By Thomas Gerbasi
Christy Martin knew that getting to 50 wins wasn’t going to be easy. She didn’t expect it to be this hard though.
Since the 49th victory in her storied 23-year career over Dakota Stone in September of 2009, she’s been shot, stabbed, left for dead, has had broken bones and was shafted by a referee and doctor in California. And when you point out that her quest for number 50 has taken three years, the West Virginia native is quick to correct that math.
“It’s been much more than three,” said Martin. “If we look back through my record, there’s been so many fights that I felt like I won, especially after leaving (former promoter Don) King. The fight with Valerie Mahfood in Houston (in July of 2008) obviously comes to mind. Even Valerie, who is a great person, she’s like ‘you won the fight convincingly,’ and for it to be a draw was very disappointing. Last year, the fight with Dakota, I’m ahead on points on all the cards, there’s less than a minute to go in the fight, and they stop the fight. Angelica Martinez (in October of 2006), that was the worst robbery. It doesn’t compare with (Manny) Pacquiao and (Timothy) Bradley, but I would say it was the worst robbery of my career.”
The loss to Stone may have been the most painful, both literally and figuratively, though her career and her life has shown that she can fight through that literal pain like few can.
Just seven months removed from being shot and stabbed by her husband Jim in November of 2010, Martin courageously stepped into the ring for the rematch with Stone, and despite breaking her right hand in nine places in the fourth round (requiring seven hours of surgery), she went on to drop her opponent later in the same round and build a comfortable lead heading into the final round.
But in the final minute of the fight, after landing a right hand and turning away, referee David Mendoza stepped in, and after consulting with the ringside physician, stopped the fight. Frankly, it was an insult to a fighter who had always shown a seeming disregard for her own safety and who had endured much tougher physical trials outside the ring.
“I just couldn’t believe it,” said Martin. “I was definitely insulted. And he (Mendoza) said that I turned my back, and I watched the ending over a few times, and I said this is a move I have done my entire career – I throw the right hand, and I slip out under the hook – and yeah, maybe for that split second my back is kinda turned, but I turn right back around, facing Dakota Stone. I saw him coming and I knew what was gonna happen, so I immediately start begging ‘no, no, no, I’m fine, don’t stop the fight.’ But no one was listening to me.”
“There have been so many opportunities when I should have had this win,” she mused, “but I guess everything happens for a reason.”
Maybe the Boxing Gods just don’t want it to happen.
She laughs, lightening the mood.
“I guess the boxing gods really don’t want me to retire. I thought they wanted me out of the sport, but maybe it’s just the opposite.”
Maybe she’s serious. At 44 years old and with 58 fights under her belt, Christy Martin isn’t retired, and she has at least one more fight to go – an August 14th meeting with old rival Mia St. John at the Table Mountain Casino in Friant, California. She makes no excuses when it comes to her reason for continuing to fight.
“I had said many, many years ago that I want to get to 50 wins, but I never thought it was gonna take this much hard work,” she said. “After the Dakota Stone fight, after everything that happened in 2010 with the attack, I just want to go out on a high note, and I want to go out a winner. I feel that I’ve been able to accomplish a lot of things in my career, and I don’t really feel that I have to have 50 wins, but it’s what I want.”
It’s her second meeting with St. John, a former staple on the undercards of Top Rank’s Oscar De La Hoya bouts the way Martin was featured on Don King’s Mike Tyson cards. Both carried the torch for women’s boxing back when it was on the verge of a mainstream breakthrough. Yet by 2002, cracks were starting to show in the sport’s foundation, and though Laila Ali was making noise and seen as the shining light that could save the sport, things would start to go downhill fast. The first Martin-St. John bout was an example.
Put together at the Pontiac Silverdome by an unknown promoter named Peter Klamka under the Revolution Fighting banner, attendance was horrific for the December 6, 2002 bout, which shouldn’t have been held in a football stadium to begin with, and Martin had an inkling that something was wrong when she was asked to make a promotional appearance the night before the fight – at a strip club no less.
“The first fight was so difficult in the promotion,” recalled Martin. “It was postponed so many times and I had given up hope that it was even gonna happen. The night before the fight, the promoter comes and tells me that he’s not paying me because I wouldn’t go to some strip club and promote the fight. First of all, I’m not going any place the night before the fight, and I’m sure not going to a strip club. So I’m in a catch-22 situation where people are telling me ‘well, if you don’t fight, then the TV’s gonna sue you,’ so finally, I just said ‘what the hell, who cares, I’ll just fight her.’ And between not really training and preparing correctly, and having the weight of not getting paid, I was almost like ‘who cares?’ Then at the same time, I thought, it’s Mia. I’m gonna go out there, hit her once, and she’s gonna go away.”
That was the consensus from many fans and pundits, yet despite the looks that landed her in Playboy magazine, deep down, St. John was a fighter, and while she lost a clear-cut decision on the scorecards, she may have won something more important: respect. Even from Martin.
