It’s 1996. We’re in Las Vegas. Wyoming County native Christy Martin is in the ring, fighting the Irish boxer Deirdre Gogarty.
“Recognized as the women’s pound-for-pound champion, introducing the Coal Miner’s Daughter, Christy Martin!” an announcer calls.
News organizations later will report millions of households worldwide are watching this fight, which Christy wins after six rounds.
Almost 24 years later, Christy — who now goes by Christy Salters — remains a pioneer in women’s boxing. But she’s also raising awareness about domestic abuse and gay rights in the U.S. That includes her home state of West Virginia.
Christy recently spoke at the 10th anniversary gala for Fairness WV, a civil rights group that advocates on behalf of LGBTQIA+ West Virginians.
Advancements In Women’s Boxing
Growing up in the small town of Itmann, Christy said she never imagined she would become a professional fighter.
“My dad watched boxing a little bit in the 70’s,” she recalled. “I would watch the fights with my dad, but I never grew up thinking this is what I want to be.”
One of her first competitions was the ‘Mean Mountaineer’ in Beckley. Christy said she entered for fun, and ultimately won two of the three fights by knockout.
“I had never seen another woman fight when I fought, and that goes back even to the Tough Man contests. They had never allowed women to fight in those here in West Virginia.
“Now, women are boxing in the Olympics — Claressa Shields has won two gold medals, we’ve had Katie Taylor, also as a gold medal winner from Ireland who’s getting big exposure … So, it’s changed a lot.”
‘I Would Give Anything To Be The Person I Am Today’
Christy moved to Tennessee after graduating in 1990 from Concord University, which was Concord College at the time. She signed with promoter Don King shortly thereafter.
It was also in the early 90’s that Christy married her trainer, Jim Martin.
“For 20 years, he used my sexuality as a blackmail tool. I was up front with him from the beginning. I told him about past relationships I had, and he was fine, but then as time went on he would tell me, ‘I'm going to tell the world you're a lesbian. I’m going to out you. I’m going to tell your family.’”
Despite the paradise it looked like she was living on TV, Christy said her life was terrible.
“There were times when I can remember just being in Las Vegas, and walking into a casino and thinking, ‘Wow, how awesome would it be to be with someone that I love, sharing these really, really cool experiences that I'm having, and sharing them with somebody that I love. And that loved me.’
“He [Jim] didn’t love me, I was his ATM. I was his personal ATM, his money machine … So finally, I just got tired. I didn't care anymore. ... And I left.”
Christy said she left Martin in 2010. That November, she said he tried to kill her.
“He stabbed me repeatedly, punctured my lung, cut my calf muscle almost completely from my leg,” Salters said. “Shot me. Left me what he thought was dead on the floor. But God had another plan. And I was able to get up and get out.”
Today, Jim Martin is in prison for attempted murder. Salters has since divorced him and gone on to become an advocate for women and children in domestic abuse situations.
In 2017, she married her wife, fellow boxer Lisa Holewyne.
“I would give anything to be the person I am today, to have been this person throughout my boxing career. Yeah, I mean, I'm married to Lisa Holewyne. And, you know, we're gay wherever we are.”
Giving Back In The Mountain State
Christy said giving back to her home state is important.
“Because I didn’t have anybody growing up that I knew that was gay, and I could go talk to them and ask them, ‘What do I do? How do I do this? Can you talk to my mom,’ you know. … And just for parents to understand, that it's not the end of the world, and it's not about you. But you know, so many -- we have this, what is he, this representative or senator or whatever, that basically threatened to drown his -- he says he's a Christian, but threatened to drown his children if they were gay?”
Salters confirmed she’s speaking about Eric Porterfield, a West Virginia House Delegate from Mercer County, and comments he made during the 2019 legislative session.
“Yeah, you’re not a Christian if you make veiled threats to drown your children. You know, I'm embarrassed for him. But I'm embarrassed for me and my state, because people, you know, outside of West Virginia, already looked down on us and think that we're, we're behind and we're not smart and, and all this negativity. And for him to come out and say something like that? I mean, it feeds into the stereotypes that West Virginia has.”
In reality, Christy said, West Virginia is moving in the right direction.
“I'm proud to be here. Just to be at an event like this, this is huge. And it is changing, even in my small town Mullens and, and you know, Wyoming County, it is changing, people are becoming more accepting of other people. And look, what I'm doing doesn't in any way affect what you're doing. I'm the same person I was before, you know, I was gay. So if you loved me before, are you going to tell me you don't love me now? Because I'm gay. I mean, it makes no sense. I'm still the same person.”
While Salters is no longer in the ring, she’s still fighting to raise awareness for survivors of emotional and physical abuse. She says she looks forward to helping facilitate a more inclusive West Virginia, with groups like Fairness WV.
Emily Allen is a Report for America corps member.