Boxing’s female revolution would do well to remember pioneer Jane Couch who helped build the Promised Land

Steve Bunce

Claressa Shields and Jane Couch could have fought each other had Shields been fighting when Couch was breaking barriers, upsetting people and boxing any woman with a pulse.

This last weekend in Bristol, Couch, now 51, was told her recent autobiography would be made into a film, and in Atlantic City on Friday night, Shields became the first boxer in history to win world titles at three separate weights after just ten professional fights; she won two consecutive gold medals at the Olympics and fought 78 times as an amateur with just the one loss, so please don’t imagine she is a novice.

Shields was only 17 when she was beaten at the World Championships in China by Hartlepool’s Savannah Marshall in 2012 – the pair might fight each other as professionals later this year. Marshall, having turned professional with Floyd Mayweather in Las Vegas, is now back in Britain and unbeaten in eight fights.

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Shields belongs to a far more understanding time for women in boxing, but in Couch’s boxing world she had to fight whoever was put in front of her and get paid whatever was offered. There were times when it was a real struggle to get the money, times when she never got the money. There were times when the money never covered costs and there were fights that no boxer in his or her right mind should have taken. Couch, you see, was fearless and the film just might work if it can avoid the martyrdom.

Couch moved up and down in weights, chasing respect, the money and a good old fashion scrap. She went the full eight rounds losing on points to Lucia Rijker, arguably the greatest ever female boxer; Couch also fought female boxing royalty, Myriam Lamare and Holly Holm. I would argue that Lamare, Rijker and Holm are all better than any of the ten women Shields has so far beaten. Yes, Couch did move in that type of company.

Couch was given a British Boxing Board of Control licence to fight in 1998 after a futile legal case to deny her and now there are 39 women holding a Board licence to fight. Couch was a brave pioneer, but not the only one: Barbara Buttrick in the Fifties and Sue Atkins in the Eighties had harder struggles for respect.

Atkins, a gardener from south London, led an early revolution and became a poster-girl for the dirty-mac brigade, who did their best to hijack her honest intentions by packing out her shows with wandering perverts. It is a lost piece of British boxing history, equally tacky, incredible and compelling.

The world that Couch found when she turned professional in 1994 was unrecognisable to the sport now; three of Couch’s first four opponents had never had a fight and would never have a fight again after losing to her, and in her fifth fight she won a version of the world title against a woman having her second fight. That’s not a sporting business, that’s just a novelty, but Couch did make the British business of boxing for women legitimate eventually by simply refusing to listen to critics. Frank Maloney, now the glamorous Kellie, was one of her main adversaries, and that nastiness continues. Couch also accepted truly hard fights, avoiding nobody. Kellie is now back in boxing looking after Northern Ireland’s first professional female boxer, Cathy McAleer.

There is a British woman now fighting that reminds me a little bit of Couch and her name is Terri Harper, who at the start of February in Sheffield will fight for a real world title against a very real champion; Harper is only 23 and will be having just her tenth fight. Harper, however, has been matched hard in her short career and that is because there are women out there for her to learn from – Couch had no options when she started over 27 years ago.

Harper fights Finland’s Eva Wahlstrom for the WBC super-featherweight title, and Wahlstrom’s only loss in 26 fights was on points to Katie Taylor at Madison Square Garden in 2018. Taylor is the best female boxer in our business right now and has three massive fights planned for 2020 – if they come off, and she wins all three, she will be the best boxer of any sex in 2020.

Make no mistake, the 2020 women’s revolution is like a fairy tale to Jane Couch and not necessarily a good one – all sportsmen and women hate missing out on a lucrative golden age. This current business is something that Couch could have only dreamed of when she was scrapping. It is also a Promised Land she helped create and Shields and Taylor and Harper all owe her a little bit for their careers.

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