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Claressa Shields turns professional, sets first fight

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Two-time Olympic champion Claressa Shields turned professional, scheduling her first fight on Nov. 19 in Las Vegas.

The fight against a to-be-named opponent will be on the Sergey KovalevAndre Ward undercard. Ward is the last U.S. man to win an Olympic boxing title, at Athens 2004.

“After working hard for so many years and having the honor to represent my country at two Olympic games, I am thrilled to take the next big step in my career, fighting professionally and leading the rise of women’s boxing worldwide,” Shields said in a statement. “There is no better place to begin the journey than to join the biggest fight of the year, Kovalev vs Ward.”

In Rio, Shields, 21, became the first American boxer to repeat as Olympic champion. Her record is 77-1. The middleweight hasn’t lost in more than four years.

She said long before the Rio Games that she hoped to turn pro after them, but this summer amended that to say she hoped to be able to turn pro while still being able to compete in the Olympics in 2020.

“My legacy is what really is important to me,” Shields said last Wednesday, when she said she was unaware about an imminent professional announcement. “It’s about having a game plan before you do something. I don’t want to just go pro and then have one or two fights and then disappear. I actually want to make a platform for women’s boxing.”

Shields said that she has talked with the international boxing federation (AIBA) and USA Boxing since the Rio Olympics about finding a way for her to turn professional and return to fight in a third Olympics in Tokyo.

“The conversation basically was that they definitely would consider making changes for women’s boxing, but they’ve had so many changes in AIBA’s offices that, who knows,” she said. “I’ve always had a pretty great relationship with AIBA. … Being the only American [female] gold medalist, I love the Olympics, I would love to be in Tokyo if I got the opportunity.”

Laila Ali, the most famous women’s pro boxer in history, said she told Shields after the London Olympics she needed to take advantage of any and all opportunities.

“Women’s boxing is a sport that just doesn’t get that much attention,” Ali said Wednesday. “There’s a lot of talent in the sport, but there’s not a lot of promoters behind the women who are boxing. There were a lot more women when I was fighting, but I got all the attention because my last name’s Ali.”

Ali mentioned Ronda Rousey, a fighter who has achieved much more outside of the octagon than either Shields or Ali outside of the ring.

“I’m the daughter of the most famous athlete and man in the world, attractive, can fight, had more titles, had more fights, and I don’t have movies or endorsements or things like that,” Ali said. “But the UFC has a bigger platform than boxing because someone got behind her and said, ‘Let me put some money behind this girl. Let me build her up, make her name known.’ And that’s why she’s able to get those opportunities. So, unless someone’s inspired to do that and get behind some of the women, it’s just not going to happen. It has nothing do with [Shields’] talent, but unfortunately just because you won gold, not everybody else is going to be as excited about that, especially with women’s boxing being so new at the Olympics.”

VIDEO: Claressa Shields congratulated by famous boxing actor

Major League Baseball sponsors U.S. Olympic softball team

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NEW YORK (AP) — Major League Baseball is using its financial muscle to support the U.S. women’s softball team, which already is assured a spot in the Tokyo Olympics while the American men’s baseball team struggles to qualify.

MLB announced an agreement Thursday to become presenting sponsor of the women’s “Stand Beside Her” tour, a slate of exhibition games leading up to the Olympic tournament from July 22-28.

“We’re both bat and ball sports. Even though we’re not the same sport, there are so many similarities that you just can’t ignore,” said Kim Ng, MLB’s senior vice president for baseball operations. “It was important for us to make sure that they have this acknowledgment and recognition of their ability and their talent.”

Softball began as an Olympic sport for the 1996 Atlanta Games. The U.S. won gold medals in 1996, 2000 and 2004 with players that included Dot Richardson, Jennie Finch and Jessica Mendoza, then lost to Japan in the 2008 gold-medal game.

Baseball and softball were dropped for the next two Olympics, then restored for this year, when the U.S. and Japan will be joined by Australia, Canada, Italy and Mexico for games in Fukushima and Yokohama but not Tokyo. The sports are likely to be dropped for 2024 in Paris but could return four years later in Los Angeles.

