Claressa Shields beats Savannah Marshall in thriller to unify world titles

Claressa Shields became the undisputed world middleweight champion when she outpointed Savannah Marshall, her bitter rival, in a magnificent contest on an historic night of women’s boxing in London. The first all-female card in British boxing was headlined by an intense and relentless fight which Shields won on all three judges’ scorecards by margins of 96-94 and a more accurate 97-93 verdict from the two other officials.

Contested over 10, two-minute rounds, Shields and Marshall accentuated the need for elite women’s boxing to move to three-minute rounds. This was a fight of great skill and grit and each round needed another additional minute to do justice to the raw ebb and flow.

But Shields produced a masterclass in which she always seemed able to answer Marshall’s fierce aggression and heavy blows with far more effective and stinging combinations. Her ability to switch from the head to the body, where she punished Marshall throughout, was often breathtaking in its audacity and panache.

Shields’s superior boxing skills have long been obvious but, on the most important night of her career, she punched with great authority and force. She was also razor-sharp in her accuracy but the small mouse of a swelling under her right eye provided clear evidence of the battle Shields endured against the impressively determined Marshall.

Round after round passed in a blurring flurry of blows, with the action almost unremitting, as Marshall often managed to back Shields into a corner as she looked to unleash her power punches. But Shields always held her nerve and, amid the fire and fury, responded with clinical precision to land volleys of punches. They were constant reminders that the 27-year-old American is a double Olympic champion and, in truth, an even better fighter than the commendable Marshall.

Yet, for 10 years, Shields has been tormented by the fact the only blemish on her otherwise pristine amateur and professional record was caused by Marshall. The tall, rangy and hard-hitting woman from Hartlepool, who is now 31, beat Shields at the 2012 world championships in China. The American has been asked about that solitary loss again and again but, in the ring on Saturday night, she gained the sweetest revenge. Shields proved that, rivalled only by Ireland’s Katie Taylor who campaigns at lightweight, she is the most successful and compelling female boxer in the world, who now adds Marshall’s WBO trinket to the IBF, WBA and WBC middleweight belts she already owns.

Shields has a far grander title in mind for she calls herself the GWOAT – the Greatest Woman of All Time. Beyond her swaggering bravado a deeply moving story has shaped her rise from vicious adversity. Shields comes from Flint, one of the most impoverished towns in Michigan and all of America, and she endured a brutalised childhood where she was raped repeatedly from the age of five. Eventually, she overcame such a painful past and her stammer, to emerge as the most fiery and outspoken fighter in women’s boxing.

“You gotta be great to survive all I did,” Shields told me in a riveting interview last month. Even a great fight, against Marshall, is shadowed by those ghosts of her past.

The sound of the blows landing was clearly audible at ringside as, with admirable resolve and courage, the two women shared a minor classic. It was a fight which confirmed the undoubted quality of the world’s best women boxers.

The main bout on the undercard offered another highly skilled, close and absorbing contest as Alycia Baumgardner defeated her fellow American Mikaela Mayer on a split decision in their world title unification bout at super-featherweight. Baumgardner shaded the opening two rounds but Mayer began to find her range from the third. She settled into the rhythm of a technical fight and caught Baumgardner with crisp punches and appeared to be on the verge of gaining control.

They exchanged fierce blows in the seventh and a small cut opened up over Mayer’s right eye as Baumgardner regained parity. But Mayer fired back with alacrity and the final three rounds were tight and testing for both fighters as, again and again, cascades of sweat flew across the ring each time a sharp blow landed. Mayer believed she had done enough to win but the two judges who gave the fight to Baumgardner did so by the narrowest of margins – 96-95 over 10 rounds.

A draw would have been a marginally more accurate decision and a rematch, surely, will follow.

There were 11 bouts in all, with dominant victories earlier in the evening for Karriss Artingstall, Caroline Dubois and Lauren Price, the three impressive British Olympians, against limited opponents. Artingstall won every round while Dubois and Price both won inside the distance when their hapless rivals were rescued by the referee.

But this historic night belonged to Claressa Shields, the ferocious and skilful queen of the ring.