March 5, 2020
At 28, Savannah Marshall has already faced more battles than most.
In the ring, she’s taken on and beaten many of the best boxers in the world.
Beyond the ropes, however, Savannah has been forced to fight demons, depression and self-doubt.
She’s fought for what she believes in and fought against the system; she’s rolled with the punches on and off the canvas.
It’s little wonder, therefore, that the Hartlepool-born boxer’s immediate future continues to be shaped by an often painful past.
“I already know I don’t want to be doing this forever,” reveals Savannah, as she ponders next month’s shot at a world title in front of a capacity crowd at Newcastle’s Utilita Arena.
“I’ve had so many injuries and so many operations and I want to do other things in my life. “At the moment I’d love to go back to university. I’m interested in construction and property, and I might look at the surveying side of the industry. That’s something I’m really drawn towards.
“The plan is to give myself another couple of years as a boxer and then go back to my education.”
Finding her way back to the classroom could be the easiest journey Savannah has faced in the last ten years.
Having achieved 12 GCSEs and a distinction for her BTEC National Diploma in Sport, it’s not as if the brawn has ever outweighed the brains.
In fact, a fighter nicknamed The Silent Assassin, as a result of her once introverted personality, has always been both a deep thinker and a heavy puncher.
It was her mental state, rather than any physical flaw, that undermined the career-defining moment that still rankles with Savannah today.
“In 2012, I went to China and won gold in the World Championships on my 21st birthday,” she explains.
“It was the first time that I thought to myself ‘I’m alright at this.’ I headed to the Olympics ranked as the best middleweight in the world and as the first ever female British world champion.”
What could possibly go wrong? In Savannah’s case, almost everything.
“I got a bye to the quarter-finals in London and I only had to win one fight to guarantee a medal,” she adds.
“Everyone was talking about me as the gold medal winner in waiting and that was when I started to worry.
“In the end the pressure got far too much for me. I just couldn’t handle it. I reverted back to the shy, quiet girl who simply loved to box. I wasn’t prepared for the huge crowds or the intense media attention.
“I knew that, in terms of amateur boxing, the Olympics was the pinnacle. If you win an Olympic title you’re set for life. When it came down to it there were thousands of people there watching me, and they all knew I’d been tipped to win gold. I cracked.
“As soon as I stepped out there I just wanted to go home. I didn’t want to box. I didn’t want to be there. I lost the quarter-final, left the athletes’ village and went straight home to Hartlepool.
“I remember getting home, going to bed, lying there and just thinking ‘thank God that’s over.’
“It was only six months down the line when it really hit me: I’d thrown away the biggest opportunity of my life. I was devastated but I thought I might as well keep going. However, the next four years were the worst of my boxing career.”
Prior to London 2012, Savannah’s fledgling career had followed an unstoppable upward trajectory. First stepping into the ring aged 11, at the Hartlepool Headland Amateur Boxing Club, the timid pre-teen had found her calling.
Savannah might have been bashful, but she could always box. In those early years, The Silent Assassin moniker fitted like a glove as the powerfully built yet painfully shy rookie stealthily realised her obvious potential.
“I used to cycle to training almost every day and I couldn’t wait to get down to work,” adds Savannah. “I had my first fight when I was 12. I just fell in love with being part of that close-knit team within the club.
“Although boxing is a very individual sport you feel part of a special community within the gym. It was also a competitive environment, which I loved. If someone challenged me to complete a circuit faster than them then I’d take that on.
“Could I do as many press-ups as the next person? I’d give it a go. I just loved that competitive element in the gym – probably more than the fights!”
Training was always Savannah’s crutch – her go-to escape from the mental pressures affecting her physical wellbeing. It was when she lost that insatiable appetite for working in the gym that Savannah lost her love of boxing.
“After London I decided to stay in the system and work towards Rio in 2016,” she explains. “I was still being funded. It would have been a difficult decision to walk away at that point.
“However, I was constantly injured. I had three major operations that kept me out for six months at a time. No sooner would I get going again than I’d pick up another injury and go back to square one.
“Looking back, I was just training too hard and putting too much pressure on my body. I was going from tournament to tournament and my body – and mind – was breaking down. I went through the whole mental health thing.
“I didn’t realise it at the time, but the Olympic experience was hanging over me and weighing me down. I don’t think I ever moved on. I kept thinking I could have been set for life. My name could have been up in lights. But I’d blown it.”
Nevertheless, Savannah stuck at it. The work ethic and ethos that had underpinned her teenage years kicked in. Ultimately, that trademark commitment and determination masked a growing sense of anxiety, fear and uncertainty.
“I hid it well,” confesses Savannah. “I’m naturally quiet anyway and I think I just retreated further and further into my shell. I didn’t know what it was back then, but I was suffering from severe anxiety and depression.
“I talk to people a lot more now. But I used to get so anxious. I’d make myself physically sick before fights. I’d think of any way I could to put myself off a fight. I didn’t believe in myself. But I stuck at it and qualified for the 2016 Olympics.”
