The story of Savannah Marshall and Claressa Shields has been framed in many different ways. A tale of a fighter, Shields, looking to avenge her last loss in any form of boxing from 2012. A tale of a fighter in Marshall seeking her just due, her opportunity to prove that she is the kryptonite to women’s boxing’s Superwoman. But a forgotten aspect of the long, testy feud between Marshall and Shields is that the last two times they could have fought in the amateurs, Marshall lost before they could meet in the tournament finals.
That possibility loomed overhead on Saturday, as Marshall faced Femke Hermans in what was promised to be the last hurdle before a showdown with Shields later on this year. Shields had signed a multi-fight agreement with BOXXER, the same organization Marshall is tied to, with the understanding that a bout with Marshall would be the second bout as part of her contract. Shields cruised past Ema Kozin in early February, and now it was time for Marshall to hold serve.
Marshall didn’t just hold serve, she aced her way to victory, delivering a Knockout of the Year candidate, knocking Hermans cold in the third round of their WBO middleweight title fight aired on Sky Sports. With Shields seated ringside, just as Marshall was when Shields topped Kozin, the stage was officially set for one of the biggest fights in women’s boxing history.
There would be no roadblocks this time.
At the 2016 Olympics in Rio, Marshall and Shields were on opposite sides of the middleweight draw with the distinct possibility of a showdown for a gold medal. After an opening round victory over Anna Laurell Nash, Marshall ran into Nouchka Fontijn of the Netherlands. Fontijn was a little more physical and a little more active on the inside than was ideal for Marshall, and wound up taking a decision to move her to the semi-finals, and ultimately a silver medal after losing to Shields in the finals.
“I’ve fought her six times now and won once. She annoys me,” Marshall told The Guardian following the bout. “She’s a brilliant in-fighter. I’m not going to say anything bad about her.”
It’s possible that night was instructive for Marshall in terms of her development as a fighter, because the version of Marshall we saw in the amateurs is drastically different from the one we see in the pros today. In the unpaid ranks, Marshall was a classical in-and-out fighter, using her length and straight shots. As a professional however, Marshall has developed into a fearsome power puncher, stopping ten of her twelve opponents, none more emphatically than Hermans. Beyond her power however, she’s remodeled her game in the mold of the Fury family. No longer reliant on purely length, quickness and lineal paths, Marshall is now a fluid, relaxed switch-hitter who can be the aggressor all the while.
The similarity to the Fury approach is no accident, of course. Upon turning pro, Marshall linked up with Peter Fury, father of Hughie and uncle of Tyson. Marshall has said that Fury was the only trainer interested in taking her on and teaching her the pro game at the time.
"He had me on the pads with my hands down by my waist, having me slipping and sliding. I remember thinking this isn't me, I'm going to get my head punched in," Marshall told Kal Sajad of BBC.com last week. "He had me in the mirror for hours working on footwork. I remember looking at myself thinking, 'God, Savannah, you're rubbish, you are going to get knocked out.’”
Despite Marshall’s initial concerns, her change in approach did the complete opposite, Saturday’s knockout being a prime example. Marshall staggered Hermans with a stiff jab, then went in pursuit of an opportunity to land a power shot on the inside—an area where she’d been bested as an amateur. With Marshall’s constant flowing between stances, Hermans was likely unsure of how Marshall would align herself as she approached the pocket. Marshall’s finishing shot was eerily reminiscent to the hooks Tyson Fury landed on Deontay Wilder. Marshall rolled under a Hermans hook and dared her to beat her to the punch with a second, inevitably getting there first with a perfect left hook.
"The technique of his training improved me as a professional boxer and the way he taught me to deliver the punch definitely improved my punch power,” Marshall told Sajad.
Peter Fury has insisted that Marshall is the hardest puncher in women’s boxing, and even Hughie has admitted to feeling the brunt of her power, telling Boxing UK over the weekend “she can crack, trust me. It's not nice, even taking it from a woman.”
The backstory between Shields and Marshall aids greatly in the promotion of the fight, but so does the perceived threat of Marshall as a knockout artist. Shields has in some ways been beleaguered in the marketing department by her own dominance. At the time of her win over Kozin, seven of Shields’ 12 professional opponents were ranked in Ring Magazine’s Top 5 in various weight classes, and yet only two fighters had ever won a single round against her. Which is to say, a fighter in her weight neighborhood outboxing Shields is unthinkable to the vast majority of the boxing public.
But Marshall presents a different kind of threat in the eyes of viewers. Marshall may very well have the same familiar difficulty in boxing with Shields, but her punching power against her opposition to this point, has proven to be very real. In addition, the new-look Marshall with the Fury-inspired free-flowing style presents a new technical challenge for Shields as well, a fighter with a style dissimilar to her previous opponents.
Boxing promotion has leaned on amateur rivalries in the past, often when one fighter has surpassed the other as a professional, but has past demons to exorcise. For a while, it looked like Marshall might be nothing more than that for Shields. However, she has evolved into the most credible, realistic threat to Shields, and a unique challenge physically and stylistically.
Shields-Marshall may also be the best personal feud in all of boxing that has yet to be settled. It’s a story deserving of a definitive ending, and a fight worthy of the big stage.
Corey Erdman is a boxing writer and commentator based in Toronto, ON, Canada. Follow him on Twitter @corey_erdman.