Claressa Shields wins first women's gold in boxing, can be face of sport's future

At 17, Shields is the second-youngest medal-winning boxer in Olympics history. (AP)

When she first found the sport, Claressa Shields' father tried to prevent her from getting into boxing.

On Thursday, the 17-year-old from Flint, Mich., won a gold medal. It was the first gold medal for a U.S. women's boxer, the first gold medal for any female boxer in the 75-kilogram category, as these Games were the first that offered boxing in the history of the Olympics.

In an Olympiad that saw U.S. men's boxing fail to even medal -- a first in its history, perhaps signalling the nadir of America men's commitment, skill and relevance in the sport -- Shields stepped in and saved the U.S. from complete embarrassment.

To many sports fans and writers, boxing's become a punchline in the past decade. But, seriously, Shields is no joke. She was always the best thing going for American boxing heading into the Olympics. Thursday's outcome only proved that sentiment with heavy and happy reinforcement.

Shields, who ironically only made it to London after losing in the best situation possible, defeated 33-year-old Russian Nadezda Torlopova after their standard four-round bout was counted out to a 19-12 decision. After tying the first round at 3, Shields won out 7-4, 5-3, 4-2. Shields fought three matches in as many days on the way to gold. Fighting the heaviest of the three available weight classes, she won by an average of 8.3 points.

During Thursday's match, Shields' fists burst at times like a Howitzer against Torlopova's torso. Her speed and power, at just 17, is incredible to witness. Even a boxing novice would be taken aback by just how fleet and violent Shields is during a fight. She is frighteningly adroit, her talent clearly overcoming the choppy Internet feed I watched on. It was an impressive fight, to say the least, because it was another one which wasn't too close. This gold was hers to lose all along. And she never did. It was never even a debate.

Thursday brought culmination to America's best young fighter -- male or female. Shields became a favorite to win the gold ever since February, when she fought at the U.S. Olympic trials. That's when she took out defending national champion Franchon Crews. After that, 2010 world champion Andrecia Wasson went down at the gloves of Shields.

It was her coming out party. But was it a fluke? Not at all. April's Women's Elite Continental Championship (WECC) pitted Shields against the top-ranked boxer in the world, Canada's Mary Spencer. A three-time defending champ. 

Shields 27, Spencer 14.

There's so much future and growth ahead for Shields, it's scary to think how good she can get. At the moment, she looks too good, too big, too dominant for her own weight class. Fighters aren't supposed to be this good this young. What awaits Shields in four years, when he's approaching her physical prime?

Will there be any female fighter on earth capable of keeping up with a 21-year-old, territorial, unprecedented specimen like Shields? If not, that's a great thing for her sport, even if she might find challenges fewer and further between from now to Rio's Olympic Games.

The gold in London turns sprightly accomplishment into existential importance for Shields' sport. Can Shields become the symbol and face of women's boxing? Absolutely. The sport will never be a major selling point for her country, but this can be a signal of the good of boxing. Of what can be positive and pure; of how the athletes inside of it show fighting spirit in the most inspiring way possible. Here is a girl who doesn't live with her parents, whose father has fualted on child support and spent almost half of Shields' life in jail. Yet she's an honor student. She avoids trouble, bad deeds and bad people in one of the most dangerous cities in the United States.

Claressa Shields' story is a gift boxing did nothing to deserve, yet only boxing could create. And right now there's no more perfect candidate to wear the crown for women's and men's boxing than her.

In an Olympics that truly has had a lot of inspiring stories about women's success, power and spirit, Shields' story stands out as perhaps the best.

CBS Sports Writer

Matt Norlander is a national award-winning writer who has been with CBS Sports since 2010. He's in his seventh season covering college basketball for CBS, and also covers the NBA Draft, the Olympics and... Full Bio

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