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The Beltline: A cheap card-filler during lockdown, women’s boxing now proudly stands alone (should tomorrow go ahead, of course)

Claressa Shields and Savannah Marshall pose in London while filming an episode of The Gloves Are Off (Lawrence Lustig)
Though the event itself is now in the balance following the death of Her Majesty The Queen, the motivation for tomorrow's all-female fight card in London remains a worthy talking point, writes Elliot Worsell

LOOKING back, it was no coincidence that the reported rise of women’s boxing occurred at a time when money was short, arenas were empty, and fight cards were getting smaller and smaller, each in need of title fights meaningful enough to catch the attention but still cheap enough to not cripple anyone financially.

It happened, this rise, during a global pandemic, of course, and was at the time sold as a progressive movement, with the boxing industry pretending to have at last come to their senses and given women the kind of opportunities they had always, they said, deserved. Yet, for as good as all that sounded, that was not it. Any favour, rest assured, was not being granted to the women, many of whom had spent years fighting in the shadows for peanuts, nor had there been some remarkable switch in attitudes towards their plight, marketability, or significance at a world level.

Instead, if talking favours, it was the women who were doing them, volunteering, like frontline workers, for an industry otherwise ambivalent to them during a barren and worrying two-year period. It was the women, after all, who maturely let bygones be bygones and accepted pay checks that would have been laughed off the table by their male counterparts for fights of similar prestige. It was the women, too, who then resuscitated many of the pedestrian cards on which they were booked by going toe-to-toe and providing thrills and spills their male counterparts were often unable to match inside empty, soulless arenas.

In the UK alone, we witnessed brilliant fights between the likes of Natasha Jonas and Terri Harper, and Jonas and Katie Taylor, and Taylor and Delfine Persoon (their rematch), and also Ebanie Bridges and Shannon Courtenay. In most cases, no matter where they placed on the bill, they stole the show, these girls. They impressed. They surprised. They appeared to be fighting as though they had something to prove, which, on reflection, perhaps they did.

Perhaps, cruelly, these girls felt as though they had to prove they belonged, both on a fight card still largely dominated by men and in a sport still considered a manly art. Maybe that’s what we saw every time they got together during that bizarre period in history and tried to one-up whoever came before them or whoever was to that night follow them. Maybe we saw women trying harder than men because, in the end, they still felt they had to.

Whatever it was, there was a noticeable intensity to the aforementioned fights that many – not all – fights between men seemed to lack throughout that same period. There was give and take. There was fire. There was a drama produced not through their power and the ever-present possibility of a knockout (something reduced considerably in the women’s game) but instead through how well-matched they were and how easily exchanged swings of momentum appeared.

Nobody in those fights was resting on their laurels. Nobody was getting by solely on reputation. Nobody, moreover, was saving themselves for another day.

Rather, women back then, and still to this day, were fighting with hunger and urgency. They didn’t know how long this hot streak would last, nor did they know whether the sudden interest in women’s boxing was going to amount to little more than a passing phase. They therefore took what they could get, financially and in terms of opportunities, and then, to their credit, made the absolute most of it. They turned cynics to believers and had those, like me, who wouldn’t necessarily look forward to a women’s fight on a male-dominated fight card, finding themselves watching a night of action and invariably coming away thinking the women’s bout on said card was the most compelling of the ones witnessed.

That has happened more than once this year, too, with the highlight of Saturday’s card in Liverpool again a female fight, this time between Natasha Jonas and Patricia Berghult. What that one lacked in knockout-finish potential it more than made up for in work rate, passion and, most importantly, competitive action. It was two-way, the action, always quality and always interesting, and the first round was nothing like the second, never mind the twelfth. It all seemed to mean something, both to the fighters and those watching it, which is more than can be said for some of the other fights on the Liverpool card that night.

Natasha Jonas outboxes Patricia Berghult in Liverpool (Lawrence Lustig)

Moving on to this weekend, boosted no doubt by Jonas’ show-stealing performance, Sky Sports plan to deliver their first ever all-female fight card, topped by the grudge match between Claressa Shields and Savannah Marshall. It’s a moment well-deserved, not least because of all the work female fighters did during the pandemic, but also because of the work done long before that, decades before that, by the original trailblazers and pioneers, the girls who never even had social media accounts, much less the prospect of seven-figure paydays.

One of those women, Jane Couch, told me last week she would be a keen observer when Shields and Marshall square off at London’s O2 Arena, but also said she had refused an invitation to go to the event as a guest. It was not a decision she made out of spite or bitterness, she stressed, though the irony of suddenly being made to feel welcome in a place she was once refused – at a time when all she wanted was to be welcomed – is one not lost on her, either. Nor, for that matter, is Couch someone naïve enough to think the recent interest in women’s boxing by many of the same people who were involved in the sport back when she was denied the opportunity to be a female professional boxer in the UK is anything other than financially motivated.

“It’s cheap (women’s boxing), and that’s it,” she said. “It’s also more exciting because you can make competitive fights on the cheap. You get some dodgy matches now and again, but even when I was fighting you would see girls fighting who should never have been fighting.

“At the bottom level it’s back to the Nineties for the girls just starting out. You need either a big promoter or a big sponsor to make it work.”

Couch added: “Everything is ruled by social media nowadays, isn’t it? Unless you’ve got that profile, though, nothing’s really changed. People talk about women’s boxing and the progress it has made and they say it’s flying, but it’s not. I know girls who are struggling to sell tickets and are having to pay for their opponent out of their own pocket. There is still a very, very long way to go.

“If the girls who now have a platform can help the girls who don’t, that’s the only way things will improve. I did my bit, I made it legal for them, but the interest in women’s boxing is only there now because of the money coming in. There is no more interest in it from the people in power than there was in the Nineties. I’m not saying all of them are like that, but most of the men at the British Boxing Board of Control, for example, were all there when they dealt with my case. And it was cruel what they did to me.”

Back then, Couch wasn’t needed and was therefore not wanted. She was treated cruelly because it benefitted nobody for her to be treated any other way.

For this current crop, however, it’s markedly different. They, unlike Couch, are, to varying degrees, needed. Their “world” title fights, as low-cost a world title fight as you are going to find in 2022, are needed to prop up bills and offer the illusion that television networks or apps are delivering a quality, world-class product. Meanwhile, their willingness to engage and fight like they have something to prove, like it’s their first and last chance, is also needed to make up for the sometimes-lacklustre performances of men who have been paid too much – both respect, and money – over the years.  

So, in other words, don’t be fooled. Because what may look and sound like a favour, or an apology, or even a timely attempt to offer equality, is in actual fact a desperate plea for help, one that can also be monetised. “Please,” say the suddenly caring and attentive men of the boxing industry, “give us a hand, will you? Clean up the mess we have made.”

Note: Following the death yesterday (September 8) of Her Majesty The Queen, there is now every chance the Shields vs. Marshall event, scheduled for the O2 Arena this Saturday (September 10), will be postponed. Both boxers are scheduled to weigh in behind closed doors today (September 9), after which Sky Sports and the show’s promoter Boxxer will wait for word from the relevant government and sports sector bodies as to whether all sport in the UK this weekend will be cancelled.

Claressa Shields and Savannah Marshall must now wait to discover whether their fight will go ahead (Lawrence Lustig)

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