Jane Couch: ‘I wish I hadn’t been the first in boxing ... I’m damaged’
“I just think I’m damaged, like really damaged,” Jane Couch says quietly as the tears roll down her face. She hunches over and her body shakes. This is the painful cost of being the pioneer of women’s boxing in Britain. Couch was the five-time world champion boxer who was barred from fighting in her own country. Just over 20 years ago the British Boxing Board of Control still insisted women were too emotionally unstable to box.
On my way to meet Couch I hear that Katie Taylor, the brilliant Irish boxer, will headline a bill at the Manchester Arena on 2 November with Anthony Crolla, a former world champion and much-loved Mancunian, on her undercard. Without Couch’s courage and defiance, Taylor would not be in this position.
Couch had to win a court case against the sport’s governing body to make British sporting history in August 1998. Bernard Buckley, the board’s solicitor, built his case on the claim that “many women suffer from premenstrual tension which makes them more emotional and more labile and accident-prone. They are too fragile to box and they bruise easily.”
But Couch had shown her mettle to win her first world title in only her fifth fight in 1996. She had flown to Denmark to face Sandra Geiger, the French world champion who came from a kickboxing background. Couch suffered a broken jaw, shattered cheekbone, fractured eye-socket, cracked ribs and a missing tooth but she still won a unanimous decision over 10 rounds. She and Geiger both ended up in hospital.
Her world titles and landmark legal victory were of little benefit to Couch. She still struggled to get fights and there were many times when she travelled abroad and, after brutal bouts, was not even paid. At home Couch was shunned by boxing promoters and mocked on television and in the tabloids.
I have known Couch since the late 1990s, when I first interviewed her, and she is one of the most admirable and kindest people I’ve met in boxing. She retired 10 years ago but today, as she relives the past trauma, her usual laughter is replaced by grief. When we take a break, because it’s so upsetting for her, Couch says simply: “I wish I hadn’t been the first. I wish I hadn’t gone through all that shit.”
Couch nods when I ask if it’s OK to continue. “I want to,” she says. “But if I had known what it would cost me I probably wouldn’t have done it. I gave up everything. I didn’t even get into a proper relationship until I was 41. I was my own worst enemy because I’d just argue with [promoters] Frank Maloney and Frank Warren. I’d be like: ‘I’m not frightened of you. Fuck the pair of you. I’ll fight in France, Germany or America.’”
The 51-year-old Couch looks up when I say her scars seem more like wounds. “I’m damaged,” she says again. “I didn’t think I was but the counsellors and doctors encourage you to talk. They say: ‘It’s good to get it out. If you hold it in, Jane, you’ll only do more damage.’”
She wipes her eyes and apologises for crying. Yet her tears are a sign of strength. They show her candour and fight. “I hope so. I just find it hard. It hurts my pride to talk this openly but I don’t think people realise the damage they did. Most of them had never met me and they’d call me a lesbian or a freak.”
At the heart of Couch’s engaging new book, The Final Round, she details the legal battle she waged against the boxing board which peddled views of women more suited to the 1890s than the 1990s. Her victory changed sport in this country but Couch shakes her head. “Don’t credit me with women’s boxing. All credit goes to them two women [who represented her]. Sarah Leslie, the solicitor who died of breast cancer at 42, and Dinah Rose, the top sex-discrimination barrister in the country by a mile. We were all young and one of the journalists wrote that we looked like three lesbians. I apologised to Dinah and Sarah because they’re middle-class women. They went: ‘Jane, it’s terrible.’ I was like: ‘This isn’t that bad compared to what I’ve been through.’
“Dinah messed them up because they thought she was going only on sex discrimination. She used that but focused on restraint of trade. I was already a double world champion and the board was stopping me making a living in this country. We won but, when I got the licence, I thought: ‘It will be all right now.’ The abuse got worse. Dinah knew it would happen. We left the press conference after the court case. She put her arms around me and goes: ‘I don’t want to tell you this, but your fight’s just beginning.’”
Couch’s eyes are clear again. “I know what she means now. I’d be on TV shows like Richard and Judy and they would have phone-ins for people to vote. ‘Is she a freak? Should she be allowed to box?’ When people keep calling you a freak you think, ‘Maybe I am?’ Three years before I retired I would just sit on my own, crying. I couldn’t see a way out.”
A year after she retired, in 2008, Couch had a breakdown. “I was very down. I didn’t want to go out. I was having panic attacks. Other women fighters were sending me messages about their problems. I had pains in my chest like I was having a heart attack.”
