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'Hurricane' Carter's Death Still Brings No Closure

Bernard Fernandez

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“Based on a true story.”

Hollywood packages many of its biographical movies in such a manner, but my experiences in covering the controversial aftermath of a 1999 flick, The Hurricane, about the life and times of incarcerated former middleweight contender Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, taught me that separating truth from fiction is frequently a matter of individual perception. For whatever reason, most people choose to believe what they want to believe. Maybe that’s because human beings are prone to react subjectively, on the basis of their own personal emotions and biases, rather than on a dispassionate review of factual matters.

As Norman Jewison, director of The Hurricane, said after a lawsuit brought by former middleweight champion Joey Giardello, whose winning defense of his title in a Dec. 14, 1964, bout against Carter in Philadelphia was severely distorted in the film (and on this point there can be no doubt), observed after Giardello’s suit was settled out of court, “The truth is a moving target, I found. When you make a film about real people, about something that really happened, you’ll never get it right because there’s always somebody who’s going to disagree with you.”

The announcement of Carter’s death on Easter Sunday, at age 76 and after a long bout with prostate cancer, brought back a flood of memories of how difficult it sometimes is to pronounce anything as the incontrovertible truth, because, as Mr. Jewison correctly noted, truth is almost always slippery to pin down to everyone’s satisfaction. And that’s especially the case when the movie people decide to take what is or what was real and twist it, like a pile of Silly Putty, into a story line that fits a particular director’s or screenwriter’s agenda.

All the news stories I’ve read about Carter’s death state, unequivocally, that he was a black man wrongfully convicted of the murder of three white patrons of a Paterson, N.J., bar in 1966. That verdict, arrived at by an all-white jury, resulted in Carter spending 22 years behind bars. But is “not guilty” the equivalent of “innocent”? There are still people familiar with the case who insist that a judge’s eventual overturning of Carter’s conviction was based on procedural matters –namely, prosecutorial errors – rather than on evidentiary ones. The only way anyone can say with any degree of certainty that Rubin Carter was or wasn’t a murderer was to have been in that bar the night those three people were killed, in which case the observer either would have wound up as another corpse or, had he or she survived, could have testified that it was or wasn’t someone other than the boxer who pulled the trigger.

It is not my intention to speculate about the larger and more prevalent theme of The Hurricane, which is the senseless killing of three people and one man’s possibly unjust two-decades-plus spent behind bars in retribution for those deaths. But there is a key three-minute sequence in Jewison’s otherwise well-made, well-received film that casts a dark shadow about the authenticity of the entire finished product, and how that depiction played fast and loose with something indisputably true. That sequence deals with Carter’s bout with Giardello (whose real name was Carmine Tilelli), an honest workman who was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1991.

In the movie, Giardello is shown taking a horrific beating from Carter in the 15th and final round. After a delay in the tabulation of the judges’ scorecards, the champion is proclaimed the winner by unanimous decision, an announcement greeted with boos and catcalls from the audience in the Philadelphia Civic Center. An unnamed blow-by-blow commentator for the telecast is also aghast at the injustice perpetrated against the challenger.

“I’ve seen a lot of things in my time, but it’s taken 35 minutes to tell us what this hometown crowd (Giardello, a native of Brooklyn, N.Y., trained in South Philly and was a longtime resident of the Philadelphia suburb of Cherry Hill, N.J.) already knows,” Jewison’s fictionalized broadcaster says in the film. “Joey Giardello is about to lose the crown to Rubin `Hurricane’ Carter.

“They (the judges) must have been watching a different fight, because the one we just saw, Hurricane Carter took the title,” the broadcaster says after the decision angers spectators whose allegiance had shifted over the course of the bout from Giardello to Carter.

Full disclosure: My wife and I took Giardello, who was 78 when he died on Sept. 4, 2008, and his wife, Rosalie, to see The Hurricane the week of its release for the purpose of me writing about their reaction to the fight sequence in question.

“I can’t believe what I’m seeing,” Rosalie Tilelli, who attended the actual fight, said to her husband as the fight scene played on the wide screen. “They made it seem like he beat the hell out of you. I never thought it would be like this. I thought they would make it, you know, a little bit controversial. But this is ridiculous. It’s so unfair.”

