Jane Couch began her boxing career in another era altogether. In the week in which the brilliant Nicola Adams retired, it is worth remembering that it was Couch, not Adams, who was Britain’s first female world champion. Though you could be forgiven for not knowing her name. Couch was never much acclaimed in her homeland for the achievement. Because, when she began as a fighter, obliged to spar with men in secret locations, women in Britain were banned from participating in the sport.
“I won my first title [the WIBF light welterweight] in Denmark,” Couch recalls, as she sits in a cafe in Soho. “I was fighting the champion who was French [Sandra Geiger]. She was such a star in France the French president turned up, thinking he was going to present her with the belt. When I won I thought the airport was going to be full of reporters when I came back. There was nobody. I was the unknown champ.”
The only person who approached her after her success was a lawyer called Sarah Leslie, who suggested she could pursue a case against the British Boxing Board of Control for restraint of trade. Couch took the board to court and watched her all-female legal team jab relentlessly at boxing’s bosses as they attempted to defend their ban.
At one point, Leonard “Nipper” Read, the policeman who had convicted the Kray twins and was then the BBBC’s president, was asked what he would do if he was on a plane and learnt that the pilot was female. His response was he would ascertain if she was having her period and if so he would disembark because women are mentally unstable when menstruating. If they are that dangerous, was the response of Couch’s counsel, thank goodness we do not put them in charge of child care.
This, incidentally, was not the 1950s. The court case took place in March 1998.
“I know, it was mad. It was 20 years after we’d elected a female prime minister and they were still saying that about women,” Couch says. “First off Nipper Read’s defence was you can’t have female boxers because it’s a sport you have to go topless in. As if vests had never been invented. He looked so stupid.”
It was no surprise that the court found in Couch’s favour: the board had to back down and allow women into the ring.
“So many people think women’s boxing began in this country with the 2012 Olympics,” she says. “But actually it began 14 years before that thanks to the efforts of my lawyers. They were just brilliant.”
Though if Couch believed that legitimacy would turn her into a sporting celebrity, her subsequent experience proved rather different.
“I thought I’d have promoters beating a path to my door,” she admits, with a wry smile. “But the board hated what happened so much and the promoters had to be in with the board, so they thought it wasn’t worth their while backing me.
“I did one fight at Wembley. And that was it. I ended up having to promote myself. I actually staged one world title defence in a pub in Bristol. It wasn’t televised or anything. I don’t think anyone knew it was going on.”
For Couch, boxing was no path to riches. All too often, she found herself in the ring without any payment whatsoever.
“I made no money from being a pioneer,” she admits. “Once I boxed on the same bill as Prince Naseem Hamed at the Staples Centre in LA. I was talking to Barry Hearn, his promoter, beforehand and told him, ‘I’m doing this for free’. He said: ‘You can’t box for free’. He was that embarrassed, he put his hand in his pocket and gave me $500 on the spot.”
For a long time squatting in a gym in Bristol, she was so financially restricted, she found herself frequently hungry; often she did not have enough money even for a bottle of water after training. Lack of reward, however, did not curtail her efforts. Or reduce the injuries. In her first title triumph alone she broke her nose, her jaw, lost two teeth and had to have a metal plate inserted into her cheek. “All for £200,” she says.
Eventually, in 2009 at the age of 40, she was obliged to retire after a scan revealed damage to her brain. Her retirement was not, initially, a contented one. Pursued by a sense of guilt, she suffered a breakdown.
“It was like you’d done something wrong,” she says of her career. “Even with my own parents I felt embarrassed, like I was the bad guy. After we won the case, the press really turned against me. There was one boxing correspondent who slagged me off at every opportunity. I’d be called an animal, a freak, barbaric for a woman. I spent my whole life feeling like I was in the wrong. In the end it all came crashing down on me.”
She came out of her post-retirement depression by the simple process of staging a funeral for her career.
“It was my therapist’s idea,” she explains. “I went along to a cemetery, dug a hole and put a box in it and said a few words. I thought at first, this is stupid. But it worked.” So much so that when her friend, Paul Speak, Ricky Hatton’s manager, suggested she write a book about her experience, she was happy to go back over territory that once caused her so much anguish.
“Jane was our friend, but Ricky and I had no idea what she was going through,” Speak, who is now her adviser, says. “She always seemed happy and vibrant. We never knew how she was being exploited. She never made any money.”
“Every time I saw Paul and Ricky I wanted to tell them, but I couldn’t,” Couch adds. “I was embarrassed that I was hungry.”
The book was published in September. And since then she has found herself, for the first time in her life, hot property. A bidding war is under way for the rights to turn it into a movie. That was why she was in Soho ahead of this interview: she and Speak are negotiating with production companies. The interest is understandable. The story of Jane Couch, boxing pioneer, is an extraordinary one.
“The Final Round” by Jane Couch is published by Pitch and is available now.