THESE DAYS, CHRISTY MARTIN’S RESILIENCE IS INSPIRING MORE THAN JUST THE RISE OF AN ENTIRE SPORT
It was the question Christy Martin didn’t expect, but like any boxer worth her salt, she rolled with it and came back strong when asked about turning 50 years old on June 12 of this year.
“It’s crazy, isn’t it,” she said. “Many different times in my life I wasn’t sure I would make it, so I’m happy to hit the big five-oh. They said all the good stuff’s supposed to start happening after 50, so we’ll see.”
Martin may be getting a head start on that “good stuff,” even if she’s so busy these days that she hasn’t had a chance to smell the roses. Currently making her home in Charlotte, North Carolina, “The Coal Miner’s Daughter” is juggling teaching, training and promoting, and even found the time to get married last November to a former opponent, Lisa Holewyne.
“The good thing is, we got the fight out of the way first,” laughed Martin, who decisioned Holewyne in 2001. “But I’m very, very happy. I’m blessed.”
We won’t call it a happy ending yet, because Martin is still penning her tale, but it is a state many didn’t believe possible for the women’s boxing pioneer after the harrowing events of November 23, 2010, when her then-husband, trainer and manager, Jim Martin, tried to kill her, stabbing her several times before shooting her in the chest.
But people like Christy Martin don’t go away that easily. They fight. She did. And she lived.
“I can’t believe everything I’ve lived through, and I can’t believe that the person I was married to and trusted was stealing money from me. And not only that, but to actually stab me repeatedly and point-blank shoot me, it’s overwhelming. To really wrap my brain around that … we’re seven years past and for whatever reason, something had triggered me and I keep seeing it and I can’t quite get what happened out of my mind. It’s hard to believe that this happened to me. It didn’t happen on TV in a movie. This is what happened.”
Before all of this, Martin’s life was already the stuff of a Hollywood film. Born Christy Salters (the name she uses in her personal life) in Mullens, West Virginia, she was an accomplished athlete who eventually abandoned the basketball court for the ring, turning pro in 1989 at the age of 21.
‘… I knew I had the target on my back and everybody wanted to put a win on their resume by beating me, and I wanted to prove that I was the best.’ – Christy Martin
Her talent was obvious, her left hook was a thing of beauty, and the greatest compliment being paid to her at the time was that she fought like a man. But opportunities for women in the sweet science were nearly nonexistent.
“It was very difficult, because no major promoter wanted to give me an opportunity,” Martin said. “No one was going to take women’s boxing seriously. It was hard. The pool of opponents was very shallow. You didn’t know what your opponent was like until you got in the ring. It was much different than what it is today, because women have had the opportunity now to fight in the amateurs and there’s been media coverage for local fights, so videotapes and things like that are much more available.”
Martin adjusted well, learning her trade on the job, and as the wins piled up, she eventually got her shot when Don King signed her. On January 29, 1994, she fought on the Felix Trinidad-Hector Camacho undercard, knocking out Susie Melton in 40 seconds on a show that also featured Julio Cesar Chavez, Thomas Hearns, Meldrick Taylor and Tim Austin.
There was no turning back now, and soon she would be featured on Mike Tyson undercards, bringing a light to women’s boxing that it never had before. That made Martin a star – and a target – and she loved it all.
“That’s probably what kept me going, because I knew I had the target on my back and everybody wanted to put a win on their resume by beating me, and I wanted to prove that I was the best,” she said. “And I took a lot of pride in getting the opportunity to fight on the Tyson shows and be promoted by Don King. I didn’t want to let them down.”
She didn’t, with the classic brawl against Ireland’s Deirdre Gogarty in a swing bout on the Tyson-Frank Bruno II card in March 1996 that garnered Martin the cover of Sports Illustrated. It was an unprecedented achievement that no female boxer has reached since.
“I was so lucky being in the right place at the right time, and I was just ready to fight,” she said. “Deirdre Gogarty was a great opponent and it was all about timing. The Tyson fight ended early, the Gogarty fight was a war, so it was all timing. I think what I did that night, under Tyson with everybody watching, it brought so much attention and awareness to a sport that most people probably didn’t know existed.”
For a while after Martin’s SI appearance, there was hope for the ladies of the sport. Networks started airing bouts, the media was paying more attention, and with the emergence of Lucia Rijker as a legitimate rival for Martin, the sport had its first superfight. But then it didn’t happen, as an injury forced “The Dutch Destroyer” out of the July 2005 bout.
“I think Rijker’s injury was bogus and still, all these years later, no one’s gonna convince me that it was anything but a bail-out,” Martin said. “And I was crushed. I was in the best shape of my life, and the truth is that when that fight didn’t happen, I should have retired because it took a part of my hunger. It took the edge off. I had trained so hard and that was the fight that everybody talked about and that was gonna set me apart from everybody. So many people thought that she was gonna beat me, and I knew she couldn’t.”
Martin went 3-2-1 from the cancellation of the Rijker fight through 2009. And then she had to fight for her life.
‘All these awesome things have happened, but at the same time, that was my public life. My private life was hell. It’s hard to explain and hard for anyone else to understand, but it was a fight for me.’ – Christy Martin
Married at 23 to 48-year-old Jim Martin, Christy not only dealt with her husband’s increasing verbal and physical abuse, but also his threats to reveal to the world that she was a lesbian, all the while draining the estimated $4 million she made over the course of her career. It all came to a head in their Apopka, Florida, home in November 2010, when Christy told Jim she was leaving him and became the victim of a horrific assault.
Remarkably, Martin would fight again, getting halted by Dakota Stone due to a broken hand in 2011. During surgery for the injured hand, Martin would suffer a stroke, but she didn’t reveal this to anyone and opted to fight once more, losing a 2012 decision to Mia St. John. The same year, Jim Martin was convicted of attempted second-degree murder and sentenced to 25 years in prison.
Christy Martin didn’t get her 50th win, retiring with a 49-7-3 record, but she had closure. She could finally move on and tell her story.
“I’m from a small town in West Virginia,” she said. “I’ve been promoted by Don King, fighting on Mike Tyson cards in Las Vegas and fighting in The Garden. All these awesome things have happened, but at the same time, that was my public life. My private life was hell. It’s hard to explain and hard for anyone else to understand, but it was a fight for me.”
She’s winning that fight, though. In 2017, the Boxing Writers Association of America announced that it was going to begin presenting a Women’s Fighter of the Year award, naming it after Martin. And with that announcement, a new generation is starting to discover her impact on the sport.
“I hope so,” Martin said. “Whether they agree or disagree that I was a good fighter, I just would like for them to realize that I helped open a lot of doors to make women’s boxing possible for a future generation. … I feel like I made it easier for them. I was mentally equipped to face the struggle and the fight to get the opportunity that women’s boxing needed at the time.”
More importantly, the tale of Christy Martin thus far is one that transcends boxing, and one day, her impact outside the ring may be greater than anything she did inside the ropes.
“I feel like God left me here for a reason, and that’s to help other people by sharing my story,” she said. “Or maybe somebody hears my name and they look it up and see what happened to me and it gives them strength. This is why I’m here. Jim had held it over my head so much about the homosexuality, but now I’m very comfortable with who I am. This is who I am, and I’m proud to tell everybody Lisa’s my wife. I love her and I can’t wait to spend the rest of my life with her.
“I think there are a lot of social issues I think I can help people become more comfortable with, so it’s less about boxing these days and probably more about bringing awareness to domestic violence or people’s sexuality and just their choice of life. Whatever you want to do, you should be comfortable and do it. Who cares what people think?”