Claressa Shields has been calling herself the Greatest Woman of All Time for some time now. It’s fair to say that Katie Taylor might still have some thoughts about that, but in beating Savannah Marshall to become undisputed at middleweight for the second time, in addition to having had all the belts at light-middleweight previously, Shields has put something of a stamp on the position. It wasn’t easy though, as both herself and her old amateur foe fought with skill, smarts and determination to make it an exciting back-and-forth battle.
Let’s be clear up front here: in terms of pure technical ability and skill, Shields was the better fighter. Her speed, head-movement and footwork troubled Marshall from the start, and the Brit struggled to deal with the variety of punches coming her way, when her own responses were drawn from a smaller toolkit. The mark of a really quality fighter though is not just the sheer technical skill but the ability to use the right tool at the right moment. To adjust, to have backup plans, and to make the best of tricky situations. Marshall didn’t sit there, trapped in her limitations and coasting to a wide loss. She changed things up, pushed outside her usual comfort zone, and though that came with trade-offs, it forced Shields to show the best she had.
The fight began as you might expect, with the larger Marshall pushing Shields to the ropes and corners and trying to force an angle to unload her trademark power. Shields did win the round, dodging most of the incoming fire or catching it on her gloves, and turning Marshall round on a few occasions, but she evidently decided she didn’t want sitting in the corners to be the story of the fight, because in the second she came straight out to meet her opponent in the center. This initially seemed like it could backfire, since Marshall caught her with a big right on the move that she clearly didn’t like much, causing her to disengage for a few seconds. She didn’t give it up, though, and it soon became clear that staying close in open space was opening up a few holes in Marshall’s footwork. She’s usually an adept mover and smooth stance-switcher, but she does tend to rely on fairly big steps for the major adjustments, and Shields’ tighter movements as they circled began to cause Marshall to square her stance to try to keep up.
The first major change from Marshall was one within her normal style: she’s coached by Peter Fury and you could see that influence in the increasingly jerky, feint-heavy movement she brought in rounds three and four. It didn’t greatly benefit her though- Shields had to take a few seconds to think about it and work out what was going on, but once she did, she realised that ultimately Marshall’s head-movement was pretty regular, back-and-forth, and if she stepped in at the right moments she’d know where she was going and catch her on the move. For the early-middle part of the fight, that was the story, and it looked briefly like the bigger woman might fold, unable to keep up with the pace Shields was setting and struggling to pin her opponent down for the power shots she needed to land. It wouldn’t be unreasonable to give the American a clean sweep in the first five rounds, and she certainly won most of them.
Just after halfway was when Marshall threw caution to the wind and step into less familiar waters. Rather than relying on her clever angles and timing, which were being defused by Shields’ tighter fundamentals and head movement, she decided to commit to her one obvious physical advantage- her size- by getting her gloves up and pushing forward in a much more simple way. This isn’t always an easy thing to do, if it’s not your style- we’ve seen Anthony Joshua be pushed around by Usyk, for example, despite being comfortably the bigger man. A fighter who’s not ready to do it, or has no plan beyond just ‘be big’, can find themselves in trouble.
Marshall knew what she was aiming for though — she needed to be not just pushing, but putting herself in Shields’ way, interrupting that movement, forcing her out of stance and finding openings for shots that way. At some points, she’d grab on and then just step back, dragging Shields with her. The aim wasn’t necessarily attrition, though it was a useful by-product, it was to simplify what she needed to attack by pinning Shields in place a bit. As mentioned, there were tradeoffs, because Marshall doesn’t have the technique to generate real power in close, so the chances of the knockout receded, but as far as stymying the movement, she achieved her goal, and she was able to commit more energy to just throwing punches rather than trying to figure out where her target was. The second half of the fight was much more even as a result.
Shields’ first response to this new scenario, one that probably got her over the line in the end, was to realise that Marshall’s eagerness to get close was leading her to lean too far over her front foot. In the eighth round in particular, she was able to draw her opponent onto some heavy shots, in particular an overhand right that sent Marshall off-balance on a few occasions. To her credit, Marshall realised what was happening, and kept her balance better in the last two rounds- but that did mean she had to be just a little slower on approach, which gave Shields time to set her defence better. She did manage to use some of her opponent’s own tricks against her though- Marshall had a strong ninth, largely stemming from walking Shields onto a couple of shots, and being able to step around her opponent even in close to generate power from an off-line angle that Shields couldn’t see.
Neither was willing to wilt or give an inch, and the fight ended as it had gone, with the two exchanging combinations in close. Shields won, and deservedly so, but that we were treated to her deepest and toughest performance yet is testament to Marshall’s inventiveness. To circle back to a thought from the start from the other direction — a deep and rounded toolbox doesn’t on its own make a great fighter, but it did prove the difference here. Because while Marshall had as many ideas as Shields did, the American’s much better defense and ability to much more easily bring new punches into play were the ultimate difference here.
Women’s boxing is in an odd position at the moment: we’re definitely seeing some real skill at the top of several divisions, with the possibility of superfights like this (and the co-main, a close-fought affair between Alycia Baumgardner and Mikaela Mayer that you should check out if you missed it) that weren’t really on the table before- but it’ll take a while before the talent really stacks up into deep divisions, which means that having achieved what she has, Shields doesn’t have a lot of prospective opponents. The rematch is one prospect that was on the table, but past that, she may need to move back down to 154lbs to test herself. Natasha Jonas - currently a two-belt champion at that weight- was ringside for Sky, and that fight was mooted, and if Terri Harper, currently establishing herself at the weight, could be another good opponent.
For Marshall, the equation is much the same, except she’s probably far too big to drain herself down to 154 healthily. She, however, does have some things to prove, and if Shields does move down she has an opportunity to win back some titles against opponents she has not yet faced.
Whatever the future brings, though, let’s appreciate the fight we had, as we were treated to one of the best boxing nights of the year and to probably the greatest women’s boxer of all time showing her best work.