Humble hardness: The Savannah Marshall story

Paul Zanon
12/02/2016 11:25am

When you earn the nickname of Silent Assassin, one could easily assume it’s a description of someone who’s perhaps void of character, quiet, yet aggressive in the ring. Savannah Marshall is certainly not void of character and was, without a doubt, not quiet for this 30 minute interview. In terms of aggressive in the ring – far from it. She’s a calculated, elite athlete who leaves nothing by chance and has a hungry mentality which stops her ever taking anything for granted.

As opposed to many who started boxing as a result of a family member inspiring them, the Marshall boxing bloodline started with Savannah. The pugilistic pioneer explained. “One of my friends used to box and he came round to my house and showed me his trophies. I remember thinking, ‘I’d like to win one of them. I wonder how hard it can be?’” Marshall told Boxing Monthly.

“I was 11 at the time and had always been quite sporty, playing football for example, but I’d never really achieved anything with sport at that point. I don’t remember having a particular position in football – it was more a case of wherever the ball was, I’d be there. I decided to give boxing a go and it went from there really.”

Marshall’s chance encounter with boxing turned out to be something of a sporting crossroads of excellence, as she made her international debut in 2006 aged 15 and within two years had taken the crown of Junior ABA champion. By 2009, she added the Senior ABA crown to her collection before collecting the silver at the World Championships in 2010 and the bronze at the European Championships in 2011. 

2012 turned out to be a year of one massive high and one learning curve as Marshall made history, then soon after shocked many as she fell apart from stage fright at the London Olympics. Marshall reflected on the high and lows.

“The 2012 World Championships] was the qualifier for the 2012 Olympics. The way it worked out was, there was only so many from each continent could qualify and Europe was the hardest by weight class without a doubt. When I got to the final I remember thinking, ‘I’m only young. Nobody knows who I am’. Then I thought, ‘I’ve worked really hard to get to this point. Why can’t I qualify!’”

Beating a series of tough opponents, Marshall made history by becoming the first woman from Great Britain to win the World Amateur Boxing Championships. Not dwelling on the victory too long, Marshall shifted the focus to an interesting fact. “Not many people know this – I became world champion on my 21st birthday.”

Certainly not a bad present to receive and one which was without a doubt not gifted.

With Marshall’s pedigree at this stage, she was being touted by many as having a good chance to be standing on the podium at the London 2012 Olympic Games. So what happened? Marshall explained. “I think it just became too much. I’d won the World Championships in May and the Olympics was in August. Within three months, I’d gone from nobody knowing who I was to being favoured for gold. Every kept saying, ‘You’re going to win gold, you’re going to win gold.’ The pressure was on.

“I’d never boxed in front a crowd of that size before. I can’t remember exactly, but I think there was something like 24,000 people there and the pressure was just too much for me and put me off.” 

When discussing the disappointment of the 2012 Olympics in relation to her accomplishments over the previous four years, she reflects with a sensible and hungry mindset. “I don’t like to dwell on what’s happened, win or lose, every competition is different. People assumed that I was confident as a world champion fighting in the Olympics, but I was actually more confident before becoming a world champion. I always like to keep my feet on the ground and, despite not winning a medal in 2012, the experience made sure I didn’t lose track of that mentality, thinking ‘my opponent is better than me’.”

That champion’s mentality of going into the ring as the challenger, irrespective of your silverware status, has been echoed by many and some have claimed, Joe Calzaghe as an example, that when you lose that frame of mind, it’s time to hang up the gloves.

Despite facing some fierce adversaries to date, possibly her toughest opponent in recent times is one known widely through the sporting fraternity – namely, injury.

“After the World Championships in 2012, one of my hands kept swelling. I was getting injections [to reduce inflammation] and then after the Olympics I went and got it checked out and realised that I’d completely torn the tendon. I ended up having an operation in December 2012 which put me out for six months and then I came back – did two tournaments – the Europeans and the World Combat Games and won gold in both of them.

