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Girls, Interrupting: The old-fashioned grudge match is given a female touch

Claressa Shields argues with Savannah Marshall back in February at the Motorpoint Arena, Cardiff (Huw Fairclough/Getty Images)
Rare is it to see a hate-fuelled grudge match in women's boxing, yet this Saturday two will take place on one night. Elliot Worsell investigates why

WHEREAS normally I might see two male boxers engage in a head-to-head and roll my eyes, caring little about what is said or indeed how it will end, a different kind of feeling washed over me when watching Claressa Shields and Savannah Marshall invade one another’s space back in February.

It was, no different than the men, an attempt to sell what both had been told was inevitable: a money-spinning showdown at a later date. But what I feel separated it from the previous head-to-heads involving men I had witnessed was its urgency and its uniqueness and, moreover, the tangible sense of danger which resulted from this uniqueness.

For both women this was new territory of sorts. After all, never before had they found themselves here, in this position, selling a fight via old-fashioned methods like needle, and backstory, and bragging rights, and never had we seen two girls be coerced into going at one another in this manner, particularly in Great Britain. It was, in truth, as unnerving as it was exciting, for at the time you could never be entirely certain either were comfortable in this position, nor, the more and more it went on, could you be certain either of them knew how it should end.

These were not pros – not in that sense anyway. They had no prior experience of this, or even any dress rehearsals, the sort enjoyed by their male counterparts. They were instead refreshingly raw and pure and honest and were both ready to deliver their lines with gusto, offering the impression of genuine dislike, yet never veering into unsavoury territory or bringing the sport into disrepute.

Claressa Shields and Savannah Marshall will fight on September 10 in London (Photo by Tom Dulat/Getty Images)

Now, owing to how well this grudge match was both pitched and delivered, the pair will meet on Saturday (September 10) at London’s O2 Arena in a fight some will tell you is the biggest female fight in boxing history. That’s a claim Katie Taylor and Amanda Serrano will likely dispute, of course, having fought beneath a similar strapline only in April, but certainly Marshall and Shields, in exploring the virtues of animosity, have managed to elevate their upcoming fight to new levels of intrigue.

“Women generally try to be a bit more respectful,” said Natasha Jonas, owner of the WBC and WBO belts at super-welterweight. “Look at social media when any woman is fighting and you’ll see people from the same weight class saying nice and positive things about them. I’ve seen Serrano say things like, ‘Tasha’s a brilliant fighter, I love it when she fights, she’s a southpaw like me.” There are obviously then the (Mikaela) Mayers and Claressas of the world, who have a different approach, but the majority of us will say, “She’s a great fighter,” and mean it.

“As a sport, though, I think we need that (bit of needle between boxers). A lot more people are interested in this fight, and also women’s boxing as a whole, because these two fighters hate each other. Regardless of what the reason is, people are interested because of that dynamic.”

In agreement with Jonas is WBC and IBF super-lightweight champion Chantelle Cameron, who said of the Marshall and Shields dynamic, “I think it’s good. It will definitely get people tuning in. Their press conference was really entertaining, I thought. Savannah was coming out with some stuff and Claressa was then giving her some back. It was a bit of a laugh as well. Neither of them took it too seriously and I think their personalities will get people watching who maybe wouldn’t have watched before.”

Back in the era of Jane Couch, the “Fleetwood Assassin”, even a carefully staged and choreographed head-to-head with an opponent could not have helped grow her popularity in Great Britain, where she was for too long treated as something like an outlaw, or nuisance. Back then, Couch watched the men monetise hate, whether real or manufactured, and had to resign herself to slots on their undercards, often appearing on big bills in the United States in fights that received little or no fanfare.

“It has always been around (pre-fight animosity),” Couch said. “I think it’s all just part of the selling. But they do both seem to genuinely dislike each other, Savannah and Claressa, so I’m sure it will make for a great fight.

“I wasn’t that type of fighter. I used to just get on with it. Most of the time I was really nervous because I was in somebody else’s back garden. I’d just keep myself to myself. I was confident, but I wasn’t confident enough to be talking like that in someone else’s back garden.

“Shields, though, doesn’t give a f**k, and rightly so. She’s one of the best in the world. She’s very skilful. I like the fact she just doesn’t care and says what she thinks. That’s the problem with the world today: people not saying what they think. They would rather just give you this façade. Shields isn’t like that.”

In women’s boxing, interest is key. As with the men, there are many different ways to snare this interest and social media, this megaphone with which boxers, both male and female, can tell the world how great they are, how pretty they are, or how hungry they are, undoubtedly helps. It can, as a tool, help build rivalries between two boxers, as shown in the case of Mikaela Mayer and Alycia Baumgardner (who meet this Saturday in the chief support to Shields vs. Marshall), and it can also give females the chance to become something more than just a woman in a pair of boxing gloves.

Heated rivals Alycia Baumgardner and Mikaela Mayer will also meet on September 10

“Even Ebanie (Bridges, an IBF bantamweight belt-holder) wearing bikinis when weighing in gets people tuning in,” said Jonas. “That probably says more about the audience watching than the boxers, but still, Ebanie has found her niche and she’s running with it.

“Sav and Claressa have done the same. Their dislike sets them apart and that’s why the fight is so interesting to so many people. Claressa is almost becoming the girl everyone wants to see get beaten, but they will still pay to see her.”

Less engaged with social media is Cameron, who admits it is a necessary evil she could, ideally, do without.

“I can’t stand social media,” she said. “You have to do it because it’s part and parcel of professional boxing but it’s a horrible place, especially Twitter. It can be used for positive stuff but it’s also used very negatively by the worst kind of people. It can be a very malicious platform and yet boxers have to use it to promote and stuff.

