British superbout makes women the main event
It says so much about the infancy of women’s boxing that tonight at Eddie Hearn’s “Matchroom Square Garden” in Essex, we will witness an all-British women’s world title fight for the first time.
Terri Harper, from Doncaster, and Liverpudlian Natasha Jonas headline the event and, although the women’s side of the sport has come on in leaps and bounds since it first appeared at an Olympic Games at London 2012, there remains huge scope for development.
The promising thing for those women who feel the calling to fight is that the appetite from the fans – largely a male audience at present – is growing. There are still the
Luddites who believe that women should not box professionally, but they are diminishing.
Having been ringside since the early Nineties, I always find that the stories of the few extraordinary female boxers significant in its rise are utterly fascinating, arguably more so than those of their male counterparts. For instance, there was Jane Couch, the first female fighter to gain a British Boxing Board of Control licence, though she had to go to court on grounds of sexual discrimination, after it had been refused on such things as menstrual cycles and premenstrual stress. “The Fleetwood Assassin” finally received her licence in 1998 and her life story is about to be dramatised for television by the film company of acclaimed actress Suranne Jones and her writer husband, Laurence Akers.
In the early 2000s, there was the emergence of Laila Ali, the daughter of Muhammad Ali, who fought Joe Frazier’s daughter, Jacqui Frazier-Lyde, inside a cavernous circus tent in Verona, New York state.
Having attended that event – which inevitably became known as Ali v Frazier IV – it was clear that with the right protagonists, women’s boxing could thrive. It was packed with boxing royalty that night, including their great heavyweight fathers, and seemingly every A-lister in the United States, as an all-women’s fight headlined a pay-per-view event for the first time on that continent. It was an amazing eight-round, all-action battle won by Ali by majority decision.
Then there was San Franciscan Mia St John, a black belt in taekwondo, who decided to pursue professional boxing after graduating from university with a degree in psychology. Starting in 1997, St John first worked with shock-haired promoter Don King for 18 months, before switching to rival promoter Bob Arum at Top Rank, fighting on the cards of fan favourite Oscar De La Hoya for four years. St John was a genuine star. She appeared on American chat shows and, in November 1999, the cover of
In spite of all that, Arum told me recently that it was impossible, whatever they tried, to turn St John into a box-office star as a fighter. That is changing, however. Frank Warren was never a fan of women’s boxing, but altered his view after seeing the double Olympic gold medallist Nicola Adams.
The UFC’s front man, Dana White, said he would never entertain women’s mixed martial arts, but the promoter had his head turned by Ronda Rousey in 2011, after seeing her in Scott Coker’s Strikeforce organisation. It was the start of a flood of fighters into women’s MMA.
Hearn, a generation on, told me this week that he plans to shift the paradigm in the sport by signing as many women as possible, to get the best fighting the best.
Hearn’s most accomplished boxer is Katie Taylor, who fights in his back garden in Brentwood on Aug 22, in a rematch with Belgian Delfine Persoon, who trains fellow police officers in tactical-weapons assault in her day job. Both battle at a frenetic pace in the ring, as they showed in their first encounter at Madison Square Garden in New York, last June.
Tonight’s challenger Jonas, 36, secured her place in history as one of the first women to compete at the Olympic Games in London in 2012. Harper, 23, the defending world super-featherweight champion, gave up boxing initially at the age of 16 to work in a chip shop in Doncaster because she could not find opponents (during the lockdown, she was even stacking shelves in her local Co-op, managed by partner Jen) and hopes to headline in New York and Las Vegas in the future.
There is every chance Harper may do so, too. There is little doubt that there is something deeply compelling and visceral in the nature of women’s fighting, and tonight’s main event will be no different.
Talent: Terri Harper defends the super-featherweight belt