29 October 2019

Don't rewrite history, there were female boxers before Katie Taylor and Nicola Adams, says women's pioneer Jane Couch

Jane Couch the boxer was a multiple world champion, a pioneer in her sport and a woman unafraid to challenge convention.

Jane Couch the ex-boxer still doesn't pull any punches. Older and wiser, but still fiercely passionate about the sport that shaped who she is, she reveals today the reality of being a woman in a 'man's world', the battles she had outside the ring and her real concerns about the future of the sport she has fought so hard for.  

In an exclusive interview with NewsChain, she talks about:

  • the financial struggles throughout her career - 'It cost me to fight. My biggest purse was $2,500 and Barry Hearn [promoter] once gave me £500 over breakfast when he found out I was boxing for free on one of Prince Naseem Hamed's cards'
  • the mental pressure of her fighting career -"For a couple of years after I gave up I should probably have been in a mental hospital. I was like a robot. I had to relearn how to live a normal life'
  • the notion that the sport has improved for women - 'Get real. Tell the truth. Stop sugar-coating everything because it isn’t like that.'
  • transgender athletes entering women's boxing - 'I think that's going to be the next step, which will bury it, [women's boxing] the whole thing'

Jane Couch didn't become a boxer to make money. And, as she so candidly explains, that was a probably a good thing.

“It cost me to fight," she says frankly. "For the Sandra Geiger fight (her first world title victory), I was in the gym for 14 months. I never earned a penny and I wasn’t working. 

"It was being promoted in Denmark and kept getting cancelled so I had to just keep going, keep going, keep going, living with nothing for a year. 

"And then you get there, and I think I was given $1,000 and (after trainer, expenses etc were paid for) walked away with $150."

The Lancashire-born fighter estimates the highest purse of her career saw her walk away with $2,500, which came in a world title fight against Lucia 'The Most Dangerous Woman in the World' Rijker, on the undercard of Lennox Lewis vs Vitali Klitschko.

Elsewhere, she received just $500 for appearing on a show headlined by Roy Jones Jr, who at the time was widely considered the best boxer on the planet.

And then there was the occasion when she was paid £500 during breakfast by promoter Barry Hearn after he found out she was scheduled to be boxing for free on one of Prince Naseem Hamed's cards.

But it is these chapters of Couch's career that paved the way for today's female boxers, that opened the doors of opportunity and that have, for example, led to Katie Taylor topping the bill at the Manchester Arena in a title fight against Christina Linardatou this weekend.

And Taylor, one suspects, won't have to rely on a handout over her cornflakes.

"Mad, isn't it?," says Couch with a resigned chuckle.

“I still question myself now. Why did I keep going? Why did I keep doing it? I just can’t come up with the answer."

Her role as pioneer in her sport came via a two-year long court battle in the 1990s after the British Boxing Board of Control refused her a licence on the basis that she was a woman.

The legal action she took saw her claim sexual discrimination and eventually the decision was overturned in March 1998, despite the British Medical Association coming out afterwards with a statement saying it was 'a demented extension of equal opportunities'.

All these years - and an MBE in 2007 for services to sport - later, she remains sceptical that there is a majority body of support within the sport for women boxers, and recalls fighting her corner with promoters who she believed were against it throughout her career.

“I used to argue with Frank Warren and Frank Maloney that women are playing rugby, doing judo and taekwondo in the Olympics, what’s so bad about boxing? It’s still a contact sport," she says.

"And they couldn’t answer it. They just didn’t want to see women boxing."

Jane Couch, right, in her fight against Lucia Rijker, 'The Most Dangerous Woman in the World', in 2003 (PA Images)

However, Warren now promotes two-time Olympic gold medalist and newly-crowned WBO World Flyweight champion Nicola Adams and has gone on record saying he has changed his views on women's boxing.

Couch, nevertheless, remains adamant: "I really don't think things have changed," she says.

Now 51, she was a latecomer to the sport. She didn't box until the age of 26 when she saw a TV documentary about women's boxing and thought she'd give it a go.

Initially fighting in Muay Thai, combat sports gave her the focus and discipline which she had lacked earlier on in her life when she was expelled from her school in Blackpool.

And when she packed in the sport years later, the impact of lacking a primary goal reared its head once more.