A friend took Couch to hospital and “this amazing lady doctor told me I was having a panic attack. I was like: ‘How can I have a panic attack? I’m not scared of anything.’ I told her what I did and she said: ‘You’ve got to bury boxing otherwise this will always haunt you.’”
Couch held a private little funeral for her boxing career in a graveyard. She tried to bury it, at least in her head if not the ground below her feet. It was an important symbolic step. “That night I slept properly for the first time. I started to think differently but it took two years on the [anti-depressant] pills. Now I’m getting counselling and I’ve been off the pills for eight months. I’m feeling brilliant.”
Writing her book, and talking about it, has been distressing but Couch knows this is the road to lasting peace. “I wasn’t a skilful boxer. I fought with my heart. I learned that in the gym because I had to be tough – sparring with boys. Those first days in the gym were bad. They’d say: ‘Fuck off, you’re a girl.’ They laughed at me. They’re all skipping brilliant and I’m tripping over the rope. I could hear them laughing but I was thinking: ‘I’ll show you.’”
Couch laughs at her youthful audacity. Before her first world title fight against Geiger she trained for nine months and sparred against well-known male professionals such as Glen Catley and Dean Francis. “Glen was a serious puncher but he was good with me. They were all good with me but they still hit me. They’d be no good to me if they didn’t. They taught me to fight back when you’re hurt.”
Geiger was so well-known in France that, as Couch says, “The president of France [Jacques Chirac] was there when we fought. He gave her the belt but she took a hell of a beating. We both did. I had a metal plate in my cheekbone and I was pissing blood for three weeks after.”
Not one line about her becoming world champion was written in the national press or mentioned on radio or television. “I thought I was going to get mobbed at the airport but no one was there. I got Boxing News that next Friday. I was all excited but there was nothing. My manager shrugged. ‘They don’t do women’s boxing.’ He was as bad as them. A week later he said: ‘You’ve got a defence in New Orleans.’ I didn’t even want to go back to the gym but I convinced myself.”
Couch cleared £200, after expenses were deducted, for winning the world title. But the New Orleans promoter said he had no money to pay her after she won another hard fight. At least she ended up having Angelo Dundee, Muhammad Ali’s trainer, and the great former world champion Matthew Saad Muhammad helping in her corner. Couch also talks about the kindness of Marvin Hagler and Lennox Lewis, and her friendships with Frank Bruno and Ricky Hatton. But her love of boxing has soured.
“I wasn’t right a few years before I retired. I went on too long. We did the brain scan. They said: ‘Oh, you’ve had a slight alteration.’ I knew that meant brain damage. They said: ‘If you carry on taking blows it will get progressively worse.’ That’s why I retired.”
Does she feel any side-effects now? “Yeah. The memory’s a bit bad. But that’s most fighters, isn’t it? Physically I’m not too bad but I became institutionalised, I think, to the other damage.”
Many former fighters suffer from depression and Couch believes “boxing is definitely a factor. So many of my old sparring partners are in prison or on drugs or alcoholics. There’s got to be some connection with boxing when you look at all the lads in jail or on drugs.”
Couch’s toughest fight was against Lucia Rijker in Los Angeles in 2003. Rijker is arguably the greatest female boxer in history and Couch survived 10 rounds despite having an eardrum perforated. “I thought I was brain-damaged because there was a roaring in my head and my balance was totally gone. I was swallowing blood and it made a cracking sound. I thought: ‘Seven rounds to go. The damage is done. I might as well carry on.’”
After all the pain she suffered for such little reward does she feel any envy when hearing about Taylor’s headlining show? “Not a bit because I’ve buried it all now. What Katie’s done for boxing and women in Ireland is massive. I know because my fella’s Irish. She’s a superstar and that’s how it should be. It just wasn’t like that for me – or most women boxers today. I had a girl telling me her fight’s been cancelled because she didn’t sell enough tickets. That’s more typical of women’s boxing. It’s even been tough for Nicola Adams.”
When she won gold at the London Olympics in 2012, Adams made a point of acknowledging her success would not have been possible without Couch carving out a path before her. British boxing’s great female pioneer is still fighting to win her own battle to overcome everything that boxing did to her. Does she feel as if she is winning?
“I’m getting there,” she says with a little smile. “I’ve been with my partner Brian for nine years. We’re so happy. It’s helping me find a way out of boxing. It’s hard – but I’m happy when I’m not talking about boxing.”
Jane Couch’s The Final Round is published by Pitch