Said Giardello: “They got the crowd booing me. How could they do that? Nobody booed. Those were my people there, from South Philly. They were happy I won. And I did win. I won, he lost. End of story.

“End of the fight, Carter congratulated me in the ring. He wasn’t complaining because he didn’t have anything to complain about. I was better than him. I know it, he knows it, everybody who was at the fight knows it. It’s just too bad all the people who see this movie won’t know it.”

Two people who knew what Giardello and his wife knew were Les Keiter, who called the fight for TV, and Ron Lipton, a New York-based referee who was a personal friend of Carter’s and had been asked by the moviemakers to do the choreography for the boxing sequences, a job he didn’t get because, he said, he refused to go along with Jewison’s instruction to portray the fight as a racially-motivated robbery.

It took me less than 10 minutes of calling around to track down Keiter, who was then living in Hawaii, for his take on how he – or the guy pretending to be him on-screen – was portrayed.

“The scene was absolutely, totally fictitious,” Keiter told me. “I never said any of that. Not even close.

“I have my call of the fight on tape. I played it for several of the sports writers here in Hawaii. Giardello, in my scoring, was the clear-cut winner. Now, it was a reasonably close fight. But the 15th round was just the reverse of what was shown. It was all Giardello, with his boxing and his counterpunching.”

Lipton has photos of himself with Muhammad Ali when they went to post bail for Carter in 1976. In an email he posted on the Cyber Boxing Zone message board after Carter’s death, he said “the photos of me standing with Carter with Ali speak for themselves.” It was Carter, in fact, who proposed to Jewison that his friend, Lipton, serve as the choreographer for the fight scenes for the movie.

So why didn’t Lipton get that gig, which would have paid him a nice chunk of money he admits he could have used? It was, he said, because he resisted the movie people’s suggestion to take liberties with what really happened that night.

“But Joey Giardello is still alive. It would hurt him to have the fight presented that way,” Lipton said he told the Hollywood people.

“No big deal. He’s just some old pug nobody cares about,” he said of the response he received.

When Giardello settled out of court – for a reported $350,000 – Lipton admitted to being happy that justice, to an extent, was served because, well, Lipton was a fan of all the good things Giardello represented as a fighter.

“I can never remember crying, except once,” he recalled when he read about the settlement. “That was when Joey Giardello left the ring after his second fight with Dick Tiger, the one in which he lost his title. Joey took a beating, but he refused to quit. There was no one I had ever seen in the ring who could be braver than Joey was that night.

“I’d rather be dead than to do anything to embarrass a great warrior like that.”

Interestingly, a big-time lawyer with a Washington, D.C., firm contacted my executive sports editor at the Philadelphia Daily News, demanding that the newspaper fire me or face a lawsuit because my stories had resulted in adverse publicity for the movie, possibly causing it to lose out on several potential Academy Awards. Denzel Washington, who did receive a Golden Globe Award for his portrayal of Carter, lost the Best Actor Oscar to Kevin Spacey for American Beauty. That picture also beat out The Hurricane for Best Picture.

“The controversy surrounding (The Hurricane) stems from the fact that some people think I shouldn’t be around. They think I should be dead,” Carter said at the time.

Thankfully, my boss told the attorney representing Beacon Communications Corp., which financed the movie, that the paper didn’t fire its reporters for writing what was true. The lawsuit against the Daily News and me was never filed, and as part of the settlement there were some tweaks of the DVD version of The Hurricane before it went on sale. The standard disclaimer – which states that certain events and characters “have been composited or invented, and a number of incidents fictionalized” – was moved from the closing credits to the beginning of the movie. And the epilogue, which shows the real-life Carter receiving a championship belt from the World Boxing Council in 1993, noted that the awarding of that belt was “in recognition of his 20-year fight for freedom.” The additional explanation is important, because it refutes any implication that the WBC was attempting to rectify an injustice tied to the decision for Giardello.

Armyan Bernstein, head of Beacon Communications, stopped short of an apology in his letter to Giardello, but he wrote that “we had no intention of taking away from your legacy as world middleweight champion, or of besmirching the other boxing accomplishments in which you, your friends and family take pride. Rubin Carter, who worked with us on The Hurricane, told me that you never ducked a fight.”

