There is a story Jim Martin liked to tell about the first time he met the woman who transformed female boxing, who put the sport on the map, about the first time then-Christy Salters walked into his gym in Bristol, Tennessee, her mother and a Pomeranian in tow.
Jim took one look at the entourage and figured on the best way he could scare her off: He’d put her in the ring with a male boxer, maybe have the guy crack her ribs, and she’d be out of his hair.
That’s not the way the story goes, though—at least not for the next two decades. Jim Martin became the young boxer’s trainer, her manager, and her husband. He got her on fight cards with Mike Tyson. He helped Christy Martin become the female Muhammad Ali.
But Jim also became completely dependent on his wife, their former publicist and longtime friend Seth Palansky told The Daily Beast. Jim didn’t take the medication he needed to control his diabetes unless she gave it to him, and the pair both lived on the income she brought in.
Jim must have been despondent, then, when his wife told him last month that she was leaving him—for a woman. And it may explain why he did a lot more than crack her ribs in response. Police in Orange County, Florida, arrested 67-year-old Jim Martin on November 23 after Christy told sheriff’s deputies that he had stabbed her with a knife with a 9-inch blade after telling him she was leaving him. Martin is also accused of shooting his wife with a .380 handgun. He faces charges of attempted murder.
Sheriff’s deputies wound up interviewing a man named Daniel Lait, who worked at the Martin’s co-owned gym. Lait told officers that Jim had left a message at the gym that day about Christy leaving him, and that he “was in a bad way.”
The night Christy told Jim she wanted a divorce, he “woke up and went crazy,” according to a police report, and after a series of threatening phone calls, Christy told her friend, “Jim that motherfucker is going to shoot me.”
She soon became known as “the coal miner’s daughter,” a nod not just to her background but her tenacity.
Three hours later, Christy was talking to her girlfriend on the phone from the house she lived in with Jim. Christy said Jim had just come into the room with something behind his back.
Then the line went dead.
The boxer somehow escaped the attack, perhaps by brandishing a pink 9mm handgun. She fled the house the couple shared and flagged down a car to take her to the hospital, according to the sheriff’s affidavit, screaming, “He stabbed me!” over and over again, as doctors tried to work on her. Meanwhile, Jim turned the knife on himself, possibly out of despair, possibly to make his assault look like self-defense.
It was a bizarre end to a storied 20-year relationship, to say the least. And the couple’s few close friends say they have a hard time imagining how it happened. “I’ve dealt with a lot of boxers in my day, and some of them scared me,” Palansky said. “I’ve been thrown against a wall. It’s a weird group of people, and temper and anger issues go along with this sort of thing. But Jim was a very gentle guy, and so was Christy.”
Christy had become a boxer on a lark, entering a Tough Women boxing competition on a dare while at Concord College in Athens, West Virginia. After that first dubious meeting at Jim Martin’s gym, he grew increasingly impressed with the young boxer, 25 years his junior. She soon became known as “the coal miner’s daughter,” a nod not just to her background but her tenacity.
It was tough for Christy to find female boxers to practice with, so she mostly sparred with men. When it came time to put up her dukes in a ring, the 5’4” junior welterweight shined. The couple moved to Orlando, where Christy got noticed by the most well-known name in the business: promoter Don King. He signed with her in October 1993, right after a fight against Texas policewoman Melinda Robinson in Miami.
Christy didn’t hit the national stage until three years later, during a bout in March 1996 on Mike Tyson’s undercard with Irish featherweight Deirdre Gogarty. The fights before Tyson had dragged on, so the women’s match got delayed until after Tyson put up a lackluster, three-round victory against British boxer Frank Bruno that disappointed the sportwriters in attendance. Because of this, the Martin-Gogarty fight had sort of stumbled into the role of main event, seen in an estimated 30 million homes and in more than 100 countries.
“I knew that everyone would be watching,” Martin later said in an interview, “and I didn’t want to stink up a Tyson show.”
Gogarty landed a punch hard enough to bloody Christy’s nose, but it was Martin who prevailed, slugging her way to a victory and bringing more attention to women’s boxing than it had ever before enjoyed. A month later, she was on the cover of Sports Illustrated.
