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Boxing champ Shields wins MMA return by split decision

Elsa / Getty Images Sport / Getty

Undisputed middleweight boxing champion Claressa Shields was triumphant in her return to mixed martial arts. But it nearly went the other way.

Shields defeated Kelsey DeSantis via split decision (29-28, 28-29, 29-28) on Saturday in her first MMA fight since 2021, improving to 2-1 as a pro. The matchup took place on the preliminary card of the PFL vs. Bellator: Champs event in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

It marked the first women's MMA bout to ever take place in Saudi Arabia.

"It's not easy what I'm trying to do," an emotional Shields said in her postfight interview. "I've put in a lot of hard work for this."

Shields, a two-time Olympic gold medalist in boxing, first crossed over to MMA in 2021. She won her debut by TKO but then lost a split decision in her second fight. The 28-year-old took a break from MMA to focus on her primary sport of boxing and has defended her undisputed 160-pound belt three times since then.

Shields, who trained out of her hometown of Flint, Michigan, for this fight after previously working at famed MMA gym Jackson-Wink MMA, dominated the stand-up exchanges against DeSantis. She landed big punches against the fence throughout the fight. However, Shields struggled on the ground like in her first two MMA bouts.

DeSantis nearly submitted Shields with an armbar late in the first round and got into full mount multiple times.

Shields said she plans to "go back to the gym and work harder" after the difficult win.

"I almost got my arm snapped in the freaking armbar. Had to fight out of that," Shields said.

It's unclear whether Shields' next fight will take place in MMA or boxing.

DeSantis, a 35-year-old who fights out of Miami, fell to 1-3 with the defeat.

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