Imagine you’re eleven years old and live in one of the worst neighborhoods in the country. Gun violence surrounds you. Father in prison, mother with substance abuse problems, kids at school throw your homework in the trash. Even the tap water is poisoned. You learn to stick up for yourself; you learn to fight back. Then, you find out you can fight in a gym–hallelujah! Except that you’re a girl.
Fast forward six years, and the gym has let you, Claressa Shields from Flint, Michigan, hang around and learn some things. No longer a punk little kid, you’ve been fighting with the gloves on, boxing for six years. In some sports, you’d be called a prodigy, but this sport isn’t for girls, isn’t for ladies, so you get no respect.
You have won your first 25 matches. The one place you can gain respect–the biggest international tournament on earth–is finally allowing women in to box. The 2012 Olympics is coming, and you can qualify, if you just defeat one more person. She’s older; she’s taller; she’s also never lost. She’s English. Her name is Savannah Marshall. And she beats you.
Ten Years of Waiting
Epic contests require a build-up of history to make them larger than life. When Claressa Shields fought Savannah Marshall in May of 2012, both were rising stars in the boxing world. Their collision course was important at the time. A decade later, the shadow from that match still looms large for Shields and for Marshall–for women’s boxing as a whole, which has struggled for years to gain a modicum of respect.
After ten years of waiting, Shields and Marshall met again this past Saturday.
I must lead a charmed life. I got to watch the match.
I’ve written about Claressa Shields three times already, in the book I wrote about Rio 2016, in an alphabet blog challenge (“S is for Shields”), and in a chapter on boxing in my 2022 book, Women and the Olympic Dream. Shields’ story is too big to ignore.
Of course, headlines are small, and it was only chance that alerted me that the Marshall fight was finally taking place. It had been in the buzz for years, but postponed via Covid and rescheduled due to the death of the queen. Yet here it was! Over lunch on Saturday, I happened to notice that the contest was scheduled, happened to put on the telly and find access to the channel, just happened to be there right before the greatest boxing match in women’s history took place. Baseball fans, how would you like to be flipping channels to come across a showing of Don Larsen’s perfect game in the World Series? Magic Johnson against Larry Bird? The Miracle on Ice?
The Shields/Marshall rematch was destined to be one of the greatest contests in sports history. Sports hyperbole? These were two of the best in their sport for a decade. Marshall had only lost one match, and it wasn’t to Shields. Shields had only lost one match. Despite winning two Olympic gold medals and defeating every opponent–in two weight classes–the boxer nicknamed “T-Rex” still simmered over that loss as a teenager.
The First Match: May 24, 2012
When the two boxers first met, Shields was 17 and Marshall 21. That’s a world of difference for athletes, the difference between “I’m good and I punch hard” and “I know what the judges need to see.” Shields lost on points; she thought she punched harder and that Marshall didn’t really hurt her. But she acknowledged that Marshall was “scary and tough” and that her inexperience made her “overanxious.” Boxing isn’t about knock-outs or even hard punching a lot of the time, especially in those early days for women in the sport. Winning matches is often about finesse, timing, and movement.
Marshall is also nearly four inches taller. She has a longer reach and knows how to use it to advantage. This is common in boxing. Many matches feature trade-offs between lanky and stocky. If you followed Olympic boxing in 2012 and 2016, you would have seen Shields take on one tall European after another–Russian Nazdevda Torlopova, Kazakhstani Dariga Shakimova, or Dutch Nouchka Fontijn. Whenever Shields could get close enough, when her hard punches could slip past the long pale arms, she could score. That’s eventually how she ended up with two medals around in her neck.
But in her first fight against the wily Marshall, the hard hits didn’t score that often. She lost (14-8) on points, even though she thought Marshall was backing away the whole time. Finesse takes longer to learn.
Plenty of Axes to Grind
Marshall, for her part, also rode that wave for ten years. This past May, on the tenth anniversary of the fight, she sent Shields the photo from the decision, throwing a little shade. It was part of the build-up, the trash talking that professional athletes are required to partake in by the 24-hour sports media cycle. Shields didn’t care for it much. But Marshall, nicknamed “silent assassin,” herself wanted to silence the whispers. She had her reasons for needing a rematch.
Marshall also comes from a hardscrabble background, from industrial Hartlepool in northeastern England: working class, not posh, a place with accents thick enough to cut with a knife. The Brit also had to pester her way into the boxing gym, had to spar with the boys, had to put up with the taunts and the questions about her femininity. After beating Shields and winning the 2012 AIBA Women’s Boxing Championship, Marshall was favored in the middleweight category in the Olympics. Best of all, it was at home in London. Both women thought that they’d meet in London to settle the score.