“However, during the World Combat Games, after the semi-final, I remember waking up in the morning and my shoulder was really sore. I then boxed in the final, won that and went home knowing something was wrong with it. I got it looked at it turned out it was semi-dislocated. So – in December 2013 I had another operation which put me out for another six months, came back and boxed in the Commonwealth Games and did my other hand in. I had to be operated in December 2014.  December 2015 is the first December in four years I haven’t had to have an operation!

“I feel that the operations have messed me up a bit because just as I’m getting my momentum, building myself back up, I’m out for another six months. That’s why I think I’ve struggled to get good rankings since 2012, because I haven’t been consistently fighting. I’m not even ranked in the top 20 in the world.”

When looking at Marshall’s record of achievement over the last four years, it’s almost incomprehensible as to why she doesn’t have top 10 or even top 5 ranking. It seems that the 2016 Olympics could be a perfect form of retribution.

Marshall

Marshall, it seems, is now going through a positive injury free period and there’s a certain tigerishness in her voice as she discusses the plan for the next six months.

“I’ve literally just came back from Colorado. The jet lag is playing havoc with me. I was up at three o clock this morning and am knackered! The training out there was great though. It was a high altitude training camp and one thing I noticed was, you’d get out of bed in the morning and by the time you got to the bathroom you’d be out of breath! I really felt it during training. Felt like you had to take in twice the breaths to breathe. 

“There’s a tournament in Bulgaria on 27 February which I’m fighting in. It’s a really decent tournament and the likes of America and China go there, so it should be good. Then the first (Olympic) qualifier is on 9 April in Turkey. Hoping everything goes well, the second qualifier is in May and then that will be it.”

If there’s one branding Savannah Marshall could never have connected to her name it’s ‘complacent’. As a 24-year-old, her experience of the globe is head and shoulders above the average and the opportunities she’s been exposed can only be described as elitist. Marshall, in her endearingly shy manner, blushed briefly, before explaining her gratitude for the travel and experiences boxing has provided. 

“It’s amazing,” she told BM. “At 16, I’d only been away a handful of times to places like Spain and the usual holiday destinations. But with boxing you not only go to countries you’d normally not have the chance to, you go to places in those countries that you’d normally never see as a tourist. I’ve been to China three times and each time has been incredible and a world away from what you might think China would be like. Food wise – it was not what you would expect. The last place we stayed at was quite rural and a lot of the food was raw. Also, there were only chopsticks and nobody spoke English, so it was pretty tough to get a fork. You soon learn how to use those chopsticks. Japan was amazing – everyone is so health conscious and everything was spotless. Every country I’ve been to has been an experience and I never take any of it for granted.” 

With Brazil potentially a future stop later this year, Marshall discusses the importance of winning silverware in Rio.

“It would be amazing. I’ve been boxing since I was 11 and I’ve been boxing at national level since I was 16. I’ve been on the Team GB programme for seven years. The way I look at it is, if I was working a normal job, I’d be ready for a change. At the moment, Rio is all I can see. I’m not looking at anything beyond it. This is what I want and then I’ll go from there.”

In terms of recent training and injuries, everything seems to be on track. “I boxed in the GB championships in November. Had a little break over Christmas and then it was over to Colorado for the high altitude camp. Injury wise – I’m surprisingly good. Usually, when I go away for training camps, I see the physio about twice a day, but in Colorado this time, I saw the physio once and that was only for a stretch. I was left thinking, ‘What will I do with all this spare time now!”

With the media expecting a healthy batch of medals to be generated from the Team GB Boxing squad, Marshall gives her views on the hot prospect. “I like them all, but one lad I really like is Pat Mccormack at 64 [KGs]. I just think he’s so sharp. Even after a break he’s brilliant.”

In terms of who she sees as her biggest threats, her old nemesis Nouchka Fontijn from Holland instantly pops up into conversation. “She’s European champion and we’ve boxed four times now. It’s 3-1 to her. However, my last two losses were soon after coming back from injury, so I’m putting them down to not being as active as her. She’s very strong and every time we meet she gives me a tough fight. She definitely my biggest threat.”

