The two best female middleweights of recent years are one step closer to facing each other in a big fight to see which of the two best is truly better than the other.
Claressa Shields and Christina Hammer fought on the same show this past weekend in Detroit — near Shields’ hometown of Flint — for that very reason. It’s a fight that’s been teased for nearly a year, back when Shields was still just a prospect but already showing signs that she’d be among the top fighters in and around her weight class.
Hammer, a longtime beltholder at 160 pounds, made the 12th defense of her world title, winning a unanimous decision over Tori Nelson. And in the main event, Shields had to get up from a surprising first-round knockdown, fending off a game Hanna Gabriels and battling back to score a decision victory of her own.
Here’s how it all went down:
Christina Hammer vs. Tori Nelson
Christina Hammer’s height, hand speed and boxing ability proved to be too much for the much older but still capable Tori Nelson.
Hammer, who is listed at 5-foot-11, was often able to work behind a jab and incorporate foot movement to keep Nelson, 5-foot-6, at bay. Hammer made Nelson stumble with a jab in the first round. A right hand from Hammer sent Nelson’s mouthpiece flying out in the third. Nelson kept coming forward. It was really her only good option — to try to force the fight, exert pressure and see if she could break Hammer down.
That didn’t happen. All of the notable moments belonged to her opponent. Hammer did a good job of boxing, dodging shots, and sending out quick, extended combinations to score. And even when Nelson was able to get inside, Hammer was often able to tie up and keep her from landing anything of consequence.
It wasn’t pretty: Hammer landed 103 of 466 punches, less than one of every four thrown, but that was still much more than Nelson, who was just 56 of 318 on the night, according to CompuBox.
The final scores were as wide as expected. One judge had it 100-90, a shutout at 10 rounds to none. The other two judges had it 99-91, charitably finding one round to award to Nelson.
It was the second straight defeat for Nelson, who is now 17-2-3 with 2 knockouts. Her other loss came against Shields earlier this year. Nelson has done a lot with a pro career that began later in life. She turned pro in 2010 at the age of 33 and is fighting on at 41 years old. But she’s a smaller, older fighter going up against opponents who are younger, bigger and faster. Nelson’s worked hard to get to this point, but those are long odds to overcome. She’s won one round of her past 20.
Hammer moved to 23-0 with 10 KOs. The 27-year-old turned pro in 2009, won a vacant world title in her eighth fight, and has been the class of her division ever since, unifying her WBO world title with the WBC belt in 2016.
She did her part on Friday, then waited to see what would happen with Shields.
Claressa Shields vs. Hanna Gabriels
What Hammer saw early on must’ve given her a momentary fright.
Hanna Gabriels came out very confident — downright cocky, in fact — for a fighter who was giving up so much size. She was in with a bigger opponent with good hand speed, yet Gabriels moved quickly on her feet, her hands down at her side, leaving her chin exposed. Gabriels took two shots to the head early on but remained in the same posture, landing a hook, taking one in return, and soon scoring a shocking knockdown.
Gabriels landed a right uppercut with about 45 seconds left in the round, then followed up with a left hook. Shields went down, rising quickly and realizing that she was in for a tough fight.
Shields came out with wild punches to start the second round, trying to seize control in the wrong way. She ultimately regained her composure and technique, landing hooks and crosses as leads and as part of combinations, catching Gabriels in exchanges — the rare time when Gabriels wasn’t moving — and keeping the fight at a pace that tired Gabriels down, making her more available to hit.
Gabriels was coming up from 154 pounds for this fight, where she held two world titles. Shields was a middleweight as an amateur, though amateur middleweights compete at 165 pounds — which is why she at first competed in the pros as a super middleweight, where the weight limit is 168 pounds.
Shields’ punches carried more oomph. She also landed more, scoring with 162 of 506, about one in every three shots, according to CompuBox, while Gabriels was 133 of 510, landing about one in every four.
The final scores had one judge seeing Shields ahead 98-91 — nine rounds to one, meaning that judge had given Gabriels the first round, deducted an extra point from Shields for the knockdown, and awarded Shields all the remaining rounds. The other two judges had it 97-92, eight rounds to two.
Gabriels is now 18-2-1 with 11 KOs and will likely return to junior middleweight to defend her belts.
Shields, now 6-0 with 2 KOs, picked up two vacant belts with the victory. That means she and Hammer will compete for all four titles — and for recognition as the best middleweight in the world.
They had a confrontation in the ring after Shields’ fight. They’ll meet in earnest sometime in the not-too-distant future.