If Rio was supposed to serve as some kind of skewed redemption, then Savannah’s sobering experience in Brazil only compounded those suppressed feelings of frustration, disillusionment and rank disappointment.
Through no fault of her own she became embroiled in a wider controversy surrounding the judging at a boxing tournament dogged by controversy. If she hadn’t already, then Savannah reached tipping point.
“I headed to Rio thinking to myself that I’d been through so much that I’d go there, pick up a medal and walk away,” she recalls.
“At this point I’d totally fallen out of love with boxing. It was so political. I even started to hate training – the aspect of the sport I’d always loved the most.
“Every week I’d travel to the English Institute of Sport [EIS] in Sheffield. I wasn’t training with Tim [Coulter, coach at Hartlepool Headland] at that point because I was in the GB programme and that was part of the problem. He has always been like a second father to me and I have always loved working with him.
“Everything felt like such a slog. I used to head down to Sheffield on a Monday, and I’d be driving down the A1 thinking ‘I just don’t want to do this.’ But I finally got my head right and qualified for Rio.
“I came through the preliminaries and reached the quarter-finals, but I ended up losing every round and it was at a point when the judges were coming in for some serious criticism.
“It wasn’t a four-round defeat, but I didn’t get involved with that even though there was uproar around the result. My fight became part of the media spotlight focusing on judging in Rio, but I stayed out of it. I just thought ‘I’ve had enough of this.’”
Weeks later Savannah had her lightbulb moment, alone in a car park on the outskirts of Wetherby.
“I was heading down to the EIS from Hartlepool and I just pulled into the services and sat there for a minute or two,” she adds.
“I thought there must be more to life than this. Boxing felt like a job and I didn’t like anything about it anymore. I turned around and went home to Hartlepool. I left the GB squad. I was just sick of feeling so low.”
That arduous A1 commute was no more but Savannah’s life had reached a crossroads. Out of the blue an opportunity arose to work with one of the world’s greatest fighters and compete on the undercard of the decade’s biggest bout.
“A couple of months after I stepped away from GB, I got a call from a mutual friend,” adds Savannah.
“It was at a time when the women’s professional game was exploding – a lot of women had turned professional, but they needed more to make the fights. It struck me as a huge opportunity.
“There was the chance to go to America and work out of Floyd Mayweather’s gym in Las Vegas. I made my professional debut on the Mayweather/ Conor McGregor card in front of 14,000 people. I was part of Floyd Mayweather Promotions – otherwise known as The Money Team.
“About two months before the fight it dawned on me that I’d never even trained with a professional boxer and that the whole professional game was very different to what I’d been used to. So I went to work with Peter Fury in Bolton and ended up doing my whole camp with him there.”
By now all too familiar with debilitating false dawns, Savannah stifled the urge to view that first professional fight as a game changer. A natural scepticism, born out of so many setbacks, served her well.
“After that first professional fight I ended up staying in the US for about six months training really hard,” explains Savannah.
“However, there were a lot of broken dreams over there. I trained for two or three fights that fell through at the last minute. I had no money – I’d spent the money I’d made from my debut and the only way I would make more was by fighting again.
“I was due to come back home for a wedding and when I got back to Hartlepool, I just realised it wasn’t worth going back to America. However, I learnt a lot about the professional game during my time over there.
“I realised it’s nowhere near as structured as amateur boxing and it’s all about people trying to make money off you. Maybe I was naïve, but I learnt my lessons. I got out of the Mayweather Promotions contract and went back to Peter in Bolton. I asked if he would train me and he agreed. From that point onwards I’ve been working with him. It was the best decision I ever made.”
Fast forward to 2020 and Savannah is unbeaten in eight professional fights. Her ninth, against reigning WBO light heavyweight champion Geovana Peres, takes place on the Lewis Ritson undercard, in Newcastle, on April 4. It’s her biggest bout yet.
“I’ve got a shot at the world title and it’s an amazing opportunity,” she beams.
“It’s massive. To be given the chance to fight for a world title in the North East is incredible.
“I’m fighting the defending champion, so it’s not as if the belt is vacant. Peres is coming to Newcastle to defend her title and she isn’t going to give up that belt easily. But this is my chance. I’m ready to show the world what I’m all about.”
Savannah is also keen to show her gratitude to Ritson – a boxer she credits with breathing new life into a North East boxing scene rich in tradition.
“Lewis Ritson is North East boxing,” she adds. “All of us are very grateful to Lewis for what he’s doing to raise the profile of boxing in the region.
“He’s opened up doors for the likes of Joe Laws and my very good friend April Hunter. Lewis is aggressive in the ring and the ultimate professional in terms of how he handles himself outside the ring.
“I’m proud to be fighting on the same bill as him next month.”
Savannah is sponsored by Utility Alliance in Hartlepool, BM Bifolding Doors (Middlesbrough) and Cameron’s Brewery.
Tickets for ‘A Night Of Championship Boxing’ at Newcastle’s Utilita Arena are available by calling 0844 4936666 or visiting: www.utilitaarena.co.uk