. (The men’s division has ten.) The bouts were held in a windowless auditorium of the Northern Quest Resort & Casino, outside Spokane, Washington, a sprawling complex full of slot machines and cigarette smoke, with fourteen restaurants and a view of the local prison.
The other fighters had heard about Shields before the tournament, which is perhaps why, when she and Crutchfield were backstage on the night of her first match, waiting to walk out before the hundreds of fans, their opponents started in on them early. Just a few feet away, twenty-four-year-old Franchon Crews, the top-ranked middleweight in the country, was standing in her hairnet and boxing gloves, trying to get her head together. “Her coaches was talking crazy!” Crutchfield said. “Talking about ‘We fixing to put the trash out.’ I didn’t want Claressa hearing no mess like that. But it didn’t do nothing but fire her up. I said, ‘Well, what’s taking so fucking long? Let’s get busy!’ ” Before the match, Shields, wearing Betty Boop socks that stuck up above her boxing boots, circled the ring and stopped in front of Crews, glaring at her for a few moments before the referee told her to get in her own corner.
After the bell, Shields plowed through her opponent. Crews bounced and scrambled, but Shields stalked her around the perimeter with heavy, ominous solidity, then cut off the ring and hammered her with long, straight blows. They came in five- and six-punch combinations—double jabs, hard rights, hooks, uppercuts—and she was always in position to throw the next one. When she’s not boxing, Shields has the open, inquisitive face of a child, but in the ring it hardens into terrifying purposefulness. Many boxers are very fast or very strong. Shields is both. She has never lost, and it seems not to occur to her that she could. Going into the final round with a ten-point lead, Shields let her fists hang—“almost like she’s taunting Franchon,” the commentator said. She won, 31–19. “I wasn’t nervous or nothing,” Shields told me, her words coming out in a guileless flurry. “I knew Franchon would be easy to beat.”
Joe Zanders, who had recently been named head boxing coach for the U.S. Olympic team, told Crutchfield afterward that his boxer was “the best chance we got to get a gold medal.” In 2008, when boxing was the only sport in the Summer Olympics to exclude women, the men came home with a single bronze. “We did just O.K. in 2004, we didn’t get a gold medal in 2000,” Zanders said, and the response from the public was “What are you guys doing?” He told Crutchfield, “Man, we’re tired of losing.”
Shields’s performance in Spokane was so assured that it was easy to forget she was sixteen years old and the Olympic trials were only her second tournament in the adult, or “open,” division. Three nights later, she beat Tika Hemingway, a two-time national champion, 23–15. But when Shields stepped out of the ring—red tank top and trunks soaked, long braids held back by a bandanna—she was dejected. It was the first match of the tournament that seemed to challenge her. Hemingway had stayed close, trapping her against the ropes to smother her punches. “It was like I was under a cushion,” Shields said. “I feel like I didn’t fight my best.”
She muttered terse responses to the pack of reporters at the side of the ballroom, while fans began screaming for the boxers in the next bout. Crutchfield stood a few feet away, issuing instructions. “Cheer up! Chin up,” he entreated. “You’re fighting in the Olympic trials, and you won!”
Shields was inconsolable. “I didn’t like the score,” she said. “I never scored twenty-three in my life!” Her usual score is 31 or 32. (Points are awarded based on the number of times a boxer lands a clean, forceful blow with the knuckle of her glove to her opponent’s head or torso.) Shields’s record was 22–0, with fourteen knockouts. But, unlike most of the other women at the tournament, she had never competed at the highest level of her sport. “I wanted to stop her,” Shields continued—to knock Hemingway out, or hurt her badly enough for the fight to be called off. “She kept head-butting me,” she complained, “and the ref didn’t say nothing!”
But her coach suspected that there was another problem. “Let me ask you this,” said Crutchfield, who was wearing a bright-yellow Berston T-shirt and a wool Detroit Tigers hat. “Did you stay up late Tuesday night?”
“Whatever,” Shields said, and rolled her eyes.
“I just don’t like you getting tired.”
“I wasn’t up!” Shields hollered.
“Well, O.K., we good,” Crutchfield said. “Twenty-three is bigger than fifteen. You understand that? You still won. Back to the drawing board tomorrow. You can’t get lazy. Can’t stay up all night on the phone.”
This did not help. “Why you keep saying that? I wasn’t up!” she yelled, and started to storm off past the reporters.
“Don’t you go nowhere,” Crutchfield said, his voice rising. Shields froze by the door, indignant but obedient, until Crutchfield opened it for her and let her go. “She’s real emotional—yeah!” He laughed. “A sixteen-year-old! You’ve got to deal with the boys! You’ve got to deal with the up and down and all around! Oh, man! I mean, this has been hell for me!”
But Crutchfield may reap a substantial reward for his sacrifices. If Shields becomes the first American woman to win an Olympic medal, endorsement deals could follow, and possibly a career in the pros—for both of them. “I think she going to do it,” he said. “She is very competitive. And she compete with the boys every day. One time, she was in the corner boxing some kid, and I said, ‘Get her!’ I said, ‘That’s a girl! That’s a girl!’ She said, ‘I’m a man!’ ” Crutchfield yelled, delighted. “I’m a man!”
