By Thomas Gerbasi, photo by Mary Ann Owen
For the better part of ten years, there was only one fight Mia St. John needed to get back in a pro boxing career that began in 1997. It wasn’t to avenge her first loss to Rolanda Andrews, throw hands again with Holly Holm, or to regain the WBC international title she lost to Brooke Dierdoff.
No, St. John’s lone fistic desire before hanging up the gloves was to get a rematch with Christy Martin, the women’s boxing pioneer who decisioned her in a highly publicized 2002 bout. So even though she had not stepped into the ring since outpointing Tammy Franks in an October 2010 bout, she held out hope that one of the many people offering her fights would offer her the one she actually wanted.
“I’m always going to be offered fights, and I think a fighter has to come to a point in their career where they accept that they can no longer do this, and be secure and confident in themselves to let it go,” said St. John in one of the more honest statements given by a professional prizefighter. “But I just felt like this is one fight that I couldn’t let go of, and until I accomplished that, I don’t think I’d be able to retire.”
When you look back at Martin vs. St. John I, many fans and pundits saw it as a mismatch, a fight in which the Playboy covergirl was going to get mauled by the heavy-handed “Coal Miner’s Daughter.” But something happened on the way to Martin’s 10 round decision win – Mia St. John finally got her respect. Was she Sugar Ray Robinson or Muhammad Ali in the ring? No. But what was lost over the years because of her looks and her prime placement on Top Rank’s Oscar De La Hoya cards was that this Mexican-American young lady did her roadwork like everybody else, worked long hours in the gym like everybody else, and took punches like everybody else. In other words, she was a fighter, no matter what the couch potatoes said, and in going the distance with Martin, it was a win everywhere except on the judges’ scorecards.
“Yeah, I would have given her the last fight, but I still feel that I was the better boxer that night and I did outbox her, and I still feel that I am a better boxer,” said St. John. “There are certain things I could have done in the last fight that would have taken the fight, and I feel that I’m in much better shape mentally now. Back then I was really fearful because I had never fought anyone that tough, so there was a lot of insecurity. Now, I’ve fought everybody. I fought Jessica Rakoczy, Holly Holm, I fought the best, so now I feel really secure in what I can do.”
All she needed was someone to agree, to get Martin on board, and to make the fight. And while there were little rays of hope since 2002, St. John wasn’t holding her breath that she would get the chance to even the score.
“So many times I just said okay, that’s it, I guess this is just not meant to be,” she said. “But then something always happened to bring it back, and then I would take that as a sign, like it was meant to be.”
Enter Roy Englebrecht, one of the most successful promoters in the sport today and a California fight scene icon. He knew the potential of a Martin-St. John rematch, and he pulled the trigger on it. So tonight, at the Table Mountain Casino in Friant, California, St. John and Martin meet again.
Of course, with this being boxing, it wasn’t that easy.
“There were so many factors involved and Christy and I went through so much,” recalled St. John. “We got injured a lot, and then she got shot and stabbed by her ex-husband, and there were just so many factors that were playing into not making this fight happen, and finally, it just all came together.”
Originally scheduled for June, the aftermath of Martin’s ordeal with her ex-husband Jim prompted a postponement until today, and even before that, when talks were beginning for the fight last year, St. John’s mother Maria Rosales was not exactly on board with her daughter continuing to fight.
“This is gonna be my first fight without my mother in my corner,” said St. John, 46-11-2, 18 KOs, whose mom passed away on December 27, 2011. “But I told her before she died that I was going to do this fight, and I know that she was upset about it because she just wanted me to retire and let it go. I told her that there was no way. I know I can win this fight, and I’m not gonna be satisfied until I prove it.”
With the Mia St. John Foundation up and running and the 45-year old Californian staying busy with many projects involving children and the local community, she had plenty of things to keep her occupied that didn’t involve punches flying at her head, but this was the one loose end she couldn’t leave untied. And her mom probably would have understood that, considering that she raised a fighter.
“I really feel like it was meant to be. Sadly it happened after my mom passed.”
So while things may be emotional before, during, and after tonight’s bout, St. John couldn’t be more amped up for the 10 rounder, and that’s been evident in the lead-up to the fight. Yet for the occasional barbs the two have thrown at each other over the years, it’s clear that St. John and Martin are kindred spirits.
“Me and Christy have definitely had our ups and downs and I won’t say we like each other, but we definitely respect each other,” she said. “We put up with so much crap from the media and from the critics that we relate to each other, and that bonds us. But at the same time, we both have big egos, and Christy’s no different than me; she really believes she can beat me, and I really believe I can beat her. So while we have respect for each other, we’re still fighters and we’re still very competitive. There’s no way I’m leaving that ring without my hand raised, and that’s how she feels.”
And when it’s over, St. John will take off the gloves and put them away. It probably wouldn’t be accurate to say that she’s content with her decision to retire; maybe resigned is the right word. But whatever it is, she has started to lay the groundwork for life after boxing by talking to some of the greats.
“I’m friends with all the old fighters,” she said. “I’m very close with Tommy Hearns and friends with Ray Leonard, and I’ve talked to all of them about this, and there’s just no way around it, you’re gonna have to go through what you’re gonna go through. It’s depressing, it’s tough, but it’s part of life and you have to go through it. And I’m told that I’ll come out on the other end and I’ll be okay, just like they were. It’s going to be tough because I started to compete when I was six years old, so that’s really all I know is to wake up every morning and train to win. It’s gonna be one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do in my life, but I have to. Everybody has to retire sometime.”
Tuesday night, Mia St. John’s time has come. But she has every intention of leaving with her 47th win before she goes. That’s just the way fighters think.