SHE still has the plastic trophy from her first fight, the memory of sharing a car with her idol and all the other usual setbacks, successes and dreams that fighters keep in their heads. It is too easy to forget that Savannah Marshall was part of the pioneer gang, the small group of women chosen to lead the way through the sport’s unknown years when women’s boxing was slowly being taken seriously. She was picked as a hopeful novice to fight at World and European events. It was a time of great risk, our women sent to remote locations to face the beasts from the east.
Marshall is still only 29, she was the first English women to win a world amateur title and that win was in 2012. It was also a qualifier for the London Olympics. It was also a win that permanently changed the thinking of the selectors – it was only a few years earlier that it was decided not to send our women off to slaughter in major events. Marshall was out in front, a survivor, a guinea pig in tournaments.
She went on the road and biffed and bashed her way against the old Soviets, a teenage girl from Hartlepool setting an agenda in a hard place. She was with others, Nicola Adams and Natasha Jonas were there, but they were older, more mature – Sav was a kid. And then there was the great forgotten pioneer, Amanda Coulson, the woman that fills the considerable gap between Jane Couch and Marshall and Co.
“When I was about 11 I saw Amanda box on a club show in Hartlepool,” Marshall told me. “She came over to me at the end and asked me if I wanted to box? She was massive at the time. I couldn’t believe it.”
Coulson seems to have a boxing boot across about 15 important years of history, the untold days when our women were ignored. Marshall told me a story once about how Amanda had sent emails to the England set-up, asking why they never had a women’s team. She would not take excuses for an answer and kept sending the emails, demanding inclusion. Amanda led the race for equality, led it from obscurity to an international vest. She did it without help, without publicity, but not, in the end, without recognition. Coulson is now part of the GB team in Sheffield as a coach.
“Amanda did all the ground work,” continued Marshall. “She was a hero and then when I was 16 I was travelling in the car with her to England camps – I couldn’t believe it, I was in the car with Amanda Coulson.” That is my kind of boxing icon: local, decent, genuine and one you have had since you were a child. And one with a valid driving licence.
Marshall came to my studio at BBC Radio London at some point in 2011 before the European championships that October in Rotterdam. Nicola was there, Nicola did the talking and Nicola would get a gold. Marshall was just 20, quiet, shy and she won a bronze at middleweight. In all fairness, Anthony Joshua had sat in the same chair about a month earlier and he was similar to Savannah: quiet, guarded with his answers and about the same age as Marshall. I have grown to view with caution fighters with too much to say, too early. I view them through darkened, wary spectacles, waiting for the day when their bubble will surely burst.
At the time of our live interview – part of the cult BBC Radio London Boxing Show – Marshall already had a silver medal from the women’s World championships in Bridgetown, Barbados, the previous year. I think she had the medal with her, but she certainly wasn’t throwing it about like a light sabre. I think I had to ask her to get the thing out.
However, it was about seven months later that Marshall arrived. She won five times at the World championships in China to take the gold medal, the final took place on her 21st birthday. She had beaten Claressa Shields in her first fight; it was Claressa’s second fight of the tournament and she had already been declared the favourite. And she let everybody know it. Marshall boxed to orders, took few risks and beat Shields with no controversy. The film crew with the American, most of the American media since and everybody in the Claressa business attempts to paint a different picture. Forget it, Marshall won and it ends there. Well, ends there for now.
At the London Olympics it was too much for Marshall, too much pressure on her to simply show up and walk away with a gold medal. She lost early and vanished quickly. Shields won gold. In Rio, Shields won gold again and that time Marshall boxed well, but lost a harsh quarter-final to Nouchka Fontijn. In Rio she had exchanged glances with Shields. “It was time to turn pro,” she said and it was.
The day before Conor McGregor and Floyd Mayweather danced in Las Vegas I was getting ready for the usual round of privileged mayhem in my MGM room. I had a view of nothing from floor 32, which sounds impossible, but it is true. As I was about to leave I heard a familiar voice on breakfast television and there was Marshall in all her glory. The caption under her name read: Floyd’s Secret Weapon. She won her debut the next night and has fought seven more times since then. She is unbeaten in eight, managed now by Mick Hennessy, promoted by Matchroom and trained by Peter Fury. The Olympics, Las Vegas and beating Shields one day in China all seem so far away, memories from another time. There is also the memory of 118 amateur fights, no defeats to a British woman and fifteen losses on the road, mostly when she was raw.
Last November at York Hall, Marshall and Shields met again. “There was not much said,” Marshall remembered. “She just went off talking about herself. It was strange.” There is, as they say, unfinished business. First, it is Hannah Rankin and her bassoon. It’s an odd business, the boxing business.
Savannah Marshall’s WBO world title fight with Hannah Rankin, scheduled for Saturday, has been postponed after Marshall’s trainer Peter Fury tested positive for coronavirus