While all eyes will be on Floyd Mayweather and Conor McGregor at the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas on August 26 for the richest fight in history, there’s one person on the bill for whom this is no gimmick.
For Savannah Marshall, there will be focus amid the folly, hope rather than hype as she begins her journey as a professional and part of an exciting new era in women’s boxing. Having signed a four-year deal with Mayweather Promotions, it will be a significant step in the career of the 26-year-old former amateur world champion.
So too for female fighters the world over as it is showcased to an expected global audience of millions, eager to see Mayweather don the gloves once more for the bout with UFC hero McGregor.
“I still can’t believe it and it won’t hit me until I’m there,” Marshall tells Sport360°. “Part of the Money Team, me? On the bill of the Mayweather-McGregor fight, how amazing is that?
“When they said they wanted to sign me and I thought ‘Oh my God’. It’s what dreams are made of. And it shows how women’s boxing is becoming bigger.”
It has long been an untapped market, a fact not lost on Mayweather as he builds his promotion empire following retirement, also signing American junior middleweight LaTondria Jones.
Rival promoters, such as Lou DiBella, Oscar De La Hoya’s Golden Boy team and British pair Eddie Hearn and Frank Warren have also snapped up the best female talent as television companies have shown greater interest following the success of women in MMA and UFC. With respect, there is now the potential for profit.
It has been a long time coming after past barriers. With its origins dating back to 1720, women’s boxing was a displayed event at the 1904 St Louis Olympics, but only the men competed.
It was banned in Britain in 1880 and there were mainly exhibitions until the 1970s when several US states allowed women to box and approved bouts with more than four rounds.
There were more battles out of the ring amid the struggle for acceptance as well as recognition and reward, until 1996 when Christy Martin took on Deirdre Gogarty on the undercard of Mike Tyson’s WBC heavyweight title fight with Frank Bruno in Las Vegas.
Bloody and brutal, the featherweight clash defied stereotypes and gender bias and women’s professional boxing was formally accepted in the States.
Martin, though, did not want to be the flag-bearer of the sport that Barbara Buttrick – the first woman to fight on national television in 1954 – once was. But others were willing to push the sport forward, including German Regina Halmich, who gave up her job as a lawyer’s clerk to fight and grow its popularity in Europe, along with Dutch legend Lucia Rijker.
So too Mia St John and the daughters of icons Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, Laila Ali and Jackie Frazier-Lyde, who showed ability as well as ambition. Allowing women’s boxing into the 2012 Olympics proved a momentous occasion, helping to generate global interest, encouraging activity among the youth, spawning heroes – like Indian Mary Kom who won a bronze medal – and new superstars such as Claressa Shields.
“The Olympics definitely helped show the talent, didn’t half give women’s boxing a boost,” says Marshall. “I think even more girls are going to come through because of that and what’s going on now.”
American Shields made history with gold in 2012 and 2016. Beaten just once as an amateur, by Marshall of all people, the 22-year-old – known as T-Rex – turned professional last November and is tipped to transform the female fight scene with more monstrous displays after claiming the IBF and WBC super-middleweight title from German Nikki Adler with a fifth-round stoppage last Saturday.
It was top billing as part of the ShoBox series and in only her second professional fight in March, Shields became the first woman to headline a premium cable boxing card when she beat Szilvia Szabados in Detroit on the Showtime channel. Texan Marlen Esparza then became the first woman to appear on a televised portion of an ESPN boxing card and has been signed by De La Hoya, who is also trying to add Shields to his stable.
Heather Hardy, 35, has been another influential figure, considered revolutionary, as she signed a long-term deal with DiBella Entertainment and has the opportunity to compete in MMA as well. WBO featherweight champion Amanda Serrano and Shelly Vincent are also on DiBella’s books and he has hailed them as “trail blazers”.
Across the pond, Olympic gold medallist Katie Taylor turned pro with Eddie Hearn’s Matchroom Boxing stable after a 13-year amateur career, while Britain’s two-time Olympian Nicola Adams is under the banner of Frank Warren Promotions and working with Andre Ward’s trainer Virgil Hunter.
