She is America’s most decorated boxer, amateur or pro, male or female. A two-time Olympic gold medalist, an undefeated, unified champion in not one, but two divisions.
Claressa Maria “T-Rex” Shields is preparing for her seventh total title defense against Maricela Cornejo (16-5 with six knockouts) from Prosser, Washington on June 3 in Detroit’s Little Caesars Arena, home to the NBA Pistons and NHL Red Wings and streaming on DAZN.
Cornejo replaces Hanna Gabriels who flunked a pre-fight drug test this month.
The 28-year-old Shields (13-0 with two kayos), headlines the card less than 70 miles from where she grew up.
Behind her in-the-ring greatness are two members of her team on the outside pushing all the right buttons: manager Mark Taffet, a former HBO executive and former boxer turned promoter Dmitriy Salita, an orthodox Jew from Ukraine.
She is the WGOAT.
Just ask her.
“I am the greatest,” she says, though not as loud as the original author, but Claressa Shields is the face of women’s boxing, and she has the resume.
She is a two-time Olympic gold medalist (2012 London, 2016 Rio), has been the undisputed junior middleweight champ, and is the current undisputed middleweight boss. She also captured the super middleweight championship in her fifth pro fight, and she’s dabbled in MMA (1-1) with a bout scheduled this winter.
She says she can go up to 168, down to 154 and maybe even 147 for just one fighter.
“Katie Taylor,” she announces about the undisputed lightweight champion from Ireland who defeated Brooklyn’s Amanda Serrano last year in the women’s Fight-of-the-Year. “That’s the biggest mega fight that could ever happen.”
All her goals are in reach because of her team of manager (Mark Taffet) and promoter (Dmitriy Salita).
“Mark and Dmitriy are the brains,” states Shields. “Mark is the bigger brain. He can sit in a room with anybody and see things from a different perspective.
“He’s not so smart that he’s dumb. He knows how to listen.”
Salita sees other things from inside the ring.
“Him being a [former] fighter, he knows how much we have to focus and how we have to train,” she says. “He understands the competitive part about boxing.”
First she has to get past Cornejo, but she doesn’t feel she has hit her peak yet.
“I don’t think so,” she declares. “Sometimes I just feel like, can I get any stronger or any faster than what I am? I’m always shocked to see, “Yep, sure can.’”
She’s delighted to headline the first ever fight card at the Little Caesars Arena which is “down the street from my hometown [Flint] in front of 15,000 fans.”
Shields wants to show she has a following, a brand and a message:
“You can be a young, Black, poor girl and you can make it to where I’ve made it just through hard work, dedication and prayer.”
And a good team.
“Claressa Shields has God-given abilities that are once in a lifetime,” says Mark Taffet, Shields’ manager, and president of Mark Taffet Media. He also headed HBO’s Pay-Per-View entity.
“I always tell people she is one of the three greatest fighters that I ever saw: Floyd Mayweather, Jr. and Roy Jones, Jr. being the other two,” he boasts. “Her boxing IQ, her natural abilities are something to behold, and she just continues to get better and better beyond imagination and description.”
So, she hasn’t hit her ceiling yet?
“No. She loves to learn and every fight she shows us new things that amaze me. She’s quite the prodigy,” says Taffet who spent 32 years at HBO with the last 25 in sports.
He’s seen a lot of boxers not represented properly, but he likes what he sees in Shields’ manager Dmitriy Salita.
The first time he saw Salita he was naked in the sauna at the Mandalay Bay Casino in Las Vegas.
“He was trying to lose a few ounces to make 140 pounds, but he was surrounded,” recalls Taffet with a laugh. “I saw a ring of about 15, 20 men all wearing black, head to toe in black robes and [yarmulkes] which is the religious garb of Orthodox Jews.
“He was fighting on HBO, and I wanted to wish him luck.”
Years later they became friends and partners, and Taffet loves his moxie.
“He is a fighter’s promoter. He understands the fighters innately because he was a fighter himself,” states Taffet. “He connects with the fighters in a way that few promoters do. He shows them an understanding from the fighter’s side of the table.
“He listens to his fighters with a fighter’s ear. It makes him different, special and very much appreciated by the fighters.”
Now, what is a nice Jewish boy like you doing in the world of boxing?
Dmitriy “Star of David” Salita has been asked that countless times.
It’s a simple answer.
“I love the sport of boxing,” says Salita, 41, a practicing Orthodox Jew who does not work on the Sabbath and keeps Kosher. Yet, he gets the job done with his company Salita Promotions which started in 2011.
Not bad for an emigrant who promotes the face of women’s boxing, Claressa Shields.
“My family emigrated from Ukraine in 1991,” states Salita who posted a 35-2-1 record with 18 kayos as a pro in 12 years. He captured a New York Daily News Golden Gloves title in 2001 at 139 pounds and he was also the U.S. National Under 19 Champion. “I grew up in Brooklyn and spent our first few years on welfare, food stamps and public assistance.
“When you went to the store and your [late] mother has to take her wallet and pay with food stamps, it’s humbling and a bit of an embarrassing experience.”
Imagine when he first walked into the rugged Starrett Boxing Gym in East New York.
“I was different than everybody else, from a different community,” recalls Salita. “Different in every way.”
His long-time trainer the late Jimmy “Jimmy O” O’Pharrow believed in the kid as he always stated, “He looks Russian, prays Jewish and fights Black.”
Salita loved boxing so much that when he retired he refocused his endeavors outside the ring. His company has promoted over 80 boxing cards including Showtime starting in 2016. He also fought and promoted fights on HBO.
Which brings us to his prized fighter, Claressa Shields, who has many options. On June 17, unified super middleweight champ Franchon Crews-Dezurn defends her crown against Savannah Marshall. Shields defeated Marshall in her last fight, and she beat Crews-Dezurn in their pro debuts.
It’s a win-win for Shields no matter who is victorious but it’s Salita’s job to make the right deal.
He found out about Shields by reading a short story about her in the Wall Street Journal. There was a lukewarm or no response at first, but that didn’t deter him.
He knew the timing was perfect.
“Hilary was running for president, women’s empowerment was at a real significant level,” recalls Salita, married with two daughters. “There is no better fighter male or female coming out of these Olympic Games.”
With a victory over Cornejo on June 3, Salita will have promoted the first fight — with a female headliner no less — at Little Caesars Arena. Plus, he has a TV deal with DAZN joining other heavys in promoting on the streaming service along with Matchroom and Golden Boy.
“Claressa was the first woman to headline on Showtime and was on the last HBO fight card,” Salita says. “For the boxing business to grow, you have to be inclusive not exclusive.”
Regardless of who wins between Crews-Dezurn and Marshall, it doesn’t concern Salita.
“It’s a big story no matter who wins,” he declares, but Salita has bigger worldwide plans that all three team members agree on.
“I would love for Claressa to fight in Africa following in the steps of Muhammad Ali and in the Middle East,” Salita hopes. “She’d be a crossover [star].”