Features

Christy Martin: Never laying down

Christy Martin is restless. She’s sitting, then standing and walking around the room, before sitting again and fixing her hair. This is one of tens of calls she’s joined in the last week, discussing Netflix’s documentary ‘Untold: Deal with the Devil’ which features Martin’s equally torrid and triumphant story, discussing her latest professional boxing promotion, or slicing open old wounds, revealing the gruesome details of the night she was stabbed and shot by her husband for sensationalist writers or journalists.  

Despite appearing to have a busload of thoughts jostling for right of way, Martin settles, and tells Boxing Social about life as a growing promoter: “I have a shit tonne of problems, sorry,” she starts. “It’s been very busy; I’m trying to promote this event in Myrtle Beach which has… well, it’s taken some turns. It seems like it’s not good, but we’ll see how it turns out when it gets here. We call it ‘Mayhem in Myrtle 3,’ it’s in South Carolina, it’s a beach here on this kind of pocket on the East coast.

“We have Alonzo Butler as our main event, who’s actually promoted by Don King, that’s kind of cool for me,” explains the former prime time boxing attraction, reminded of her own, pleasant experiences with one of boxing’s notorious figures. King had put Martin on some of Mike Tyson’s undercards in the mid-to late nineties, propelling her into the nation’s front room at a time when women’s boxing was discarded, ridiculed and scoffed at. Martin changed that, and now, just over 25 years since she fought Deirdre Gogarty on the Mike Tyson vs Frank Bruno II undercard in Las Vegas, she’s still paying her dues.

“It’s so much harder to be the promoter than the fighter because when you’re the fighter, that’s all you have to worry about – fighting,” says Martin. “You know at the end of the night that you’re gonna get a cheque. Being the promoter, there’s so many things: the hotels, the insurance, the commissions, the medical stuff, and at the end of the night, you’re the only one who may or may not get paid. And this time, I am definitely not gonna get paid.

“So many people know you – or know you barely, it’s ‘Oh, can I get a free ticket?’ Well, I don’t come to your restaurant and ask for a free meal, you know. It’s a tough business. It’s just frustrating. And now, we’re a few days from the fight, you’re gonna get the ‘Man, I’ve been through hell’ feeling. Eight weeks ago, I was feeling excited about this show; I thought this was gonna be the best card I’ve put together, I thought we’d sell the most tickets, but neither of those things have happened. Well, I know the tickets thing definitely hasn’t.” 

So why, after years of putting herself through the mill and building a reputation as an excellent public speaker, inspiring thousands of women to escape instances of domestic violence, has Martin found herself knocking at the door of the sport that gave her everything, before almost violently taking it all away? “I’m asking myself that same question. I guess it’s my passion for boxing and I keep thinking I’m gonna get that really good fighter that will help me as a promoter, help me move to that next level.”

Boxing was Martin’s introduction to the wider world, the brutal puncher who emerged from a local novice contest without any amateur experience and started sparring men during early sessions at Jim Martin’s gym. The snap in her shots sent electric shocks from the tips of her gloves to the boots of her opponents; she was made for it. In fact, just before connecting with Boxing Social, she’d been texting her best wishes to Amanda Serrano, the Puerto Rican closing in on her all-time women’s knockout record – 32 stoppage victories. Serrano would fall short, winning by decision. 

Those highlight-reel knockouts, plenty of them, allowed her the opportunity to compete at the highest level, and bouts with Gogarty, Mia St. John, Holly Holm and Laila Ali jump off the page when inspecting her resume. But with Jim Martin, firstly her reluctant trainer and later her extremely abusive husband, she was trapped. The ‘Untold’ documentary focuses on the couple’s spiral from celebrated dream team to bodies separated at opposite sides of crime scene tape. Martin explained that filming the episode was fun, especially reliving her finest moments between the ropes and getting her hands on some previously unseen footage, but how did she find watching Jim, cold and without remorse, draped in his prison overalls pleading periods of selective amnesia?

“It was really hard,” she admitted, sitting down again to compose herself. “It was different because so many people have made comments about how arrogant he was, but it was even more for me because I know his mannerisms, I know his words, I know his actions. It hit home for me in a different way than it did for anyone else. He has no remorse. He doesn’t wanna admit that he did this, and me being naive and hopeful, I thought, ‘Maybe after 10 years in prison he would say he did it’. But sadly, that didn’t happen.”

