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Last year saw the first women’s boxing match to ever headline Madison Square Garden. Billed as “the biggest women’s fight of all time”, it was the most-watched female bout in history… for just six months. Another fight was already set to take its crown.
It’s a Friday afternoon in Bethnal Green, east London. It’s mid-October, but the mercury remains stuck in the late teens, no hint of a winter chill. At least not outside. By contrast, the atmosphere inside the Genesis Cinema is distinctly frosty. Due on stage for the weigh-in are Claressa Shields and Savannah Marshall – the former unbeaten in professional boxing, the latter the only fighter to ever taste victory over her, during their amateur days. For boxing fans it’s like the night before Christmas, as the pair prepare to face off outside the ring for a final time before the biggest fight in women’s boxing history.
Watching on, Nicola Adams, the first female boxer to become a double Olympic champion, and Johnny Nelson, a former world cruiserweight champion, talk excitedly while they wait for the American and her County Durham-born opponent to appear. Seats usually reserved for the latest blockbuster movie are full. There’s no popcorn in sight.
In the UK, anticipation for a fight already delayed by four weeks due to the death of the Queen has been heightened by the postponement of another last week: Chris Eubank Jr’s clash with Conor Benn at the O2, the venue where this fight will take place tomorrow. The buzz spreads well beyond the walls of this nondescript building in London’s East End. Crystina Poncher, a premier boxing commentator for ESPN in the US, explains that it’s not just the Shields vs Marshall match-up but the fact this is the first all-female card ever that’s creating waves.
“The build-up and excitement from fans, the media, is just as big [in the US] and it’s competing with two other cards on the same day,” says Poncher. Across the pond, the fight is already dwarfing the hype of former WBC heavyweight champion Deontay Wilder’s return against Robert Helenius in Brooklyn, a night that also includes Caleb Plant, the former IBF super-middleweight champion, on the undercard. “I’d say the women have pretty much stolen the show.”
Eventually, the two fighters appear. They follow Alycia Baumgardner and Mikaela Meyer, two fighters separated by similarly bad blood. Marshall, referred to as the ‘Silent Assassin’, smiles as she steps onto the scales. She weighs in at 11st 5lb 5oz (72kg).
From behind her, Muhammad Ali’s voice suddenly booms out, “The champ is here. The champ is here,” his words sampled on the Jadakiss song of the same name. A brooding Shields walks forth. She’s in the mood. It’s business time. After tipping the scales at an identical weight to her opponent, she prepares to carry her belts for a face-off with Marshall. It’s no easy task. In fact, it’s a three-person job.
That’s when the magnitude of Shields’s incredible achievements hit home. She’s the holder of 12 belts across three weight divisions. If Marshall is under any illusion that Shields will surrender a single one of them, the message is clear. In the pre-fight showreel, she stares down the camera. “Anyone who doubts me, that’s OK, you’ll be a fan soon enough. And Savannah Marshall? You just wrote a cheque your ass can’t cash.”
Anyone wondering whether this is part of the act only needs to see the glint in each boxer’s eyes. This shit is real. And if Marshall wants to take Shields’s belts from her, she’ll need two things. The first is courage. The second is a removal van.
Throughout the ages, boxing has been built on rivalries. From Sugar Ray Robinson and Jake LaMotta in the 1940s and early ’50s, to the triumvirate of Ali, Joe Frazier and George Foreman, right through to Mike Tyson, Evander Holyfield and Holyfield’s ear, the sport leans heavily on the enmity between those stepping into the ring, to create narratives, promote fights and put bums on seats.
The growth of the women’s game, although partially driven by the trash-talking that has helped build up the Marshall and Shields bout, has mainly been a result of the standards pioneered by the latter, along with a boxer who, not so long ago, was playing for the Irish national football team: Katie Taylor.
London 2012 lit a spark in women's boxing that's been burning ever since
Taylor and Shields are very unlikely to ever meet each other in the ring – their weight difference makes any match-up too favourable for the latter. But like Shields, the 36-year-old Olympic champion (she won lightweight gold at London 2012), born in Bray near Dublin, is unbeaten in a professional fight. Since October 2017, when, less than a year after turning pro, she won the WBA lightweight belt by defeating Argentine Anahí Ester Sánchez, Taylor has emerged as one of the pre-eminent forces in global boxing.
Dubbed ‘the Bray Bomber’, she’s arguably Irish sport’s finest ever export, a fighter whose brilliance has caught the imagination of seasoned fight-goers across men’s and women’s boxing. As Matthew Macklin, former middleweight British and European champion and now one of Sky’s boxing experts, explains, “You only have to go to an Anthony Joshua fight, even a stacked card with several world title fights, and Katie Taylor steals the show pretty much every time. She’s the performance of the night.”