If Claressa Shields were a man, and fifty-two and missing several front teeth, she’d be her father, Clarence: they look astonishingly alike. “Spitting image,” his wife, Lisa, said one afternoon, when the couple was seated in their living room in Flint, around a coffee table piled with packs of Newports and boxes of medicine for Clarence’s cold. “She is a female Clarence. He couldn’t deny her if he started a rumor!”
Clarence Shields has been an important but intermittent figure in his daughter’s life. “I’d go two, three months without seeing him,” Claressa told me. “Then I’d call and he’d be like, ‘Oh, what’s up, Muffin?’ I’d be like, ‘How come we never see you?’ ‘Oh, I don’t like y’all coming around here when we ain’t got no money.’ I was like, ‘We already living in poverty, and you’re just making it harder.’ ” Broken stoplights dangle over many of the intersections in Flint. Most of the streets have boarded-up houses, like the one next to Clarence’s home, and the town is patched with blacktopped expanses where Chevrolet and Buick factories used to be. When Jason Crutchfield drove me through the abandoned downtown, under the “Flint—Vehicle City” arch on Saginaw Street, he said, “I remember my grandmother walking me through here. It used to be packed.” Both Crutchfield and Shields have relatives who worked in the auto industry, and their fathers both spent time in prison after it disappeared. Clarence Shields did seven years for breaking and entering.
“I got into boxing ’cause I was getting into trouble,” he said, sitting in an armchair in front of his collection of baseball caps, holding his four-month-old grandson. He started with amateur tournaments, which he kept up for four years, and then moved on to fighting for cash in bars and garages. “When Ressa was a baby, she’d be sitting on my lap, and I’d take her arms and do like this,” he said, molding the infant’s hands into tiny fists. “But I never imagined or dreamed that my baby would be a boxer. I thought she was too pretty for that.”
Like Floyd Mayweather and Roy Jones, Claressa started boxing to be like her father. “My dad was talking one day, and he was real sad. He say he wanted one of his sons to take after him, but while he was in and out of jail they kind of grew up,” she told me. When she was eleven, she suggested that she do it. “He said, ‘H, no! Boxing is a man’s sport.’ I just started crying. I didn’t talk to him for two days. After he told me no, that kind of motivated me, really, just to prove him wrong.”
She started sneaking down to Berston’s, and finally Clarence signed her up for training. “She was catching on real, real fast,” Crutchfield said. “I had given her to another trainer, and he taught her how to jab, and then I looked at her and I said, ‘Man.’ That’s when I just grabbed her and said, ‘You come with me.’ ”
In the past five years, they have become like family. “Even my dad done said, ‘Jason more like your dad than I am,’ ” Claressa told me. She answers to Crutchfield about everything from her hairdo to her dating life, about which he has a simple policy: Don’t have one. “I’m trying to instill in Ressa: You’re too young to be going out there and falling in love,” he said. “You’ve got a bright future ahead of you. You need to forget them busters.” Crutchfield lives with a flickering anxiety that she will be distracted from her talent, as he was. “I know she going to make mistakes,” he said. “I just hope to God it ain’t going to be nothing that’s going to take her away from what she do. Like I told her, this is your bread and butter.”
Shields does not live with her father, or with her mother, Marcella Adams, who is forty and unemployed, and lives in a little green house up the block from Berston’s gym. Instead, she spends summers at Crutchfield’s house, in Mount Morris Township, a nearby suburb with more trees and bigger back yards. During the school year, she lives with her aunt Tammy Rutherford-Maynard, a twenty-eight-year-old with two toddlers, who works the third shift six nights a week at a factory that produces car locks. “At times, it’s a lot. But, you know, I love this family,” Rutherford-Maynard told me, as she was trying to settle her children on the couch to watch cartoons. “For me, I’m going to try to keep it as normal as possible at home, because when she goes out it’s like, ‘Oh, Claressa!’ She has fans everywhere.” Rutherford-Maynard, who was impeccably turned out in a shiny purple blouse, insists that Shields keep her grades up and go to college. “All the kids in the family look up to Ress,” she said, and told me that Shields is in all honors classes. She worries about her niece’s safety in the ring, but she said, “All the ladies in the family, you can’t tell us we can’t do that. Whatever you can do, we can do it, too.”
Women’s boxing is “an abomination” to Tommy Gallagher, a trainer at Gleason’s Gym, in Brooklyn, where Roberto Durán and Mike Tyson trained. Gallagher is one of the last coaches there who refuses to work with women; he told me that he believes “in my heart and soul” that it’s wrong and unnatural. “You don’t understand how special you are,” he said, putting his arm around me. “Let’s close our eyes and go back to when I was in the cave and you were hungry, so I would go out and get something for you to eat and I’d have to fight.” Gallagher, a man with close-cut silver hair who wears pressed jeans and mirrored sunglasses indoors, said boxing is “a primitive, prehistoric thing.”
