Boxing: Silent assassin who lets her fists do the talking

Savannah Marshall doesn't say much but she's spreading the word for women's boxing before it makes its Olympic debut in 2012

They say about young ladies that it is the quiet ones who often turn out to be the tigresses, and they certainly don't come much quieter than Savannah Marshall. The 19-year-old six-footer from Hartlepool may be a woman of few words – that's why they call her "The Silent Assassin" – but her fists certainly do any necessary talking. She has stopped or KO'd almost half of her 28 opponents and is tipped to be Britain's biggest hit when women's boxing makes its Olympic debut in London two years hence.

First, though, she is due to demonstrate her phenomenal punching power in the World Championships which begin in Barbados this week. It is the biggest-ever female fight-fest since they first swapped lip gloss for gumshields, and Marshall is one of a trio of battling Boadiceas, alongside her fellow Hartlepudlian Amanda Coulson, 28, who boxes at lightweight, and the Leeds flyweight Nicola Adams, 27.

All are members of the seven-strong GB squad which has been assembled to vie for the three available Olympic berths. Although the hard-hitting Marshall boxes at welterweight in Barbados she is being groomed to move up to the Olympic middleweight category of 75kg for 2012.

Women boxers have punched a hole through old prejudices, but their presence remains a contentious issue in some chauvinistic corners. Vitali Klitschko says the mere thought of it makes him want to throw up and Amir Khan can't bring himself to watch it, saying women should stick to tennis. But like it or lump it, it is here to stay, as several hundred female fighters from 70 nations will show when their World Championships begin at the Garfield Sobers Stadium on Thursday.

All of which is especially good news for Coulson, Marshall's mentor and one-time suffragette of sock who looked more a candidate for the catwalk than a ring walk while helping to clobber the early hostility in Britain. She is now rewarded for her pioneering spirit with a deserved place in the Caribbean sun. Adams, who won a silver medal in the last World Championships two years ago, has returned from injury to box with distinction in recent overseas tournaments and may well win another medal.

The anticipated star of the show is the redoubtable Irish girl Katie Taylor, at 24 a two-times world lightweight champion and women's football international. But it could be that Marshall will steal her thunder, despite the loss – only the second of her career – when she forfeited her European Union title to home boxer Blanka Nagy in Hungary a couple of months ago.

It was a final that could have gone either way, though Marshall acknowledges it as a fair result and vows to do better in Barbados. At least, that's what we think she told us, because she doesn't say much at all; when she does, it is in an almost inaudible whisper.

It isn't that she is either timid or taciturn. She's simply painfully shy, preferring the gift of the jab to that of the gab, a rarity in boxing where the ability to jaw as well as war is an inherent part of the game.

So more often than not it is left to her Headland Club coach, Tim Coulter, to speak up for her. He says: "When Savannah first came to the gym she was a shy little girl all by herself. I told her she would be treated exactly the same as the lads and I expected her to disappear quick. Six years on and she has changed a lot of people's views around here, including my own.

"I wasn't a fan of female boxing and I thought we'd soon get rid of her. So I put her in sparring with one of the decent lads and what surprised me the most was her aggression. When I got a glimpse of her face as she was going in for the attack it was a bit of a shock.

"None of the lads have held back on her. When they come from other clubs they say: 'I'm not sparring with a lass, am I?' But by the end of the first round they're trying to take her head off. You forget it's a female when someone's punching you hard in the face. There's no reason why she can't be Olympic champion. I've been saying for a long time that the sky's the limit."

Marshall won all 10 of her junior fights, was a European gold medallist in her fifth senior contest and once knocked down a leading male amateur, Steve Hart, in a sparring session. "She hits like a lad," Hart recalls ruefully. "She certainly changed my mind about women's boxing."

Marshall blushes modestly as you painfully extract the information that the punch was a body shot, her speciality. Clearly she doesn't like to boast about her accomplishments, believing her actions in the ring, where she boxes with a maturity beyond her years, speak louder than any words.

If it happens, she will embrace stardom reluctantly, baulking at the suggestion that she could become a household name should she win in the Olympics. "I don't know about that," she murmurs at the magnificently equipped GB squad training HQ at the English Institute of Sport in Sheffield. "I don't really believe in the stuff people say. Whatever happens, happens. I'm still learning."

Marshall has put on hold a proposed Teesside University course in sports science to concentrate on her boxing career. "I just live for boxing, there's nothing else," she says. "I never did much of that going out and drinking so I don't really miss it now."

For her, that was quite a mouthful. My hunch is that while we might not hear much more from this lanky, likely lass with fire in her fists, we will certainly be hearing quite a lot more about her. After all, silence is golden.

Message from an icon: Amanda Coulson

"When I started boxing 13 years ago, there was a lot of negative feedback. They didn't want girls in the gym. But they got over that initial shock – that a woman wanted to box – and have accepted Savannah like they eventually accepted me.

I already knew her through our families. She has been boxing for six years and has real ability. She is not that fast but she hits really hard, punching like a man with punishing body shots.

She's a fantastic athlete who tried most sports as a youngster and will naturally grow into the 75kg division.

Really she's just a kid at the moment and the fact that she is so shy and laid back could be a positive thing because there's less pressure if you take it all in your stride as she does. Some people could fall apart thinking about the Olympics all the time.

There are seven of us in the GB squad and we are all good friends. We get on really well and back each other but at the end of the day it is an individual sport and you are in there doing what you do for yourself.

We all have the same goal, the 2012 London Olympics. The inclusion of women's boxing in London is fantastic. A few years ago, no one was interested but now they accept it and are on our side.

Attitudes have changed for the better. Now they see us as boxers, not just female boxers. We are athletes just like the men.

But to think that there are two girls from Hartlepool taking part in the World Amateur Championships and who are potential Olympians, well, that's just amazing."

Amanda Coulson, 28, is a three-time women's ABA champion and European Union silver medallist. She was one of the pioneers of women's boxing in the UK and is Great Britain's lightweight representative in the World Amateur Championships in Barbados

British Olympic Association

The British Olympic Association (BOA), formed in 1905, are the national Olympic committee for Great Britain and Northern Ireland. They prepare and lead the nation's finest athletes at the summer, winter and youth Olympic Games, and deliver world-leading services to enable success for athletes and their national governing bodies. For further information, go to: olympics.org.uk

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