“If I had it my way, I wouldn’t have any of it. But you have to keep your sponsors happy and let your fans know what’s happening. It’s just part of the game. I try to keep my mouth shut and let my hands do the talking on the night.”

To achieve popularity, attention, fame or infamy, some must try harder than others, of course. Which is to say, not everyone in women’s boxing can be Katie Taylor.

“She is backed by the most patriotic country on Earth,” Jonas, laughing, pointed out. “I remember (as an amateur) boxing in China, in the middle of nowhere, and they said, ‘Next to the ring, Katie Taylor from Ireland,’ and a big crowd suddenly made all this noise. Loads of Irish had come over to watch her. She’s massive there. They just love her. She’s an anomaly at the moment. Nobody else can enjoy that kind of popularity and ready-made fan base. She’s different.”

The prospect of fighting in front of a sold-out arena, whether in Fleetwood, London or anywhere else in the UK, was a far-fetched dream for women like Couch during the 1990s. Left alone, mostly ignored, she would instead have to settle for the role of road warrior, feasting on whatever crumbs were tossed her way, and building memories and a legacy all by herself. There was, unlike today, no promotional push from men and no building of a brand on social media. She did all her good work in the shadows, with few even aware of what it was she doing, and those who did know wondering why on earth she was doing it.

“I was doing all this, but in America,” she said. “I was having the time of my life, me, flying around the world, appearing on the same bills as Lennox Lewis and Micky Ward. It was great. But they just didn’t want me here (in the UK). Well, (promoter, manager) Frank Maloney didn’t want me here. I had to go over there (to the US) and because there wasn’t Facebook or Twitter in those days I wasn’t able to blast what I was doing all over social media. Nobody knew what I was up to.

“Everything is ruled by social media nowadays, isn’t it? Unless you’ve got that profile, though, nothing’s really changed. People talk about women’s boxing and the progress it has made and they say it’s flying, but it’s not. I know girls who are struggling to sell tickets and are having to pay for their opponent out of their own pocket. There is still a very, very long way to go.

“If the girls who now have a platform can help the girls who don’t, that’s the only way things will improve. I did my bit, I made it legal for them, but the interest in women’s boxing is only there now because of the money coming in. There is no more interest in it from the people in power than there was in the Nineties. I’m not saying all of them are like that, but most of the men at the British Boxing Board of Control, for example, were all there when they dealt with my case. And it was cruel what they did to me.”

Ask Couch and she’ll tell you they did many things to her during the course of her 13-year, 39-bout professional career. Her treatment can be summarised, though, with just one brief anecdote.  

“I once had a problem with my medical,” she said, “and was at the time licenced with the Board. We were on a Lennox Lewis bill in Los Angeles and I went to a representative from the Board but they wouldn’t help me, even though they were getting a percentage of my purse. It just wasn’t accepted then, women in boxing. I was seen as the devil.”

Jane Couch

Now apparently purified, there are no longer any “devils” within women’s boxing, only world champions, cash cows, and marketable attractions. They come in various shapes and sizes, these commodities, and will sell their brand and name in various ways, some more orthodox than others. But, however they do it, something is working, and it’s obviously catching on.

“The fights are easier to put on when there are females involved because there’s not as much politics as there are in the men’s game,” said Jonas. “There are always politics involved in boxing, but there doesn’t seem to be as much of that when it comes to making female fights. Maybe that’s because of the whole money situation.”

Jonas continued: “Sky are pushing an all-female card on September 10, but they have to now be consistent with these things. It needs to be consistently pushed and not just seen as a one-off or novelty. It should be getting pushed because, at that level, it’s good.

“We always knew it, too. We just needed the world to see it. We rarely have a card now that doesn’t have a female fight on it. That shows how far it has come. The only British female boxers I could name before all this were Jane Couch and Cathy Brown. I couldn’t name any more than that. But there was obviously a scene somewhere. It wasn’t big, of course, but there must have been others out there.”

As for trailblazers across the pond, Jonas added, “I remember Christy Martin because I once stayed up to watch a Mike Tyson fight and she was on the undercard. I also remember Ann Wolfe, but only because of the way she once knocked someone (Vonda Ward) out, and Lucia Rijker, because she changed sports and they promoted her in Holland due to how good she was in kickboxing, which is almost their national sport. When she turned to boxing, she still had that pull from her time in kickboxing. We actually had a European tournament in Rotterdam once and she came and watched. She had just done Million Dollar Baby and everyone wanted to get a picture with her.”

Couch, a former Rijker opponent, describes Lucia as the “greatest female boxer of all time”, which will no doubt come as a disappointment to Claressa Shields, the self-proclaimed GWOAT (Greatest Woman of All Time). She also reiterates the need to understand the real reasons behind the sudden rise of women’s boxing and to appreciate that while everybody at the top appears to be thriving and making the most of their time in the spotlight, it’s a very different story for the rest, many of whom currently tread a path not too dissimilar to the one Couch previously walked.

“It’s cheap (women’s boxing), and that’s it,” she said. “It’s also more exciting because you can make competitive fights on the cheap. You get some dodgy matches now and again, but even when I was fighting you would see girls fighting who should never have been fighting.

“At the bottom level it’s back to the Nineties for the girls just starting out. You need either a big promoter or a big sponsor to make it work. But, then again, it’s exactly the same in men’s boxing, isn’t it? I know men who can’t afford their medical, so can’t fight. The problem, as always, is boxing in general.”

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