Christy Renea Martin has often been referred to as the fighter who legitimized women’s boxing, but “The Coalminer’s Daughter” is not so quick to accept the praise. “I do believe that my work made it easier for the ones that followed me, but I wasn’t the first. I don’t feel that I deserve that title, and I really don’t even want it, because there were so many women that came before me, who sacrificed so much and made it possible for me to box.”
In the absence of an amateur portal back in 1986, Martin found her future through a rather unconventional route. “There was a competition called the “Tough Man” contest, which would come around to my little town in West Virginia [Mullens] every year, and they never allowed women to enter. I spoke to the promoter and said I wanted to enter and fight, just because of the challenge.
“Boxing wasn’t popular in my little area, and I had only watched fights on TV with my dad growing up. I had never been to a live boxing match, but it was something I wanted to do. The more people said, ‘You can’t do it,’ the more I wanted to. That’s how it happened. Finally, they let women enter, and I was one of the first to sign up and had my first fight, aged eighteen.”
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Martin embarked on her professional journey on September 9, 1989. She explained how difficult it was to fight in a predominantly male-dominated environment. “It was very hard to find opponents. So many people wanted to tell you that you couldn’t fight, promoters didn’t want to put you on shows. I fought for free, I fought for tickets, I didn’t get paid much. Let’s just say it was a learning curve for me.”
After a rocky start—a debut draw, followed by one loss and two wins in her first four fights—Martin didn’t lose a single contest in her next thirty-five outings. On October 15, 1993, in what was her twentieth fight, she became the WBC world junior-welterweight champion. “Beverly Szymanski was a really tough girl. She had an extensive career as a kickboxer, and she was very, very confident. She had a good chance to win, so to get that knockout against her—and it was a devastating knockout—gave me a lot of confidence.
“Having that green belt around your waist—it’s hard to describe what it’s like to be a WBC champion. However, although being called world champion was a great feeling, I hadn’t competed against other women around the world, so I didn’t fully feel like a world champion.”
Eleven fights later, on March 16, 1996, Martin took on Ireland’s Deirdre Gogarty in a barn burner. “I remember getting in the ring and looking around at ringside because I was fighting on the Mike Tyson‒Frank Bruno undercard and there were so many celebrities, athletes, musicians, and actors. Everybody from every part of the world was at ringside. That was a great opportunity for me to shine.
“That’s the fight that gave women’s boxing a boost at the time. Also, it gave my career a huge lift. I had a boxing style of a knockout mentality. Move forward, lots of pressure, big punches. I’d get hit a lot because I was loading up to throw big shots, but I figured it was a crowd-pleasing style. Deirdre Gogarty was a warrior. Tough as hell. Typical Irish fighter who keeps coming and putting the pressure on. When the fight ended, the crowd were on their feet giving us a standing ovation for our efforts, and as I said before, that was a hell of a crowd.”
Over the years, rumors circulated that Martin had sparred with Tyson, but the fifty-one-year-old was quick to dispel the gossip. “It never happened. He was, however, very supportive of my career and always wanted me to be on his undercards. Even today, he helps me out with everything I’m doing.
“I did, however, pretty much only spar with men throughout my career. I sparred a few women, but it was mainly men. I sparred James Toney once and that was pretty nerve-wracking. You know, James Toney is a little crazy, but he was actually great with me. I was nervous because he had just sparred with a man and when the guy turned his back to walk to the corner after the bell, James hit him behind the head. I’m like, ‘Oh shit. You want me to spar with this guy?’ But he was really professional, worked with me really well, and taught me a lot.”
Eight fights after Gogarty, on December 18, 1998, Martin suffered a majority decision loss against Sumya Anani, losing her world title. “It was a tough fight. Sumya had a style that was very difficult for me, and she used her head a lot. Not just in my fight but every time she fought somebody, their face would always be busted up from head butts. The fight was very close, and I think it was a draw. I don’t think I did enough to win, but I also don’t think I didn’t do enough to get me a loss. But hey, I fought hard, she got the win that night, so hat’s off to her.”
The Anani loss was Martin’s first taste of defeat in nine years. In her next nine outings, she beat the likes of Mia St. John, whom she would lock horns with again in her final fight. (During that stretch, Martin also won a decision over her future wife—Lisa Holewyne.) On August 23, 2003, Martin, boasting a record of 45-2-2, challenged Laila Ali. Martin fought most of her career at lightweight and welterweight and was far shorter than Ali, so what possessed her to accept the fight? “First, many sources say I’m five feet five inches, but I’m not even five feet four! In terms of [Laila] Ali—it was a big fight for women’s boxing. We were the two biggest names in the sport at the time, and I was really confident. However, I really didn’t realize how big she was until we signed the contract and I met her. When I saw her, I was like, ‘Damn. This woman is big!’ [Ali is five feet ten]”
“I was still confident, though, that I was going to hit her harder than she’d ever been hit before and that my punches would have an effect. The problem was she hit me first. She hurt me in the first round, probably with the first right hand she threw, which landed high on my head above my ear. That messed with my equilibrium, and I just couldn’t recover. I tried hard, gave it all I could, but I just didn’t recover from the shot [Martin was stopped in the fourth round].”
