What is acceptable behavior for women and girls?

In 2011, I started boxing. There were so many lessons in the ring for me — about pulling punches and learning to handle fear. I was curious what other women were getting out of hitting the heavy bags…and each other. 2012 was the first year women were allowed to box in the games so I started photographing and interviewing the women who were hoping to make history.
— Sue Jaye Johnson

body of work

I forged an unprecedented collaboration between The New York Times, NPR and WNYC to document the first women to box in the Olympics in radio, photography and film.

At the last Olympic qualifier, a quiet 16 year old girl scored a TKO in the first round. She was so unrestrained — so dominant. It was Claressa’s first fight against adult women. No one had seen her box before. I teamed up with Radio Diaries and we gave Claressa a recorder and mic to document her attempts to make the Olympic team. (Teen Contender/NPR - Peabody Award winner). The stakes were so high, she was this kid from Flint with an oversized dream and everything was against her. It was so clear that her story needed to be a film, too. But the Olympics were coming up fast and I’d never made a film before.

I had the great fortune of meeting filmmakers Zackary Canepari and Drea Cooper and we teamed up to follow Claressa. We filmed for 18 months, from Claressa’s 17th birthday through her high school graduation, and then some. In between she had her first loss, won the gold medal, fell in love, split with Coach Jason, and learned how to maintain her balance through it all.



I dare you not to love the film
— Documentary Magazine
The raw truth.
— Claressa Shields
— The Independent
— Toronto Star
— The Guardian


As Claressa finds out after winning the gold medal, our society isn’t ready to embrace a woman who talks about the pleasure of hitting another person.

It wasn’t until 1995 that women were even allowed to fight in the amateurs — and that was only because of a lawsuit. In the US, women pro boxers are not televised. Men get paid ten times what a woman gets to fight on the same card. Claressa aspires to break those glass ceilings not just for herself but for the sport. Pros like Heather Hardy have advocated tirelessly to bring other women along so it’s not a zero sum game where there is only room for one successful woman.

Including womens’ boxing as an Olympic sport expands the margins of what is acceptable for women and girls around the world. As women’s rights are being encroached upon around the world, showcasing powerful and fierce women is hugely important. And inspiring.
— Sue Jaye Johnson