I didn’t buy that explanation then, and I don’t buy it now. It’s one thing for a screenwriter to script lines of dialogue for movies about, oh, Alexander the Great or some real person from hundreds of years ago. It’s another to do the same thing about a person and events that took place in the mid-20th century, with conversations and other materials that could have been easily documented.

“The movie was such a lie, such a contrived piece of (bleep),” Lipton wrote after Carter had passed away. “Not one thing in the movie is true.” He concluded that what lies ahead for the deceased fighter is now “between Carter and God.”

It could be 100 percent correct that Carter was railroaded. I’ve been around long enough to have personally witnessed many instances of racially-tinged injustices, an unfortunate byproduct of those turbulent times and one that has yet to be completely eradicated. Certainly, Carter was adamant in his steadfast refusal to conduct himself, even in prison, as someone who needed to pay for the heinous crime for which he was convicted.

“I wouldn’t give up,” he said in an interview on PBS in 2011. “No matter that they sentenced me to three life terms in prison. I wouldn’t give up. Just because a jury of 12 misinformed people … found me guilty does not make me guilty. And because I was not guilty, I refused to act like a guilty person.

“When I walked into prison, I refused to wear their stripes. I refused to eat their food. I refused to work their jobs, and I would have refused to breathe the prison’s air if I could have done so.”

I’m not as quick to give Jewison the benefit of the doubt, no matter how well-intentioned he might be or how skillful in the presentation of his art. More than a few of the acclaimed director’s films have dealt with societal themes and injustice, and before The Hurricane he examined racial tensions in In the Heat of the Night (1967), which won five Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and A Soldier’s Story (1984). In 2010 he received a lifetime achievement award from the Directors Guild of America. But The Hurricane, in striving to make a point, bent history to fit the director’s narrative, and that is where any movie “based on a true story” can go terribly wrong.

It fit Jewison’s vision to demean Joey Giardello, and it fit that vision to build up Rubin Carter as a fighter of near-mythical ability whose destiny to become one of the all-time great middleweight champions was diverted by a judge and jury that couldn’t see past the color of his skin. No one can deny that Carter was a devastating puncher with some career exclamation points, the most notable of which was his one-round stoppage of the great Emile Griffith, but his final professional record of 27-12-1, with 19 knockout victories, was hardly Hall of Fame-worthy. The movie suggests that Carter was still a top contender, only recently removed from his presumably unjust points loss to Giardello, when he was sent to prison. Not so; he was just 7-7-1 in his post-Giardello bouts and was no longer world-ranked.

After the settlement, Giardello and his attorney, George Bochetto, expressed satisfaction that their primary goal had been the preservation of Giardello’s deserved reputation as a tough fighter who never ducked anyone, which they felt was tarnished by the movie.

“For 19 years, I fought the greatest fighters around and I beat Carter fair and square,” Giardello said. “I just wanted to set the record straight, and I think it has been.”

Said Bochetto: “Joey’s reputation always was his primary concern. He wanted it restored. He put it on the line to make sure that it was.”

But The Hurricane has been televised multiple times since its release 14-plus years ago, and I caught bits and pieces of it on the tube only a few weeks ago, including the disputed fight sequence. It is still as blatantly false as ever, and the disclaimers which appear on the DVD version aren’t anywhere to be found unless you have that DVD as part of your video library.

In other words, the truth might have set Carter free, but, to those who aren’t aware of the real story of the fight in question, Joey Giardello’s legacy is still besmirched.

Like Norman Jewison said, the truth is a moving target and Hollywood, the ultimate land of make-believe, often misses the bulls-eye that it seldom aims at in any case.

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Michael Coffie vs. Darmani Rock Smacks of Joe Joyce vs. Daniel Dubois

Arne K. Lang

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Although it wasn’t a world title fight, the match between Joe Joyce and Daniel Dubois which took place in London on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, attracted a lot of buzz. Only one heavyweight bout in 2020 was more eagerly anticipated, that being the rematch in February between Tyson Fury and Deontay Wilder.

Joyce vs. Dubois was that rare pairing of two undefeated heavyweights who were roughly at the same stage of their career. Dubois was 15-0 (14 KOs) heading in; Joyce was 11-0 (10).

