Savannah Marshall leads exciting new era for women’s boxing

Alam Khan - Reporter 14:30 07/08/2017
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Savannah Marshall (l) fights Sweden’s Anna Laurell Nash during last year’s Rio Olympics.

While all eyes will be on Floyd Mayweather and Conor McGregor at the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas on August 26 for the richest fight in history, there’s one person on the bill for whom this is no gimmick.

For Savannah Marshall, there will be focus amid the folly, hope rather than hype as she begins her journey as a professional and part of an exciting new era in women’s boxing.  Having signed a four-year deal with Mayweather Promotions, it will be a significant step in the career of the 26-year-old former amateur world champion.

So too for female fighters the world over as it is showcased to an expected global audience of millions, eager to see Mayweather don the gloves once more for the bout with UFC hero McGregor.

“I still can’t believe it and it won’t hit me until I’m there,” Marshall tells Sport360°. “Part of the Money Team, me? On the bill of the Mayweather-McGregor fight, how amazing is that?

“When they said they wanted to sign me and I thought ‘Oh my God’. It’s what dreams are made of. And it shows how women’s boxing is becoming bigger.”

It has long been an untapped market, a fact not lost on Mayweather as he builds his promotion empire following retirement, also signing American junior middleweight LaTondria Jones.

Rival promoters, such as Lou DiBella, Oscar De La Hoya’s Golden Boy team and British pair Eddie Hearn and Frank Warren have also snapped up the best female talent as television companies have shown greater interest following the success of women in MMA and UFC. With respect, there is now the potential for profit.

Savannah Marshall in action during Rio 2016.

Savannah Marshall has emerged as one of the stars of British pro boxing.

It has been a long time coming after past barriers. With its origins dating back to 1720, women’s boxing was a displayed event at the 1904 St Louis Olympics, but only the men competed.

It was banned in Britain in 1880 and there were mainly exhibitions until the 1970s when several US states allowed women to box and approved bouts with more than four rounds.

There were more battles out of the ring amid the struggle for acceptance as well as recognition and reward, until 1996 when Christy Martin took on Deirdre Gogarty on the undercard of Mike Tyson’s WBC heavyweight title fight with Frank Bruno in Las Vegas.

Bloody and brutal, the featherweight clash defied stereotypes and gender bias and women’s professional boxing was formally accepted in the States.

Martin, though, did not want to be the flag-bearer of the sport that Barbara Buttrick – the first woman to fight on national television in 1954 – once was. But others were willing to push the sport forward, including German Regina Halmich, who gave up her job as a lawyer’s clerk to fight and grow its popularity in Europe, along with Dutch legend Lucia Rijker.

It will be as big as men’s boxing, I believe that. Within 5-10 years, that timeframe – Peter Fury.

“It will be as big as men’s boxing, I believe that. Within 5-10 years, that timeframe” – Fury.

So too Mia St John and the daughters of icons Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, Laila Ali and Jackie Frazier-Lyde, who showed ability as well as ambition. Allowing women’s boxing into the 2012 Olympics proved a momentous occasion, helping to generate global interest, encouraging activity among the youth, spawning heroes – like Indian Mary Kom who won a bronze medal – and new superstars such as Claressa Shields.

“The Olympics definitely helped show the talent, didn’t half give women’s boxing a boost,” says Marshall. “I think even more girls are going to come through because of that and what’s going on now.”

American Shields made history with gold in 2012 and 2016. Beaten just once as an amateur, by Marshall of all people, the 22-year-old – known as T-Rex – turned professional last November and is tipped to transform the female fight scene with more monstrous displays after claiming the IBF and WBC super-middleweight title from German Nikki Adler with a fifth-round stoppage last Saturday.

It was top billing as part of the ShoBox series and in only her second professional fight in March, Shields became the first woman to headline a premium cable boxing card when she beat Szilvia Szabados in Detroit on the Showtime channel. Texan Marlen Esparza then became the first woman to appear on a televised portion of an ESPN boxing card and has been signed by De La Hoya, who is also trying to add Shields to his stable.

Heather Hardy, 35, has been another influential figure, considered revolutionary, as she signed a long-term deal with DiBella Entertainment and has the opportunity to compete in MMA as well. WBO featherweight champion Amanda Serrano and Shelly Vincent are also on DiBella’s books and he has hailed them as “trail blazers”.

Nicola Adams.

Olympic boxing legend Nicola Adams turned pro earlier this year.

Across the pond, Olympic gold medallist Katie Taylor turned pro with Eddie Hearn’s Matchroom Boxing stable after a 13-year amateur career, while Britain’s two-time Olympian Nicola Adams is under the banner of Frank Warren Promotions and working with Andre Ward’s trainer Virgil Hunter.

There has clearly been talent, but television has always been integral to any major success as DiBella has claimed: “While male fighters are going after the $50,000, $150,000 or $1 million payday, those don’t exist for women because television has been closed to them.”

But with Showtime involved in the US and even talk of an all-fem-ale bill, that could soon change.

Fast and furious

Trainer Peter Fury, who has been working with Marshall while handling the affairs of heavyweights Tyson and Hughie Fury, says: “They’ve all realised there’s a market there and there’s money to be made. With television interested, it will get there and will be as big as men’s boxing, I believe that. Within 5-10 years, that timeframe.

“There’s exciting fights out there, with the strong Americans and you only have to get a Savannah and a world champion in her class, have a humdinger fight and that’s it.

“It ain’t women’s boxing or men’s boxing, it’s just boxing. That’s what I’ve been saying to Savannah to help her compete professionally.

“She’s 6ft, 75 kilos and I’ve got her sparring with middleweights, men, and she is putting back their noses and giving as good as she has got. Fans will love that.”

Perhaps for many, the experience of women in boxing was previously limited to movies, such as Clint Eastwood-directed Hollywood movie ‘Million Dollar Baby’.

It may have won Oscars with its gripping and emotive scenes, which also featured Rijker, but the sight of the main character badly hurt in a bout did budding female boxers no favours, according to Marshall.

“Great movie, but imagine watching that and thinking I don’t want my daughter to box, no,” she says. “I don’t think Million Dollar Baby actually did women’s boxing much good. I was boxing before that, but when I watched it I was thinking ‘Oh God’. I just thought what a load of crap because that’s not what it’s like and fortunately my family supported me.”

But there have long been those opposed, who have suggested women are physically not ready for life in the ring even though medical experts say otherwise.

Multi-weight world champion Bernard Hopkins has said: “I don’t think women should box, period, for health reasons. A woman’s body should be protected in a way that she shouldn’t be punched in her liver or kidney.”

Changing misconceptions is just another part of the battle as Marshall adds: “People will always say women shouldn’t be boxing, it’s not safe, and you will always get that. I did get comments, but I’m the type who is a bit ignorant of that really.”

Big names lead to big business and Mayweather’s involvement has been noted. “He has set the standards in this sport, he knows what it’s all about,” adds Marshall.

“That’s what I’ve learned about pro boxing so far, it’s all about making money, going on the right path and picking the right fights. I’ve also learned about the professionalism and the tricks of the trade that men use.”

As Shields said when turning pro: “Just tell everybody this is the reintroduction to women’s boxing. This is a new era, and that’s no disrespect to Christy Martin or Lucia Rijker or Laila. But the women of this generation are just different.”

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