Anyone doubting the rivalry need only see the glint in their eyes
Few would argue with that assessment, least of all the string of boxers who have felt the full force of Taylor’s power during her 22-fight career. Among them is the Puerto Rican Amanda Serrano, another key figure in the sport’s rise, and a fighter who, alongside Taylor, made history in April 2022.
Every sport has its historic venues, synonymous with golden moments. For boxing, Madison Square Garden (MSG) in midtown Manhattan is one such location. From the moment Rocky Marciano walked into the venue in 1951 and forced Joe Louis back into retirement, right through to the Fight of the Century in March 1971 when Frazier erased the word ‘unbeaten’ from Ali’s biography, or Andy Ruiz Jr’s demolition job on Joshua in June 2019, MSG has played host to some of the sport’s most iconic battles.
As recently as five years ago, any suggestion that two women would one day headline a card there would have been dismissed as fantasy; a non-starter in a testosterone-dominated world in which men have held sway across the venue’s 140-year history. This crop of female boxers, though, are cut from a different cloth. All are well aware not only of their extraordinary ability in the ring but how this affects their value outside it. So, when Serrano and Taylor’s original Manchester bout was knocked off the calendar by the pandemic in May 2020, there was only one possible location in both fighters’ sights when the rematch was rescheduled.
Reports suggested Serrano was offered £300,000 for the 2020 match-up, but by the time promoters had reconvened it was clear that a fight pitting the number one (Taylor) and number two (Serrano) – the best pound-for-pound fighters in world boxing – against each other would be far more lucrative. MSG was an arena befitting their ambition. And boxing fans who greedily snapped up tickets clearly agreed.
“You obviously know your worth when you’re capable of selling out arenas and stadiums,” Taylor said at the time. “We’re both in a position where we’re able to do it and not just sell out a stadium but sell out Madison Square Garden, which is very special.”
None of these figures, of course, would have been achievable without the promoters working alongside a unique generation of female boxing talent. YouTuber-turned-boxer Jake Paul signed Serrano to his company, Most Valuable Promotions, after responding to a tweet from the fighter in April 2021. Since then, he has supercharged her career and, alongside Eddie Hearn at Matchroom and Boxxer’s Ben Shalom, helped to both raise the profile of the sport, and the size of the purses on offer to those women putting their bodies on the line for global titles. Conor McGregor is also a high-profile fan of Katie Taylor and sent her a good-luck message before her MSG bout. “I hope it just puts [women boxers] on a different pedestal of respect and gets them paid better,” Paul said after signing Serrano, also a major MMA star. “Because they are the most underpaid. That’s what I’m looking to do.”
By the time Taylor and Serrano were the headline act at MSG – to global fanfare – a seven-figure payday was assured. The Bray Bomber, meanwhile, made it clear she wasn’t eyeing a temporary rise in purses for women’s boxing – she wanted to secure the sport’s long-term future. Hardly a surprising ambition given that when starting out she’d have to dress as a boy just to get inside the ring. “I feel like we’ve covered a lot of ground over the last few years in terms of the paycheque and purses, but we have a long way to go,” Taylor told CNN on the eve of the fight. “It’s not OK that myself and Amanda are just the ones getting the big paycheques. That has to carry over to other female fighters as well, and I hope that can happen.”
It would be easy to focus on the rewards these fighters are now receiving. But this journey can’t be distilled into pounds-and-pence, dollars-and-cents calculations. To understand how far women’s boxing has come, we must take a trip into London’s past.
At first glance, an event that took place in June 1722 would appear as relevant to modern women’s boxing as Adam and Eve are to the Apollo space programme. On the mean streets of Georgian Britain, though, Elizabeth Wilkinson was busy making a name for herself – as a bare-knuckle pugilist. And although the modes of communication were slightly different back then, her challenge to another fighter by the name of Hannah Hayfield carried with it the same hint of menace.
“I, Elizabeth Wilkinson of Clerkenwell, having had some words with Hannah Hayfield, and requiring satisfaction, do invite her to meet me on the stage, and box me for three guineas, each woman holding half a crown in each hand, and the first woman that drops her money to lose the battle,” reads the statement from Wilkinson, published in The London Journal 300 years ago last summer.
