Twenty-four years ago, in August 1998, women’s boxing was still banned in Britain. It was only in the middle of that month that, finally, Jane Couch became the first woman to be granted a licence to fight professionally by the British Boxing Board of Control. Couch had been forced to take the board to the high court where she won her case after male administrators tried to argue that women were too “emotionally unstable” and “frail” to become boxers.
On Saturday night, at the O2 in London, a different kind of history will be made as the first-ever all-female UK boxing card features 11 bouts and 22 women fighters. Claressa Shields, from America, and Britain’s Savannah Marshall will become the first women to headline a boxing promotion at the O2. Even more powerfully, their fight has the ingredients of a compelling contest which could echo some of the most intense and fierce rivalries between great male boxers.
Katie Taylor and Amanda Serrano have already produced a potential fight of the year, when they waged a ferocious and skilful battle while becoming the first women to headline Madison Square Garden in May, and this bout could approach those heights. Shields and Marshall both have 12-0 professional records and, between them, they hold all four world middleweight titles. The American owns three of those belts but the only blemish on her long and distinguished career as a boxer, as a two-time Olympic champion, happened in 2012 when Marshall beat her at the amateur world championships in China.
Shields had just turned 17 and Marshall was less than a week from her 21st birthday. The difference in age, height and reach was decisive then – even if Shields believed she was unlucky to lose. She set about making amends and, while Marshall’s hugely promising amateur career drifted away after she won that world championship, Shields won gold at the 2012 London Olympics and the Rio Games four years later.
The plaudits and titles have flowed towards Shields in the professional ring but, slowly and then with increasing momentum, Marshall has carved out her own impressive reputation. She punches with authority and power and, in a contest that deserves its build-up as a 50-50 match-up, Marshall’s supporters believe she could even stop Shields late on after a potentially brutal fight. Shields, who proclaims herself as the greatest female boxer of all time, is vociferous in stressing her superiority to Marshall. Many insiders, especially in the US, expect her to outpoint her British rival in a less dramatic contest.
The vitriol and enmity between the two women appear genuine. Shields, who overcame a traumatic childhood darkened by rape and poverty, is in her element when trash-talking. But Marshall, who is normally shy and reserved, has been almost as mouthy during this unusually long and protracted buildup. The fight had been scheduled for 10 September but, in the wake of the Queen’s death, it was postponed just a day before they were meant to meet in the ring.
There is similar simmering hostility between Mikaela Mayer and Alycia Baumgardner, the two American super-featherweights who hold three of the main titles on offer in their division. They lead the undercard in a fight that promises to be almost as interesting as the headline bout. All the fighters on the card have had to overcome immensely difficult circumstances because, having cut weight and reached their mental and physical peak five weeks ago, they have had to repeat the draining ordeal all over again.
Far from being “emotionally unstable” and “frail”, as women were derided and dismissed by British boxing officials, these female fighters are formidable. In contrast, a week ago there were depressing scenes in male boxing when Conor Benn was found to have failed a drug test while his promoters were shameless in trying to force his bout against Chris Eubank Jr to happen despite it being “prohibited” by the same hapless board.
Now, in their place at the very same venue in London, there is a rare chance for the courage and skill of these outstanding women fighters to be given a proper platform. The opportunity to watch Marshall and Shields at work, as well as Mayer, Baumgardner and the Olympians Lauren Price, Karriss Artingstall and Caroline Dubois, is far more interesting and uplifting than the embarrassing possibility of Eubank Jr and the disgraced Benn eventually meeting in some gaudy sports-washed location in the Middle East.
These inspiring women look ready to elevate a damaged and tarnished sport. Boxing needs them to produce a night as memorable as it will be historic.