There has clearly been talent, but television has always been integral to any major success as DiBella has claimed: “While male fighters are going after the $50,000, $150,000 or $1 million payday, those don’t exist for women because television has been closed to them.”
But with Showtime involved in the US and even talk of an all-fem-ale bill, that could soon change.
Fast and furious
Trainer Peter Fury, who has been working with Marshall while handling the affairs of heavyweights Tyson and Hughie Fury, says: “They’ve all realised there’s a market there and there’s money to be made. With television interested, it will get there and will be as big as men’s boxing, I believe that. Within 5-10 years, that timeframe.
“There’s exciting fights out there, with the strong Americans and you only have to get a Savannah and a world champion in her class, have a humdinger fight and that’s it.
“It ain’t women’s boxing or men’s boxing, it’s just boxing. That’s what I’ve been saying to Savannah to help her compete professionally.
“She’s 6ft, 75 kilos and I’ve got her sparring with middleweights, men, and she is putting back their noses and giving as good as she has got. Fans will love that.”
Perhaps for many, the experience of women in boxing was previously limited to movies, such as Clint Eastwood-directed Hollywood movie ‘Million Dollar Baby’.
They’ve been likened to the Galacticos era at Spanish football giants Real Madrid. Then again, they’ve also been chastised for ruining the game, buying titles by bringing in an army of mercenaries.
Whatever your view regarding Toulon’s impact on rugby, you can’t deny it’s been exciting under the headline-grabbing guidance of Mourad Boudjellal. Jonny Wilkinson, Bryan Habana and Sonny Bill Williams have all donned the red jersey and helped draw the crowds to the blue collar naval town on France’s south east coast.
The club’s Stade Mayol ground is surrounded by high-rise tenement flats. It’s not exactly the sort of place you’d expect to find some of the northern and southern hemisphere’s premier players from the last decade plying their trade.
Club president Boudjellal is even more colourful than the comic books his former firm Soleil Productions is famed for publishing. The son of Algerian immigrants, Boudjellal initially invested in his hometown club along with Stephane Lelievre in 2006, plotting a bold mission to assemble a hoard of superheroes Marvel would be proud to call their own. He’s certainly achieved that.
The likes of Ma’a Nonu, Tana Umaga, James O’Connor, Quade Cooper, Duane Vermeulen, Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe and Leigh Halfpenny are just some of the names to have arrived since – helping Toulon to claim three straight European Cup crowns from 2013-15 – yet some critics would have Boudjellal painted as the arch villain rather than a caped crusader.
Two of his former recruits, however, can’t speak highly enough of the Professor Xavier-type leader who made it his mission to put together an all-star cast.
Boudjellal helped line the pockets of Carl Hayman and Tom May, but undoubtedly also helped enrich the tapestry of French and northern hemisphere rugby. New Zealander Hayman and Englishman May were two of the early imports to the military port town as Boudjellal built his brigade. Hayman joined from Newcastle Falcons in the summer of 2010 with 45 All Blacks caps to his name, arriving with the club established in, if not yet dominating, the Top 14 after promotion from the second-tier Pro D2 two seasons earlier.
“It was touted as a big spending club but we hadn’t really done anything,” said Hayman, 37, of the early days prior to the money yielding silverware. “The first season I was there we finished seventh in the Top 14 and didn’t make the Heineken Cup. (Then coach) Philippe Saint-Andre made a lot of recruitments for the following season but then left for the French national team and Bernard Laporte came in.
“It was really from that moment it started to take off. We had Jonny (Wilkinson) and Matt Giteau. Up front we had myself, Andrew Sheridan and Bakkies Botha so we had a nucleus of a really good squad. We had a minimum of changes for the next few years and the guys who came in really added value to what we were doing and depth in positions where we didn’t have it.
“A massive amount of players have gone through the club since 2006 to when I got there in 2010, like George Gregan. A lot of guys helped along the way to get the club to where it is. But to get it up and running, it was Mourad in the beginning.”
Boudjellal’s time at Toulon’s helm has not been without controversy. There was the 130-day dressing room and pitchside ban he received from Top 14 chiefs for a lurid outburst against officials following a narrow defeat to Clermont in January 2012. There were protestations that French rugby is racist and offering to sell the club last year. But Hayman recalls a shrewd operator. A man with an eye for opportunity. Who opened up French rugby to new markets, especially the more illustrious nations down under.