And that brings us to the crossroads fight on Jan. 30 at the LA Shrine Expo between Darmani Rock (17-0, 12 KOs) and Michael Coffie (11-0, 8 KOs). Unlike Joyce vs. Dubois, this is not a well-marinated showdown, but yet there are some parallels, most notably it’s a match between unbeaten heavyweights in which the victor will undoubtedly make a big jump in public esteem and the loser, more than likely, will be pushed back into the shadows.

There was a big age gap in the Joyce-Dubois fight. The 35-year-old Joyce was the older man by 12 years. Likewise, Rock vs. Coffie features a young old-timer vs. an opponent who is merely young.

Michael Coffie, 34, came to boxing late after serving eight years in the Marine Corps. He entered the New York City Golden Gloves tournament on a whim and with virtually no formal training and yet he succeeded in reaching the finals.

When Coffie (pictured)  turned pro, his manager was none other than Randy Gordon, the former chairman of the New York State Athletic Commission who has kept his hand in boxing as a journalist and radio personality, co-hosting a boxing-themed talk show on Sirius FM with Gerry Cooney. Gordon knows more than a little about heavyweights, having been involved with Bonecrusher Smith who was briefly (very briefly) the WBA world heavyweight champion.

“(Bonecrusher) was not anywhere near the fighter that Mike is,” Gordon told Hall of Fame boxing writer Bernard Fernandez on the occasion of Coffie’s pro debut in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. On that night, Coffie needed only 61 seconds to dismiss his opponent, ending the contest with a short right hand. The sacrificial lamb, wrote Fernandez, “went down like an anvil dropped in the ocean.”

In his most recent fight, on Nov. 7, Coffie was matched against Minnesota veteran Joey Abell, a noted spoiler. Abell would have been a good measuring rod for assessing Coffie’s progress, but unfortunately the bout was over almost before it started. Early in the second round, Abell suffered a biceps injury while throwing a punch and couldn’t continue.

The “A” side in this fight, however, isn’t Coffie but the other guy. Darmani Rock, 24, had an outstanding amateur career, winning several important tournaments including the 2014 Youth World Championships in Sofia, Bulgaria. Rock was upset in the finals of the 2016 Olympic Trials and then turned pro, signing with Roc Nation, the deep pockets sports management company founded by Jay-Z.

darmani

Darmani Rock on the right

Questions have been raised, however, about Rock’s dedication. He weighed 278 pounds in his last fight, 30 pounds more than in his pro debut. (Coffie’s fighting weight also hovers around 270 and he is the same approximate height – both are listed at 6’5” — but Coffie has always been big.)  Moreover, Rock has been inactive for 15 months and may have trouble shaking off the rust.

Darmani Rock hails from Philadelphia; Michael Coffie from Brooklyn, more fodder for the tub-thumpers. Philadelphia was the stomping grounds of Smokin’ Joe Frazier. The City of Brotherly Love has arguably produced more good prizefighters per capita than any city in the country. Brooklyn spawned Mike Tyson, Riddick Bowe, and Shannon Briggs, all of whom bubbled out of gritty Brownsville which also happens to be the neighborhood where Michael Coffie spent much of his youth until he was spirited away to a less threatening environment by foster parents.

I don’t want to get carried away with the Joyce-Dubois analogy. Joe Joyce had a stronger amateur pedigree than Darmani Rock. Daniel Dubois had a spectacular run leading up to his match with Joyce including a one-sided triumph over well-regarded Nathan Gorman. Moreover, neither Joyce nor Dubois had ever fought an opponent with a losing record. The same can’t be said of Coffie and Rock who have built their records on the backs of the usual suspects. Darmani Rock’s last two opponents were both 42 years old.

Moreover, Coffie vs. Rock isn’t the main attraction on the PBC card. Top billing goes to Caleb Plant’s 168-pound title defense against Caleb Truax.

As we recall, the Joyce-Dubois fight produced a major upset. Dubois was understood to be faster on his feet and more heavy-handed – considered more likely to turn the tide with a single punch – but youth was not served on that night at the historic Church House in Westminster. Joyce methodically peppered Dubois with his jab which caused a big lump to develop over Dubois’s left eye. The eye eventually shut completely and the fight ended in the 10th round with Dubois taking a knee and allowing himself to be counted out. Joyce’s victory elevated him to #2 in the WBO rankings, a notch below Oleksandr Usyk who is potentially his next opponent.

