Teen star the USA's last shot at boxing gold

CLARESSA SHIELDS: The USA's last boxing medal hope.
CLARESSA SHIELDS: The USA's last boxing medal hope.

From the smouldering ruins of the USA's Olympic men's boxing campaign has emerged Claressa Shields, the teenaged middleweight with a quintessential boxing story who stands to win the sole gold for a nation which had expected a much grander return.

American amatuers have gone on to dizzying heights after Olympic Games. You only need to rattle off names like Ali, Foreman, Frazier, De La Hoya and Mayweather to understand the pedigree Boxing USA brings to the table.

But in London, the American team reached rock bottom. For the first time in Olympic history, all nine of the men will return home without a medal. It has been left to Shields to put some starch back in the Stars and Stripes.

She will fight for gold against Nadezda Torpolova, a tough Russian. Already this has the feel of a Rocky movie, with an American battler from a tough background taking on the pride of Russian womanhood.

"I swing wide. I fight like Rocky Balboa. When he beat the Russian - that's my favourite one," Shields admits, as life imitates art. Then she ducked and weaved: "No, no the one where he fought Mr T. He's crazy."

Shields wasn't old enough to fight in the Olympics until March. Now she will be one of the first six women to fight in an Olympic final, across three weight divisions, and can at least provide one shining light to an American boxing program that is undergoing similar scrutiny to Australian swimming.

All the ingredients are in place. She attends school in Flint, Michigan, a city left in tatters after the collapse of the auto industry. Her father Bo was in prison until she was nine-year-old, yet it was he who convinced her to take up the sport. Her brother Artis is in prison now.

But Shields doesn't feel like the outcome of America's boxing Games is her problem. It crossed her mind, especially when Errol Spence was bounced from the men's welterweights by Russia's Andrey Zamkovoy. But like any good fighter, the trust in her own skills mean's she doesn't really care.

"When Earle lost last night, I felt kinda heavy. I was like 'Oh my God. It might be all on me, it might land all on me'. And now it's all on me to get a gold medal. But I don't feel no pressure because I can overcome anything. I've got to get in the ring and I've got to fight," Shields said.

"I'm still kinda shocked. But I'm not dreaming. It's real. I believe I can beat anybody."

When asked if, at 17, she was ready to be the face of US Olympic boxing, Shields simly replied: "Sure."

Shields has damaging hands and says her boxing idol is Sugar Ray Robinson, the American welterweight and middleweight often cited as the greatest fighter of all time. She's even taken to calling herself 'Baby Robinson' and watched a replay of one of his five bouts with the Bronx Bull, Jake La Motta, to prepare for her 29-15 semi-final win over Kazakhstan's Marina Volnova.

"The game plan was to go to the right and jab and box but she didn't respect me when I was doing that. So I turned it into a fun game and started banging away. I got the best of it. I was able to pick my shots and make her miss a lot," Shields said.

"I was able to put my combinations together, land my hard clean shots, punch straight - I'm able to do a lot of things that people don't see women doing. I knew I was faster than her before I get in the ring.

"If a girl is going to stand there like that and fight me, why not hit her?"

Shields would like to continue to Rio in 2016 but the lure of turning pro appeals.

"I got a family to feed, a little brother, a little sister, my mum, my dad. I want to try to look out for them. We'll see how everything goes," she said.

For now, the gold medal is consuming her thoughts. And if the men continue to misfire, USA boxing will be hoping to keep her around as long as it can.