“I don’t think anyone in New Zealand knew where Toulon was or anything about it,” added Hayman. “Then Tana signed (in 2006) and the whole of New Zealand knew about it. Mourad was very smart with the guys he signed back then, like George (Gregan) too. He would have had the same effect in Australia.
“He was very smart the way he went about it. He got the Japanese full-back (Christian Loamanu). After signing him the search engines in Japan got busy and everyone wanted to know where Toulon was, so he’s done very well.”
May joined in 2009 while holidaying on a beach in Barbados. Also at Newcastle at the time, the twice-capped England back described the whole process as surreal, but was soon swapping the North Sea for the Mediterranean.
“From the first day he wanted to make Toulon a massive mark on the rugby map and he has succeeded,” said May, 38. “The club is now a huge name in world rugby, let alone French or European rugby, and a large part of that can be put down to the drive and motivation of Mourad. Some might not be overly keen on him due to his persistent hunt of the limelight but you can’t say that he has done anything but do what he deems best for the club even though that might, at times, seem like complete lunacy from the outside.”
The sheen of success has worn off somewhat in recent years. Toulon haven’t won the Top 14 title in three seasons, beaten in the last two finals by Racing 92 and Clermont Auvergne. The money men have also fallen short in the renamed Rugby Champions Cup, beaten in the 2016 quarter-finals by domestic rivals Racing and Clermont at the same stage last season.
But they still possess a wealth of stars, with Habana, Lobbe and Smith still in place and joined next season by ex-England winger Chris Ashton and, in the last week, explosive All Blacks centre Malakai Fekitoa. Think what you will about the intentions of players who would rather seek fame and fortune abroad and turn their back on the famous black jersey, but neither Hayman nor May feel mercenary is a fair term to describe the various Toulon talents.
“The foreign guys that he got in were really good pros,” said Hayman, who claims the big names instilled professional standards at the club. “The Aussie guys like Matt and Drew (Mitchell) in particular are just really good pros, Bakkies too, and Jonny, really experienced campaigners and great ambassadors.
“Having Jonny there, with his work ethic and the way he went about things, he really dragged a lot of guys with him on the field. A lot of guys who perhaps wouldn’t normally be doing half an hour extra after practice or working on their skills, Jonny would be out there doing it and guys would gravitate to him and would start doing that stuff too.”
May concurs, claiming that players, whether earning big bucks or not, are still driven by dreams of glory.
“It’s easy to say the lads that go to Toulon go for the money but you could say that for anyone who goes anywhere in France to play,” the ex-Northampton Saints and London Welsh man said.
“The money is better out there. This will of course attract players as it is only a short career. That said, I don’t think many rugby players turn up and train just because they are happy to pick up a hefty pay cheque at the end of the month. The vast majority of them have an internal drive and motivation which means that they want to win and be the best.”
Last Thursday, the UAE cricket team continued their recent revival by celebrating an impressive 50-over series triumph against the Netherlands.
It came exactly a year since central contracts were introduced and the feat proved that the national side is now reaping the rewards after turning professional.
It was 12 months ago on July 20 that a new chapter was marked in UAE cricket as the Emirates Cricket Board (ECB) announced their first-ever deals for their players.
Spinner Imran Haider, pacer Qadeer Ahmed, all-rounder Rohan Mustafa and batsmen Mohammed Qasim, Mohammed Usman, Rameez Shahzad and Ghulam Shabbir became the first UAE cricketers to be given two-year, full-time deals.
All-rounder Amjad Javed, spinner Ahmed Raza, pacer Mohammed Naveed and veteran batsman Shaiman Anwar, who are in the UAE on work visas, are on the ECB’s books only as part-time professionals.
It was something that former coach Aaqib Javed had bemoaned since his troops, made up of amateur cricketers at the time, qualified for the 2015 World Cup for just the second time in their history, in February 2014.
It was the second ICC tournament the UAE had reached, having qualified for the 2014 World Twenty20.
The former Pakistan bowler worked wonders with his bunch of players who after completing their full-time jobs in the day would then put in the extra hours on the field on most evenings at the ICC Academy.
