One fighter wants to write history and one wants to rewrite it during Atlantic City’s upcoming boxing doubleheader weekend.
On Friday, Jan. 10, at Ocean Casino Resort, Claressa Shields of Flint, Mi, (9-0, 2 knockouts) looks to become the fastest fighter, male or female, to become a three-division champion when she faces Croatia’s Ivana Habazin (20-3, 7 KOs) for the vacant World Boxing Council and World Boxing Organization junior-middleweight titles. Habazin makes her U.S. debut. Shields has already obtained titles in the super-middleweight and middleweight classes.
One night later at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Atlantic City, Philadelphian Jesse Hart seeks vengeance against Joe Smith Jr., who knocked Hart’s mentor Bernard Hopkins out of the ring and retired “The Executioner” in 2016. Hart is the third-ranked WBO light-heavyweight contender and is positioned to obtain a world title shot next year.
It’s an excellent weekend showcase for Atlantic City. Both fights are nationally televised. Hart appears on ESPN, while Shields will be the headliner for Showtime.
Shields was the first American boxer in history to win consecutive Olympic gold medals. She turned professional following the 2016 Olympics and headlined the first women’s boxing main event in premium television history in just her second professional fight in 2017. She concluded 2019 by being named the Sportswoman of the Year by the Woman’s Sports Foundation for the second time in four years. Shields also garnered the award in 2016.
With a win over Habazin, Shields, a prohibitive favorite, would become a three-division champion in her 10th fight. Vasily Lomachenko (featherweight, super-featherweight, super-lightweight) and Kosei Tanaka (minimum, junior-flyweight, flyweight) did that in their 12th fights.
“My goal is to become three-division champ faster than any man or woman in history,” Shields said. “This is a very significant fight for both of us. We have both trained really hard twice and great opportunities await the winner, so hopefully three times is the charm.”
The bout was originally scheduled for Aug. 1, but was postponed when Shields suffered a knee injury in training. They were also supposed to meet Oct. 5, in Flint, but the fight was called off again when Habazin’s trainer, James Ali Bashir, was attacked during the weigh-in and hospitalized.
Artis Mack, Shields’ brother, was arrested in connection with the incident and pleaded not guilty to one count of assault with intent to do great bodily harm less than murder according to published reports.
Family ties, in a different manner, surround Hart’s matchup against Smith.
“This fight doesn’t have to be in a venue, in front of cameras or a crowd,” Hart said. “It can be in Joe Smith’s backyard and it doesn’t even have to be for money. This is personal for me.
“We all idolize somebody as little boys — Hulk Hogan, Andre The Giant, Babe Ruth — whomever. For me, it’s Bernard Hopkins. He showed me, coming from North Philly, that you can achieve greatness and once you see somebody do that, you know that you can do that. Joe Smith hurt the little nine-year-old boy that was inspired by Bernard Hopkins.
“I can’t move on to a championship fight until I beat Joe Smith. That’s why I told the promoters to get me this fight.”
Hart (26-2, 21 KOs) is making his triumphant return to Atlantic City, where he is 7-0 with 7 knockouts. He twice challenged for the super middleweight world title previously held by Gilberto Ramirez, but he came up short via a pair of close decision defeats. Following the second Ramirez loss in December 2018, Hart moved up to the light heavyweight ranks and announced his arrival with a solid 10-round decision victory over Sullivan Barrera on the Tyson Fury-Tom Schwarz undercard.
Jesse comes from a strong family boxing tradition — he is the son of former middleweight contender Eugene “Cyclone” Hart, now 67 years old, who fought the best in his division and retired in 1982 with a record of 30-9-1, 28 KOs.
Like his father, Jesse Hart unfurls an aggressive, fan-friendly style.
“You know something exciting is going to happen at my fights,” Hart said. “My trainers want me to box, but I need the adrenaline rush.”
Smith (24-3, 20 KOs) was boxing’s “Cinderella Man” in 2016, upsetting Andrzej Fonfara via first-round TKO to earn the shot at Hopkins. The Long Island native proved the Fonfara win was no fluke, bullying Hopkins around the ring before a combination knocked him through the ropes. Smith is coming off a decision loss to WBA light heavyweight champion Dmitry Bivol.