Unfortunately, the sports gods didn’t get the memo about epic and “for all the marbles” and all that ballyhoo. At the London Games, Marshall lost in an early round to another boxer, a Russian whom Shields subsequently stepped over on her way to an easy, showboating, gold medal. It was Marshall’s only loss as an amateur. No Olympic medal.
The Rematch, Ten Years Later
Ten years later, despite both going undefeated, both women still have to prove something every time they step in a ring. Suppose you’re Simone Biles, another GOAT, but without parents to help you navigate the sporting arena or the media. Suppose you’re Serena Williams, only when your family is by your side, instead of helping you to victory, your match has to be postponed because your brother sucker punches the opponents’ coach. Imagine if you had Lebron-James-level talent, but in a sport where the most-respected pundits still claim that your gender doesn’t belong. Where, in your first Olympics, the head of your sport suggests the women wear skirts so they can be distinguished from the men. Where an ESPN pundit, when asked why the payouts for women aren’t more equal, responds by saying he just doesn’t like to see women boxing. At all. Ever.
Those are the headwinds that Claressa Shields and Savannah Marshall faced when they met in this long-awaited match. It was the first all-women’s boxing card in a major arena in the UK, filling the 20,000 seat O2 arena. The fans were Brit-crazy, naturally, cheering every time the lanky Marshall spun a jab at the sturdy Shields.
The Greatest Match, the Greatest Fighters
The match lived up to the hype.
Both boxers had a strategy. Marshall was always on the prowl, looking for a way to use that extra few inches to score. Shields tried to time her moves inward, past those arms. A lot of times, she couldn’t find an opening and ended with her back against the ropes. To the screaming fans, it might have looked more even than it was. Very little happened on the ropes. Instead, the American got through those defense repeatedly–not enough to score a knockout–but enough to connect, hard.
After two rounds, Marshall’s face was red. Shields developed a small cut over her eye. Both of them kept at it, for ten rounds, a testament to endurance. You can watch the full fight on Youtube, shot from the seats in a haze of blue, or you can see few highlights, mostly Shields connected with lightning speed. Neither gives you the full feel of how much history was made. The end-of-fight statistics showed that Shields landed about 40 more punches, had thrown a hundred more overall, despite moving backward most of the time. With both boxers holding their arms up in a ceremonial “I won” gesture, the ring announcer made it clear: the GOAT!
Sportsmanship and Grace
The first thing Shields did after hearing her name called was frog jump up and down, slapping the canvas in validation. Then, her coach lifted her up, and the American team came in for a group hug. Marshall waved her arms in frustration? disbelief? succor to the quasi-booing fans? but then she sat down and let it sink in. At least, there would be no more woulda coulda; at least, she was still standing after ten rounds with T-Rex.
Shields continued prancing for a few more seconds, but then her mind seemed to clear and her head swiveled over to the other side of the ring. She perked up and yelled, “Hey!” and plowed into the British entourage. The TV announcers were blathering about something and talked over the exchange, but Shields was barking and bowing. She said something about “…every round” and “I knew I had to…” (Later, she would say that she thought she won every round but just barely and that Marshall never gave up, so she knew she had to keep punching.) The last bit from Shields, though, is clearly audible: “That was the hardest fight of my LIFE! Thank you!”
Marshall was disappointed at fight end, but by the press conference, she was grinning and acknowledging the GWOAT, sitting next to her. Shields did have a black eye. The fight wasn’t a knockout. Both fighters contended for all ten rounds, helping to prove that women could deliver a thrilling match that will be one of the greatest. Until perhaps a rematch. Oh, there’s talk, though both fighters are happy for this particular milestone to be reached.
Even if you don’t like boxing, you have to be happy for this particular rampart to fall. The fighting sports are the last to begin the march towards gednder parity. In this 50th anniversary year of Title IX, it’s worth noting that boxing, wrestling, and other combat sports were explicitly excluded from the legislative language. These women have had to build their own legacy, feint by feint, jab by jab.
So, a little more luster is added to boxing. Despite very little attention paid, with mainstream media barely mentioning the fight on the day it took place, the all-women’s card in the UK garnered the highest rating ever for a women’s sporting event in the Sky Sports channel, attracting two million viewers. So perhaps a few people did see it.
Imagine if it were publicized.