THE only thing stranger than the idea of Claressa Shields granting Hanna Gabriels a rematch on account of Gabriels knocking her down in a fight five years ago is the reason why that rematch now won’t take place.
According to Gabriels’ promoter, Lou DiBella, “Her dog had major abdominal surgery. She applied the medication to her dog and that’s how it got in her bloodstream.” He was, of course talking about a performance-enhancing drug – this time clostebol – which showed up in one of Gabriels’ pre-fight drug tests and therefore caused her unearned rematch against Shields to fall by the wayside.
That might not be a bad thing, either, for Gabriels and for Shields, who, after all, was going over old ground in gifting the Costa Rican a second chance. In a perfect world, Gabriels would have had to do much more to earn her shot at Shields, the world middleweight champion, than simply knocking her down en route to a lopsided defeat and then in the following five years win three easy fights against novices. Yet, because worthy opponents for Shields are few and far between, and because Gabriels did at least do to Shields what no one else has managed (knock her down), it was viewed as acceptable for Gabriels, now 40, to once again be given her opportunity to upset the applecart and take Shields’ many belts.
This is no fault of the boxers themselves; they can only fight who is put in front of them and can only try to do a lot with a little at this current time. Eventually, women’s boxing will grow and the talent pool will increase accordingly. It’s just for now we must tolerate and try to make peace with the fact there will be mismatches and there will be ludicrous “world title” fights and there will, as shown this Saturday (June 3) in Detroit, be fights like Shields vs. Maricela Cornejo that do very little to stir the imagination.
Better than Shields vs. Gabriel only in the sense Cornejo is a clean fighter, this replacement bout, just like the bout it replaced, really does Shields no good at all. For one, it does not a thing for her legacy, which you could argue is already established, and two, it does little for her progression as a fighter.
That’s not to say Cornejo, 36, isn’t a capable challenger and can’t trouble Shields this weekend. She has won 16 of 21 pro fights and stands at 5’10, meaning she is two inches taller than Shields and with a four-inch reach advantage to boot. But the problem for Cornejo, aside from the fact she has taken this fight at short notice, is that we have already seen her find her level in previous bouts against women who were favoured to beat her. Her first WBC middleweight title fight, for instance, ended in a defeat against Kali Reis (SD 10) in 2016. Two years later she then lost another WBC title fight, this time at super-middleweight, against Franchon Crews Dezurn (MD 10), whom Shields defeated on her pro debut. Not content with that, Dezurn also beat Cornejo again in 2019, receiving a unanimous decision second time around.
Since then, Cornejo, 16-5 (6), has lost just once, against Alma Ibarra (UD 8) in 2021, but it is hard to see what she has done – except say “yes” – to justify getting another world title shot. Indeed, in the three fights she has had post-Ibarra, Cornejo has fought women with records of 2-2, 17-19, and 0-1.
Again, this is not an issue for which Cornejo or Shields are responsible. It is instead a wider issue and one that will be resolved only with time and a growing list of contenders. For now, much of the disappointment when discussing this particular fight between Shields and Cornejo stems from the fact Shields was last seen beating Savannah Marshall in brilliant style last October. That, we were led to believe, was a breakthrough night, both for Shields and for women’s boxing as a whole. It was, on paper, an evenly matched battle of champions, good enough to go up against anything being offered in the men’s game around that same time.
And yet now, in so many ways, there is a feeling that Shields is either drifting sideways or simply going backwards. Fighting Gabriels was the product of a lack of ideas and was an undeniable case of going back to square one, whereas here, against Cornejo, Shields does at least have a new face and a new problem to solve, irrespective of how small or large that problem ends up being for her.
At 28, and with so much goodwill and momentum following that stunning display against Marshall, Shields, 13-0 (2), needs better than this and also deserves better than this. One only hopes that once she gets Cornejo out of her path, probably via decision, she will once more be able to move forward as opposed to sideways.
On the Detroit undercard, meanwhile, the unbeaten Areal Holmes Jnr, 13-0 (5), from Flint, Michigan fights Haitian Wendy Toussaint, 14-1 (6), over 10 rounds at super-welterweight. Holmes, a southpaw known as “Bossman”, is coming off decision wins over Ismael Villareal and Vernon Brown and is slowly stepping up the competition, while Toussaint, whose only defeat was a ninth-round stoppage loss against Charles Conwell in 2020, was last seen outpointing Britain’s Asinia Byfield over eight rounds in June 2022.