The U.S. men’s baseball team stumbled in its first attempt to qualify, wasting a ninth-inning lead against Mexico in the final game of the Premier12 tournament in November and losing in the 10th. The U.S. has two more chances to join Israel, Japan, Mexico and South Korea in the Olympic field: an Americas tournament in Arizona from March 22-26 and a final tournament in Taiwan from April 1-5.

MLB is not allowing players on 40-man big league rosters to compete in qualifying, and few top pitching prospects were at the November tournament.

Softball has no such issues. The Olympics are the sport’s highest-profile event.

“The platform for us is 10 times bigger,” American outfielder Haylie McCleney said. “For us, it’s a great opportunity for people that have never watched softball before, people that have only followed it at the collegiate level, to really see how fun our game is to watch, how pure it is. If people are baseball fans, I guarantee they’re going to love softball because it’s pretty much just a faster game – it’s shorter, it’s quicker, it’s more entertaining to watch, in my opinion.”

The 2008 gold-medal softball game took 1 hours, 45 minutes — less than half the 3:45 average for this year’s World Series.

As part of the deal with MLB, the softball team’s official training facility will be at the Jackie Robinson Training Complex in Vero Beach, Florida, the old Dodgertown spring training camp.

MLB Network will include programming from the tour, which currently starts Feb. 4 in Tampa and has about three dozen stops.

The U.S. women’s soccer team has attracted huge television audiences. MLB sees softball as an opportunity for the sport’s growth.

“These are world-class athletes,” Ng said. “Because we have not been in the Olympics for the last 12 years, they just haven’t had that stage. So it’s really important at this point that we show as much support as we can for them.”

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MORE: U.S. athletes qualified for Tokyo Olympics

Rafael Nadal advances at Australian Open; American back on Slam stage

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MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) — Rafael Nadal joined Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic in the Australian Open third round, sweeping Argentine Federico Delbonis 6-3, 7-6 (4), 6-1 on Thursday.

Nadal, whose lone Australian Open title came in 2009, gets countryman Pablo Carreno Busta in Saturday’s third round. He could face No. 23 Nick Kyrgios of Australia in round four, but neither Federer nor Djokovic until the final.

No. 4 Daniil Medvedeva and No. 2 Karolina Pliskova and No. 4 Simona Halep were also winners Thursday. Friday’s third-round action is headlined by defending champion Naomi Osaka facing 15-year-old U.S. phenom Coco Gauff.

AUSTRALIAN OPEN DRAWS: Men | Women

The only top-20 seed to lose so far Thursday was No. 20 Karolina Muchova of the Czech Republic. American CiCi Bellis bounced her 6-4, 6-4.

This was a big deal for Bellis: Two full years and four right arm operations have come and gone since she was last healthy enough to participate in a Grand Slam tournament.

Bellis was something of a teen prodigy. In her very first tour-level match, at age 15 at the 2014 U.S. Open, she stunned 12th-seeded Dominika Cibulkova, an Australian Open runner-up, to become the youngest American to win a match at Flushing Meadows in 28 years.

She reached No. 35 in the rankings at 17, when she won WTA Newcomer of the Year honors.

Then came the series of health problems, including for torn tendons in her wrist, to shorten a bone in her arm and for bone spurs in her elbow. All the time away from the tour has her at No. 600 in the rankings currently, but she was able to get into the draw in Australia via the protected ranking rule.

In other action, U.S. Open runner-up Medvedev  found himself seated in the nosebleed section at Margaret Court Arena, even though he was playing his second-round match there.

That’s because the No. 4-seeded Russian found himself dealing with something he said happens to him a couple of times each year: a nosebleed.

Medvedev blotted his nose with a towel and then was treated by a trainer while his 7-5, 6-1, 6-3 over Spanish qualifier Pedro Martinez was delayed for more than five minutes late in the second set.

“Can happen to me sometimes. Doesn’t usually happen during the match, so I had to stop (playing). Usually takes like four minutes — three, four minutes. … But it’s nothing,” Medvedev said.

MORE: Another top U.S. tennis player cools on Olympics

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