March 16 1996 is perhaps the most important date in women’s boxing.
A six-round all-action clash played out on the undercard of Mike Tyson and Frank Bruno’s mighty MGM-hosted World title fight and forever changed the perception of what women’s boxing can be.
Sports Illustrated wrote: “… more action and better boxing than the main event.”
In fact, it was this fight and not Muhammad Ali’s achievements that later inspired Laila Ali to follow in her father’s footsteps.
“I was surprised, excited, had no idea that women even fought, and these two women slugged it out. It was a bloody fight and I was like, “I want to do that!” Laila Ali has told.
The fighters in the ring were Christy Martin and Deirdre Gogarty with Martin winning their lightweight contest by a unanimous decision. Women’s boxing was on the map, Martin skyrocketed to fame and graced the cover of SI as the first woman boxer just one month later.
“I think that was the fight that made women’s boxing,” says 53-year-old Christy Salters Martin. “That night, because of Mike Tyson, because of the promoter Don King… Showtime. There were so many people around the world watching Mike Tyson. And before Mike Tyson we put on a great show, it was just a war! Back and forth, back and forth.
“Gogarty was not quite as strong as I am, but damn we had the same kind of toughness and determination. Everybody at the arena was standing on their feet at the end of the fight. It was just unbelievable. The response from that fight changes the face of women’s boxing.”
The fight is not only the stuff of fight legend but also a symbol of Christy Salters Martin’s goal as a boxer.
“I wanted people to see me as a fighter. I didn’t want to be a woman boxer. I wanted to just fit in a be part of the sport. That’s how I wanted people to accept me.”
Christy Salters Martin and her younger brother Randy grew up in the coal mining town Itmann of West Virginia. Martin’s later fighting nickname The Coal Miners Daughter came from her father, Johnny Salters, who was a welder at the local coal mine, her mother, Joyce, was a stay-at-home mother.
As a child, Martin played various sports, she was a talented basketball player and the only girl on her town’s Little League baseball team. In 1989, she entered a Toughman Contest – a brand that predated MMA – and performed unexpectedly well in the women’s division.
“I don’t know when I entered this ‘Toughman’ contest that got me started why I thought it was a great idea,” Martin says. “I guess it’s the competitive nature that I have. A part of it was somebody telling me, “no, I couldn’t do it”, that gave me a little bit of extra drive. I wanted to show people it can be done.”
The ‘Toughman’ fights led to the early stages of a boxing career. But it was hard to find opponents, difficult to get on fight cards.
“I fought for free,” Martin tells. “My mother promoted a show in a small town of West Virginia. I did anything to find somebody that would put me on their shows. So finally to get a break to get to go and sign a deal with Don King was truly unbelievable and no one had done that before.
“So it wasn’t like I could look at this person and say, “if she can do it I can do it” because no one had done it before. I had to be that one. I was that one that hopefully for generations on they can look and say, “if Christy can do it they I can.”
The darker side of Christy Salters Martin’s story is a whole other fight.
Outside of the ring, Martin was living a nightmare with her trainer and husband, Jim Martin, who was nearly 25 years older and extremely controlling. 19 years of turbulent marriage culminated when Jim would try and kill her when she tried to end their marriage and leave for him for a woman.
On November 23 2010 in their home in Orlando, Florida Martin was stabbed four times in the chest – her left lung was ruptured, her left leg was cut to the bone, and she had been shot with the bullet lodged three inches from her heart.
Martin fought back and returned to the ring just five months after she was left for dead. The motivation was to get the 50th win on her record, the opponent was Dakota Stone whom she had defeated before the attack.
“Boxing was my savior a couple of times in life. With the comeback, I needed to know if I was okay mentally and physically. The only thing I knew and was comfortable with was going back to the boxing world.
“I tried so hard to get that 50th win, it didn’t play out that way. That one still gets me. I was 50 seconds away from win number 50 with a broken hand that had been broken for two or three rounds, and the doctor stopped the fight on me …”
During surgery to repair the broken hand, doctors encountered complications. When Martin woke up hours later, she could not talk. She had suffered a stroke but kept the setback a secret to get another shot at a 50th win.
And so Martin entered the Last Chance Saloon to meet another legend, Mia St John.
“I still wanted that 50th win, and I needed money. It was a crazy thought that I could still fight after having a stroke, and I had Jim’s trial coming up. There were just too many distractions, but I was arrogant. I thought, at my very, very worst day and Mia’s very best day she can’t beat me. But she won the fight, and it’s okay.”
By the time she retired in 2012, Christy Salters Martin was a multiple-time world champion and held a record of 49 wins, 7 losses, and 3 draws with 31 wins by knockout.
Remarkably, Laila Ali did go on to face Martin and win, and Mike Tyson would always be supportive of Martin throughout her entire career and wanted her to be on his undercards.
Martin remarried in 2017 to Lisa Holewyne, also a former professional boxer (and a former opponent). Jim Martin is behind bars, serving a 35-year sentence in prison.
“I’m a much happier Christy than 10-11-12 you know 20 years ago,” Martin says. “Now I am true to me.”
In 2020, The Coal Miner’s Daughter was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame and is now a promoter after a short period as a trainer.
“I tried to train a couple of people, and these fighters just don’t wanna work hard enough, they don’t have the same discipline and dedication that I did so training wasn’t going to be for me.
“The promoter is more fitting for me, but it’s tough. It’s tough work. It’s much harder to be the promoter than to be the fighter. I’m at the bottom. I’m a four-six-round promoter. I haven’t made it to the championship level yet so I do a lot of the work myself. Goes from arranging the hotel room to the travel to the insurance, to help match most of the fights. My hands are in all of it. I have to make the little decisions as well.
“But with that being said I’m going to fight the fight and trying to get to the higher ranks of the promoters. But I’m also putting a lot of time with Christy’s Champs – my domestic violence non-profit. Speaking at different events, going around the country just trying to raise awareness.
“I think it is always important for people to understand it’s not just about the bruises, it’s about the mental and emotional beat down and the control that these victimizers put us under. These abusers just want to keep on putting us down further and further – they wanna break your spirit. And that’s what happened to me; Jim broke my spirit.
“I believe that God left me here for that fight. To help other people to find some strength through my stories so they don’t have to go down that road as far as I did.”
The Netflix Untold Docuseries features Christy Salters Martin’s gripping story in ‘Untold: Deal With the Devil’ debuting on August 17.