“Once the limelight had fallen off my boxing career, I didn’t have to feel so controlled by Jim. I felt like he couldn’t hold anything over my head anymore. He’d always talk about how I’d lose my boxing fame, the fans, the boxing world would turn on me and hate me, all that kind of stuff. So, I stayed. I put up with that stuff, a lot of bullshit. Then, as my career started to wind down, I started to stand up, to fight back and stick up for myself. That’s why the cocaine came into play because that’s what he used to keep control. He had to up the ante a little bit to keep control of the situation.” 

Jim Martin tried to control it with a blade and a bullet, yet neither could keep Martin grounded. Her recovery from the horrendous attack, detailed in the Netflix special, was remarkable and she managed to fight again, this time for herself and for her own truth.  

In childhood, she’d understood her sexuality but was backed into a corner, suppressing her feelings for fear of reprisals within her immediate family. “I think it felt impossible to me, so I married boxing and I went on a tremendous, terrific, outstanding boxing ride onto the top shelves of boxing in the nineties. I fought under Mike Tyson, I was promoted by Don King, I was fighting on Showtime and HBO. That stuff was all over the top, but my personal life – as great as that [boxing] stuff was – was on the opposite end of the spectrum. It was just hell.”

“People say, ‘Would you do it again?’ I wouldn’t wanna give up the boxing part,” continued the West Virginia-native. “I wish that I had somebody close to me then who could tell me to slow down and to take everything in. Because you’re not guaranteed that next opportunity. That’s what happened to me, I didn’t appreciate it. I fought all over Vegas, I wish I had taken a little more time to take it all in and to enjoy it. People started to stand up and take notice. I had all those Tyson cards, but getting to fight in the Garden, that was special. That ring at the time, it was the same one that so many great legends have fought in. To walk those same steps, it was just amazing.” 

Treading the same boards that had been walked by Muhammad Ali or Joe Frazier in New York was the pinnacle of a career that inspired so many young women to lace up their gloves. Madison Square Garden was considered the venue for boxing, and it was only when appreciating that moment that Martin, now 53, recalled one of her least impressive settings: “I was fighting in the Gulf Coast of Florida and for my dressing room, I was put in the janitor’s closet. There was two inches of water on the floor, it was insulting and ridiculous. I went out and the worst part about it was that I had a great fight; the fans went nuts and they weren’t letting me get out of the ring – they were going crazy and then I go back to this janitor’s closet again to get changed. It was embarrassing.” 

That doesn’t fly at Christy Martin Promotions. Fighters are picked up from the airport, given good hotel rooms, paid on time, and respected as professional athletes. She knows and remembers how it feels to be forgotten, stranded at a bus station clutching your kit bag and wondering why you’d bothered rolling the dice. She doesn’t want her fighters trudging to the ring in wet shoes, hanging ring attire over brooms or belts on broken coat hooks. Fighters shouldn’t be treated like champions, she explained, they must earn that. But they should all be treated as contenders. 

Despite her fighting successes between the ropes and those outside of the ring, one thing still rankled with the former world champion. Fighting the far bigger, stronger Laila Ali, she was expected to lose, though fought valiantly. But she didn’t get up from a knockdown in the fourth round. Now, 18 years later, Martin still can’t let it go. When asked if she thinks less of herself, she exclaimed: “For sure. I really think fighters have to fight; you go out on your shield, and I didn’t do that. I’m glad I took the fight. I felt very confident going in and she caught me with a great shot with the first punch she threw; it screwed up my equilibrium and I just couldn’t recover. The only thing I regret is that I took that knee and stayed on my knee. I feel like I quit – I did quit.” 

She doesn’t strike you as the kind of woman who’ll accept empty platitudes, so none are offered. Martin is built differently to most but doesn’t quite know where it comes from. That tough, unshakeable frame of mind, the desire to knock her opponent’s head off with every shot thrown, and her refusal to lose – or to die – separate her from most of her peers. Her work now with Christy Martin Promotions and with Christy’s Champs (her charity for domestic abuse awareness) keeps her busy, and it seems that she needs it. She has plenty left to offer the sport of boxing and she wants to contribute – despite the sport leading her into the warm arms of her worst nightmare. But what does she want, from fans, fighters, friends, or family, when it’s all said and done? 

“I went them to know that it’s part of who I am, if you’re gonna challenge me then my whole thing is seek and destroy. I want them to know that I left it all in the ring. Each-and-every time, I tried to give the fans their money’s worth. And more. Other than the Ali fight, I never laid down; I always brought it.” 

Main image: Everett Collection Inc/Alamy.