There are boxers, and there is Christy Martin, or as she goes by in her personal life, Salters Martin.
The West Virginia-born champ exploded onto the sports scene in 1996 when, after years of boxing in small venues, she landed a spot dueling Deidre Gogerty as a sideshow prior to a sold-out Mike Tyson fight in Las Vegas. The match, televised on Showtime, broadcast to an estimated 80 million people, became the talk of the sports world, and Salters Martin emerged as the first female celebrity boxer in history. Now she tells her story in Untold: Deal with the Devil on Netflix beginning August 17.
Yet for all her celebrity–not to mention a staggering record, winning 49 out of 59 fights–Martin harbored a dark personal life. She originally wed her trainer, Jim Martin, to deflect fans from the truth: Salters Martin is a lesbian. Nevertheless, Salters Martin endured the loveless, abusive marriage for years in the name of protecting her career. Those years of pain also led to drug abuse. A chance reconnection with her high school girlfriend, Sherry Lusk, opened the floodgates; Salters Martin refused to live a lie any longer. She managed to kick her drug habit, and prepared to leave Jim Martin. Jim, however, refused to let go. He stabbed Christy multiple times, shot her, and left her for dead. Always the fighter, Christy survived and escaped. Today, Jim Martin serves a 25-year prison sentence. Salters Martin, meanwhile, has come out publicly, married her one-time competitor Lisa Holewyne, and become an advocate for victims of domestic violence.
We caught up with the sports legend just ahead of the Untold: Deal with the Devil premiere to talk about her career, her coming out, and the power of self-acceptance. Untold: Deal with the Devil streams on Netflix August 17.
So what an incredible story, first of all. You’re telling all here. How intimidated were you when the opportunity presented itself?
You know, if I don’t put it out there—the truth—then I don’t think people can really understand and grasp just how crazy things were for those 20 years of being married to a narcissistic, abusive, jerk. And that’s being nice. So hopefully by being so open, people will find things that touch their life, that will spark the hey, I have got to get out. The problem too, being in that situation, you don’t know who to reach out to. Many times, if it’s your significant other [that is doing the abusing], you have the same friends. It’s like, who do I go to? And if you go to your family, you have to remember, if you turn your mother against him or her, that’s always going to be. In the end, I finally did reach out to my mother, but so much happened. And she didn’t get it.
Did you always know Jim would participate?
I did not. I did not know that Jim would be part of it, but as we went along and as I became very comfortable with the director Laura Brownson. I think she was very fair with her portrayal of everybody in the documentary. As I watched it, I felt people were telling the truth, speaking from the heart, speaking from their own remembrance…except Jim. I just shake my head. 10 years in prison and he’s still the same arrogant ass he was back then? That probably was the hardest part of the documentary—just hearing his voice and seeing that smug look on his face. That’s going to touch me more than anyone else. Even if it has an effect on you, it has a much deeper effect on me.
I can’t imagine. It speaks to your bravery. I feel like I learned so much about boxing just from your story. It’s thrilling to watch you…it’s like a typhoon in the ring. Do you think of it as its own kind of performance? In other words, it’s not just enough to fight, you have to put on an entertaining, interesting one?
Well, being the first female that ever had a really big exposure and a big promoter, Don King, behind me, I did feel the pressure that bell-to-bell I had to bring action. Sometimes a little cockiness would come in. I’d put my hands down and get hit. So that is the “show” part. So yes, as you move through a fight a bit of it is show. Most of it is straight-up let’s get to work.
You say you never felt pain in the ring. How—especially when you’re having difficulties in your personal life—do you maintain focus?
That’s a good question. I loved it. I absolutely loved it. I loved the competition. I loved being in front of the crowd, to knock somebody out. There’s not a bigger high or adrenaline rush. But that’s just me—my wife Lisa, who is also a world champion boxer, just wanted to beat you up for ten rounds.
She didn’t really want to hurt you. My theory on this—lemme knock you out and be done with it—actually saves you pain. But that was just my theory. I got the same check at the end of the night whether I went one round or ten. So, let’s get the check and go home.
Nothing wrong with that. I have to ask too—tell me about celebrity. As in, when you make history in front of 80 million people, as in the Gogerty fight. Tell me about the sound. What does it sound like when the whole world stands up and cheers for you?
You know what? It was the craziest thing. That was just the way all my fights were: wars, struggles, breathing, bleeding. I didn’t get it. When I went back to my hotel room and had all these calls from famous people, people wanting to book me on their shows, I thought it was a joke. I called [my publicist] and was like why would anyone do this to me? He was like you don’t understand. All the buzz is about you. Nobody’s even talking about Tyson. So it was overwhelming. Who could have imagined? Who would have imagined that a coal miner’s daughter from a city of 500 in West Virginia would fight in front of the world?
Tell me more about that celebrity. When you become an overnight success, is it scary? Addictive? Does that add to the pressure?
Yes, it puts more pressure. Yes, it’s scary. And yes, it’s addictive. You desire more and more. You want to just keep growing and be a bigger name on the boxing show. That’s part of the marketing. So to be on Leno, or Katie Couric interviewed me on The Today Show, no female fighter ever had that kind of exposure. And the way I got it, it wasn’t like I got it pre-fight. I got it post-fight because it was really entertaining. It had shock value.
It’s also remarkable to hear your contemporaries—even former competitors like Gogerty, Laila Ali, or even Mike Tyson talk about you with reverence. They respect you, and that’s a testament to your legacy.
The other question I have about that is you say you could only release the anger in the ring, never anywhere else. Why was that the case?
Well, in the boxing ring, that’s what people expect. They expect you to be aggressive, strong, arrogent—a cocky ass sometimes. That’s who I was. Christy Martin is sort of a persona of who I truly am. In my personal life, I’m very quiet, very shy. Even to do this interview, I had to take deep breaths. It’s hard to put yourself out there, even though I’ve done it. It’s hard each time.
You’re life took a transformative turn when you reconnected with Sherry. You got out of a bad marriage, you kicked drug abuse. What was it about accepting love that gave you so much inner strength?
I got to the point where I had to step out and be who I really am. My boxing career was over, so there was less Jim could hurt me with. I just knew that in order to really live—to have a life of any kind—I had to get away with him. Sherry had messaged me through Facebook, and we reconnected without knowing what was going to happen. I loved her like crazy in high school. When we got back together, we were still trying to find that first love excitement. At this point, I’m more in love with the idea of being me, who I really am. I’ve said many times: you can get on or get off the bandwagon. It doesn’t matter. By that point I was 43, and who cares? I wanted to be happy. I hope through this documentary that’s what we show. Sometimes, you have to dig deep. Let’s be true to ourselves.
What’s the state of your life now?
Basically, day to day is working on boxing promotion. I’ll tell you it’s much harder to be the promoter than the boxer. I loved it. It was fun to be the fighter. Being a promoter is hard; there’s a lot of work involved. I’m also busy with Christy’s Champs, my nonprofit domestic violence awareness group. I spoke recently at the Harbor House. I’ll be in Chesapeake, Virginia next week. I want to bring domestic violence awareness to every woman’s attention. So many people think it’s just about bruises. It’s so much more than physical. It’s mental, physical, controlling.
So after living through all this, when do you feel the most happiness?
Wow. The most happiness? It’s just chilling with Lisa. We have some time to just hang out. We’re actually going to Las Vegas this weekend to the Boxing Hall of Fame. I snuck her out a day early just so we have some downtime and can enjoy each other. It’s a busy life.
Untold: Deal with the Devil arrives on Netflix August 17.