Wilkinson may have been an early pacesetter for the women’s fight game, but the speed at which it evolved over the next three centuries wasn’t so much slow as utterly glacial, despite the best efforts of the likes of Barbara Butterick, the Yorkshire-born founder of the Women’s International Boxing Federation in 1989. Known as the ‘Mighty Atom of the Ring’, Butterick was a fearsome competitor, ending her career in 1960 with just one defeat in 32 bouts. Standing at four foot 11in (1.5m) and weighing just 98 pounds (44kg), she was a flyweight who packed a punch. But, despite Butterick’s best efforts both in the UK and the US – she toured extensively across the Atlantic – by the time she hung up her gloves, women’s boxing was no nearer to being accepted than when she’d first strapped them on.
Other attempts ended up being mocked by the establishment. A women-only boxing tournament organised by Sue Atkins in a pub – the Foresters Arms – in Tooting, London, in 1993 ended up not being covered in The Ring magazine but plastered across three pages in a soft-porn publication, an ambush that none of the fighters involved were remotely aware of. It wasn’t until August 1998 that the British Board of Boxing Control handed female boxers a licence to fight. And that only came about following a sex-discrimination case brought by Jane Couch – a boxer from Fleetwood, Lancashire who, for the next decade, would carry the torch for the sport, not just in the UK but around the globe. As the millennium dawned, however, the chance of million-dollar purses, sold-out nights at the O2 or MSG, and female fighters heading up pay-per-view cards on Sky within 20 years seemed about as likely as Wilkinson returning from the dead to reprise her rivalry with Stone Cold Hannah Hayfield.
“I had some very dark times in my life where I did want to give up, I did want to commit suicide,” said Shields after the fight last October. “[But] I stayed strong and didn’t let the doubters who questioned my greatness get to me. I didn’t let my childhood trauma get to me. I would just tell my younger self, ‘Keep pushing, it gets better, don’t give up.’”
Flint, a city roughly 90km northwest of Detroit, recently honoured Shields by renaming the street she grew up on. This is a welcome cause for celebration in a corner of Michigan that, according to 2021 census data, suffers some of the highest levels of deprivation in the US. The national rate of childhood poverty is 16.9 per cent; in Flint, that figure rockets to 49.8 per cent. Some of the city’s residents will never find a way out; others will look at Shields as the living, breathing embodiment of the possible.
In an interview with the BBC at Rio 2016, shortly after becoming the first American in history to defend an Olympic boxing title – a second middleweight gold to add to the one from London 2012 – Shields pulled no punches on just how harsh her upbringing had been. “I didn’t start talking until I was five,” she said. “By then, my father had been in prison for three years for dealing drugs. I wouldn’t meet him again for another four. I’m not going to say my mum didn’t care for us, but she left us to fend for ourselves. She abused alcohol and didn’t know how to control it. There were times my little sister and I would walk around looking for Mum for days on end. I’d have to go out and get food. If there were two packs of ramen noodles, my little sister ate one, my little brother ate one, and I didn’t eat. We’d sleep on the couch or floor, and more than likely my sister or my brother was on the couch, so I’d be on the floor.”
Shields revealed how she was raped “every day for about six months by a person known to the family”, and how a speech impediment left her unable to articulate her horrific experiences. Boxing was a way out. Since her first professional fight, in November 2016, aged 21, against Franchon Crews in the super middleweight division, few fighters in history – men or women – have turned so many negatives into one giant positive so successfully.
A Serrano/Taylor rematch could dwarf everything that's gone before
In many ways, Shields and Taylor are worlds apart. This is exemplified by their pre-match routines backstage: Shields and her crew burst with energy, rap music blaring out, while Taylor sits introspectively, listening to calming music on her earpods. But one factor that unites them both, beyond their unsurpassed skills in the ring, is their Olympic success and the springboard that the Games provided them as they navigated their path from the amateur ranks to the top of the sport. In the case of Taylor, she was one of the fighters directly responsible for the International Olympic Committee’s historic decision to include the sport, following a meeting in Berlin back in 2009. The die, though, had been cast two years previously.
“I got in front of the whole Olympic Committee in Chicago and fought an exhibition bout at the men’s World Championships,” recalled Taylor in 2019. “A few days before the actual fight, I had a meeting with the committee and they told me that this fight was going to be responsible for whether [women’s] boxing was going to be in the Olympics or not.
“I was shaking after that meeting. I knew that this was going to be more than just a fight. All the weight was on our shoulders in that fight.”
All those invested in women’s boxing needn’t have worried – as evidenced by the elevation of the sport in subsequent years, the IOC couldn’t have put it in safer hands. And the competition at London 2012, although limited to just three weight divisions – fly, light and middleweight – didn’t only provide a focal point for female boxers around the world, it lit a spark that has been burning ever since.
