For Claressa Shields, Repeat Titles Haven’t Come With Knockouts

When Claressa Shields threw a looping right hand during her middleweight title defense in Detroit on Saturday night, the punch would sometimes make contact and either clip the jaw of the challenger, Maricela Cornejo, or bounce off her left shoulder.

But when Shields, 28, threw her right hand straight at Cornejo’s face, she rarely seemed to miss. Factor in counter left hooks to the head and body, along with a stiff, tempo-setting jab, and Saturday’s bout yielded a familiar result.

All three judges scored all 10 rounds for Shields, and the undisputed middleweight champion’s accuracy and aggressiveness left no room for debate about the scorecards.

But in winning her 12th bout by decision, against just two knockouts, Shields once again prompted a persistent question with her performance: Why does such a dominant fighter win so few bouts by knockout?

“Height don’t matter, and power don’t matter either,” said Shields, the undisputed middleweight champion who is now 14-0 with two knockouts. “It’s all about skill and will and heart, and I always have more of that than all these girls.”

In Round 7, Shields dug a left hook to Cornejo’s gut before knocking her wobbly with a thunderous right. Here, a bona fide knockout artist might have ended the fight.

But the bell sounded to end the round, sparing Cornejo more damage, and providing some clues about why Shields’s knockout percentage appears so lackluster in light of her spotless record.

First, there’s the format.

Men’s title fights are scheduled for 12 rounds, with each round lasting three minutes. Women’s rounds last just two minutes each, and title fights are capped at 10 rounds. Given an extra minute in Round 7, Shields might have landed a punch or flurry that could have stopped the bout.

And if given 36 minutes to work like the men, Shields might stop more opponents by attrition, even if she is not a single-shot knockout puncher. (Conversely, more men’s title fights might end in decisions if given only 20 minutes in two-minute chunks.)

Shields’s opponents also play a part.

Many pro prospects, regardless of gender, take easy fights to fatten their early career records. Shields instead fought for a world title in her fourth professional bout. All of her opponents have been high-level pros with the skills and durability that come with championship level boxing. The loss to Shields drops Cornejo’s record to 16-6 with six knockouts.

“I pressed for the knockout,” Shields said. “Maricela’s just tough.”

Cornejo accepted the bout with less than two weeks’ notice, after the original opponent, Hanna Gabriels, failed a doping test.

At the opening bell, Shields established position at the center of the ring, while Cornejo, who, at 5-foot-10, stood two inches taller than Shields, circled along the perimeter. Shields missed with a wild right hand, but tagged Cornejo with a left hook. Later, the fighters threw simultaneous right hands, but only Shields landed.

Those first few heavy blows did not dent Cornejo’s confidence.

The 36-year-old contender moved to Las Vegas in April, and began working with Ismael Salas, the Cuban émigré boxing trainer who has guided several boxers to world titles. Before the fight, Cornejo said her brief stint in Salas’s gym had already made her a smarter boxer and a more powerful puncher. Between rounds, Salas sought to reassure her.

“You hit harder than she does!” he shouted to Cornejo in Spanish after Round 4.

Inspired, Cornejo landed a straight right to open Round 5. Shields responded with several percussive punches and stayed on track.

“You got her attention. You got her respect,” Shields’s trainer, John David Jackson, said between rounds. “Now you’ve got to step to her. You’ve got to make her engage you.”

Organizers sought to emphasize the presentation of the fight in Detroit, roughly 70 miles south of where Shields grew up in Flint, Mich. Before the opening bell, the legendary Motown quartet The Four Tops sang the national anthem, and Shields, decked out in a glittering, gold-and-green two-piece kit, walked to the ring accompanied by Kash Doll, a Detroit-based rapper.

Several of Detroit’s best-known boxing dignitaries turned out for the bout. The veteran manager Jackie Kallen attended, whose life inspired the fictional movie “Against the Ropes.” So did SugarHill Steward, the head coach at Kronk Gym who changed his name from Javan Hill in 2019 to honor his late uncle, Emanuel Steward, who founded the training center. Detroit boxers at ringside included Milton McCrory, the former welterweight champion who trained at Kronk, along with his famous stablemate Thomas Hearns.

They watched Shields deliver another win, starting the cycle again to seek future opponents. Shields has won so much that she monitors four weight classes — 168-pound super middleweight down to 147-pound welterweight — for possible bouts.

She has also considered rematches to past rivals.

After Saturday’s win, Shields said she’s interested in returning to Detroit to face the winner of a super middleweight title fight between Franchón Crews-Dezurn and Savannah Marshall, scheduled for July 1 in Manchester, England.

Shields has already defeated both of those boxers. By decision.

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