Boxing: Fight night for the history woman

Britain stages its first female professional boxing this week. By Nick Halling
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THERE have probably been more than a few punch-ups at Caesar's nightclub in Streatham over the years, but none with quite the magnitude as that planned for Wednesday night when Jane Couch will take on the German Sabine Lucik over six two-minute rounds, thereby becoming the first woman in history to box professionally in the UK on a bill with male boxers.

It promises to be a special night for Couch, who took up the sport four years ago, quickly securing the Women's International Boxing Federation's world welterweight title, before finding that her toughest fight lay outside the ring. The British Boxing Board of Control banned her from professional promotions in the UK, arguing that the sport was more dangerous for women than men. Following a 13-month legal dust-up, that decision was ruled unlawful and Couch duly received her licence.

"To be honest I'm wondering what all the fuss is about," the 30-year- old one-time Blackpool rock packer and punk rock hooligan said. "I'm trying to treat it as if it's just another fight, but I suppose I can't escape the fact that I'm making history. All I want is for people to see it for what it is, and give me the same respect they give male boxers."

The quest for credibility in a traditionally macho world has given Couch meaning in a life previously devoid of it. Raised in Fleetwood, she was by her own admission a wild one, escaping the drudgery of packing boxes in drink, drugs and brawling. When she tells you that without boxing she might be dead by now, she is simply stating a fact.

"One day I saw some women boxing on television, and I hadn't realised we were allowed to do it," she said. "But watching it, I just knew I could fill both of them in." She joined the respected trainer Tex Woodward on his farm in Bristol, where she learned the distinction between fighting and boxing. Then in only her fifth contest, in May 1996, Couch duly filled in the French woman Sandra Gieger in Denmark to claim her world title, successfully defending it in New Orleans in March.

Still, however, credibility has been elusive, her skill and dedication to the fight game causing unease. "I've been told that I should be doing the washing up, and looking after the kids, but I haven't got any kids," she said. "Mind you, I might meet a hunky man, fall in love, and be pregnant this time next year, you never know. But what really annoys me is the stuff like this woman journalist who asked me if we really hit each other. I'm in the gym three times a day, away from my home and family, and it's bloody hard at times. I've given up everything for boxing."

Having been counted out in the legal ring, the Boxing Board are, to their credit, now supportive of their sole female licensee. "We were against women boxing purely on medical grounds," said the general secretary, John Morris. "The advice of our medical panel was rejected and we have to go along with that with the best possible grace. I will be there on Wednesday night and I'm looking forward to it."

Morris has also entered into the spirit of the occasion by naming Judith Rolleston as the steward in charge of the bill, the first time a woman has ever been in charge of a British promotion. "If you're going to make history, you may as well make it a double whammy."

Meanwhile, in the rural idyll of Woodward's farmyard, Couch has sweated away the frustrations of being inactive for eight months, having been training hard for 16 weeks for a planned defence of her world title in the US three weeks ago which fell through. Despite resistance here, women's boxing is accepted in Continental Europe and the United States, although there are few female fighters of genuine quality, and late cancellations are commonplace.

She has passed the same medical examinations which male boxers undergo, with the addition of a pregnancy test which prompted hoots of laughter. The last ignorant and downright offensive questions have been asked. "I just want to be treated like I would be if I was a man," she said. "I'm a grassroots fighter getting paid what a six-round pro would make. It's not about history. All I want is for people to come along, see what I do, and say, 'Well she's not Oscar de la Hoya, but she's not bad.'"