The interview with Marshall was conducted at the Sky Sports head office in Isleworth, London, with a gathering of the ‘Sky Sports Scholars’ in attendance, one of them being Marshall. The Sky Academy Sports Scholarships are helping 12 of Britain’s and Ireland’s most exciting young athletes fulfil their potential on the international stage and help them achieve their goals for Rio 2016. As opposed to generic schooling, the Academy offers a bespoke level of support for each athlete, which cover a number of areas such as funding, media coaching and mentoring.

Marshall discusses being a Sky Scholar and how it’s helped her improve as a person and an athlete. “It was like a light at the end of the tunnel. After the 2012 Olympics and the operation later that year, I was really down. Then one day, Sky got in touch with me and said, “Someone from Sky is coming to see you. We’ve got this opportunity to be a Sky Scholar, but you’ll need to be interviewed. Long story short – I went and got accepted.

“I’ve basically signed up to a three-year contract and, in addition to helping with things like funding, they help to raise my profile. They’ve been absolutely brilliant. When I first signed up I asked if I could see a sports psychologist and in no time at all they got me one of the best in the country.”

Having previously admitted that the magnitude of the occasion at the London 2012 Olympics was the foundation of her loss, Marshall explained the importance of psychology as she guns for Rio.

“I’ve done a fair bit of work with a boxing psychologist and then Sky put me in touch with a man called Dave Collins last year, who’s had a lot to do with athletics and I believe works for Chelsea Football Club at the moment. Every now and then I need someone to remind me of what I know. Saying things like, ‘You can’t control the draw or what your opponent is going to do. Just focus on yourself.’ Stuff like that helps a lot.”

Each athlete who signs up to be a Sky Scholar is assigned a couple of mentors. Marshall was fortunate enough to have the dynamic duo Sky’s Head of Boxing Adam Smith and former WBO cruiserweight champion Johnny Nelson. Marshall discusses their impact on her. “Adam’s my Sky Mentor. He always makes me feel like a million dollars. He’ll drop me a text before a big competition saying things like, “Believe in yourself,” and always seems to say the right things when you need to hear them. Also, his knowledge of boxing is amazing, considering he’s never boxed himself. The level of self-belief he gives me is incredible.

“Johnny [Nelson] knows the [boxing] game. I’ve mentioned situations to him where he’s been through them himself and he always has solutions and how he might have coped when he was boxing. Adam and Johnny are two totally opposite people but they really work for me and I’m grateful that they support me.”

Adam Smith was also kind enough to take the time to say a few words about the scheme and, of course, his deep pride for Marshall as a scholar. “The Sky Scholarships is a fabulous programme because it gives her the chance for much help and guidance. I have brought my sidekick Johnny Nelson into the team because Johnny failed and froze in world title opportunities before growing up, relearning his trade and pulling his career right around to become an outstanding champion," Smith told BM

“Johnny makes Savannah relax and laugh and he knows so much about the game. Spencer Oliver has also helped; so, too, a brilliant communications coach - the best in Hugo Simpson.

“All in all, I am so proud of Savannah. She is happier, injury free and heads towards these Olympic qualifiers in a great frame of mind. She can do it - she has all the ability, but I have told her not to focus on going for 'Gold' - just to go out there and enjoy herself! Have fun - that's what it's about and she will perform. I know she can bring back a big shiny medal from Rio - but more than that I want her to bring back a bucket load of memories for life. 

“Savannah is passionate and so dedicated about our sport. She is a complete credit to boxing and the quiet, amiable, funny and terrific girl from Hartlepool will emerge out of that shyness of character to dazzle bright in Brazil. No pressure this time. No demands. No expectations.”

With six months to go and injuries off the landscape, it seems that Marshall is well placed to expand her medal and trophy collection. What she has achieved in boxing to date is incredible and where she goes from here is an intriguing journey, which all true boxing fans will no doubt follow with interest. As a person who currently has two mentors, it seems that she is already a great template for many aspiring boxers and athletes to follow.

Savannah Marshall is supported by the Sky Academy Sports Scholarship scheme. For more information please visit skysports.com/scholarships