He sounded just like Joyce Carol Oates. In “On Boxing,” published in 1987, she wrote that boxing is “a remnant of another, earlier era when the physical being was primary and the warrior’s masculinity its highest expression.” It is “the obverse of the feminine,” she went on: “Boxing is for men, and is about men, and is men.”
Until recently, that was the prevailing opinion within USA Boxing, the national governing body for the sport. It has overseen men’s amateur boxing since 1888, but it did not allow women to participate until 1993, when a sixteen-year-old named Dallas Malloy sued for discrimination. A federal judge threatened to fine USA Boxing a thousand dollars a day until it included women in its competitions, and still the members were reluctant to comply. Jeaneene Hildebrandt, the seventy-six-year-old women’s director for the organization’s board, told me, “At the meeting in ’93, ninety per cent of the membership was male, and oh, the rumbling! It was ‘I’m not going to coach women. They don’t belong in boxing.’ ” Not long after that, in a column in the Times, the sportswriter Robert Lipsyte characterized women’s boxing as “a freak show.”
Yet female boxers are not a new species. The first record of a “boxing” contest, with rounds and rules, appears in 1681, when the Second Duke of Albemarle staged a bout between his butcher and his butler. Scattered matches between women started not much later; in 1722, Elizabeth Wilkinson was crowned the “Cockney Championess” of London.
The first women’s boxing match in the United States was held in New York in 1876 (the winner received a silver butter dish), and the 1904 Olympics, in St. Louis, included display matches for both men and women. But while men’s boxing became a regular Olympic sport, women’s boxing was relegated to carnival sideshows. The sport’s modern pioneer was Barbara Buttrick, from Yorkshire, England, who was four feet eleven and fought at ninety-eight pounds. She learned to box by studying a book called “The Noble Art of Self-Defense,” and spent the first few years of her career in Europe, fighting any opponents she could find. “I did the boxing booths after World War II—a show that travelled to fairgrounds—and challenged the local boxers, or anybody else who would get up in the ring,” Buttrick, now eighty-two, told me. In 1954, she became the first woman to box a match broadcast in the United States. “I got really scotched in the press—‘a great disgrace’ and those kinds of remarks,” she said. In 2010, she received a letter of apology from the Daily Mirror for what it had written about her half a century ago.
In the seventies, women began suing their states for the right to box, with varying degrees of success. In 1978, after years of court battles, New York granted boxing licenses to three women. But even where women’s boxing was legal it was often unfair. In 1987, Marian (Lady Tyger) Trimiar went on a monthlong hunger strike—and picketed Don King’s office—in protest. She objected to the prize money for women, which was a small fraction of what men got, and she was furious after male officials walked out of the room when she climbed into the ring for an undercard fight. “Unless women get more recognition, we will be fighting just as a novelty for the rest of our lives,” she said. In the nineties, a handful of female boxers gained prominence—Christy Martin, the only one to appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated, and Laila Ali, Jaqui Frazier, and Freeda Foreman, all daughters of legendary fighters—but they were the exceptions. Trimiar ended her career unsatisfied. “I slept, ate, ran boxing,” she said. “It didn’t give me anything back.”
Around this time, a college student named Christy Halbert got into the ring in an old armory in Glasgow, Kentucky. She had never boxed before, but the purse for the tournament was seven hundred dollars, and she needed the money to get her car fixed. A dozen other women had shown up to fight in front of two thousand boxing enthusiasts; Halbert, the most athletic of them, won easily. When it was over, she said, “the promoter was taking photos of everybody with their checks.” While the male winners stood together for their picture, hers was taken with the ring-card girl. “I could appreciate, even as a twenty-one-year-old, that this was an odd thing,” she said. But she loved the purity of the competition. She was a natural, and she started fighting—and winning—regularly.
Halbert, a big woman with short gray hair and a forceful, focussed demeanor, is now a coach at her own gym in Nashville, and in the past decade she has organized women’s tournaments around the country. She is also the chair of USA Boxing’s Women’s Task Force, and she said that unsubstantiated safety concerns have frequently been used to justify excluding women from boxing, and later for maintaining different requirements for their participation. Until 2008, USA Boxing mandated that female competitors wear an unwieldy breast protector, even though there was no evidence that it was necessary. “You don’t need to be protected there,” Halbert said. “It’s not a target area, and the way you’re holding your hands it would be odd to be hit directly in the breast. In my own experience as a professional boxer, I was just flopping around in this big plastic shield, and it made my chest a much larger target.” Halbert consulted with boxers and medical experts and lobbied USA Boxing to make its regulations comply with her findings: “I was hearing from boxers who were getting bruised by their breast protector, they were getting cut by them. The bottom line is they were unnecessary. Yet it took several years to convince the people who were voting that they ought to be optional.”
