Quite apart from the vastly different rule sets, it has always struck me that one of the biggest differences between boxing and grappling is the swiftness at which punishment is handed out. 

Whereas boxing can provide an instant penalty for dropping a hand or reaching for a punch, the consequences of making a mistake in grappling are usually more akin to stepping into quicksand.

Yes, you may have an extra second or two to attempt an escape from a submission or to figure out how to get out from under a good grappler’s painfully suffocating side control but that means you also have plenty of time to question exactly what you’re doing and why you chose to do this with your life.

World super middleweight champion, Savannah Marshall, will have found herself wondering what she is doing plenty of times during preparations for her Mixed Martial Arts debut but, so far, she has always found the answers. 

“I’m absolutely loving it. I’d not had enough of boxing but I’d done it for so long, I felt like I needed something new, to learn a new skill. I love it. Especially the grappling and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu [BJJ]. I think that’ll be something I’ll carry on doing when I retire from boxing,” she told BoxingScene.

“It’s a brilliant sport. I’m a bit disappointed I never found it sooner.”

The cage door will close behind Marshall at the PFL’s event in Newcastle on June 8th. 

If she has fallen in love with her new sport, the move was initially calculated to corner her long time rival, Claressa Shields, into a third meeting. Shields has been competing in the PFL since 2021. 

Marshall famously inflicted the only defeat on Shield’s entire boxing career during an amateur contest back in 2012 but, a decade later, the outstanding American won a competitive but unanimous decision against Marshall to claim the undisputed middleweight title. Despite the pair’s long running rivalry and the shallow talent pool in the women’s middle and super middleweight divisions, talks for a third fight never really built any momentum.

With the prospect of a professional rematch fading, Marshall moved up to 168lbs and beat Franchon Crews Dezurn for the undisputed super middleweight title last July. A month later she followed Shields’ lead and signed a deal with the PFL.

Had there been another belt to chase at super middleweight or a high profile, attractive challenger waiting in the wings, Marshall would have been tempted to stay in boxing until she had conquered the division but with all four belts in her trophy cabinet and a dearth of legitimate opponents, the chance to fight Shields again - in any discipline - was too good to turn down.

“It was just the opportunity. I’d won all the belts at super middleweight. The rematch in the ring with Claressa wasn’t happening and it didn’t look like it was going to happen. The PFL came to me and asked if I’d be interested in having an MMA fight and a potential fight in the cage with Claressa,” she said.

“If they’d come to me and said, ‘Would you be interested in signing a contract to be part of our league?’ I wouldn’t have been interested at all. I wouldn’t have been interested in getting in there with girls who’ve got 10 or 15 years experience in BJJ and wrestling and can turn their hand to a number of disciplines. The carrot they were dangling in front of me was a fight with Claressa in the cage. Yes, she’s had three or four fights and she’s a lot more experienced but she hasn’t got two years worth or wrestling or a black belt in BJJ. It kind of evens it out a bit.”

Shields has built a 2-1 MMA record against moderate opposition using a boxing heavy style. The three-weight world champion scored a third round TKO on her debut but lost a split decision a few months later. In February, she returned to MMA and won a split decision.

“I think the thing is with that is that nobody’s ever really come close to beating her so she’s never had to change her style. I think maybe she’s carried that mentality in there,” Marshall said. “‘Why should I have to change my style?’ I think she’d probably struggle. You’ve done something all of your life that’s worked for her so why would you then start changing things? I can kind of see why she is fighting in MMA the way she is.”

Marshall has, however, been surprised by just how little effect Shields’ outstanding hands have had in the cage. 

“They have. They really have. I was at her last fight in Saudi Arabia and there were times when I thought she had her opponent [Kelsey De Santis] out on her feet but there were times I thought, ‘Why haven’t you finished her? Why haven’t you gone again?’ Then you have to throw in the whole, ‘The takedown could be coming.’ I felt like she was a little bit stand-offish and a little bit wary which I totally get because you aren’t just looking for shots coming back.”

There is much, much more to MMA than just grappling - checking a kick from a Thai boxer is no fun whatsoever - but those takedowns pose the biggest threat to Marshall’s chances of success in MMA and are the reason why so few professional boxers attempt what Shields and Marshall are doing. 

Despite the popularity of MMA there is still a lack of understanding of just how long it takes to become even an average grappler. 

It is often said that there are levels in boxing and the same is true in grappling. It should take around 18 months of consistent training in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu to take the first step up the ladder and be deemed proficient enough to wear a blue belt. It can take around a decade to earn a coveted black belt and even then, the truly elite black belts operate on an entirely different level.

It is no different than watching a Floyd Mayweather, Roy Jones or Vasyl Lomachenko humiliate legitimate world class opposition in the ring.

Back in 2005 and less than a week after becoming the greatest grappler on the planet by submitting all eight opponents to win both the heavyweight and open weight classes at the famed Abu Dhabi Combat Club submission fighting championships, the great Brazilian, Roger Gracie, found himself at a wrestling club in Greater Manchester.

Gracie invited every single grappler in the building to spar and then laughed and joked whilst playfully submitting them all, one after the other, within seconds.

Still, some people are naturally gifted. MMA legend,  BJ Penn, miraculously earned his black belt just three years after first stepping onto the mats.

“I don’t know about that,” Marshall laughed. “What I can feel more in this sport, though, is that I’m very naturally strong. I knew I was strong anyway but there’s a lot more pushing and pulling. In boxing, you’d feel their strength more through a punch or in a hold. In this, you can feel it when they’re on top of you.

“My hands, my grips and knuckles are all really feeling it from gripping the gi [the heavy cotton suit worn in BJJ].”

Marshall may already have a favourite submission - the rear naked choke - but is extremely early in her grappling journey and will be concentrating on staying upright and using her boxing skills rather than fighting off her back and setting up triangle chokes or gogoplatas. But - as Shields’ career has shown - that in itself is a complex puzzle for even the most talented boxer to piece together. 

“I think the hardest thing to me has been transitioning my boxing stance. What would benefit me in boxing doesn’t benefit me in MMA. You’re a lot more square on, your weight has to be over the front foot. It was a total overhaul for me,” she said.

“Being a boxer before I stepped into this world, I’d watch MMA and think, ‘Jesus, their hands are terrible. How are they getting caught with those shots?’ Doing it myself, I get it. I can see it.”

For the time being, Marshall only has eyes for MMA but whether this will be a permanent change of sports is something she won’t be able to make an informed decision on until the whole experience is over. 

“I think everyone’s got a plan until they get hit in the face with a four ounce glove.”