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Having assured herself bronze, Flint teen Shields takes aim at gold

LONDON -- She hopped, skipped and shook her arms on the way to the ring, a surly look on her face, pure defiance in her eyes, a female Rocky Balboa headed to face Ivan Drago, Swedish edition. The 5-foot-9 Claressa Shields didn't have any business beating the 6-foot-1 Anna Laurell, a two-time world champion with more than a decade of international experience. Most times, Shields said, a big fighter will beat a small fighter.

"For the small fighter to beat a big fighter," Shields said. "She has to be really good."

Shields is good, which is why after four rounds of bull-rushing and pot-shotting Laurell on Saturday she emerged with an 18-14 win, advancing Shields to the semifinals in the 165-pound weight class. It wasn't the most technical fight, with Shields throwing long, looping right hands and, inexplicably, backing off when it appeared she had Laurell on the ropes, but the raw talent of the 17-year-old Shields was enough to overwhelm her 32-year-old opponent.

When Shields throws punches, she throws with bad intentions. "That's how we do," said Jason Crutchfield, her personal coach. Crutchfield first met Shields when she was 11, a skinny entanglement of arms, legs and elbows who showed up at his Flint, Mich., gym to sign up for boxing with the reluctant approval of her father, amateur boxer Clarence "Cannonball" Shields, who always wanted a son to box but hated the idea of turning the sport loose on his daughter.

Shields took to boxing quickly though, picking up the technique in a matter of weeks, entering competitions soon after. City, state, local, Shields was unbeatable. At 14, she entered her first out-of-state competition, in Ohio. She knocked the tournament favorite out in the first round.

The hardest part of training Shields? Finding sparring partners. Flint -- or anywhere, for that matter -- isn't flush with female boxers, and the ones Crutchfield brought in didn't last long. The first one cried after going one round. Another, an MMA fighter, left with a broken rib. Soon Crutchfield threw Shields in with the boys, not that it slowed her down. "Some of those body shots she throws," Crutchfield said, "put them down."

In the last year, Shields has stormed onto the world scene. She beat Mary Spencer, then the world's No. 1, at the American Boxing Confederation's Women's Elite Continental Championships last April. She won her second straight Junior Olympics, the National PAL Tournament title and became the youngest boxer since 1972 to qualify for the U.S. Olympic team. She took her first loss, to savvy Brit Savannah Marshall, at the World Championships but, says USA coach Basheer Abdullah, "has learned so much from that and will probably never make those mistakes again."

Her father? Clarence is on board Team Shields now, too. Before Shields fights, he calls and tells her a story. He tells her when she was 2 years old, a girl stole her bike and made her cry. He tells her the girl that stole her bike is the one she is about to face in the ring.

"Sometimes, it's about hamburger," Shields said.

Are the stories true?

"No," Shields said, the defiance back. "No one ever takes nothing from me."

There's that swagger. All the greats have it, in any sport. After losing to Shields, Spencer began wearing a bracelet with Shields name on it, telling reporters she would not take it off until she avenged the defeat. "I hope it's comfortable," Shields told SI recently. "Because she is going to be wearing that thing for the rest of her life."

Unfortunately, Spencer won't be around for a rematch; she, along with Marshall, lost in the quarterfinals, clearing two significant opponents out of the 165-pound bracket. Not that it matter. Shields, Crutchfield says, "is here on business."

"I box for a lot of reasons," Shields said. "To show you can come from a real small city, where you are not really acknowledged, and become something. I fight for my family. Boxing is going to help me be able to take care of them. And I fight to win. I want to be successful."

Crutchfield says he will make make sure of it. When Shields finishes her evening film session with the USA coaches on Monday, Crutchfield says she will report to the gym, where they will work to clean up some of the mistakes.

"She can be better," says Crutchfield. "She will be better. That's not how we fight. She was throwing wide punches. She had this girl hurt and she started backing up. We aren't leaving here without that gold medal."

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