Boxing is a brutal business but, as a woman trying to win her first world title during the grip of a pandemic, Savannah Marshall has been tested in a way none of her male contemporaries have experienced. Even before we discuss the more personal challenges she and other female boxers face, Marshall explains how, as a middleweight, she had been preparing to fight a much bigger opponent for the world light-heavyweight title in April when the lockdown forced a costly cancellation.
She had to move up two weight divisions to get a crack at a title but she is the only woman to have beaten Claressa Shields, the world’s best female boxer, in either the amateur or professional ring. But neither that achievement nor her 8-0 record as a pro could protect Marshall from the financial loss of Covid-19. Unlike any man at the peak of boxing, the 29-year-old from Hartlepool was forced to try and find a job.
“I had 500 tickets for my fight and I’d sold the lot and then it got cancelled,” Marshall says. “I had 30 grand’s worth of tickets to refund and it took me weeks. It was a real headache. So I applied for a couple of delivery jobs, with companies like [delivery company] DPD and I also applied for work at some supermarkets but I didn’t get one interview. I didn’t even get past the application process for Lidl.”
Marshall smiles, but she felt she had squandered money on her training camp. “I’d spent nearly £3,000 on sparring partners. You can find people who spar you for nothing but they go in there half-heartedly. If you look after your sparring partners, and pay them, they come with more grit. They want to come back to get paid. Then you want the best food, because I want to eat everything organic, and you’re also seeing a physio two or three times a week. There’s also travelling to and from the gym so I blew over £3,000.”
At least some of Marshall’s sponsors could still support her during the worst of lockdown and on Saturday night she fights Scotland’s Hannah Rankin for the vacant WBO world middleweight title. There are still concerns. “Am I going to pass the Covid test? There have been boxers and even Eddie Hearn [her promoter] who tested positive. But the fact my opponent is British helps. There are no travel restrictions. So nothing can get in the way – apart from Covid.”
Unlike in April, she will meet a fellow middleweight in Rankin. “They’re 10 times as many male boxers as females,” Marshall says. “Only me and Hannah Rankin are at this level at my weight in Britain. You’ve got to go abroad to get some female fights and so an all-British title fight between me and Hannah would probably have never happened without Covid.”
One of the unexpected consequences of the pandemic has been that, while promoters struggle to put on shows, female fighters have been given opportunities to shine. Natasha Jonas and Terri Harper fought a thrilling draw in Matchroom’s headline bout in August. Two weeks later, Katie Taylor’s rematch with Delphine Persoon was just as gripping as their first bout.
“Them two fights were the best on the bill,” Marshall says. “It’s helped because women don’t get paid anywhere near what the men get. So it’s easier to put a female fight on and, in that sense, Covid has been a bit of a blessing for women’s boxing. This will be my biggest purse but if I was a man fighting for a world title there’d probably be another zero on the end, maybe two.”
Such disparity must be disheartening? “No. I’m realistic. I know I’ll never have that kind of money. I’d love it but you’ve got to deal with the cards you’re given.”
How did she feel about fighting at light-heavyweight in April? Marshall chuckles. “Being a woman, I wasn’t very happy with the light-heavy label. But a world title is a world title and she wasn’t the biggest light-heavy. It was an opportunity and, unlike the men, you don’t get too many in female boxing. I’m nearly six foot tall but I’ve always been between middle and super-middleweight. With [Saturday’s] fight being at middleweight it’s the first time I’ve calorie-counted, measured all my protein and carbs. I’m eating better than ever.”
She will be expected to beat Rankin but stresses: “Hannah’s a tough cookie, with plenty of heart. I’m a better boxer and, because of that, I believe Hannah is going to try and out-work me. She’s also fought at world level four or five times, while this is my first proper step up.”
Marshall is a former amateur world champion, and a two-times Olympian, who has sparred often against male fighters such as Callum Smith and Anthony Ogogo. That pedigree should make the difference but is there a psychological element to this fight? “Maybe from Hannah. It’s easy for her to say she’s going to knock me out, but it doesn’t really bother me.”
Given how amiable and relaxed Marshall is she surprises me when I ask if she enjoys hurting her opponent. “Yes, I do. You could say I’m a bit of a psychopath – but out of the ring I wouldn’t hurt a fly. I feel awful if I hurt people’s feelings. But, in there, something comes over me and I just want to hurt. I just want to hit.”