Halbert told me that her goal in life is to “impact this little itty-bitty slice of the women’s movement” by working to bring parity to the sport. Before 2010, the International Boxing Association (known as AIBA, after its French acronym) determined that men would box four two-minute rounds and women would box three. Halbert sits on AIBA’s Women’s Commission, which petitioned to allow women to go the same four rounds. Initially, she was thrilled with the response: “We hear the announcement ‘Women will now be going four two-minute rounds.’ Then AIBA announced that men would henceforth fight three three-minute rounds.” She shook her head in amazement. “It was, like, they got us.”
Boxing is hardly the only sport to enforce distinctions between the way men and women compete: In golf, women tee off, on average, about fifty yards closer to the hole. In major tennis tournaments, men play five sets and women play three. After a luge crash in the lead-up to the last Winter Games, the Olympic Committee reduced racers’ speed by moving the men’s starting line forward a hundred and seventy-seven metres—to where the women’s team had started. Then they moved the women forward, too, to the juniors’ line.
As long as male and female athletes play by different rules, you can’t compare them. If you could, in the vast majority of cases men’s biology would provide an insuperable advantage, but there would be exceptions. Maintaining separate rules makes those exceptions easier to ignore; it makes it easier to think of women’s athletics as secondary, deserving of less attention and less money. (USA Boxing pays fighters who are going to the Olympics a stipend to offset their travel and training expenses, based partly on performance in previous Games—which, of course, excluded women. As a result, the three female contenders get about a thousand dollars a month, while the ten men can get three times as much.) Mandating that women play by a tweaked set of rules means that no matter how good a female golfer is she will never be just a golfer.
I asked Halbert, who has a Ph.D. in sociology (her thesis was on female boxers), why sports organizations reflexively create these kinds of differences. “Because what if the women are better at this event than the men?” she replied. “What does that mean for gender? What does that mean for men’s power?” If we were to question our assumption that men are always faster and stronger than women, or that boxing—and the desire to vanquish another person—is “about men,” then we would have to question a lot more than breast protectors.
A few days after the trials, Claressa Shields was in Flint, sitting with three friends in the cafeteria at Northwestern Preparatory Academy. Outside, over the parking lot, a giant sign read “CONGRATS CRESSA SHIELDS.” She was flipping through her journal, which she has named Olympia, during lunch period, and she stopped at something she’d written in December: “It just hit me. The reason that I box is to prove dudes, men wrong. They say women can’t box? Olympia man I’m finna”—fixing to—“start training so hard there’s no male can even see a mistake in me.” She’d written another entry just after she saw a video online titled “Olympic Female Boxing,” in which a woman wearing high heels and a miniskirt was punching weakly at a heavy bag. The video “made me feel so low and disrespected,” she wrote. “Jason says in the bible it says: when I was a child I did childish things but as I grew up I put childish things away. It’s time to put childish games away asap.”
Shields had on jeans and pink sneakers, and her blue knapsack sat on the floor by her feet. She was sharing a box of Little Caesar’s pizza with her friends, but then she saw Crutchfield coming through the cafeteria toward the table and quickly shoved her slice toward the rest of the group so he wouldn’t see her eating junk food. (He had come to speak with her teachers about her absence the preceding week, and to make sure she was up to date in her classes.) She noticed what he was wearing—a blue tracksuit with a prominent Northern Quest logo—and laughed. “What?” Crutchfield said, grinning.
The bell rang, and Shields walked toward class past rows of lockers. “I love you, and I want to be with you the rest of my life!” a handsome football player with a short Afro yelled at her from across the hall. “At least until I’m twenty!”
Shields laughed. “We just friends,” she said. “My real boo is in class.” I mentioned Crutchfield’s prohibition on dating. She furrowed her brow and said, “I don’t listen to him. I can do what I want.”
She doesn’t have much time, though, for anything but boxing. “Claressa’s life is go to school, come home, do some homework, go to the gym,” her aunt told me. She trains three or four hours a night, working the mitts with Crutchfield and sparring with the boys at Berston’s; she often has to catch up on schoolwork after taking time off for tournaments and out-of-town matches. “Her social life is her phone,” her aunt said.
Shields knows that she needs structure. She no longer lives with her mother because, she told me, “she’s a real lenient person. My grades started dropping, and when I sleep all day and come to the gym I’d have a slow day. I needed rules, I guess, in boxing and to just help me, period.” Shields lived with her grandmother until shortly before her death, in 2010. “I still haven’t met nobody else who give me love like she gave me,” she said. “I be thinking sometimes, maybe I’m just too hard on people. Maybe I want too much. But no, I don’t. All my granny did was cook for me, tell me that she love me, gave me hugs every now and then.”
Crutchfield told me Shields’s mother has never been to one of her matches. “Ressa say, ‘When I start getting my checks my mama’s going to come to my fights.’ That’s how it is,” he said. “All she wants is to hear her mama proud of her.”