The spotlight didn’t shine for long, though. Martin had a hard time finding opponents willing to fight her, or to train hard enough to make it a match. Palansky posits that boxing maybe just isn’t a sport that appeals to many women, given the necessary blows to the face involved. Asked once in an interview how she deals with being a woman in a male-dominated sport, Martin replied, “I just always tried to fit into the world of boxing. We live in a man’s world anyway and I don’t have a problem with that. I like for a man to open doors for me.”
After a couple of years, it became harder for Martin to find opponents and to find fights that paid her what she thought she was worth. Still, she kept boxing into her 40s, amassing an impressive 47-5-3 record. And her marriage to Jim seemed solid—perhaps too solid.
“They were so wed to each other,” Palansky said. “I remember thinking, ‘Boy, you guys get along too well.’ I couldn’t handle working with and being married to the same person. You never get a break.”
Still, even in all the hours he spent with the couple—on flights, at meals, press events, in the hotel room—Palansky never saw any meaningful disagreement, and certainly not violence.
What Palansky did see, though, was Jim’s complete reliance on Christy, because he’s a diabetic, and an old-school, I-don’t-need-a-doctor type, who didn’t take his medicine unless she made him.
“She put it out, brought the water, forced him to take it,” Palansky said.
The couple’s violent end, Palansky believes, may have been a combination of Jim being off his medication and becoming despondent that his caretaker was leaving him. How would he survive, literally, without her?
The part about her leaving for another woman, though, has Palansky baffled. “I don’t want to say she was anti-woman, but she had more issues with women than she did with men,” he said. “I can’t recall her ever having females as part of her entourage.”
In an interview once, Christy made that point perfectly clear.
“I feel that lots of people have stood in my way,” she said. “I won’t name names, but the women are the worst.”
Not all women, apparently. Christy’s mistress, according to the sheriff’s report, is Sherry Lusk from St. Augustine, Florida. Attempts to reach Lusk were unsuccessful, but she told the sheriff that the two had known each other for “a long time” and that they had recently become a couple.
One of Martin’s aunts told The Daily Beast that the two had been romantically involved back in the coal mining town of Mullens, West Virginia, and that it was widely known around the small burg that Christy is bisexual.
“This wasn’t Christy’s first relationship with a woman,” said the aunt, who asked not to be identified so as not to offend the boxer’s parents. “There have been others.” The aunt said she remembers Lusk as “bigger built, unattractive and masculine-looking,” but she doesn’t know to what extent the two have stayed in contact through Christy’s marriage to Jim, which always seemed a good relationship.
“He was always very nice to us,” the aunt said. “I never saw anything to be concerned about.”
Lusk told police, though, that Jim threatened to ruin Christy’s career and reputation when he found out about the affair, a few days before the stabbing. That night, Lusk and Christy stayed in a hotel room together in St. Augustine, and throughout the night, Jim called Christy several times, threatening to release incriminating pictures and videos of her.
The next day, on November 19, “Christy told Sherry that she talked to James then and told him it was over, his abuse has lasted too long,” according to the police affidavit. Palansky said his chief worry was that the Martins weren’t doing enough to prepare themselves for a future without boxing money.
“Both of their incomes were based on her career,” he said. “That doesn’t last forever.”
Indeed, at 42 years old, Christy Martin hadn’t been in a match since September 2009, when judges ruled her the winner after 10 rounds in a match against Dakota Stone in Syracuse, New York. She wanted to go up against Lucia Rijker, who appeared in Million Dollar Baby and had canceled a scheduled bout with Martin in 2005 because of an injury to her Achilles. But Jim didn’t want her to go up against Rijker, Palansky said. He was worried about his wife.
The female boxing profession has lagged of late, with the novelty of Martin’s run in the ‘90s wearing off quickly, and an unsuccessful attempt by promoters to turn “sexy, good-looking women into fighters,” as Palansky put it. That had to have put some strain on a couple that lived and breathed boxing. But it was a deeply kept secret, a hidden love triangle, that ultimately did the pair in.
“I felt there was going to be a sad ending somewhere,” Palansky said. “But financially. Not this.”
Winston Ross is a reporter for the Register-Guard in Eugene, Oregon and a regular contributor to Newsweek.com. He blogs irregularly at winstonross.wordpress.com.