“I was convinced I was gonna stop her with body shots,” said Martin, who filed a lawsuit against Klamka a week after the fight to recover her purse. “By the third round, I’m saying I hit this woman pretty damn hard and she’s not even moaning or groaning or grunting – nothing’s happening out there. So I definitely gained some respect for her, but the truth is, I always had respect for her as far as how she could promote herself. I think we’ve been pretty good antagonists, we’re good at the back and forth banter, but I really don’t have as much hate and animosity for her as I do most of my opponents. I respect her, but I don’t see her as a great fighter.”
Martin has mellowed a bit from her prime fighting years, when it was on all the time with whoever dared step into the ring with her. But the fighting fire is still there, and if you needed any reminder of that, just note that she’s been training with Miguel Diaz out in the Vegas heat, determined to be in shape, on point, and ready to go next week.
“I think this time it will be much different,” said Martin. “Training with Miguel and not loading up on everything and letting combinations go and my hands go, and being more relaxed, I think it will make the difference in the fight.”
What may make the biggest difference though is that Martin, after two decades of torment outside the ring, may finally be at peace.
“I am at peace,” she said. “Even last year, as I was training with Miguel so hard for Dakota Stone, there were so many things going on. The trial kept getting postponed, I was getting calls from attorneys all the time, and there was always something and it always seemed like it would happen right after I would have my best day in the gym. (Laughs) And before I could get out of the gym I would have a phone call from the prosecutor. So it was always something to shoot down the positive. But now, it’s hard training, but that’s all I have to focus on – just getting ready for the fight. There’s no other fight out there anymore.”
In April of this year, Jim Martin was convicted on three counts, including attempted second-degree murder with a firearm. For years, Martin may not have embraced the role fully, but she was an inspiration to countless women as a fighter. Today and in the future, her duty as a role model will be for something entirely different. And this time, she’s all in.
“I hope in my future I will be able to reach out and touch more people personally by telling my story,” she said. “I think if people can realize the turmoil and pain that I was living in for 20 years, when you can relate to somebody else having to do it, it helps make you stronger so you can leave the situation you’re in. And hopefully after this fight, I’ll be able to start reaching out more and talking to other domestic violence victims and survivors and kind of be a new role model for different reasons.”
So is she ready to hang up the gloves after August 14th?
“I told (promoter) Roy (Englebrecht) that I’m 99.9 percent retired after this fight, but I’m a fighter, so there will always be that little percentage of a percent,” she laughs. “But it would take something that is very interesting to me to get me back to the gym to work as hard as I am now, and it would have to be really significant. And I don’t know who’s out there now to really say ‘wow, that would be a really significant fight, and if they offered it to me I’d have to consider it.’ There’s really no one out there.”
That’s unfortunate, because at one time, female boxers were stealing the show from their male counterparts and there were personalities that captivated fans not only in the states, but around the world. Now, outside of a select few, the sport is devoid of fighters like Martin, St. John, and Ali.
“I don’t want to sound arrogant, but 15 years ago, I told the boxing world that women’s boxing was going to move as I moved, and as Don King moved me and promoted me, because no one was coming behind me to take over,” said Martin. “And then Laila (Ali) came. I fought Laila (in August of 2003) and I thought I would knock her out, but after the fight was over (won by Ali via fourth round knockout), I passed the torch on. Now Laila Ali, who has the great name, and she’s a good fighter, she should be able to carry on for women’s boxing and even make it grow more and be bigger. But she didn’t, because she didn’t have that personality that made her in touch with the real people and the real boxing fans that I felt like I had. I felt like the boxing fans related to me. I was just the person next door. You could knock on your next door neighbor’s door and see me. To me, there has been no personality, no fighter – in or out of the ring – to come along and kinda captivate the public’s attention. And saying that my fight with Mia is gaining so much publicity and no fight has for a long time, that’s sad on the women’s boxing side of the coin. Hopefully we put on a great fight and a good show and try to kickstart women’s boxing over again. And with the Olympics, hopefully somebody will come out of there with a medal and a little bit of charisma that will catch on with the boxing public.”
This year’s London Games has produced plenty of hope on the women’s side as far as Gold medalists Claressa Shields (US), Nicola Adams (Great Britain), and Katie Taylor (Ireland) go, and though US Bronze medalist Marlen Esparza is expected to retire from the sport, Sugar Ray Leonard said the same thing after winning Gold in Montreal in 1976, so there’s still hope.
But that’s the next generation. For now, it may be the last time to enjoy seeing Christy Martin and Mia St. John in the ring, and if “The Coal Miner’s Daughter” does walk away from the sport, she just has one wish when it comes to how she’s remembered by fight fans.
“I just want boxing fans to remember me by knowing that I gave it my all,” she said. “Each and every time out, I would stay in there and battle until that last drop of blood came out. I just wanted to give them action and excitement.”
That mission is already accomplished.