Crutchfield likes to say that at his gym “you’re not a boy or a girl, you’re an athlete.” But, like most of the other coaches at the trials, he never imagined he’d train a woman. Al Mitchell, who has worked with three hundred and fifty national champions—all of them male—came to Spokane with the lightweight Mikaela Mayer. When she first contacted him, he wasn’t interested. “I’ve been to the mountain a few thousand times,” he said. “I wasn’t going to train no women! Her father must’ve called me ten times.” Mitchell told me that he had been converted, and repeated a line that I heard from every coach: “Girls listen better.”
This is what makes a boxer great, they say—more than heart, more than strength, more than technical skill. The boxer who listens to her corner is the boxer who wins the fight. It is a formula in which the coach is as central to a win as the boxer, and in which each is utterly dependent on the other for a successful career. “A lot of coaches are interested in recruiting athletes into Olympic-style boxing as a stepping stone into professional boxing,” Halbert said. (Unlike athletes in basketball and other sports, boxers who fight for money can no longer compete as amateurs.) “It’s a big deal, then, if a boxer leaves his coach, because the coach put all this time and energy into him and somebody else will get the payoff.”
Quantita (Queen) Underwood, perhaps the best-known boxer at the tournament, recently left her trainer of eight years, the man who introduced her to the sport, to work with a former coach of the men’s Olympic team. Zanders suggested to me that at the very least Shields will need input from coaches with international experience. He mentioned the fight with Hemingway that left Shields so frustrated, and said, “I don’t think Claressa had ever had anyone do that with her. Usually, by the third round the person’s like, ‘Oh my God, get me out of here!’ She’s young, and her coach is going to have to realize that he’s going to have to prepare her for things like that, because now she’s at another level.” In April, the winning boxers would attend a two-week training camp at the U.S. Olympic Complex in Colorado, and, Zanders said, “when we have a chance to really spend a little bit of time with her it’s going to be wonderful for her.”
It is difficult to imagine Shields taking direction from anyone other than Crutchfield, though. And he did not sound enthusiastic about his protégée absorbing other styles. “We got a certain system, and it works: she’s twenty-two and oh,” he said. “I done taught her certain things about, when she goes to training camp, how to still keep what you learned and don’t let nobody tell you nothing different. I mean, it’s pretty obvious: twenty-two and oh.”
Boxing is one of the only sports in which “a person would start with one coach and keep that person all the way through,” Halbert said. She thinks that a lot of coaches, hoping to protect their investment, will “find ways to make boxers emotionally and financially dependent on them.” But in some cases dependence seems unavoidable, or at least better than the alternative. Tyrieshia Douglas, a twenty-three-year-old flyweight from Baltimore, has been sleeping at her coaches’ houses. Just after she won the semifinals of her division, we spoke outside the ballroom. “I don’t get paid,” she said. “I don’t have nowhere to go. This right here is my ticket out.” Douglas, who has a wiry frame and a sweet face, grew up in foster care while her parents were in and out of prison. She got into boxing through a compulsory community-service program after she broke one girl’s jaw and another’s nose in a street fight. “My dream was to finish high school, to go to college, take care of my mom, my daddy, and my brothers. I stopped going to college for boxing. I gave up everything,” she said, choking back tears. “No one’s taking my ticket. No one’s taking my last piece of chicken.” She walked away, crying. Her coach Mack Allison, an enormous man with a shaved head, said, “It’s kind of hard to listen to,” and then he started crying, too.
Hal Adonis, a retired high-school principal who has been the president of USA Boxing since 2009, is a rickety white man in his seventies with rheumy eyes and hair the color and texture of Donald Trump’s. He was dressed in a USA Boxing tracksuit with the word “President” stitched on the chest when he met me for a breakfast of eggs and coffee. He has never had a problem with women boxing, he said. His criteria for inclusion have nothing to do with gender. “When kids call me up, I say, ‘Let me ask you an honest question: have your parents ever hit you?’ If they say no, I say, ‘I don’t think you belong in boxing.’ ”
Adonis himself was qualified to box because “my father invented child abuse,” he said, with an incongruous smile. “I learned how to play chess when I was six years old. My father would have a strap and smack me across the face if I made the wrong move. So when I got onto the streets and got into boxing, I was so used to getting hit it was like, Hey, this is nothing!” When he trained kids, he said, “before a fight I’d start smacking them real hard in the face. Because you feel, in boxing, the first couple punches. After that, the endorphins kick in and it’s like someone gave you Novocain.” But ignoring too much pain in the ring can lead to serious injury, or even death. Passive defense—the Rocky-like effort of an outmatched boxer to stay in a fight by absorbing punches after he can no longer defend himself—is a foul in amateur boxing.
Still, many people share Adonis’s belief that a childhood scorched by abuse is advantageous to a boxer. “It definitely takes a different kind of life experience,” Carrie Barry, a two-time national champion, told me. She was battered by her mother until she was twelve, and then thrown out of the house. “You have to have some kind of fight in you. You have to have something to overcome.”
