Eddie Hearn and Jane Couch could hardly be more different, but they are united this week by a shared disbelief and delight. As we approach Saturday night’s defining moment when Katie Taylor and Amanda Serrano step into the ring at New York’s Madison Square Garden to contest the biggest and most lucrative fight in women’s boxing history, the promoter and pioneer seem relieved and ecstatic.
Twenty-four years ago Couch won his case against the British Boxing Board of Control when the High Court ruled she should become the first woman in the UK to be licensed to box professionally. Until then, the BBBC had banned women from the ring on the grounds that they were too fragile and “emotionally unstable” to box, due to their menstrual cycle.
Three years later, in October 2001, Katie Taylor took part in the first officially sanctioned women’s boxing match in Ireland. She was only 15 years old. Taylor and Serrano will now engage in a thrilling fight as they become the first female boxers to earn over $1 million 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 YouTube star Jake Paul. The Essex promoter listens quietly in a swanky saloon on West 35th Street, a few blocks from boxing’s most famous arena, as I tell him a story about the days his father, Barry, was shocked to learning that Couch hadn’t been paid for a fight. It makes us feel that after decades of prejudice and suffering, women’s boxing has finally transformed.
Speaking to me on the phone from England, Couch said of Taylor and Serrano’s historic fight: “I can’t believe it, but it’s awesome. I’m so glad this day has come.
For Hearn, meanwhile, “this promotion never ceases to amaze me. The first surprise was when we sat down with Madison Square Garden and their management said, “We have to fight.” It 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 in one day. I’m known for being aggressive but, at the same time, I’m quietly conservative to ensure the right trading decisions.
“They were so confident and there was also this feeling that we need to make this moment a big moment in the sport. When the tickets went on sale it was the second fastest pre-sale in history. du Jardin. We had more media requests for this one than for some AJ [Anthony Joshua] fights. It’s more than boxing media. It’s Bloomberg, CNN, the Today Show.
Tuesday morning, on this NBC network television program that epitomizes traditional America and normally never features boxing, Taylor and Serrano were interesting and respectful guests. They pondered the magnitude of a contest for Taylor’s undisputed world lightweight titles, which is fraught with danger for both of them. They also talked about their Irish and Puerto Rican origins.
Later that day, along with Hearn and Paul, they got into a classy showdown atop the Empire State Building. “It blew me away,” 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 Empire State and I said, ‘What do you mean?’ They said, “We’re lighting the building with the flags of Ireland and Puerto Rico.” I like to pretend now that was my idea.
During my last interview with Couch in 2019, the now 53-year-old told me how much boxing had “damaged” her. She wept as she described the personal and psychological cost of being the revolutionary who legalized women’s boxing in Britain. “I still feel it,” Couch admits, “because it was actually cruel what [the boxing authorities and promoters] made me. The more I look at it, the more I think, ‘Why couldn’t I have had the right manager or trainer to take care of me like they take care of the girls now?’ But someone had to be first and that was me. It just wasn’t my time.
Still, there is a sense of accomplishment for Couch because, for 39 professional fights, she has 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 has never lost in the professional ring. Couch insists that had she been given a proper platform, Rijker could have matched the impact of Taylor and Serrano.
“One hundred percent. She had such power – like [the British middleweight] Savannah Marshall has now. I never had power. I was just a tough, advanced fighter. I won or lost on points and fought with my face.
Couch had a lot of guts and she won a version of the world title, but she didn’t get paid for many of her fights. When I ask if Barry Hearn had any interest in women’s boxing, Couch replies, “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 at Foxwoods Casino. I went: ‘Hiya!’ They’re like, ‘Oh, hi Jane.’ I told them that I was doing boxing but that I was not paid. Barry said: “You are a professional boxer. You must be paid. So he gave me some money. I think it was $500. He said, “I don’t let you box for free.” But I had actually agreed to box for free because it would raise the profile of women’s boxing.
It’s very different now and Eddie Hearn admits: “Before I started working with Katie, my dad thought women shouldn’t box. It’s the same with Frank Warren, Bob Arum and all those old school promoters. It has the stigma of a hard and rough man’s sport. It wasn’t until the changing perception of women’s sport in general that opened the door for Katie. But I learned from Katie that broadcasters seek to use women’s sport as a symbol. She taught me it was wrong. Checking a box is not equality.
After picking up her phone to read me the direct message she sent him on October 3, 2016, when Taylor asked if he was interested in her promotion, Hearn recalls her professional debut a month later. “I put it in the main event at Wembley and everyone pissed on it and said, ‘What are you doing? This is awkward. Putting a women’s fight as the main event? We had about 3 000 mostly Irish fans at Wembley Arena, and she was amazing.
“She fought like a Mexican. She was doubling down to the body, left hook to the head, changing. After it was over, everyone, including my dad, said, “Holy shit.” I knew then that you had to give it the platform to convince people to watch. At the time, 80% of the public had already decided that women’s boxing was not for them. 10% were a little curious and the remaining 10% were already believers. Now that 80% of non-believers are 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 was instructive for Hearn. “I went to see Katie about four years ago and said, ‘I had a great idea. On International Women’s Day, we’re going to do an all-female card in Madison Square Garden. from the Hulu theater. It’s going to be groundbreaking, blah blah blah. I was so excited. Katie said, ‘No way.’ She looked at me like she was disgusted She taught me that the only way to have a sustainable future with women’s boxing was for it to become a stand-alone product as a great sport – not a token of goodwill.If it is self-contained and has its own value, then we have longevity and durability.
“That’s what Katie Taylor built. She and Serrano don’t sell the garden [with a 17,500 capacity] because everyone says, ‘We have to support women’s sport.’ It’s selling the garden because it’s a big fight.
Hearn leans back in his chair and smiles. “I remember another thing I said to Katie: ‘Imagine you win $1 million at Madison Square Garden in a game that’s making headlines.’ I just said it as a sales line. And now here we are.
Away from New York, Jane Couch’s pain eased a bit this week. When we last spoke, she said, “It hurts my pride to talk about this openly, but I don’t think people realize the damage they’ve done. Most of them had never met me and they called me a lesbian or a freak.
She suffered from depression and panic attacks and didn’t start her first “real” relationship until she was 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 the way they represent it. I didn’t have the media training or even the personality that they have. It’s just awesome what’s going on in New York this week. I feel extremely proud .