ANDddie Hearn and Jane Couch could hardly be more different but they are united this week by a shared disbelief and delight. As we approach the landmark moment on Saturday night when Katie Taylor and Amanda Serrano step into the ring at Madison Square Garden in New York to contest the most significant and lucrative fight in the history of women’s boxing, the promoter and the pioneer sound relieved and ecstatic .
Twenty-four years ago Couch won her case against the British Boxing Board of Control when the high court ruled that she should become the first woman in the UK to be granted a license to box professionally. Until then the BBBC had banned women from the ring on the basis that they were too frail and “emotionally unstable” to box, owing to their menstrual cycle.
Three years later, in October 2001, Katie Taylor fought in the first officially sanctioned women’s boxing match in Ireland. She was just 15. Taylor and Serrano will now feature in a riveting bout as they become the first female boxers to both earn more than $1m in one night – and the first women to headline the Garden as fighters.
In another unlikely double act, Hearn is co-promoting the contest with the YouTube star Jake Paul. The Essex promoter listens quietly in a swanky lounge on West 35th Street, just a few blocks from the most famous arena in boxing, as I tell him a story about the days when his dad, Barry, was shocked to hear Couch had not been paid for a fight. It makes us feel that, after decades of prejudice and pain, women’s boxing has finally been transformed.
Talking to me on the phone from England, Couch says of Taylor and Serrano’s historic bout: “I can’t believe it, but it’s brilliant. I’m so glad this day has come.”
For Hearn, meanwhile, “this promotion keeps surprising me. The first surprise was when we sat down with Madison Square Garden and their management said: ‘We have to get this fight.’ That was special. Then they said: ‘We have to put it in the big arena.’ I knew we could go to Hulu [the smaller theatre, seating 5,600 inside the Garden] and sell it out in a day. I’m known for being aggressive but, at the same time, I’m quietly conservative to ensure the right business decisions.
“They were so confident and there was also this feeling that we need to make this a significant moment in sport. When tickets went on sale it was the second-fastest pre-sale in the history of the Garden. We’ve had more media requests for this one than for some AJ [Anthony Joshua] fights. This is more than boxing media. It’s Bloomberg, CNN, the Today Show.”
On Tuesday morning, on that NBC network television program which epitomizes mainstream America and normally never features boxing, Taylor and Serrano were interesting and respectful guests. They reflected on the magnitude of a contest for Taylor’s undisputed world lightweight titles which is full of jeopardy for both of them. They also spoke about their Irish and Puerto Rican backgrounds.
Later that day, with Hearn and Paul, they engaged in a classy face-off at the top of the Empire State Building. “That blew my socks off,” Hearn says, “because, until then, I didn’t know what they were planning to do with the lights on Saturday night. They told me they were lighting up the Empire State and I said: ‘What do you mean?’ They said: ‘We’re lighting up the building with the flags of Ireland and Puerto Rico.’ I like to pretend now that it was my idea.”
When I last interviewed Couch in 2019, the now 53-year-old told me how boxing had “damaged” her. She cried as she described the personal and psychological cost of being the revolutionary who made women’s boxing legal in Britain. “I still feel it,” Couch admits, “because it was actually cruel what [the boxing authorities and promoters] did to me The more I look at it the more I think: ‘Why couldn’t I have got the right manager or trainer to look after me like they’re looking after the girls now?’ But someone had to be the first and it was me. It just wasn’t my time.”
Yet there is a sense of achievement for Couch because, during 39 pro bouts, she boxed on the undercard of some great fighters – from Lennox Lewis and Vitali Klitschko to Roy Jones Jr and Naseem Hamed. In 2003 she also went the distance in Los Angeles with the formidable Lucia Rijker, the Dutch fighter who never lost in the professional ring. Couch is emphatic that, had she been given a proper platform, Rijker could have matched the impact of Taylor and Serrano.
“One hundred per cent. She had such power – like [the British middleweight] Savannah Marshall has now. I never had any power. I was just a tough, come forward fighter. I either won or lost on points and I fought with my face.”
Couch had great courage and she won a version of the world title, but she did not get paid for many of her bouts. When I ask if Barry Hearn had been interested in women’s boxing Couch says: “No, but he co-promoted the bill when Prince Naseem fought Augie Sanchez in Connecticut [in August 2000]. I was on the undercard and Barry and Emanuel Steward [the brilliant American trainer] were having breakfast in Foxwoods Casino. I went: ‘Hiya!’ They’re like: ‘Oh hi Jane.’ I told them I was boxing but I wasn’t getting paid. Barry said: ‘You’re a professional boxer. You’ve got to get paid.’ So he gave me some money. I think it was $500. He said: ‘I’m not allowing you to box for free.’ But I had actually agreed to box for free because it would raise the profile of women boxing.”
It’s very different now and Eddie Hearn admits: “Before we started working with Katie my dad thought women shouldn’t box. That’s the same for Frank Warren, Bob Arum and all those old-school promoters. It’s got the stigma of a tough, rough man’s sport. It was only the changing perception of women’s sport in general that opened the door to Katie. But I’ve learned from Katie that broadcasters were looking to use women’s sport as a box-ticker. She taught me that’s wrong. Box-ticking is not equality.”
After he reaches for his phone to read me the direct message she sent him on 3 October 2016, when Taylor asked if he was interested in promoting her, Hearn remembers her pro debut a month later. “I put her on as a main event at Wembley and everyone took the piss and said: ‘What are you doing? It’s embarrassing. Putting a women’s fight as the main event?’ We got about 3,000, mainly Irish fans, at Wembley Arena, and she was unbelievable.
“She fought like a Mexican. She was doubling up to her body, left hook to the head, switching. After it was over everyone, including my dad, went: ‘Fucking hell.’ I knew then you’ve got to give her the platform to convince people to watch. Back then 80% of the audience had already decided women’s boxing wasn’t for them. 10% were a little curious and the other 10% were believers already. Now that 80% of non-believers has gone down to probably 10%. I knew it would happen. Just let people see fighters like Katie Taylor and Amanda Serrano and they’ll be convinced.”
Promoting Taylor has been educational for Hearn. “I went to Katie about four years ago and said: ‘I’ve had a great idea. On International Women’s Day we’re going to do an all-female card at Madison Square Garden in the Hulu theater. It’s going to be groundbreaking, blah blah blah.’ I was so excited. Katie went: ‘No way.’ She looked at me like she was disgusted. She taught me the only way that we would have a sustainable future with women’s boxing was for it to become a standalone product as a great sport – not as a token of goodwill. If it stands alone, and has its own value, then we have longevity and sustainability.
“That’s what Katie Taylor has built. She and Serrano are not selling out the Garden [with a 17,500 capacity] because everyone is going: ‘We should support women’s sport.’ It’s selling out the Garden because it’s a great fight.”
Hearn leans back in his chair and smiles. “I remember one other thing I said to Katie: ‘Imagine making $1m at Madison Square Garden in a headline bout.’ I just said it as a salesman line. And now we’re here.”
A long way from New York city, the pain in Jane Couch has eased a little this week. During our last interview she had said: “It hurts my pride to talk this openly but I don’t think people realize the damage they did. Most of them had never met me and they’d call me a lesbian or a freak.”
She suffered depression and panic attacks and only began her first “proper” relationship at the age of 41. But now, as Couch counts down the hours until she and her partner, Brian, can watch the fight on Saturday, she says: “All the girls, Katie and Amanda, Savannah and Claressa Shields, are doing a brilliant job. I couldn’t represent women’s boxing how they represent it. I didn’t have the media training or even the personality they do. It’s just brilliant what’s happening in New York this week. I feel massively proud.”