Confession: I had put off diving in to the new book, “Fighting for Survival: My Journey Through Boxing Fame, Abuse, Murder, and Resurrection” because, shame on me, I thought I knew the story of Christy Martin. Forgive me, please, for being tardy, I told the book's author, to kick off a Q n A with the Boston-based author, International Boxing Hall of Fame sportswriter Ron Borges.
Question from Michael Woods: Congrats on the effort—the thoroughness—it’s why, I think, some projects are still print projects…because the author can pick and choose words carefully and that’s helpful when dealing with such a subject as the life and times of Christy Martin. Can we start with you telling readers how this project came together?
Answer from Ron Borges: I had just finished working on a documentary film on Oscar De La Hoya and Julio Cesar Chavez and was looking for a new project. I thought Christy's story was a rich one so we met in Florida several years ago to discuss ideas. Turns out Netflix was already deep into a doc on her, so, not wanting to waste a road trip, asked if she'd ever thought of doing a book about her life.
She said she'd been asked many times and declined but this time thought she really would like to get the real, whole story of the road she traveled from being a young girl with questions about her sexuality growing up in a tiny town in southern West Virginia to the woman who legitimized female boxing to a millionaire celebrity to broke, drug-addled and lying on her bedroom floor with a bullet in her chest and stab wounds all over her body courtesy of her then husband and trainer, Jim Martin. The one thing I told her that first day was I didn't want to do a dishonest book, you know, life is a struggle but it's really great type. She certainly didn't disappoint me.
Q: And for those that may not know, you possess a rich history as a sportswriter…or maybe you term it “sports journalism.” Would you mind firing us a summation of your path to here? I know, that’s kind of a big order, but by all means, give us the abbreviated version!
A: After graduating from college with a degree in English I had no thoughts of the newspaper business. I figured I'd work construction with my Dad by day and write the great American novel at night. What I forgot was if you work construction all day you're too damn tired to write away for seeds let alone write a novel. After a year or so of that I was working on Martha's Vineyard and I got a call out of the blue from the editor of one of the two local weeklies there. It was called “The Grapevine” and he told me he'd heard I liked to write and would I care to try my hand at writing a few news stories etc.
I fell in love with everything about the newspaper business immediately. A year later I headed off to California with no money, no connections and no idea that you didn't just show up out there and get a newspaper job. But after 3-4 months I landed one of the weekly black newspaper in Sacramento. A year later I was hired at the Sacramento Union to write sports. Same paper Mark Twain once wrote for, which I thought was very cool. (Editor Note: I checked out the Wikipedia entry for more on the Sacramento Union. It contains a funny/sad tale: The papers' publisher had a hard go of it financially at the beginning of the 1900s. Supposedly, when they needed an infusion of funds to stay afloat, they'd trot out an old desk, advertise it as the desk where Twain worked, and make a score to get them through for a spell. Lesson learned: News periodicals have been fighting off the ropes in capitalistic systems.) That's where I first started writing about boxing, including doing my first Muhammad Ali fight against Leon Spinks. From there it was on to covering the Raiders and Warriors for the Oakland Tribune (as well as boxing), 1 1/2 years in Baltimore covering the Orioles for the Baltimore News-American and then my big break, which was joining the staff of the Boston Globe in 1983. There I covered the Patriots as my main beat for nearly 25 years but was also the boxing writer at a time, and in a work place, where that still meant big things.
Boxing took me around the world, to over 1000 title fights and a chance to write about the most interesting people in sports and at its best the most compelling competition.
I moved over to the Boston Herald as lead sports columnist in 2007 and worked 12 years there before retiring to a life of book writing, freelance magazine work, teaching at UMass-Lowell and driving my son from one hockey rink to another. I was blessed every day I was working bcause it never felt like work.
Q: Another admission: I’m writing you, Ron Borges, at a time that is, to me, complicated, from a “vocational” perspective. I’m puzzling it out, as I have been for a good long spell, the business we’ve been in. Sportswriting…Don’t know about you, but I’d tell a young ‘un seeking counsel that to pursue “journalism” as a job/career, you better be eyes wide open as to what the overall scene looks like. Newspapers dwindle in numbers, some papers stay alive by having their staffs get whittled down to bare bones, in the name of profit making, mostly. What do YOU tell young ‘uns who ask you how to become a “boxing writer”…or “football writer,” or something similar?
