Boxing: First Night Jane Couch - Women face an even bigger fight

It should have been a milestone for the cause. But credibility stays on the ropes.
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The Independent Online
It began at 8.30pm on Wednesday evening, and less than five minutes later, it was over. Sporting history of a kind had been made when Jane Couch stopped Simone Lukic inside two rounds at Caesar's Palace nightclub in Streatham, thereby winning the first officially sanctioned female boxing match in the UK. Sporting history it may have been but pretty it wasn't unless your idea of beauty is watching a seemingly defenceless teenage girl being knocked virtually senseless.

It was an occasion to savour for Couch, who has overcome a series of moral and legal obstacles in her quest to pursue her chosen sporting career. Thanks to the efforts of the 30-year-old former Blackpool rock packer from Fleetwood in Lancashire, British women can now get paid for punching each other should they so desire. Another bastion of sexism has fallen.

In the long-term, however, the cause of female boxing may be the biggest loser. Couch, the reigning Women's International Boxing Federation welterweight champion, has worked hard and sacrificed much in her four-year transformation from street brawler to technically proficient boxer. She is widely regarded as one of the best pound-for-pound female fighters in the world, well respected within the narrow confines of her sport.

What she - and women's boxing in general - needed on Wednesday night was to convince a sceptical audience that women can indeed master the so-called manly arts of throwing a punch, knowing how to take a shot and being able to defend one's self at all times. What we got instead was something more akin to the kind of scrap which might break out on the nightclub dancefloor on which the boxing ring was mounted.

From the opening bell, the unfortunate 18-year-old Lukic was exposed as the rawest of novices. Couch caught her with a right hook within 10 seconds, and the pattern was established. "It's a mismatch," said someone at ringside. "The German girl's too pretty to be a boxer. She looks more like an aerobics instructor." Unfortunately, she fought like one too, incapable of landing a punch, unable to stop anything her opponent threw at her.

The inevitable happened midway through the second of the scheduled six two-minute rounds. Couch landed another right hook, Lukic's arms and head dropped, but somehow she remained upright. Experienced professional that she is, Couch moved in to finish the job.

Thankfully, the referee, Richie Davies, got there first, throwing protective arms around the stricken teenager before leading the disoriented pugilist to the safety of her corner. "I treated them exactly the same as I would male fighters," said Davies. "My main priority is their welfare, that's why I stopped it."

The crowd of around 2,000, including a surprisingly high percentage of women, many dressed for an evening of disco dancing, some looking capable of putting up stiffer resistance than Lukic, seemed happy enough. In her dressing-room afterwards, relaxing with a pint of Guinness, Couch also pronounced herself satisfied with the evening's work. "There were people there from all walks of life," she said. "Young and old, rich and poor, men and women, and they came to see me. It wasn't just women's boxing, they'd come to see Jane Couch. Boxing is a great sport, and it needs all the publicity it can get."

Women's boxing didn't need this, a damaging blow to an already fragile credibility. "What we saw tonight just brings the game down, and it's very sad," said the former British welterweight champion, Kevin Lueshing, a ringside observer. "It's not about boxing, people have come here for a circus. That girl got hit with a shot that wasn't particularly hard, and she didn't know where she was. It was a disgrace. It makes me ashamed to be a boxer."

Of course the promoter, Roy Cameron, wanted to ensure that Couch didn't lose, bringing in a carefully selected opponent as a result. That is standard practice in male boxing; indeed, Lueshing seems to have forgotten the many hopeless cases he disposed of during his rise through the ranks.

This, however, was a first British exposure for the female side of professional boxing. The massed ranks of television news cameras and batteries of photographers confirmed the widespread interest in this new phenomenon. Women's boxing was in the spotlight with the opportunity either to challenge perceived wisdom, or confirm entrenched stereotypes. On this evidence, many will be tempted to conclude that women simply cannot box.

From her home in Miami Beach, Barbara Buttrick, founder of the WIBF, sounded a note of despair. Buttrick has argued the case for women boxers for most of her life, leaving her native Hull for the United States in the 1950s, when she found she wasn't allowed to box in the UK, except as a backstreet freak show. She has seen the female game gain a degree of acceptance in the US and mainland Europe, but prejudice here in the UK runs deep.

"This is exactly what I was afraid would happen," she said on hearing of Couch's one-sided win. "To be honest I'm surprised they let this girl box Jane, because we certainly know very little about her. We offered them a good opponent but the promoter turned us down. This has made a mockery of women's boxing, and it's no good saying there are no good women boxers, because there are plenty out there."

Buttrick cites the Dutch former kick-boxer Lucia Rijkers, who trains with Oscar de la Hoya, the world's best active fighter. There are others, like the Mexican lightweight Laura Serrano, a qualified lawyer and national swimming champion; Regina Halmich, the diminutive German flyweight; the rugged American Christy Martin, Don King's token woman; and the Dubliner Deirdre Gogarty, as technically accomplished as many competent male boxers.

"I'm surprised the British Boxing Board of Control granted this German girl a licence to fight," said Buttrick. "It's not fair to Jane. She's worked so hard. She won the fight but she's going to lose her credibility." The Board's general secretary, John Morris, insists he has no objection to women boxing. Morris was in attendance on Wednesday, the smile fixed in place as he endured a host of pre-fight interviews and post-contest photo opportunities with the conquering heroine. "I'm his favourite boxer now," Couch said.

The Board fought a losing legal battle to ban women from boxing on medical grounds, and it is not hard to find officials, managers, promoters and boxers who wish women's boxing would simply go away. "It's a man's game, and women shouldn't be doing it. They are not built for it," said the British super-middleweight Ali Forbes. "I'm not against it but it doesn't sit easily with me," said Larry O'Connell, the country's leading referee. "Women should be allowed to box if they want to, but let them run it themselves."

Meanwhile, Couch will continue her career when she defends her world title in Mississippi next month. "I'd like to think that in 10 years, no one will bat an eyelid when you talk about women's boxing," she said. That dream may well be realised but not perhaps in the way she would wish. The quest for credibility remains female boxing's toughest fight of all.