Jane Couch giveth, Jane Couch taketh away.
On one hand ‘The Fleetwood Assassin’ tells you the state of women’s boxing has vastly improved, both in terms of profile and opportunity, and on the other hand she warns you not to get carried away. Then in one breath she calls the likes of Katie Taylor, Claressa Shields and Chantelle Cameron talented fighters, better than many in her era, and in the next she waxes lyrical about Lucia Rijker, a woman she bravely battled in 2003, and explains why none of the new breed would stand a chance of beating her.
Hedging her bets? No. Jane Couch, as is her custom, is simply keeping it real.
“She was just f**king mustard,” Couch says of Rijker, the world super-lightweight champion from Holland who retired with a perfect 17-0 record. Even now, there’s not a girl who could lace her boots. None of the girls today would beat her. She was something else. She perforated my eardrum in the first round and I thought I was f**king brain damaged.
“The toughest opponent I fought was Sandra Geiger, the French girl, but the best I fought, technically, was Rijker. She was on a whole different level. It was just like sparring a world-class male. In fact, she was dropping a lot of well-known male fighters in the gym with body shots.”
Fifteen years ago, Couch and Rijker fought at the Staples Center in the opening bout of a pay-per-view show headlined by the world heavyweight title fight between Lennox Lewis and Vitali Klitschko. They went eight rounds. Rijker, demonstrating all her brilliance, won every one of them. But it was Couch’s guts, resilience and determination that stole the hearts of the Los Angeles crowd.
“For a woman, Rijker’s strength and powerful was unreal,” Couch recalls. “One thing I could rely on when fighting women is that they wouldn’t be powerful enough to budge me or hurt me. They didn’t have the power. I’d walk forward and wouldn’t let them think. But even Rijker’s jab was powerful. You could feel the power in every shot. She was so well-trained.”
The reward for Rijker’s artistry was a measly five thousand dollar cheque that June night. Couch, meanwhile, the one on the receiving end, the one handing Rijker the paint brushes and offering her own face as canvas, went back to Bristol with just three-and-a-half.
It was, in many ways, a microcosm of the struggle, not only for Jane Couch but women’s boxing as a whole. After all, here they were, doing the very same thing the men were doing, on the biggest boxing night of the year, and here was Rijker looking better, technically, than many of the men on the card, and Couch being braver than many of the men on the card, yet walking away with what amounted to loose change.
“People go, ‘Oh, Jane, I bet you’re f**king loaded!’ I just laugh.
“Even today, at a time when women’s boxing is doing well, the girls will be struggling. It’s better, yeah, but the only one who is probably doing well is Katie Taylor and even Katie won’t be doing as well, financially, as everybody thinks. Her saving grace is Sky Sports and the Irish fans. Without those things, it would be really hard for her.
“Girls like Natasha Jonas, Chantelle Cameron and Stacy Copeland are just boxing on normal shows. They’re probably getting a few hundred quid for a fight. But people don’t see that.
“The problem is, there’s not enough depth yet. Our girls haven’t fought anybody decent. It will happen in the future, they’ll find better opponents, but it’s not happening right now.”
The talent pool is shallow. That much is clear to anyone who has found themselves caught up in the recent rise of women’s boxing and been torn between admiring the quality of the favourite and sympathising with the limitations of the opponent.
“Some of them now are better than some of the journeyman girls we used to fight,” Couch says. “Back then they were just tough girls. Now they have a bit more skill.
“The problem is the power, though. Most fights go the distance and don’t have that drama. That turns people off. We’re never going to get a puncher like Lucia Rijker again. She was a one-off.”
The same could be said of Couch. Her last fight was eleven years ago yet she remains one of the more recognisable and important characters associated with the women’s boxing movement. In fact, were it not for her, the battle facing the likes of Taylor, Jonas, Cameron, Copeland and Nicola Adams might be a hell of a lot tougher.
“I wouldn’t want to do it now because then I wouldn’t have paved the way, would I” Couch says. “I was a lot younger when I did it and was a real cheeky little thing. I’ve matured now; I’m 49.
“I didn’t really understand the boxing world back then. I didn’t really know what was going on. I just found myself doing it. I wasn’t doing it for all the women. I look at it now, though, and think fair play, I’m glad I did what I did.
“Then again, I look at the younger ones like Stacy and Natasha and I know for a fact they’re just boxing on tiny shows making very small amounts of money and that makes me sad. The only ones who will do anything in this sport are the ones with a TV platform. If you haven’t got that, you might as well be boxing in Fleetwood Town Hall in front of your friends and family. No one cares.”
If anyone knows, Jane Couch knows.