One doesn’t know what will transpire when Coffie fights Rock, but as Michael Buffer would say, “someone’s ‘O’ will have to go.” Fights of this nature are inherently intriguing and that goes double when the combatants are heavyweights.

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“One Night in Miami”: Film Review by Thomas Hauser

Thomas Hauser

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On February 25, 1964, Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. defeated Charles “Sonny” Liston in Miami Beach over the course of six remarkable rounds to claim the heavyweight championship of the world. Late that night, the new champion found himself in a room at Hampton House (a black hotel in segregated Miami) with Malcolm X, several other followers of Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad, and football great Jim Brown. Soul singer Sam Cooke (a friend of Clay’s) had been at the fight, but there’s no historical record of his being in the hotel room with the others at that time.

One Night in Miami is built around imagining what transpired in that room amongst Malcolm X, Cassius Clay, Jim Brown, and Sam Cooke. Directed by Regina King from a screenplay by Kemp Powers, it’s available on Amazon Prime.

The film fits into the genre known as historical fiction. Dramatic license was taken. Viewers should understand that, at times, it’s allegorical rather than an accurate factual recounting. The larger question is whether the film is impressionistically honest. The answer is “yes.”

One Night in Miami begins with the 1963 fight between Clay and Henry Cooper in London. It then segues to Cooke being treated rudely by an all-white audience at the Copacabana, followed by Jim Brown (the greatest running back in National Football League history) being reminded by a patronizing southern gentleman that he’s just a “n—–.” Next, we see Malcolm as the Nation of Islam’s most charismatic spokesman, after which the scene shifts to Liston-Clay I.

Thirty-four minutes into the film, the drama moves to Hampton House.

Malcolm X, Cassius Clay, Jim Brown, and Sam Cooke were prominent in different ways. Each was young, black, and famous. But Malcolm was a social and religious figure of considerable intellect while the other three were known as entertainers.

The dialogue between the four men is light at first and then turns serious.

Malcolm is played by Kingsley Ben-Adir. On what should have been one of the greatest nights of his life, his world is slipping away. His deadly rupture with Elijah Muhammad is almost complete. Soon, Clay will abandon him. Ben-Adir comes across as a bit weaker and more tentative than one might expect, although Malcolm’s intellect is evident in his performance.

It’s hard to imagine anyone playing Cassius Clay well except the young Muhammad Ali. But Eli Goree bears a resemblance to Clay and is pretty good in the role.

Jim Brown was an intimidating physical presence. Aldis Hodge lacks this physicality but his performance is solid.

Leslie Odom Jr, who plays Sam Cooke, has star quality. He’s the only one of the four major actors who has the charisma and presence of the man he’s portraying. But as a result, Cooke has a stronger on-screen persona than Malcolm. That’s a problem as tensions between the two men boil over.

Toward the end of the film, Malcolm reveals that he intends to leave the Nation of Islam because of differences with Elijah Muhammad and will found a new organization.

“Who’s gonna be in this new organization?” Clay asks.

“I think lots of people will follow me over,” Malcolm answers. “Especially if you come with me.”

Clay, of course, didn’t follow Malcolm. He sided with Elijah Muhammad. One year later, he and Jim Brown were the only participants from the hotel room gathering as portrayed in the film who were still alive. Sam Cooke was shot to death in a California motel on December 11, 1964. On February 21, 1965, Malcolm was assassinated at the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem.

One Night in Miami cautions us that our icons are flesh and blood human beings with strengths and flaws. In its best moments, the film is a powerful reminder that the issues of self-respect, black empowerment, and racial equality are timeless.

Pictured left to right: Aldis Hodge (Jim Brown), Kingsley Ben-Adir (Malcolm X) Leslie Odom Jr (Sam Cooke) Eli Goree (Cassius Clay)

Thomas Hauser’s email address is thomashauserwriter@gmail.com. His most recent book – Staredown: Another Year Inside Boxing – was published by the University of Arkansas Press. In 2004, the Boxing Writers Association of America honored Hauser with the Nat Fleischer Award for career excellence in boxing journalism. In 2019, he was selected for induction into the International Boxing Hall of Fame.

