THERE are few boxers in the men’s game who blend the charisma, backstory, ability to sell and ability to fight quite like Claressa Shields, the self-proclaimed “GWOAT” (Greatest Woman of All Time).
For as vulgar as that moniker looks and sounds, and for as questionable as it was before this evening, there is of course more to being The Greatest – whether man or woman – than sheer fighting prowess and achievement. Instead, the term is a title, historically speaking, bestowed upon someone who is not just the best in their field, but someone who is important, inspiring, transcendent, trailblazing, a bit different. And if that’s the case – and whisper it quietly – Claressa Shields might just be getting closer and closer to earning it.
Tonight, in London, when her belts were on the line and her status as The Greatest was open to ridicule, she solidified all she has for a long time told us she is by beating Savannah Marshall comfortably over 10 rounds (scores: 97-93, twice, and 96-94). As wins go, it was probably as good as it gets for Shields, 13-0 (2). For while it’s true the 27-year-old may go on to eventually register better ones, there can be no more important victory in the here and now than the one she secured against Marshall, 12-1 (10), at the O2 Arena.
It was an important one for many reasons, with much of the pressure it both contained and released a result of all that had all had been said between the two rivals throughout its lengthy build-up. Yet, I suppose, the primary reason why this win mattered so much for Shields is that it represented both validation and vindication. In beating Marshall, after all, Shields managed to not only silence her main middleweight threat as a pro, but she also reversed the loss – her only one – she suffered back in 2012 (when both were amateurs). That, as far as Shields is concerned, was as important as anything else she received in winning tonight.
Which is to say, for as long as Marshall had that 2012 victory over her, every one of the American’s achievements could, rightly or wrongly, be answered with “But what about Savannah Marshall?” and every one of her boasts, of which there are plenty, could be answered the same way. Until beating her, in other words, the term GWOAT, especially when self-applied, appeared more a gimmick than a statement with any kind of weight behind it.
Now, though, it can be viewed in a much different light. No less ugly than before, it can be viewed nonetheless through a lens far more flattering to Shields, one that appreciates all she brings to the sport, not just in the ring on fight night but in a more general sense, too.
Because, make no mistake, she helped build this rivalry with Marshall, carrying much of the load, and went above and beyond to play the role of heel and ensure the O2 Arena was full when the first bell sounded. She said what needed to be said, she barked when she needed to bark, and she separated herself from the pack – that is, other female fighters who lay claim to her throne – by showcasing what some of them lack: charisma. Full of it, both in the ring and away from it, Shields announced her arrival in Britain earlier this year, when defeating Ema Kozin in Cardiff, and has in the subsequent eight months proved to be as captivating a figure as we have had on these shores in recent times. She backs herself like no other fighter and, as tonight showed, has the talent to back it up, too.
That was no guarantee, by the way, particularly given all that was at stake. In fact, Savannah Marshall, boasting 10 knockouts from 12 wins going into the fight, was, on paper, deemed the perfect opponent to catch Shields cold and ruin all her previous good work – if, that is, Shields had for whatever reason taken her lightly. Throw into the mix the crowd as well, clearly pro-Marshall, and clearly coming to see the puncher prevail, and you had quite the corner for Shields to have found herself backed into.
And yet, whereas other fighters might cower or shrink beneath the weight of that kind of pressure, Shields simply grew, becoming somehow more vocal and confident as the fight got closer. Come fight night, she was then positively overflowing: dancing her way to the ring, smiling and talking inside it, and cutting the figure of someone whose home has only ever really been there, in the ring, on fight night. Relaxed, composed, and oddly safe, she looked like a fighter who was enjoying every minute of the fight; both the times when she was landing quick combinations on her opponent and the times when her opponent, becoming increasingly desperate, was trying to pin her in corners and land shots on her.
Indeed, it was perhaps in those moments, when Shields retreated to the ropes and prepared herself for Marshall’s onslaught, that Shields really excelled. Back against the wall, in the truest and, typically, most dangerous sense, many fighters would panic in those spots, find themselves caught, or hurt, or worse. But not Shields. Shields, rather than fret or lose her flow, would display some of the best defensive instincts – head movement, parrying – we have seen in a British ring this year and would, even when on the defence, remain such a danger with counters that Marshall could never fully commit to attacks of her own.
Seemingly the Hartlepool fighter, the taller of the two at 5’11, had been stung – and maybe hurt – by Shield’s fast counters early on in the fight and this, unfortunately for her, had set the tone. She would still go on to attack her great rival but did so with a reticence and a wariness of Shield’s ability to not just set traps and pick holds in her defence, but also hurt her with whatever she decided to throw in response.
This led to a dazzling first half for Shields, during which she exhibited her full range of tricks and combinations, as well as a grandstand finish from them both, with Marshall, in particular, desperate to claw back all she had conceded to Shields earlier in the fight. It also created one of the best women’s fights of all time – admittedly, an honour that always seems a little patronising in light of how brief women’s boxing’s time in the sun has been – and one, in terms of action, certainly worth seeing again.
The only potential issue with that, if indeed it’s the plan, is that, while undoubtedly thrilling, the fight tonight was arguably as one-sided as it was entertaining, which, in turn, leaves little room for the same intrigue should they choose to run it back. That’s not to say Marshall didn’t do her bit, or even win rounds (I gave her two), but instead more an indication of just how good Claressa Shields performed on the night and how easily she was able to figure out an opponent many believed was the one to make her doubt everything she professes to be.