She admits that for a couple of years after giving up she "probably should have been assigned to a mental hospital".

"I just didn’t know what to do," she says. "I’d been told when to get up, to train, to fight for 15 years and I was like a robot. I had to relearn how to live a normal life.

“There has got to be a connection between getting punched in the head and then retiring and having nervous breakdowns, anxiety, getting depressed. There’s got to be some sort of link there."

After dabbling in promoting and videography within boxing, Couch successfully 'relearned how to live a normal life' by keeping her distance from combat sports.

She settled down with her partner Brian, who she has now been with for nine years, and began to enjoy life again away from the crazy world of fighting.

But when one of the lawyers who fought her case back in the 90s, Sarah Leslie, died of breast cancer, Couch thought it fitting to honour her by releasing a new autobiography - 'The Final Round: The Autobiography of Jane Couch'.

Another reason she gives for doing the book is that she feels the history of women's boxing, and her part in it, is being airbrushed by TV coverage promoting the likes of Katie Taylor as the female face of the sport.

Jane Couch after receiving her MBE from Prince Charles in 2007 (PA Images)

“What about the history of women’s boxing? What about how it got started?," she says. 

"That was another reason (for the book), because when Sarah died I thought it was disrespectful - they fought so hard, the time put in to get it recognised.

“But maybe they (TV companies) don’t want to know. Maybe they want to build this model and say ‘that’s how we want it perceived and shown'.”

Taylor's and Nicola Adams' success at London 2012 and Rio 2016 have allowed them to be the torchbearers for women's boxing.

But underneath those two sits a pool of talented fighters who continue to struggle for the financial rewards, says Couch.

World championship bronze medalist and Olympic quarter-finalist Savannah Marshall rents out a flat in Manchester with 11-0 boxer Chantelle Cameron when the pair are training for bouts.

And Couch cites predicaments like theirs as examples of how women's boxing has not changed whatsoever for even some of the very best in the country.

“It’s criminal," she says. “Savannah has come out of the amateurs after being in an elite squad, boxing on Olympic teams against the best in the world, and she’s coming to rent a flat in Manchester.

“Move (boxing) on now and get the sport better, to a point where two ex-Olympians are not sharing a flat in Manchester trying to get by, negotiating travel home every weekend, where girls are getting fights cancelled because they haven’t sold enough tickets.

“Get real. Tell the truth. Stop sugar-coating everything because it isn’t like that."

Couch admits she 'feels sick' when she then has to hear Anthony Joshua and Deontay Wilder failing to negotiate a fight for a reported $100 million.

Jane Couch alongside former world heavyweight champion Vitali Klitschko (PA Images)

Another major concern for the former lightweight champion is the threat posed by transgender athletes moving from men's to women's boxing.

It is a trend seen recently with Rachel McKinnon in cycling and Laurel Hubbard in weightlifting.

But Couch, who rubbished claims that she tried to organise a bout between her and a male fighter years ago, believes it would be a grave mistake for boxing to allow transgender athletes to cross over to women's competition.

“It’s going to be an issue," she says. "If you’re born a male and you compete in a women’s sport then you’re going to win.

“Males are naturally stronger than women. They’ve got more testosterone, they’ve got what women haven’t got. It’s a dangerous time.

“I used to spar with a few of the lads in Bristol and even the top amateurs used to hurt me with a jab - a jab! And then I’d stand and have wars with journeymen, stand and have proper gym wars with them."

Irrespective of her concerns though, Couch believes there will come a time when a woman who has transitioned from being a man begins competing at an elite level in women's boxing.

“I think that’s going to be the next step which will then bury it (women's boxing), the whole thing," she adds.

"All of that court case, everything Katie Taylor is doing, all what the girls are doing, if that happened it would put women’s boxing back 50 years.

“It would be like putting the England women’s football team against the England men, it’s not even a competition. Skill, fitness and everything they work hard at, but it’s not the same. Men are built differently to women.”

Couch now lives a quieter life in Bristol and admits that she watches very little boxing outside of the big fights.

She does not have kids, but insists if she had a daughter who wanted to follow in her footsteps then it would be a mother's responsibility to "keep her away from the sharks" in boxing.

After a relatively short time in her company, she leaves you in little doubt that that's another fight she wouldn't shirk from, another battle she'd likely win.

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