Boxing legend Christy Martin: ‘My husband told me for 20 years he would kill me’
The newly minted Hall of Famer opens up about her trials outside the ring: substance abuse, domestic violence and an attempted murder by her husband, who left her to die on their bedroom floor
Christy Martin’s original story, the well-trodden narrative of the coal miner’s daughter from West Virginia who left home and stepped into the boxing ring for her professional debut in 1989, ends on the floor of her bedroom in Apopka, Florida, on 23 November 2010. She was 42 years old. At the time, she was the welterweight champion who put women’s boxing on the map, the first female to sign with the sport’s iconic promoter, Don King, the first and, to this day, only, female boxer to appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated.
Those bits of history were the stuff used to frame her rise, to shape her career within the narrative arc of an underdog. Stories that sung the barriers she’d broken and records she’d set. But they omitted chunks of reality. Christy was gay, and trapped in a violent marriage to her manager, Jim Martin, who was 25 years her senior. She constantly needed to get high. And on that early November evening in 2010, Jim, her then-husband, who was also her abuser and cocaine supplier, her blackmailer and confidant, stabbed her three times and shot her in the chest. There would be no more separation between who she was in public and how she survived at home.
Days after her induction into the International Boxing Hall of Fame, and 12 years after the attack that nearly killed her, Christy spoke to the Guardian about the lives she’s lived, and her just-released memoir Fighting for Survival: My Journey through Boxing Fame, Abuse, Murder, and Resurrection.
By now, there are so many points in your boxing career where you were the first woman to do what you did. Are there particular milestones that feel more meaningful than others? It’s tough to say, “Oh, wow, this one thing was the best, most awesome thing.” But it all started with being the first woman to sign with Don King. I was on the first card that was ever promoted at the MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas. I fought in Madison Square Garden, in the big room. I was the Grand Marshal for the Boxing Hall of Fame induction in 1996, and then this year, to be inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame, with the first group of women, and technically, hopefully, viewed as the first woman inducted overall, that was really special. It’s a list of firsts where I don’t think I can take one as more important than the other.
You mention in your book that there weren’t any women to look to in boxing as role models, because there simply weren’t any women, period. The women you did fight, the opponents you had coming up, what kind of stories did they have? We were all in the same boat. People would say, “Well, did you see videos of this opponent or that opponent?” Are you kidding me? Women were barely able to get fights, much less have someone care enough about it to videotape it. And then even if they did, to get that videotape was next to impossible. We were all just struggling to get a break. And for whatever reason, I was just lucky and in the right place at the right time. Jesse Robinson, who was training fighters for Don King, saw me training in a gym in Daytona Beach, Florida. And after a while he told me, “I’m gonna take you to Don.” I’m thinking, “Sure you are.” But then I get a call one day and Jesse says,” Don wants to see you.” I jumped in the car, drove down to Deerfield Beach and signed the contract.
Do you remember the day-to-day training that you were doing at that point? My training regimen never really changed. I’m sure it became more intense over time, but I always just got up early, did the road work: three miles, sprints, the gym, sparring. And this was everyday, or six days a week if I took Sundays off. But I loved it. I loved my job.
When you train now, what does it look like? In my mind, I’m gonna get back to the gym every Monday. And then Monday comes and goes and I’m like, “Maybe before the end of the week.” My heart wants to, but I’m kind of busy doing other things. I do so much better if I do work out, so hopefully soon I’ll be able to get back in it. But, of course, no more sparring.
Fighting for Survival doesn’t necessarily read like a boxing story so much as it does an account of what it’s like to live through childhood sexual abuse and adult domestic abuse, and to all the while be grappling with your sexuality during a time when there wasn’t acceptance for it. Is this memoir the first time you’ve spoken publicly about some of these things? Yes. Especially the sexual abuse, I never spoke about that. I didn’t even tell my mom and dad until the trial with Jim, when I was 42. Jim knew about it, and I was afraid of what he might say. He was really evil. But with this book, now, this is the first time for me publicly that there’s ever been any talk about it. I didn’t set out for this to be a boxing book. Boxing is the backdrop. But this story, it’s about sexuality. It’s about domestic violence. It’s about childhood sexual abuse. It’s about being the underdog. I mean, I am a coal miner’s daughter. I’m from a town that’s literally one mile from beginning to end. The length of your street, that’s my town.
And the one person who did know about your childhood, and the abuse you went through, was the same person who tried to take your life. Jim told me for 20 years that he would kill me if I ever left him. Twenty years. At the beginning, I was young, 22, 23 years old, and I would kind of laugh it off. “Ah, this is crazy. Sometimes people say crazy shit.” But somewhere in the middle of those two decades, I realized no, this is how it’s gonna end for me. And that day, I absolutely knew that he was going to kill me. I went around town before it happened. I saw my hairdresser. I saw some close friends before I went back home because I was certain he was going to do it. I knew. That’s fucked up, isn’t it?
You’ve described the moment where you looked up at the ceiling, and at the air conditioning vent, as you’re on the floor of your bedroom, bleeding out. But how did you get up? How did you literally stand up and walk out of the house? I’m telling you, I tried so many times before I made it. I told the story to the prosecutor and he said, “there’s no way.” From the time Jim started stabbing me the whole thing lasted an hour and two minutes. So for most of that hour, I had already been stabbed. My lung was punctured. Every time I did try to stand, blood would squirt out of the stab holes. And my leg, the calf had come away from the bone and was just hanging there. So I’d lay back down. And then he shot me in the chest. I’m looking up at the ceiling, and at the air conditioning, and I hear the water in the bathroom turn on. And immediately I knew: Here’s your answer Christy. “Do it.” And I did it. I just got up. Now why all those other times I couldn’t? I mean, because this time, God got me up. I’m not an overly religious person, but I do believe in God. And I do believe that God got me out of this. So I got up. I got the car keys. I took the gun, and I thought I was gonna drive myself to the hospital. But I got outside and realized I had the wrong keys.
