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Pooja Rani’s Sporting Hero: The young and fearless Claressa Shields

Indian boxer Pooja Rani put Claressa Shields on her hero’s pedestal much before the American ace became the global superstar she is today.

By Ubaid Parkar and Utathya Nag ·

When picking a sporting hero, most athletes’ choice would be someone older than them.

But Tokyo Olympics-bound Indian boxer Pooja Rani found hers in someone four years younger – American boxing ace Claressa Shields.

Shields, now 25, is a two-time Olympic champion and regarded as one of the best women’s boxers in the world. T-Rex, as she is known in the boxing world, has also thoroughly dominated the pro circuit with an undefeated 10-0 record.

The American pugilist is also one of the eight boxers in history – male or female – to simultaneously hold all four major pro boxing world titles (WBA, WBC, IBF and WBO). The undisputed champion is now trying her hands in mixed martial arts (MMA) and is slated to make her much-anticipated Professional Fighters League (PFL) debut in 2021.

Pooja Rani’s respect for Claressa Shields, however, took root much before she became the global superstar she is today.

“In 2012, I had a bout in the world championships against Claressa Shields. I was greatly impressed. She was fearless and a brilliant boxer,” Pooja Rani told the Olympic Channel.

Rani, just 21 at the time, was just starting her boxing career in the international arena and came up against Shields in the first round of the 2012 World Boxing Championships in China.

Claressa Shields was just 17 back then but regarded as a prodigy courtesy her 25-0 record in the amateur circuit heading into the match. Pooja Rani remembers the bout like it was just yesterday.

Fearless and audacious

“She had her arms down beside her and I must have thrown some six-seven punches at her but she didn’t let a single one touch her. I was clueless during the bout, because I couldn’t even touch her. I was like, ‘what do I do?,” Pooja Rani recalled.

“I didn’t even know at the time that she was such a good boxer. I came to know more about her only later. Then, I watched a lot of videos of her,” Pooja Rani added.

A 17-year-old Claressa Shields in action against India’s Pooja Rani at the 2012 World Boxing Championships.

Rani may have lost the bout 27-10, but she left the ring with the future superstar’s respect.

“I wasn't nervous, but the chick (Pooja Rani) was tough,” Shields told Michigan Live after her bout. “I was a little overanxious, but I stayed punching and scoring. Pooja was awkward, scary and tough.”

Interestingly enough, the bout against Pooja Rani had a big implication on Shields’ career too. With women’s boxing making its debut at the London 2012 Olympics, the World Championships in Qinhuangdao also served as qualifiers for the Games.

Shields lost her next round bout to eventual gold medallist Savannah Marshall but on the back of her win over Rani and Marshall reaching the final, she made it to the London Olympics. The rest, as they say, is history.

Claressa Shields went on to win the middleweight (75kg) gold medal at London, kickstarting her legend. She was the first American female boxer to win an Olympic gold and went on to successfully defend her title at the Rio 2016 Games.

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Also, the loss to Marshall following the Pooja Rani bout still stands as Shields’ only loss in both senior amateur and professional boxing. Before Shields turned pro in 2016, she held a 77-1 record in amateurs.

Pooja Rani’s fangirl moment

The next time Rani met Shields, she was already a huge fan.

“I met her again in 2016 at the world championships in Astana. She was an Olympic champion then and I thought I have to get a photo with her. So, I got that done,” Rani said.

Rani also admitted she had learnt a lot, particularly how to stay positionally aware in the ring and prepare for individual opponents, by watching Claressa Shields box over the years.

Next year, Pooja Rani is set to live out her very own Olympic dream.

Pooja punched her ticket to Tokyo at the Asian boxing qualifiers and will be looking at the examples set on the Olympic stage by Shields to inspire her in her debut Games.