Was Ali the best fighter Martin ever faced? “I don’t think so. She was very big and strong, and I give her lots of credit because she could have lived off her name, but she went down the gym and learned how to fight. The person I fought who I think had the best skills and the sharpest punches was Jackie Thomas, who I fought in 1992.”
Martin bounced back on April 30, 2005, stopping Lana Alexander in two rounds, before suffering back-to-back losses against Holly Holm and Angelica Martinez. “I was supposed to fight Lucia Rijker,” Martin recalled, “and then she pulled out the week of the fight, which kind of left me in a bad situation because I didn’t have any fights lined up and didn’t have a promoter at the time either.
“After the Rijker fight was canceled, I remember the night of the [Holm] fight thinking, here I am fighting in this small casino in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where, instead, I should have been fighting in Las Vegas for a million dollars. The fight with Lucia Rijker not happening took a big part of my desire and motivation away. I trained so hard for it and was so prepared mentally and physically. It kind of broke me. In terms of Martinez, I totally got robbed. I beat the shit out of her. I won’t bullshit you and say I totally got robbed if I lost, but that one I got robbed.”
By 2009, the boxer who always fought in pink had amassed over fifty fights in twenty years as a professional. After clocking up a further three victories and one draw, on 2 September 2009, she took on and defeated Dakota Stone to claim the vacant WBC world super-welterweight title. “You know, I always wanted to win, be the best, and put on the best performance, but my career was obviously winding down. I was also going through a lot of personal issues. I should have retired when the Rijker fight didn’t happen, because I think I damaged my legacy a bit by staying around. However, it was a great opportunity. I fought in upstate New York [Syracuse], and it was exciting. To fight for a WBC world title that late in my career made me feel very proud [Martin won the contest by a majority decision victory over ten rounds].”
After becoming a two-weight world champion at the age of forty-one, Martin didn’t fight for almost two years, but that had nothing to do with boxing. On November 23, 2010, she was the victim of a vicious attack from her husband Jim Martin, after she had informed him that she was leaving him for another woman. “He stabbed me five good times, and I also had cuts all over me. He punctured one of my lungs and cut my calf muscle almost completely from my leg. They had to stick it back on.
“He also shot me once, missing my heart with a 9mm handgun by three inches. He left me to die. I was laying on the floor, and every time I tried to get up, blood would squirt out of me. I was really scared. After he shot me, I prayed really hard for God to help me and show me some sign of how to get out. Almost immediately after I finished the prayer, I heard the shower water turn on, and that was my sign. At that point, I mustered enough strength to get up, get out of the house and flagged down someone that was passing by, who then took me to the hospital.”
Martin also addressed the reaction to her coming out. “That was one of the things that hung over my head for the entire twenty years I was married to my husband, that the boxing community, my family, everybody would turn their backs on me. One thing I knew when I did tell everyone—I didn’t lose any true friends. For me personally, it was very liberating to get that off my chest. To finally be free and happy in my own skin and be me, to finally get there, after forty-nine years, was a long journey, but I got there.”
After such a horrific attack, one would assume there would be a period of convalescence. Not in Martin’s case. “The day I got out of the hospital, I went to the gym. When he shot me, I was lying on the floor, and the bullet didn’t go all the way through. The floor stopped it, so the bullet was still in my back, and I also had hundreds of stitches in my leg, but I still went back to the gym. That was a safe place. Boxing was my safe place.”
Five months after the attack, on 4 June 2011, Martin was back in the ring with Stone. She lost the contest with less than a minute to go, despite having knocked Stone down in the fourth round. “My hand was broken from the second round, but I was winning on all cards with fifty seconds to go, and the referee went over to the doctor. I tried to tell the doctor that my hand wasn’t broken and not to stop the fight with only fifty seconds remaining, but he [David Mendoza] called a halt to the fight.
“I went to the hospital straight after to put my hand back together. It turned out it was broken in twelve places, and during surgery I had a stroke. At that point, the doctor said, ‘Don’t fight again, don’t get hit in the head,’ blah, blah, blah. I didn’t tell anyone I had the stroke other than my family and people very close to me.”
Ignoring medical advice, Martin took on Mia St. John for the WBC world super-welterweight title on August 14, 2012, losing a close decision over ten rounds. “I fought Mia St. John because I was an arrogant ass. I thought, even after a stroke, even after going through everything I’d been through with my husband, I’d still be able to beat Mia. Obviously, I miscalculated. At that point, I knew boxing was done for me.” Both Martin and St. John retired after that contest.
In fifty-nine fights, Martin clocked up forty-nine victories, lost seven times and drew three. The pioneering slugger reflected on her time in boxing. “I’m very proud. I was given a wonderful opportunity, and I took advantage of it. It wasn’t just me, though. There was Don King, Showtime, and all the people involved in my career that made it possible. Not only did it make me, it put women’s boxing in a place where it hadn’t been before and hasn’t been since. I’m grateful for that.”