Claressa Shields is arguably the most powerful and celebrated woman boxer in the world. Her first fight of 2018 is this Friday, January 12th, against Tori Nelson in New York, where she will defend her WBC and IBF female super middleweight World Championship titles. 

Nikki Adler vs. Claressa Shields: Highlights | ShoBox: The New Generation

Claressa Shields impresses in TKO victory and improves to 4-0 over former WBC world champion Nikki Adler to become the new unified WBC and IBF Super Middleweight champion.

In addition to being a warrior in the ring, Shields is also a mentor and a champion of young women in boxing. Her friendship with a young Muslim-American boxer named Amaiya Zafar is a story about solidarity, friendship and the power of believing in yourself and in sport. 

Last year, I profiled Zafar for TSL and focused on her challenges of dealing with a hijab-ban by the International Boxing Association (AIBA). The rules of the federation state that a boxer should not have their arms, legs and head covered in any way. Zafar chooses to wear a scarf that covers her neck and hair but not her face. 

AIBA maintains that it is for the safety and protection of the athletes. But many exclusionary policies have kept women out of sport in the name of safety - including a former hijab bans by FIFA and FIBA.

This Teen Boxer Wants A Chance to Compete Wearing Her Hijab | National Geographic

Amaiya Zafar, 16, practices boxing every night in a St. Paul, Minnesota, gym. She aspires to compete in the 2020 Olympics. A devout Muslim, Zafar announced at six that she wanted to wear a hijab, but she is not allowed to compete in one.

 Zafar is not fighting alone. In fact, some of her supporters and allies are the very people she aspires to be - the most notable being Shields, two-time double Olympic Gold medalist who is widely recognized as the best woman boxer in the world. 

Shields fights from her soul and has an integrity about her that is indomitable, something that inspires Zafar. The story of how these two connected is simple. But in an era where the intersections of sport and justice are colliding so intensely, their friendship is profound and powerful.

The first time I spoke to Zafar, I asked her about her role models. Without hesitation she replied “Claressa Shields”- and with so much confidence that I knew this was something she not only thought of often, but articulated frequently.  

“Shields is from Flint. She came up anyways, despite the odds, even when people said she couldn’t,” Zafar said.

Olympic Boxer Claressa Shields' Long Fight for Gold

The Michigan native turned to boxing after a rough childhood and now she could make Olympics history if she wins her second gold medal.

It didn’t surprise me that she looked to Shields, who is currently dominating the professional boxing circuit. But Zafar’s reasons are not only athletic. She looks to a brilliant, young Black woman who has seen struggle in her community, faced challenges, but relies on a phenomenal work ethic and drive to win. There is no compromise and there is no backing down. There is only a belief that it will be done. And this is the root of what Shields teaches Zafar.

In a phone interview, Shields says she saw Zafar’s story on the local news while she was Las Vegas in May of 2017. Shields had no idea that she was the 17-year-old’s favorite fighter, and she knew nothing of the hijab ban in boxing. But Shields felt she needed to know more about Zafar’s plight. She was curious. 

“From that day, I followed her on social media,” Shields told The Shadow League.

Zafar’s excitement is contagious when she explains the moment she found out that Shields knew of her. According to Zafar, her teammates alerted her to the fact that Shields mentioned her in her Snapchat story. “My teammates were like [sic] ‘yooo she put you on her story!’ So I made a Snapchat so I could see. When I added her, she added me back and she messaged me.”

One can only imagine the jubilation and thrill of being contacted by their sports shero. Zafar says she was so excited by this that she could barely type a word in reply, so her teammates had to help her. 

In that moment her only thought was: “Like what?!?! She talking to ME? That’s crazy.” 

Shields recalls this moment with beautiful humility: “I reached out to her and told her I like what she’s standing for - her religion- and everything.And that’s when she wrote back and said “Oh My God! I love you. You are my favorite fighter!””

The two began texting and messaging each other, with Shields often sending Zafar motivational messages to keep her game strong. In June, 2017, Shields invited Zafar to Detroit to watch her fight Sydney LeBlanc.  She flew Zafar and her coach’s wife down from Minnesota. Shields won the bout easily and was crowned the WBC super middleweight champion - with Zafar cheering from the stands. 

(Photo Credit: Amaiya Zafar)

“She shouldn’t be turned away because of her religion,” says Shields about why it’s important to amplify Zafar’s story. “I think that America - and the world in general - has made it too far for this. If that’s part of her religion, they should make adjustments to it. She should be allowed to fight. The hijab doesn’t give you extra power, or make you stronger or faster. It’s part of her religion and she shouldn’t be discriminated against because of that.”

For Zafar, Shields’ support and mentorship is crucial as she keeps herself motivated by training and workout out. She continues to be inspired by “her big sis” and push to make a change in boxing. 

“It means so much to me that she cares. Being a woman in the sport with this specific problem I’m facing; [sic] and having someone so successful in the sport give me their support is priceless,” Zafar explains.  

Shields knows that her image is powerful and persuasive. She uses her platform to influence girls and young women all over the world, and encourage them in sports, be it for a career or for recreation. 

Her words are meaningful and necessary. As a young Black woman who has fought for every single victory (literally), she knows the value of being true to yourself and not trying to please other people.

Muslim Boxer To Be Allowed To Compete Wearing Hijab

It's a sport she's good at -- and loves -- but until now, she was banned from proving it in the ring, Bill Hudson reports (2:39). WCCO 4 News At 5:30 - April 23, 2017

 “This is what I tell the girls. Despite how great I am, I am still a regular person, and the best person to be, is yourself,” says Shields.  

This unlikely duo is not a friendship many might expect in the competitive world of women’s boxing, but their bond is strong and their motivations are clear. Both women are determined to win their fights - in and out of the ring. 

Zafar continues her campaign to fight while wearing her hijab. Her sights are set to qualify for Team USA in the 110-pound weight class and eventually compete in the 2020 Olympic Games, a goal that Shields supports. 

Until then, Zafar trains regularly, speaks to children in schools and offers support and advice to others interested in the sport she loves. Perhaps she is paying forward the encouragement and allyship that Shields has shown her, saying, “Claressa shows us all that it don’t matter where you come from, the come-up comes from YOU.”