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Crossover star Holly Holm Adds New Dimensions to Claressa Shields

Kelsey McCarson

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She laughs about it now, but back then it wasn’t all that funny.

Boxing champion Holly Holm was competing in her first professional MMA fight, and all her years of training inside the ropes as a world champion boxer had just taken over her entire body.

Holm had kicked her opponent down to the ground, so she did what any well-schooled boxer would do. She pivoted away from her fallen prey and headed over to the neutral corner.

All of that was wrong.

“What are you doing?” her coach yelled from cageside. “Finish her!”

It was Holm’s first big mistake in moving over from boxing to MMA, but she was lucky that night. It turned out that Holm’s opponent was finished whether she had run over there or not, so it was a lesson she could learn without much consequence.

But the instruction of that moment stands true today, so it’s just one of the many things Holm has shared with 25-year-old boxing champion Claressa Shields as the two-time Olympic gold medalist attempts to follow in her footsteps.

“I was thinking yeah, that will definitely happen to me!” Shields said.

After Shields signed a three-year promotional deal in December with the Professional Fighters League (PFL), the first thing Shields needed to do was look for the right gym.

Shields found that place at Jackson Wink MMA Academy in Albuquerque, New Mexico, one of the most famous MMA gyms in the country, and the one most recognized among the masses as the home gym of former UFC women’s bantamweight champion Holm and pound-for-pound king Jon Jones.

Holm remains the only fighter (male or female) to have won legit world championships in both boxing and MMA, and Shields said Holm welcomed her to Jackson Wink with open arms.

“She’s been super great and very nice to me. We both come from the same background…and she actually turned out to be a world champion [in MMA], actually turned out to be really good,” Shields said.

But Holm’s funny story about her first MMA fight is something that points to just how large a hill Shields has decided to climb.

Whereas pop culture has just recently started to realize the power of habits through the work of writers such as Charles Duhigg and James Clear, it’s something professional fighters have known for a long time now.

“Oh, you’re going to have a habit of this because you used to box.”

That’s something Holm tells Shields almost every time they work together, and there are just so many examples.

In fact, just watching the 25-year-old boxing champion trying to learn to do all these new things in a different way is exhausting.

That Shields practically lives inside the gym for weeks at a time so she can train four or five times a day for all the kinds of things she never had to worry about before as a professional boxer is a testament to her seriousness and her courage.

But perhaps the most amazing part of the entire story is that Shields still plans on boxing.

While Holm won world championships in both sports, she achieved those things separately. Meanwhile, Shields said she wants to do the same thing Holm did but at the same time.

So, while I’m standing there with her inside an MMA cage in New Mexico, Shields is plotting fights in both sports. On one hand, she’s talking to me about a title unification bout in boxing against Marie-Eve Dicaire. On the other, she’s talking about future superfights in MMA against the likes of UFC champ Amanda Nunes.

“I’m trying to separate the two,” Shields said specifically about her training that day but she might as well have been talking about her whole life right about now.

It’s arguably the most amazing storyline right now in combat sports.

Shields started boxing when she was just 11 years old. She earned her first gold medal at the Olympics at 17 and her second four years later.

Today, Shields is a three-division world champion, and she says she’s not nearly finished adding to her growing number of boxing belts.

But all those years and all those successes have built so many habits. Ducking and slipping is great for boxing, but both become considerable detriments to defense when you suddenly have to worry about things like knees and kicks.

And what about wrestling and jiu-jitsu?

But all that stuff together is exactly what makes Shields’ epic decision to dare to be great at both sports at the same time so amazing in the first place.

Look, Shields might never accomplish the same amazing feat Holm did when she shocked Ronda Rousey in 2015 for the UFC women’s bantamweight championship.

But she’s aiming to eclipse that incredible mark anyway, and with Holm and many others offering Shields ideas about what she needs to think about as she climbs up the steepest hill she can find, she’ll definitely have her best chance at doing it.

Kelsey McCarson covers combat sports for Bleacher Report and Heavy.

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