Now that she's fighting on Mike Tyson undercards and appearing on the Today Show (and Prime Time Live and Inside Edition and Extra! and Day & Date) women's boxing has come to seem a fairly acceptable idea, at least to the extent that boxing is at all acceptable. But try to see it from Jim Martin's point of view, six years ago, when Christy Salters appeared in his Bristol, Tenn., gym with her horrifying little entourage. "My god," said Martin, a former light heavyweight who had been training fighters in small-time venues for 25 years. Examining the embarrassment that was unfolding before him, he thought, I got a lady in my gym, I got her mother in my gym, and I got a little bitty Pomeranian dog in my gym. Women's boxing? This was not an acceptable idea unless you were promoting virtual emasculation.
"So I had it all set up," he remembers, "to have her ribs broke. A couple of ribs, anyway. But the boss shows up, the guy who invited her out to the gym, so I thought I'd put that off for a couple of days. How would it look if I had her ribs broke right away? See what I'm saying? But I'm sort of a macho guy, and I didn't think women belonged in the fight game. So there was no question I was going to have her ribs broke."
But with his boss hanging around and hanging around, it was difficult. And besides, he says, she was kind of showing him something. She was tough without being, as he says, a "manly type woman, if you know what I mean." And in her first few sessions, she worked hard and listened to just about everything he said, more so than his men fighters when he stopped to think about it. Also, the mother and dog were gone after a few days. So it came upon him that he wouldn't break her ribs after all.
And then came the next step in the ever-grudging relationship between man and woman, the inevitable enlightenment that Martin in particular enjoyed, the moment when generational and even hormonal differences were swept aside. "You know what?" he remembers thinking, suddenly liberated from his backward gender bias. "I thought, Maybe this woman can make me some money."
A horrible story, of course, but this is how social progress is made, in fits and starts and usually for all the wrong reasons. Today Christy Salters Martin, in addition to being Jim Martin's wife (a somewhat better story), has become an icon of gender equality in a society that must now consider glass chins along with glass ceilings. Yet the fact that Christy (35-2-2, with 25 KOs) has any credibility in this sport as a canvas-breaking woman—and she does as the first woman boxer to be taken seriously for her considerable skills in the ring, which are regularly on display in Don King megashows—is due entirely to accidents of personality and circumstance, and not to gender pioneering. Because, face it, Christy is not much more freethinking than her husband when it comes to women's rights and opportunities. The woman's movement? Slip the jab and counter with an overhand right, that's one such movement.
This is a disappointment to people who see her fight and expect to find easy answers to all those hot-button questions she brings into the ring. A woman in boxing is unsettling enough. It's one thing to encourage women to get out of the kitchen and become doctors, quite another to allow them to appropriate the testosterone-driven sports that men have traditionally enjoyed (and that well-meaning people would hope to wean men away from). And if it's not confusing enough to see her appear in a white leather miniskirt at a news conference and then a blood-stained jersey in the subsequent fight, what about this husband-wife thing, where the Mr. sends the Mrs. into the kind of combat that is traditionally reserved for the man, the breadwinner, the head of the household?
The whole thing is disquieting and disturbing—and it goes right over the Martins' heads. Because there is nothing calculated or self-conscious about what they're doing. They are decidedly old-fashioned in their sexual politics, and whatever causes they advance are done so inadvertently, in service of the usual interests: fame and fortune. "I'm not out to make a statement about women in boxing, or even women in sports," says Christy, 27, who bridles at the media's attempts to cast her as a role model, to assign so much purpose to her. "I'm not trying to put women in the fore front, and I don't even think this fascination [with women in the ring] has much to do with that. This is about Christy Martin." For crying out loud (not that she ever would), isn't that purpose enough?
So perhaps Martin is not one to lead the revolution, but for now, she is not one to be ignored. Her appearance last month on the Tyson-Frank Bruno pay-per-view card in Las Vegas got her worldwide attention. Upwards of 1.1 million viewers saw her in one of the main preliminaries, enviable product placement on the second-most-watched card in pay-per-view history. And although headlines the next day trumpeted Tyson's easy victory for the WBC heavyweight championship, quite a bit of the watercooler talk in the days following was of Martin's fight with Ireland's "Dangerous" Deirdre Gogarty.
Not only was the bout between the 5'4", 133-pound Martin and the 5'7", 131-pound Gogarty more competitive than the typical prelim, but it also had more action and better boxing than the main event—Bruno clung to Tyson at every opportunity—and there was gore to boot, all of it Martin's. After Gogarty rocked her in the second round, Martin bled wildly from the nose; it was a harmless injury but eye-opening for the fans who were expecting Foxy Boxing. "She bled like a stuck pig," says her trainer-hubby, proudly.
Despite the blood, Martin consistently landed solid shots with both hands and won the six-round fight easily. Martin wins them all with the kind of technically correct boxing her male counterparts hardly bother with: sharp jabs, hooks to the ribs. Like Tyson himself, she stalks her opponents from the opening bell, seeking to make quick work of them (14 of her knockouts have come in the first round). Perhaps because of the blood—but also thanks to her relentless, aggressive style—she won over a lot of fans in Vegas. She didn't stop, she didn't cry, she did what every good fighter does, kept going. In her most visible fight yet, Martin provided drama and excitement. It was fascinating. No doubt some people were repulsed by the sight, but many more were probably happy about seeing a pretty good athletic performance. For sure, everybody was curious. Afterward, almost before she could apply her makeup and wriggle into her miniskirt (she shares her husband's aversion to manly type women, if you know what we mean), she was fielding calls from 60 Minutes and Late Show with David Letterman. "And it wasn't even my best light," she says.