“They ignited a fire in me to have a dream to go to the Olympics,” says Caroline Dubois, a member of the UK Olympic team at Tokyo 2020, and a fighter on the undercard for the Shields vs Marshall fight. She was joined on that all-female platform by Lauren Price, a gold-medallist in Tokyo, and Karriss Artingstall, Price’s partner and another medal-winner at the same Games. Both aged 28, Price and Artingstall now seek to emulate the success of Taylor, Shields, Serrano and Marshall in the professional game. Strip away the hype, the purses, the media coverage and the super-stardom attained by all four and their most lasting achievement isn’t measured in belts but rather the opportunities they have created for others to follow.
“The O. In the men’s fight game, it’s all about The O,” says Alex Beer, the photographer who has spent the past four years following the world’s leading female boxers around the globe. His raw black-and-white portraits vividly depict the progress made by both the sport and its athletes during a period that has seen the popularity of women’s boxing explode.
The O is the unbeaten record and the need to preserve it. In men’s boxing, this often means dodging opponents, evading challengers, and the best not always meeting the best. Sometimes this avoidance goes on for years, as anyone who has followed the careers of Tyson Fury and Anthony Joshua will attest. “In women’s boxing, that just doesn’t exist,” says Beer. “They’ll take on whoever they need to – we saw that last year.”
Both Taylor and Shields put their reputations and belts on the line in 2022, and both went into the New Year with their O still intact following two stunning fights on era-defining nights on both sides of the pond.
Back in April 2022, Serrano had Taylor on the ropes. In every sense. In the fifth round, a right upper-cut and a left-hook had Taylor bloodied and teetering. By the time the bell rang, she was hanging on to an unbeaten record that had never been under such threat. Ultimately, though, as all great champions do, Taylor found a way. One judge scored the fight 96-94 in Serrano’s favour; the other two made it 96-93 and 97-93 in the opposite direction. The newspaper The Guardian called it as a 95-95 draw, an indication of just how close this bout was.
It was a similarly tough task for Shields at the O2 last October, with her English challenger providing stubborn and often brutal resistance in front of more than 20,000 fans, not to mention the biggest audience ever recorded for an all-female event on Sky Sports. More than two million people tuned in to watch a slugfest that some seasoned boxing fans labelled the fight of the year. The final two-minute round provided more drama than some fights produce across 12. Wild hooks from both fighters rained in as a spellbound crowd watched on.
The toast of Flint won a unanimous points decision, almost but not quite managing to silence a raucous London crowd. Bruised and battered, Marshall gave her view of a fight for the ages: “I’m disappointed I came up short, but if it has pushed female boxing I’ll be happy. I’m very proud – there were times when I was struggling to even get on cards. Next thing, I’m headlining the O2.”
Shields, meanwhile, celebrated her victory in a style reminiscent of her win at London 2012, jumping and screaming as the verdicts were read out. “I had to work so hard for a very long time, and nobody has given me credit,” she exclaimed. “It’s a special moment not just for me but for women’s boxing.”
The final two-minute round provided more drama than some fights provide across 12
Later, she reflects on her achievement to The Red Bulletin. “Headlining an all-female card at the O2 with a crowd of 20,000 fans and [two] million viewers was unthinkable at the beginning of my career,” Shields says. “But I knew the impossible was possible. I’m proud of the history I’ve made, and the strides toward parity for women. We’re still fighting for equal pay, but we’ve definitely raised the bar.”
So, what’s next? Well, if the events at the O2 and MSG were big, the return fight between Taylor and Serrano – scheduled for May 20 on Taylor’s home turf of Dublin – could dwarf them both. A rematch of the Shields and Marshall fight is also on the cards, likely this summer in the US – a bout that will have sponsors and major boxing networks falling over themselves to be involved.
Alongside her ambitions inside the ring, Shields has a more prosaic aim, one shaped by her own turbulent and often violent upbringing. “In my personal life, I just want to focus on my niece and nephews, make sure they pass their grades in school and have a better childhood than I had,” she says. “I’m also planning for my marriage in 2024. The big personal goal after that is having my own kids.”
She pauses, and the Claressa who strode forth at the weigh-in returns. It’s business time once again. “There are more boxing records I’d like to achieve – undisputed in another weight division, world champion in a fourth division – and if someone comes along who people think is better or can KO me, I’ll be ready to prove them all wrong again.”
Thanks to JJ O’ Regan and Matty Lawless at Boxxer and Ross Garritty at Matchroom for their assistance in gaining access to the fights