A: That is a difficult question Michael. I try to be encouraging but I'm a realist. I tell them it's no longer really a way to make a living. They're worked too hard, paid too little, don't have anywhere near the access in most cases that I was blessed to have and you're considered utterly disposable by most newspaper executives. Hell, Jeff Bezos is one of the richest men in the world. He owns the Washington Post, which is one of the few major newspapers left in the country. And he just laid off people. What kind of business is that?
Q: And now, back to the book. Can you share with us the process? How long did it take, from agreement to handle the CM story in concert with her, to getting the book to all those better booksellers everywhere? What were your takeaways on doing this book?
A: The whole process from start to publication took about 2 years. It was 3-6 months of intensive research and regular interviewing of Christy and many other people important to her journey. Then it was another 3-6 months of daily writing re-writing and then writing again. After it got to the publishers then it was the editing process, which was a pretty smooth process thanks to the people at Rowman & Littlefield. I'm quite proud of having helped Christy tell her story. It's one she wanted to share with the many domestic violence victims in the world in hopes of inspiring them to fight on for themselves.
Q: And I’m thinking that you, Ron Borges, probably knew the foundation of her story…Were there surprises that presented themselves to you as you dove in deeper?
A: I thought I knew it but it turns out, as is usually the case, all I knew was the tip of the iceberg. There was so much more there than her boxing career and a murderous husband. Along the way there were a lot of twists and turns in her life I had no idea about. We began to joke that she saved the latest terrible story for the Friday morning session down in Austin. I'd go down there for 3-4 days at a time and I usually flew back home Friday afternoon. It seemed Friday at 9 a.m. would be when she'd hit me with having been abused as a child, or having an abortion at 21 or becoming a drug addict for 4 years when she was in the throes of depression. I used to tell her on Fridays I needed a cold towel and a place to lay down! But it was great. She was so honest. It was the same way she fought. She was brutally honest in the ring and out. One of the moments I'll always remember from working with her is when she talked about taking a knee and being counted out in the Laila Ali fight.
To this day she regrets doing what was actually the most logical of actions for anyone in her circumstances – outweighed by 30 pounds, seven inches shorter. If it had been two men they never would have sanctioned it. But this was women's boxing in the early days and Christy was where the money was at for all the other fighters. And she was fearless. But that night she didn't have it, was hurt badly early and never recovered. The corner, i.e. her murderous husband – should have stopped the fight but he didn't have the courage or the character to do that. He just signaled her to stay down, meaning she carried the burden of having quit for the only time in her life. Says she still regrets it and I know she does even though she has nothing to regret. If you know Christy Martin's story – which you will if you pick up “Fighting For Survival” you'll know she never quit anything in her life, including having a bullet in her chest or a stroke on an operating table after breaking her hand in a fight. She came back and fought after all those terrible things. And she won.
Q: Outside looking in, seems like Martin is one of the very best ones involved in the sport…Gave it her all and then some as a fighter, and seems to retain similarly laudable traits as a promoter….What’s your sum-up, Ron Borges, of Christy Martin as a person?
A: She is as dead honest as anyone I ever met. She also has heart, humility, compassion for others. But she's also still a fighter at her core. It's the only way she went from toughman contests at a racetrack in West Va. to becoming the biggest name in the history of women's boxing. She was a pioneer and that takes a lot because you have no path to follow, no role model. She became the path for others and their role model. Laila said as much when they were both inducted into the Boxing HOF. Now she promotes fights, runs a charitable foundation for kids who have been victimized by domestic violence and speaks around the country raising money for women' shelters. Her message is always this: “I'm no victim. I'm a survivor. As long as you think of yourself as a victim you'll stay a victim.” She didn't.
Q: And within the bigger picture of the sport as a whole…You and me have talked plenty about the changes to the sport over the decades. Did you find yourself looking at boxing big picture any differently after immersing yourself so heavily into Christy’s involvement in the rarely sweet, more often savage science?
A: Not really. It was as dirty on the women's side as it is on the men's. Sadly the sport has been committing suicide for all of the 50 years I've been around it. Like great fighters, boxing is resilient. But I fear it is finally in a death spiral of its own making. Fights don't get made, kids don't get properly developed. The Olympics are no longer a platform for young fighters in the US. It' really gotten to the point where very few people care. The diehards, like us, do. But the sport is, I fear, doing a slow fade into the lost fringes like horse racing. I always felt even when things were down that boxing was only one great champion away from resurrection. I'm still hoping for that but no longer hopeful.