Halbert told me that boxers “have learned to emphasize the hard-luck part of their stories—people think those are the stories the media wants to hear.” Certainly, the boxers—and their minders—were forthcoming about what they’d suffered. Queen Underwood’s childhood molestation by her father was luridly detailed in the Times just days before the trials started. Tyrieshia Douglas volunteered for the press pack that she’d been raped and beaten in foster care. At breakfast, Adonis pointed to a boxer at the next table talking on her cell phone. “Let me tell you a story about her: she was raped by a member of her family when she was a little girl!” he said. “Half of our girls have been molested; half of our girls are gay.”
Adonis’s math was a little lax, but there was definitely a disproportionate number of gay women competing at the trials, and in boxing generally. Certain qualities that are crucial for a boxer—toughness, muscularity, dominance—are valued in the lesbian erotic economy in a way that they aren’t for straight women. On her Facebook page, Queen Underwood posted a photograph of her wildly muscular stomach. A woman commented, “Yumm. I’d love to wake up rubbing this.” Another wrote, “Seriously I am like in love with you.” Underwood told me, “It’s always hurt my feelings to be called buff, to be called a boy. Everybody at school was like, ‘Flex, Queen!’ I’d always be teased about my size. I love boxing, because now I’m in a sport where I can just flaunt it and everybody loves it.” When Underwood is photographed, she often sets her face in an intimidating glower: not the smoldering invitation of a lingerie model but the aggressive self-possession of a person whose allure—and athletic success—depends on power. She has become something of a sex symbol. When I mentioned I’d heard she brought a girlfriend to one of her bouts in Spokane, she said, “I do have probably a lot of girls who think they’re my girlfriend.”
But if the culture of boxing is attractive to gay women that does not mean it embraces their sexuality. “Once, before a Golden Gloves championship, I was talking to a mother and daughter, boxing fans,” Carrie Barry, who has short blond hair and a pert, pretty face, told me. “The mom was like, ‘You’re just such an amazing woman. You’re not like these other bull dykes here, all brutish.’ I was so dumbstruck, I didn’t really clarify—You know I’m gay? And I fought the worst I’ve ever fought.” Unlike Barry, who went everywhere at the trials with her girlfriend, many boxers fear the disapproval of coaches, fans, and other athletes. For years, Christy Martin, the most famous female boxer besides Laila Ali, called her opponents “men” and “dykes,” and bragged about doing her husband’s cooking and cleaning. She came out in 2010, and her husband, who was also her trainer and manager, responded by stabbing her, torturing her for an hour, and then shooting her in the chest. She survived; in April, he was convicted of attempted murder.
Hal Adonis told me he doesn’t have a problem with the prevalence of homosexuality among the female athletes in his organization. “Only thing is I don’t want to see—we had a situation with one of the girls, she was on the elevator kissing her girlfriend,” he told me. “We have a public image. We don’t want to have, when we’re trying to get girls into the sport, their mothers saying, ‘Gee, I don’t want my girl to be around your gay girls because they might try to make her gay.’ ”
But this is the least of Adonis’s problems as the head of USA Boxing. He inherited a financial crisis from his predecessor, and the organization is chronically underfunded. American Olympic boxers attend training camp for a few weeks, while Chinese boxers are in residential training almost year-round. In Spokane, USA Boxing did not pay for the boxers’ meals or their coaches’ accommodations. This is typical: Crutchfield has been paying for all Shields’s travel and equipment since she started boxing.
Joe Zanders told me, “We’ve had some organizational issues, and when the United States Olympic Committee sees that, they’re like, ‘We’re not putting money into that.’ If you go back to the era of Floyd Patterson, Muhammad Ali, we sent our boxers into international competitions, and they had a chance to go out and learn.” Those days are over. “Our kids don’t have a chance,” Zanders said. “They don’t get to see anybody. They have no idea what they’re facing—and when you don’t know what you’re facing you’re in tough.” In March, without explanation, Zanders was removed from the Olympic staff, leaving Team USA without a head coach four months before the Summer Games.
The night of the finals, Tyrieshia Douglas looked ill with anxiety. To make it to the Olympics, she would have to beat Marlen Esparza, a six-time national champion who has endorsement deals with Nike and Coke. “Sister, leave it all out there,” the coach Al Mitchell told her. “Ain’t no tomorrow.” They were in the challengers’ area backstage, a curtained-off section with a few chairs and overturned milk crates for the athletes to sit on under bright fluorescent lights. Douglas jiggled her legs, one of which has a tattoo of a rose. “She’s the first female I ever trained,” her coach Calvin Ford said quietly. “I thought they weren’t serious. But she listened to me. We meant for each other.” He seemed almost as nervous as she was.
“Listen to your corner, no matter what,” Mitchell told Douglas just before she went out. “Just do what they say and you be all right.”
But there were no upsets that night. Esparza beat Douglas, 32–17. “Douglas didn’t listen to her corner,” Zanders told me after the bout. “She just lost it.” Queen Underwood fought Mikaela Mayer, while the audience chanted “Queen, Queen, Queen.” Before the match, she had told me, “That’s what really intrigued me about boxing: I wanted to be that one person who everybody looked to.” She won, 27–20.