You grabbed the wrong car keys? Yep. I manage to get outside after I’ve been shot, and stabbed, and part of my leg is missing, and I’ve got the wrong car keys. So I get out to the middle of the road, and the first car I see drives by me. But there’s no way in hell I’m letting the next car do the same. And thank goodness, my angel, Rick Cole, he picked me up.
Are you still in touch with him? Absolutely. I mean I might go a year or so where I don’t talk to him, but every year, on November 23rd, I send him a message.
What was your physical recovery like, from that day? Physically, I was pretty good, actually. I mean, it took them a minute and a couple of times to keep my lung in place. And then it took my leg a while to heal, maybe a month. One thing is that they didn’t take the bullet out of my body until sometime in January.
They left the bullet inside you? I was told, “It has to be left in because it’s evidence.” But once they took it out, they basically sliced the area right open and popped it into a little container. The officer was there to take it, and off they went. All of that was quick. The physical stuff was the easy part. I mean, I was back in the gym a week after it happened with the stitches and the bullet and all that. But the mental part, I still deal with.
Is there anything that helps with the mental healing more so than something else? I don’t have the coping skills for it. So what I do is talk to groups of people. I go to prisons. I go to schools. I go to domestic violence shelters, I go to galas. Any place where I can go and talk about domestic violence, I try to. I’m not completely healed, but if I can help somebody else, it helps me. I’m doing my job. I’m doing what God left me here for.
There’s one question in the book you return to more than once, as if you know the readers are going to ask it: Why does someone stay in a relationship like that? Does it feel like people are getting better at understanding the nature of domestic abuse, or do we still have a way to go? There’s so much work that needs to be done. I think people’s first instinct is still to ask, “Why did you stay?” Obviously everybody’s situation is different, and in mine, my personal and professional lives were so intertwined. Jim told me constantly, “If you leave me, whether it be for a man or woman, I’m going to kill you. And I’m going to tell the world that you’re gay.” So I was basically blackmailed into staying. The crazy thing about my situation is that I was the one making all the money. Looking back at it, I should have left way before I did, and maybe it wouldn’t have ended like that. Even though I’m pretty certain it was always going to end like that. Abusers, one thing they do, probably the biggest thing, is they put you on an island. They isolate you from your friends and family. They make you believe that they love you and they’re the only person who loves you, and they’re the only person that’s going to be there for you, whatever the circumstance might be.
And in your story, very key parts of your identity were weaponized against you. Some of the things I talked to Jim openly about before we were – I don’t even like to use the word “romantically” because there really was never any romantic aspect – but before we were involved, he was my coach. He was 25 years older. I trusted him. The biggest mistake of my life was trusting him. So there were a lot of things I shared with him. Athletes and coaches, it’s a different kind of bond that you have. And especially with boxing, we’re talking about a one-on-one relationship.
He was the person who was helping you toward what you wanted to achieve in your career. And he was also my drug supplier. I was never without cocaine. Once he started giving it to me, I was never without it. And he would control it. He would withhold it. He’d say, “OK, this is what you have to do if you want another line.” The whole thing just, I don’t even know how I let myself get to that point, honestly. How did I get to losing all control?
When you were a teenager and then a young woman, was there a sense of internal acknowledgement of what happened to you when you were six? I was too scared to tell my parents about the sexual abuse when it happened. My mother was very close with the abuser’s grandmother. So I’d say to myself, “I’ll tell my mother after his grandmother dies.” So I just kept it to myself.
And Jim was the only one who knew. I felt like I was protecting everybody, by just keeping everything to myself. I felt like I was protecting my family by staying in this violent marriage that I fucking hated. At first, I didn’t even realize it was domestic violence. I mean, yeah, Jim and I had some physical altercations where he hit me and knocked me out, not just in the boxing ring, but also in my house. But I stayed married to him. I just wanted to make my family happy. It’s never been about making me happy until I married Lisa [Holewyne]. I called my mother and I told her that we were getting married and she said, “No, you’re not,” like I was 12 years old. I said, “I lived 20 years making you happy. I’m going to live the next 20 years making me happy.”
How did you and Lisa meet? We fought each other in 2001. She’s a world champion. She was inducted into the Women’s Boxing Hall of Fame. So we met and then we sparred a couple of times, and she was sort of in my circle of people, one of the adjacent friends. And a few months after everything happened, and the trial with Jim, she started to call and check on me. And then she came to one of my fights that I was promoting in Charlotte and we’ve been together since.
And what about your life now? How is it structured? Well, it’s maybe not as exciting as it once was. Or it is, but in a different way. When you spend time at domestic violence shelters, you meet people from every aspect of life. And you talk, share stories, and a lot of us survivors, we’re just kicking ourselves in the ass. We ask the same questions: Why did we do this? Why did we stay? Why didn’t we just go? But if it was that easy, of course we would have left. I’m still trying to find that thing. I’m still trying to make a difference. Sometimes if you know how one other person was able to get through something, how they were able to overcome it, it gives you a path. That’s what I’m trying to do with this book now – give someone else a path.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
In the US, the domestic violence hotline is 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). In the UK, call the national domestic abuse helpline on 0808 2000 247, or visit Women’s Aid. In Australia, the national family violence counselling service is on 1800 737 732. Other international helplines may be found via www.befrienders.org