By Thomas Hauser
There's a time-honored rite of passage in boxing. And it can be ugly. A great fighter gets old. A young fighter has the look of greatness. They meet in the ring . . . Muhammad Ali versus Larry Holmes . . . Joe Louis against Rocky Marciano.
There are no great fighters in women's boxing. But for the past seven years, the standard-bearer has been Christy Martin. On August 23, Martin will step into the ring against Laila Ali. From a marketing standpoint, this will be the most significant match-up ever in women's boxing.
The contract weight is 162 pounds. Laila is five-feet-ten-inches tall and a well-sculpted 162-plus. Christy is six inches shorter and has never weighed more than 145 pounds for a fight. She fought at 138 in her prime. Laila is a 3 to 1 favorite. For the first time, Christy will enter the ring as an underdog.
LailaAli versus Jacqui Frazier was about Muhammad and Joe. This one is about Christy and Laila.
Martin's father was a coal miner who retired last year after three decades on the job. "I'm very down-to-earth, easy-going, laid-back," Christy says. "Every day that I wake up makes me happy, but I have that other side. I can flip the switch pretty quickly if someone is disrespectful or gives me attitude."
Martin graduated from Concord College in West Virginia, with a degree in education in 1990. She got into boxing on a dare. "I'd just started college," she remembers. "Some friends and I went to a toughwoman contest in Beckley, West Virginia. My friends started saying, 'Come on, Christy. Do it! You play basketball. You're in good shape.' I didn't know anything about boxing. I'd never hit a heavy-bag or done anything like that in my life. But I was an athlete. Athletes are cocky. I liked the challenge. And the winner was supposed to get a thousand dollars. That's what decided it for me. I thought I could win a thousand dollars, so I entered the contest. I was pretty nervous when I got in the ring for the first fight. I remember asking myself, 'What am I doing here? Why did I let these people talk me into this?' But I won three fights. There were some hard moments but no real problems. And when it was over, they gave me five hundred dollars instead of a thousand."
Martin fought seven toughwoman bouts between 1986 and 1989, winning six and losing one. Then she turned pro. After four fights, her record stood at 2-1-1. Now it's 45-2-2 with thirty knockouts. There was a time when she scored eight consecutive first-round knockouts. But her opponents in those bouts had a grand total of three professional fights with zero wins among them.
Christy exploded on the national scene on March 16, 1996, when she fought in the pay-per-view opener for Mike Tyson versus Frank Bruno at the MGM Grand. Her opponent was Deirdre Gogarty. Christy and Iron Mike were paired again on September 7, 1996, when she fought Melinda Robinson on the undercard of Tyson-Seldon; on November 9, 1996, when she took on Bethany Payne prior to Tyson-Holyfield I; and on June 28, 1997, when she met Andrea DeShong on the undercard of Holyfield-Tyson II. Martin battered Gogarty for six-rounds en route to a unanimous-decision win and stopped her other three foes. The DeShong victory was particularly satisfying, since Andrea had handed Christy her only defeat in the toughwomen ranks and her first defeat as a pro.
What captured the public's imagination about Martin was that, unlike most woman fighters, she could PUNCH. Meanwhile, Christy reminisces, "It was unbelievable to fight on the Tyson cards. The hype, the intensity. I still don't believe I was on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Sometimes I think it's like one of those deals where you go to an arcade and they take your photo and put it on the cover of a magazine."
But that was then, and now is now. Martin's last knockout was three years ago. She has had only one fight since November 2001. In that bout, she was taken the distance by Mia St. John.
"Against Mia, my timing was terrible," Christy acknowledges. "I hadn't fought in a year. I wasn't in shape. I sparred less than ten rounds. And the fight itself was a huge letdown. The building was empty; it was cold inside. I knew going in that I wasn't going to get paid, and that didn't make me happy. So the fight was like a bad sparring session; that's all."
Still, if Martin has fallen so far that she couldn't hurt Mia St. John (who was knocked woozy by Rolanda Andrews, a 3 and 5 opponent with only one prior knockout), how can she hurt Laila Ali? Shot fighters don't improve with the passage of time.
"The truth is," Christy says, "I’ve been up there a long time. I’ve had a pretty good run for my fifteen minutes of fame. I don't have kids yet. My biological clock is ticking but, so far, I've put my career first. I always tell myself, 'This will be it.' And then another fight comes along. Maybe it's getting near that time."
Meanwhile, if Christy Martin's father is a retired coal miner, Laila Ali's father is the most famous man in the world and arguably the greatest fighter of all time.
Laila is straightforward and honest. "I don't know why I chose to express myself through boxing," she admits. "Fighting is crazy; I know that. If everything was completely my way, I probably would have chosen something else. But boxing is my calling. And what I feel is, we're all gonna die some day, so I might as well do what I want to do while I'm here. People talk about the advantages I've had in boxing because I'm Muhammad Ali's daughter. Obviously, in a lot of ways, my name helps, but there are disadvantages too. It was hard starting out with so much attention on me. When I first got in the ring, a lot people took it as a joke. Most fighters get to learn with no one watching. If you'd seen my father in the ring when he was twelve, he wouldn't have looked like much either."