The last match of the night, between Hemingway and Shields, was the hardest fought. Again, Hemingway managed to crush Shields against the ropes. “Get out of there! Get out of there!” Crutchfield yelled from the corner, frantic, as the auditorium—filled to capacity with about a thousand spectators—erupted. Between rounds, as she panted and he poured water over her head, Crutchfield grabbed Shields’s headgear and yelled in her face: “Ressa, this is it. Do you hear me?” She nodded and said something hard to understand, and Crutchfield hollered, “You tired? I don’t ever want to hear you say that!” Shields shook her head and yelled over her mouth guard, “I said I got this!”
After the bell, it was as if Shields had located energy she’d forgotten. When she was cornered, she sat down on the ropes to create leverage for jarring uppercuts—“Oh, she don’t like that!” Crutchfield yelled, gleeful—and then fought her way back to the center of the ring, where she is strongest. Once she had room to swing, she snapped Hemingway’s head back. When the referee held both boxers’ hands as they waited for the score after the fourth round, Shields got down on her knees and closed her eyes until she heard “I have your winner” and then her name.
When Shields woke up the next morning, she thought, “Hold on—maybe I dreamed it,” she told me. “I called my dad. I was like, ‘Dad, I think I’m trippin’, but am I No. 1?’ He said, ‘Yeah, baby, you bet you are.’ I jumped on the bed. I was like Aahahhhh! I did that.”
That morning, USA Boxing treated Shields, Underwood, and Esparza to fruit salad and beauty treatments in the basement spa. It was Shields’s first manicure, and she seemed alarmed when the aesthetician started trimming her cuticles. “Some things she actually just don’t know,” Crutchfield said, rubbing his goatee. “She hasn’t been exposed.” Crutchfield was the only coach at the beauty parlor. “I’m responsible for her,” he said. “Everything I been telling her was going to happen is happening. They’re telling her what she can eat and what she can’t eat, when she can use her phone, and what her conduct has to be—three strikes you’re out, and they could make you pay your own way home!” USA Boxing would not pay for personal coaches to accompany their athletes to the world championships or to the Olympics. “I’ll find a way,” Crutchfield told me. “I got people raising money” back in Flint, where Shields was on the front page of the newspaper that day. “If I can just kind of keep her close to me and stay in her head.” He struggled to convince himself. “I can’t see her veering off.”
Shields looked at the rainbow of nail-polish bottles on the shelf. “No pink,” Crutchfield instructed. “That’s a girl color.”
This is not to say he wants Shields to appear unfeminine. She told me, “I was going to come here with an Afro, but people”—she indicated Crutchfield with her eyes—“got stuff to say about that.” He had directed her instead to get the long braided extensions she was wearing. “She has a real good personality,” Crutchfield explained. “So I want her to have the appearance to go with it—‘Oh, hey, she looks nice and she talks nice.’ You see the males on TV, the stars, how they carry themselves? She has it.”
There has been controversy over what female boxers should look like in the ring. In 2010, at the World Championships in Barbados, AIBA presented the female semifinalists with a new uniform, a knee-length split skirt. When twenty-six of the forty boxers refused to wear it, AIBA relented, and has since announced that skirts will be optional at the Olympics. Fifty-eight thousand people signed a petition opposing the skirt, but Crutchfield has a different point of view. “I think it’s good for a female boxer,” he said. “She can wear a skirt, then she can kick your tail? That’s like a Wonder Woman thing.”
Underwood and Esparza were seated on the other side of the room, laughing as they had their feet pumiced. Esparza looked glamorous; earlier that morning, she’d had her long brown hair blown out in bouncy waves for a photo shoot, at which she wore a cocktail dress and boxing gloves. Esparza knows that her lovely face and light frame are essential to her image—one of her endorsement deals is with Cover Girl. “When people say, ‘You don’t look like a boxer,’ I’m like, ‘Thank you!’ ” she said. “It sucks whenever I want to wear a strapless shirt or a dress. My shoulders look all strong.” She planned to wear a skirt at the Olympics—“I’m going to ask them if I can do it shorter!” she joked—but suggested that she didn’t have a real choice. “They’re saying, ‘I want you to do this, but it’s “optional.” ’ Anybody who’s smart is going to be like, ‘I’m going to do whatever you want.’ ”
At an event in Manhattan before the trials, the actress and boxing enthusiast Rosie Perez interviewed Claressa Shields, and asked if she felt that it was sexist that she’d been pressured to get hair extensions before the biggest tournament of her life. “No,” Shields replied earnestly. “It’s just part of being a girl.”
After a career in the amateurs, male pros can make huge amounts of money; Floyd Mayweather reportedly earned forty million dollars in his last fight. The largest purse Christy Martin ever took home was about five hundred thousand, and most women make far less. One of the reasons that coaches have been reluctant to work with women is that the potential payoff is so comparatively meagre. Though Tyrieshia Douglas and many women like her see boxing as a ticket out of poverty, in truth, if there is a reward for a female boxer at the culmination of her career, it is most likely psychic, and even that is not assured.
