US Olympic boxer Shields stronger after conflict with coach
COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (AP) Claressa Shields won a gold medal as the most dominant fighter in London at the first Olympic women's boxing tournament. After reigning atop the amateur sport for the ensuing three years, the ferocious American middleweight was favored to win gold again in Rio de Janeiro.
And here came this Irish boxing coach trying to change her game.
''Oh, we clashed heads quite a bit in the first few months,'' Billy Walsh said with a grin. ''It came to the stage where she was going or I was going.''
Shields also smiles at the memory of her introduction to Walsh, the respected amateur coach who took over the U.S. boxing team late last year. The fearsome puncher from hardscrabble Flint, Michigan, and the soft-spoken ex-Olympic fighter from County Wexford disagreed over everything from training methods to their relationship in the corner.
They fought through it all to form a bond they've carried into Brazil.
''He understands me as a fighter, and I'm pretty different from all the other fighters,'' Shields said after a recent workout with Walsh at the Olympic Training Center. ''I used to tell him, `You want me to win an Olympic gold medal, just let me do what I do, OK?' But then he taught me a lot of things, and I'm teaching him a little bit.''
Walsh is the women's head coach for USA Boxing, but he essentially is in charge of the entire eight-person Olympic team. Shields' success in London, along with the cachet of women's boxing in general, allowed the once-beleaguered organization to attract funding to hire the elite coach who built Ireland's remarkable amateur program.
But no U.S. amateur is more important than Shields, who built on her teenage dominance in London with two world championships and a Pan-Am Games gold. Now a smooth 21-year-old team leader with major endorsement deals, Shields was understandably resistant to alterations in her winning formula when Walsh arrived in Colorado Springs.
''I had to explain to her I wasn't trying to change her,'' Walsh said. ''What I said to her was, `What you did in London won't be good enough in Rio. Everybody has been watching you, studying you, getting better to beat you. We've got to keep ahead of the posse. So the tools I'm giving you are to make you better, so you can fight any girl at any distance in any situation.'''
Their disagreements occurred in several areas, including their training philosophies. Shields has precise standards for her own daily workouts, and she often does extra work after practice when she doesn't feel tired enough. When Walsh tried to give her a morning off, she would show up anyway.
Walsh also wanted Shields to learn different fighting strategies, particularly in case she needed to change her strategy late in close bouts - something Shields hasn't experienced much in her career.
Their initial interactions were perplexing for Shields, who had recently split with Jason Crutchfield, her longtime personal coach in Michigan.
She recalls being surprised by Walsh's screaming from the corner in the first round of their first fight together: ''Why do you have your hands down? Put your hands up!''
''I have to come back to the corner, and he's like, `That was a very close round,''' Shields added. ''And I'm like, `No, I won that round clearly.' He wasn't used to being in my corner. It's different. So then when I won (the fight) 3-0, I said, `Coach Billy, we have to sit and watch the fight together.' We sit and watch, and I said, `What was close about that? Listen, whatever you tell me to do in the corner, I'm going to do, but you've got to be calm. Don't be freaking out in the corner.'''
According to Walsh, the conflict culminated shortly before Christmas.
''I said, `You go home and think about it, OK?''' Walsh recalled. ''`I'm going to be here until 2020. You're going to be here for a few months. I've got to implement the program. I want you a part of it, but here are my rules and regulations. This is what we need to be doing.' So she went home, had a good think about it, came back in, and we started all over again.''
With Shields living in Colorado Springs over the next six months, they gradually developed the shorthand necessary for fighters and trainers to communicate. They also got to know each other outside the ring after Walsh learned about the tragic dimensions of Shields' difficult upbringing from watching a documentary about her life that describes her father's imprisonment and her mother's struggles with addiction.
''I went to see it and I said, `Wow,''' Walsh said of the film. ''I began to find out how she lived. Sometimes you can say things that might not be inappropriate, but could be pushing someone in the wrong way when it's a very sensitive area. I had to learn on my feet.''
Walsh's connection with Shields now appears strong, and they banter after workouts with the familiarity of old friends.
When they come together in the corner in Rio, the coach and the fighter are confident they share the language to win gold again.
''I wasn't sure if I was going to win the battle,'' Walsh said. ''Some days I still struggle with her to win the battle, but we've been getting there and working well. She's a different person than when I got her.''