"I don't like the celebrity side of it," Laila continues. "Being famous isn't all it's cracked up to be. Everyone wants something from you. You don't know who to trust. But I've never ever wished that I wasn't Muhammad Ali's daughter. Knowing that his blood runs through my veins is very special to me."
Laila's record shows 15 wins, no losses, and 12 knockouts. Her most hyped fight to date was an eight-round decision victory against Jacqui Frazier two years ago. Her toughest fight was a six-round decision over Kendra Lenhardt in October 2000. "Kendra hit me with a punch that dazed me," Laila remembers. "I thought, 'Oh God; Am I going to be knocked out?' But I've been hit hard enough times now in the gym and in fights that I know how to deal with it."
Laila is quick to draw a distinction between her own ring career and that of Jacqui Frazier. "Jacqui was never in the sport to be the best that she can be," she says. "Jacqui was in it to fight me. My goal is to be a well-rounded fighter. I want to continue fighting and keep getting better. I can't say that I'm a great fighter, but I'm a good fighter and I want to be respected as a fighter by people who know boxing. Being the greatest female fighter in the world doesn't mean that much to me because of the level of the sport. It's not like the men. There's not much out there now in women's boxing. There are very few talented women fighters, especially in my weight class, so I can go only so far in my time. The public doesn't really understand boxing, so what the public thinks about my boxing skills isn't that important to me. I want to be respected by people in the boxing game."
"I've worked very hard at this," Laila continues. "Boxing is hard. It's not something you play with. People see my picture in a magazine and say, 'Oh, she's pretty.' They don't realize what it means to be a fighter. You brutalize your body. When I'm training for a fight, I do everything in the gym that the men do, including sparring with men. There's weight-training. I run four to six miles several times a week. I do mountain runs and windsprints simulating two-minute rounds. Before every fight, I ask myself, 'Why am I doing this?' But during the fight, I love it. It's a real rush for me during the fight. And when the fight is over, I can't wait to do it again."
Ironically, the first women's fight that Laila ever saw was Christy Martin versus Deirdre Gogarty. And that brings us to Christy versus Laila. Both women say that there's bad blood between them. Each one attributes the hard feelings to the other being disrespectful and having an attitude.
"Laila," says Martin, "is a spoiled stuck-up brat who thinks and acts like she's better than anyone else. She wears a tiara, not a title belt. She was born with a silver spoon in her mouth, and it's time someone like me knocked it out. She ain't her daddy."
Christy's game plan will be based on Jacqui Frazier's fight against Laila. Jacqui was crude, but she kept coming forward and throwing punches. Laila won the first three rounds. Then she got tired and her form began to break down.
"Laila showed heart in that fight," Christy acknowledges. "She took some shots and didn't quit, but that fight should have been scored a draw. I've watched tapes of Laila. She's improved since then, but I still see things I can take advantage of. And Laila is underestimating me. When we're in the ring, she'll see a level of fighter that she's never seen before."
"This is totally a different position for me," Martin concedes. "I've always been the favorite. Now I'm a heavy underdog, but I'm okay with that. Laila will come in confident. She'll try to use her size to push me around and take it to me, and that will suit me fine. Some people say I have no chance. Laila says she'll knock me out in less than five rounds. I'm keeping quiet except to say that I think it will go the distance and I'm going to win."
Laila says considerably more. "I’m not worried about Christy," she declares. "I'm training hard; but to be honest, I don't see the challenge. I couldn't care less if I fought her. But she called me out; the public wants to see it; and we can make money."
"Christy is a brawler," Laila continues. "She's strong and tough, but I don't care much for Christy as a fighter. I don't think she has a lot of skills. She says she'll be aggressive and put pressure on me. But it's hard to be aggressive when you're getting busted up every time you come forward, and she'll have to deal with my movement too. I'm bigger; I'm faster; I'm stronger; I'm more skilled as a boxer. I have a good jab and throw every punch in the book. Christy is slow and short, and any weight she puts on will be fat. It's going to seem silly after the fight. She's too little. She doesn't belong in the ring with me. And I have a mean streak. I'm not a nice fighter. When I'm fighting, I'm not there to be friends; I want to hurt someone. I have killer instincts. I'm there to take you out. I see me knocking Christy out before the end of the fifth round. And to the mainstream public, it will be, 'Wow! Look at that!" But it won't be a big deal to me. I'm supposed to knock her out. I'd beat her even if we were the same size."
That's tough talk. After all, Martin will come to fight, even if she's outsized. And with her experience and heart, Christy might take Laila into waters deeper than any she has been in before. We already know about Christy Martin as a fighter. August 23rd will tell us about Laila. The issue to be resolved isn't, "How much does Martin have left?" It's, "How much does Laila have?" But keep in mind; just winning won't be enough to satisfy Laila Ali. How she wins will be more important in measuring her as a fighter.