She laughs when I say she is the opposite of a psychopath – especially as she has just spoken so thoughtfully about the book she is currently reading on the slave trade. “When I don’t train I get agitated and stressed. So boxing is a way of keeping me calm or getting rid of that aggression. I can’t explain it but once I put them little gloves on I just think: ‘Kill.’”
Marshall clearly does not want to cause any lasting damage to Rankin – who, unusually for a fighter, plays the bassoon. Does Marshall have any secret musical talents? “Sadly, I don’t. I play the air guitar quite well and I like to think I’m quite decent in the car singing. On the dancefloor I’ve got a bit of a boxer’s shuffle, a two-step, going on. But that’s it.”
She is so open that conversation shifts to one of women’s boxing’s taboo subjects – menstruation. As recently as the 1990s the British Boxing Board of Control argued that the menstrual cycle made women too “emotionally unstable” to fight. It needed a pioneer in Jane Couch to win a legal battle so that women could become boxers.
Marshall shakes her head. “For them to have said that seems crazy. But even now I know of men that won’t watch women boxing. I get it because who wants to see women get hurt – but you have to remember we are fighters.”
Has Marshall ever fought while on her period? “Plenty of times. It is hard but I know when I’m due on, the exact day. I know when I need to take paracetamol so I’m managing it. I’m lucky I don’t suffer that bad with hormones or stomach cramps like some of my friends who are bed-bound. But it’s tough.”
Would she consider stopping her period if it clashed with a big fight? “It’s never been a problem for me but there’ve been times when I’ve told myself: ‘Right, I’m sparring tomorrow and I’m due to start my period. It’ll be better for me to come on in four days’ time.’ I have done. I think the mind controls the body to a certain extent but you can’t rely on it. So if it was an issue, I would stop my period. You do everything to be in the best mental and physical shape.”
Marshall learned this lesson in 2012 when, going into the London Olympics as the world champion, she lost her first fight. “I was the No 1 seed and I got a bye to the quarters and had to win one fight for bronze. But I wasn’t mature enough. I’ve always hated the limelight. I’d travelled all over the world and I was world champion but I boxed at empty stadiums. Nobody knew who I was, really, and suddenly I could be the face of female boxing. I had people saying: ‘I’ve put £100 on you to win gold.’ I was like: ‘Woah. What if I lose?’”
Nicola Adams became British boxing’s Golden Girl, instead of Marshall, who says: “I was really close friends with Nicky and her profile went up so quick. I remember her being on TV, everybody wanting a piece of her. I thought: ‘Thank God that’s not me.’ It was only as the months went on that she’d say: ‘Look at this Rolex so-and-so gave me for free. Look at this brand-new car I got for free.’ I remember thinking: ‘I wouldn’t mind a gold Rolex and a brand-new BMW.’”
Marshall went through “a dark time between 2012 and 2016” when she lost after a controversial decision at the Rio Olympics. But Floyd Mayweather’s team had spotted her obvious talent and she made her pro debut in 2018 in Las Vegas – on the undercard to Mayweather’s exhibition against Conor McGregor. More significantly, she had the support of Mick Hennessy as her manager and Peter Fury as her trainer. “Mick’s always there on the end of a phone,” she says. “Boxing is a business but with Mick you get that personal touch. Peter plays a really important part in my career and he said: ‘You’ve been spoilt with Mick.’ That’s true.”
Hennessy will need to pick the right time for Marshall to fight Shields again – because the American, a double Olympic gold medallist and the current world middleweight champion, is the biggest draw in women’s boxing. As the only fighter to have beaten her, Marshall is a compelling future opponent for Shields.
“I know she wants to fight me again,” Marshall says. “We’ve spoken face-to-face and, from Claressa’s point of view, I’m that last box to tick. I want the fight too. She is the name out there and will be my biggest payday. I’ve been offered the Shields fight in the past but I’m not a world champion yet so would I have got good money? No. I want to be in the best position possible before we fight.
“I’ve seen Claressa box numerous times and I know what she’s good at and I can see her faults. Styles makes fights and I believe I’ve got the beating of her.”
Where would she like to fight Shields? New York or Vegas? “The social club in Hartlepool would do me.”
Marshall laughs before I point out she needs to be paid what she deserves as one of the world’s best female boxers. “Exactly. Although I love the sport, it’s business. Who wants to get punched in the face for 50 grand when you can have five million?”
Such extravagant purses remain out of reach but, after so many compelling fights and intriguing storylines, it’s finally time for women boxers to be taken seriously and rewarded accordingly.