ECB soon took action by working on a central contracts plan.
— UAE Cricket Official (@EmiratesCricket) July 21, 2017
Planning for the new system went on for more than a year and during that period especially after their group stage exit at the 2015 World Cup, the team struggled.
They missed out on qualification for the 2016 World T20 and suffered ODI and four-day ICC Intercontinental Cup defeats to Hong Kong.
Yet, the potential was still there, as was shown in the Asia Cup 2016 where the UAE beat Afghanistan, Oman and Hong Kong in the qualifiers to secure the lone berth in the main tournament. They were lauded for their efforts despite defeats to India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh.
By the time the contracts were finally announced at the ICC Academy (ICCA), Javed was no longer at the helm having ended his four-year stay last May.
However, it was still the start of a new era and although the team enjoyed success as amateur cricketers, the new side could aim for sustained progress with the help of a ‘professional’ set-up.
“This is just the start. I’m sure this will help UAE cricket going forward,” said Waleed Bukhatir, chief selector and member of the ECB board during the press conference last July.
“We hope with this programme players will develop and take them to further heights.”
It means the team is now training five days a week for up to six hours a day, including skill development and fitness sessions at the ICCA in Dubai.
The transition from amateur to professionals was not a straightforward task with the players working with interim coaches – former England internationals Paul Franks and Owais Shah – as the ECB began their search for Javed’s successor.
Franks was winless in his three matches in charge during the Scotland tour in August 2016.
Then under Shah, the team won five games but suffered a group stage exit in the Desert T20, as well as series defeats to Afghanistan and England Lions.
Today, they are showing signs of their top form that once made them one of the best Associate sides in the world under Javed.
Former Warwickshire supremo Dougie Brown has come on board, previously as interim and now head coach. He has made an instant impact, winning 10 out of 13 games – including series wins against Papua New Guinea, Oman and the Netherlands.
It may have taken time to get positive results but Zayed Abbas, official spokesperson for the ECB and board member, insists things are moving in the right direction.
“It’s now paying back and things are changing,” he said. “If you see our results in the last year, our team has been doing much better. Of course we cannot expect overnight success but we are going in the right direction.”
He added: “The way we are working as a board and a team is a lot different to what it was in the past.
“When you have players who are professionals, it will be different to what it was when they were amateurs as you couldn’t expect much since they came in the evenings to train. Now you can see the players are winning and small steps are being taken.”
One major factor that has helped the national team grow is the ICCA. Players sweat it out at the state-of-the-art facility during their training sessions.
Also, the ICCA have been in a strategic partnership with the ECB, as part of their High Performance programme, since 2014. That means ICCA’s staff share their expertise with the UAE players and also help arrange matches with visiting teams who train at the venue while preparing for upcoming tours.
This has allowed the UAE to play against a variety of opponents including some of the English counties that toured during pre-season in March.
With the cricketers also putting in up to three hours in the gym a day under the watchful eyes of Peter Kelly – sports science lead at ICCA and UAE’s strength and conditioning coach – Will Kitchen has noticed a big change in the players’ fitness levels.
“Absolutely, it’s totally different,” said Kitchen, who oversees the High Performance programme and is the general manager of the ICCA. “We have got a group of highly-tuned athletes.
“When we took them on last June, they were talented players but weren’t playing on a daily basis. There are still areas to improve but I think we are getting to see the real benefits of the programme they’ve been undertaking.”
One player who has been there every step of the way – from being an amateur to a professional – is skipper Mustafa.
The 28-year-old all-rounder has played a pivotal role in the team’s recent surge and is pleased the hard work is beginning to pay off after a difficult start.
“After the Scotland tour, there were some saying there was no use in giving us contracts,” he said.
“I always believed you have to be patient and we are practising hard and working on our weaknesses. We have improved a lot and I’m 100-per-cent sure will be even better this time next year,” added the left-handed batsman.
Sharing that vision is Brown who has no doubt that having centrally contracted players is an “enormous” boost. “If you are working with part-time players the impact can be quite limited,” he said.
“You need to have a core of players to reinforce the team’s values and it’s really important for them to realise what they want to be. We are getting there and have seen that in the last 12 months.”