After losing the bout that ended her tournament run, Franchon Crews sat at the smoky bar in the casino, drinking a glass of red wine with her sparring partner, Glenn Dezurn, a handsome twenty-four-year-old lightweight wearing a yellow sweatshirt and a Yankees cap. (“When we spar, she crack me,” he said. “She can handle her business. That’s how she got my respect.”) Crews told me that she was done with boxing. “I lost to a teen-ager,” she said, shaking her head in disgust.
Usually, Crews, who was a contestant on “American Idol” and calls herself the Heavy-Hitting Diva, wears high heels and glamorous outfits that show off her long legs, but that night she was dressed in sweatpants and a tank top, with her hair in a ponytail and her makeup all cried off. “I’m just tired of the punishment,” she said. “At the end of the day, in the amateurs, when I don’t even have any money? This is my life. Every time I step in the ring, I’m risking my life—I could bruise a rib, puncture a lung.” Crews said she wanted to spend time taking care of her mother, who is disabled, and her cat, Mr. Hashbrowns. (Instead, Crews went up a weight class, to a hundred and seventy-eight pounds, and won her sixth national championship at the end of March.)
Tyrieshia Douglas was similarly bleak after she lost to Esparza, and said she would not try for the next Olympics. “I can’t do this for another four years,” she told me. She looked as scared as she had backstage before the fight. “Now I got to worry about where to live.” She wiped away tears hastily and said, “I’ll be fine. I’ll be fine.”
She was much brighter late that night, up on the tenth floor, drinking beer in another boxer’s hotel room. She was sitting next to Franchon Crews, who was dressed in a short, chic, flowered silk jumpsuit with a pair of shiny, towering stilettos and a little jacket with rhinestones all over the shoulders. Dezurn was there, too, and he kept telling Crews he loved her. “Like, for real!” he declared. “I ain’t playing!”
Crutchfield, a couple of other coaches, and all the boxers in the tournament—except the three who won—were piled on the twin beds, getting drunk and loud and loose. None of the athletes had consumed alcohol in months, and there was a vibrating sense of release in the room. “We are the champions, my friend,” someone started singing. “And we’ll keep on fighting till the end!” everyone shouted. “No time for losers, ’cause we are the champions!”
All of them cheered, and then Franchon Crews yelled, “Fuck you! Pay me!”
To compete in the Olympics, Underwood, Esparza, and Shields will have to box at the World Championships in China, in May, and place in the top eight in their weight classes. In April, AIBA released its 2012 rankings and listed Shields ninth—behind women from Ukraine, China, Russia, and Brazil. Ten days later, at the Continental Championships in Ontario, Shields beat the top-ranked woman in the world, 27–14. Esparza, forecasting Shields’s performance at the Olympics, said, “Everyone’s going to be like, ‘Where did you get her?’ She is a monster.”
Back in Flint, Shields was standing in the parking lot outside Berston’s gym in the cold evening air, talking to a former sparring partner, a twenty-one-year-old man whose girlfriend was pregnant. He suggested it was nearly time for Shields to think about children, too. “What? Stop it!” she said. “I got too much in store for that! A child going to stop me!”
“You are a strong woman,” he replied. “Mentally, physically, and spiritually.”
“I wouldn’t be able to box!”
“You still going to be back in the game one day,” he said. “A pro boxer.”
“I might just adopt some kids,” Shields said, thoughtfully. “Carrying a child . . . I want to, right? But then again I don’t want nothing to stop me from boxing. So when I decide I’m going to stop boxing—which I probably never will—I want to have two or three kids at a time.” She said she figured she could box until she was thirty-eight, but then it would be too late to become a mother. “Then whenthey be thirty-eight I be seventy-six!” she said. “How am I going to go to the club with them?”
“This is a very mature conversation,” her friend said, and they went into the gym.
Inside, Shields led a bunch of younger kids in practicing their jabs. The children, lined up in order of height, struggled to mimic the flicking of her arm, her intent glare. On the wall, taped up next to the picture of Crutchfield winning his title, was a clipping of Shields from the Flint Journal. “Laila Ali is not my definition of the best,” she had told the reporter. “For females it’s me. I’ve never seen a girl box like me.”
In the center of the room, Crutchfield was watching two boys sparring in the ring. “Put your hands up, fool! It’s time to man up!” he yelled at the one who was getting cornered. “He hitting like a girl!”
Shields grimaced. “He lied when he told you, ‘You’re not a girl or a boy down here, you’re an athlete,’ ” she said quietly. “He never says that. He just say, ‘You’re not a girl down here.” She shook her head. “Sometimes, he can be a male chauvinist.” Then she put in her mouth guard, got in the ring with the better of the two boys who had been sparring, and knocked him to the canvas. ♦