The burden, or the bulk of it anyway, is always placed on the shoulders of the challenger. In boxing, as in life itself, Australian super-bantamweight sensation Shannon O’Connell knows this all too well. It is, as a matter of fact, why she fights.
According to recent pieces that ran in The Courier-Mail, O’Connell had mapped out a three-week pugilistic itinerary which would have brought her first to Buenos Aires, Argentina for a world title shot on June 6 and, win or lose, back home to fight (and potentially defend her new belt) on the undercard of Manny Pacquiao’s welterweight championship showdown against her countryman, undefeated and unheralded Jeff Horn, on July 2 at Brisbane’s Suncorp Stadium.
Shannon’s audacious travel plans were thrown helter-skelter when Marcela Eliana Acuna, current IBF Super-Bantamweight Champion and six-time world title-holder, requested a ten-day postponement. Aware that the delay would make the already tight turnaround time for the following fight an impossible schedule to keep, the choice was an agonizing one to make. Challenge for a world championship in South America or withdraw to take a non-title fight before 55,000 fanatical fellow Aussies?
“I’m actually still fighting Acuna and I’m not on the Pac-Horn card,” O’Connell confirmed for me this past Saturday. “I’m fighting June 16 in Argentina. We tried to get her over here for the Pac-Horn card but they didn’t want to come so it went to purse bid which they won.”
I had decided to conduct an independent fact-finding mission to satisfy my own curiosity, going straight to the source to follow up on the Courier-Mail articles which contradicted this turn of events, and Shannon was happy to set the record straight. “Yeah that story was wrong,” said O’Connell. “It was a huge decision but fighting the best in the world for a world title is the right choice.”
A twenty-year veteran of the prize ring, Marcela Acuna lost her first two fights which can be forgiven when you take into consideration that they occurred against Christy Martin and Lucia Rijker, both in their primes and destined for an ultimately ill-fated head-to-head skirmish. The knockout she sustained at Rijker’s hands remains her only stoppage loss and Marcela, whose record stands at 45-6-1 and is ranked #4 worldwide among current female boxers, has been defeated only four times since then with Brooklyn’s Alicia ‘Slick’ Ashley responsible for two conquests which Acuna would avenge in their rubber match six years later.
After the Martin and Rijker fights, both of which took place in the U.S., Acuna toughed out a split decision victory over Jamillia Lawrence in Argentina’s first sanctioned women’s bout on April 28, 2001 and has ventured outside of her home country on only four subsequent occasions, three of them in Uruguay.
Maybe the reason Marcela was hesitant to tussle with Shannon in O’Connell’s backyard is rooted in the fact that Acuna’s only other trip Down Under resulted in her being beaten by unanimous decision for the vacant WBC World Featherweight Title by Queensland’s Sharon ‘Wild Thing’ Anyos at the Gold Coast Convention Centre back in 2005.
While it would be an oversimplification to suggest that it always boils down to this, a fighter’s affinity for home cooking measured against the tendency to dip his or her toes into untested and possibly troubled waters does appear to vary considerably on an individual basis. The 15-4-1 O’Connell, a 34 year-old mother of two who owns and operates Shotgun Boxing and Fitness in her home town of Slacks Creek, has exhibited a willingness to go where the opportunities take her.
This includes a pair of successful outings to neighboring New Zealand, the second of which had her sharing an undercard with Jeff Horn this past December the same night that Joseph Parker captured the vacant WBO Heavyweight Title from Andy Ruiz Jr. at Spark Arena in Auckland.
Shannon’s adventurous spirit brought her to Seoul, South Korea on May 8, 2013 where she came out on the short end of a close decision against WBA World Featherweight Champion Hyun Mi Choi, but claimed the vacant WBF Featherweight belt just seven weeks later in Mpumalanga, South Africa by firing away at Gabisile Tshabalala with vicious body shots which caused her to be removed from the ring on a stretcher. Tshabalala would not fight again for two years.
In September 2015, O’Connell flew to Toronto, Canada to take on Sandy Tsagouris, outpointed over eight rounds in a non-televised preliminary bout on a PBC on Spike broadcast featuring Errol Spence Jr. and Adonis Stevenson in the co-main events.
“I guess fighting in Argentina isn’t ideal for me because I may not get fair judging but I just have to hope that it is. I’m told that the IBF are a very fair organization and so far, they have been good,” contends O’Connell for whom fair play has not always been reciprocal. “I have been the mandatory for other organizations before and they have never made anything happen the way the IBF did for us.”
Though she has since secured and twice defended the WBC Silver Super-Bantamweight belt and was once a short-time possessor of the WIBA Super-Bantamweight championship formerly held by Marcela Acuna during its seemingly perpetual changing of hands, Shannon has been, until now, repeatedly shunted aside in favor of others for bigger and better opportunities, much to the chagrin of her manager and promoter Lynden Hosking who lobbies tirelessly on her behalf.
Nonetheless, she seems to grudgingly accepts this as part and parcel of professional boxing’s complicated package deal while maintaining a dedication to her rugged workout regimen equal to that of the determination to her pursuit of winning a world title recognized by a major sanctioning body. Her upcoming excursion to Argentina to put Acuna through her paces will be O’Connell’s third attempt to do so in the wake of her aforementioned defeat to Hyun Mi Choi and having been knocked out for the first and only time in her six-year career by WBC Super-Featherweight Champion and fellow Australian Diana Prazak in 2014.
“One thing I can tell you for sure is Acuna has never been in the type of fight I will give her,” Shannon vowed. O’Connell is renowned for her aggressive work ethic tempered by cool composure, exemplary hand speed, and crisp counter-punching. She was game to continue a 2015 fight opposite Dayana Cordero despite being hit blatantly after the bell ending the second round and enduring a head clash in the third that quickly turned the bout into a bloodbath, distraught when it was stopped on doctor’s orders with insufficient time elapsed to go to the judges’ scorecards for an official verdict. “I’m not scared of her,” Shannon said of Acuna, “and I’m definitely not scared of getting hurt in there.”
Taken at face value, this declaration may sound like typical promotional ballyhoo. For O’Connell, however, whose father Kevin died in a motorcycle accident at Speedway City in Adelaide when she was just two years old, only to then have her grief-stricken mother succumb to a drug overdose after resorting to sleeping pills and heroin to numb the indescribable pain, her instinct toward self-preservation is unavoidable and visceral.
“Life outside the ring has hurt me way more than any battle inside the ring has and I’ve been in a few wars in there,” theorized O’Connell, who has admitted to having gotten involved with “party drugs” when she was younger before unfavorable comparisons made between her and her mother served as inspiration to refocus what she calls her “obsessive compulsive” personality on a new addiction: boxing.
Compounding the customary pressures and preparations entailed in training for a fight, she revealed to me that “last week my grandfather died who was more like a father to me, so things have been a little more full-on than normal.”
When I commended Shannon on her formidable strength and resilience, she stated simply, “Sometimes you have no choice. Boxing is my escape.”