In March 1996, the eyes of the boxing world landed on Mike Tyson and Frank Bruno as they squared off for the WBC heavyweight title. The bout, however, had less drama than a late-night infomercial. Tyson sent Bruno to the canvas seven minutes in, ending the fight by technical knockout. The next morning, all that boxing fans seemed to talk about was Christy Martin.
A coal miner's daughter with a penchant for pink, Martin was an unlikely candidate to upstage Tyson, even if just for a moment. But her six-round fight with Deirdre Gogarty on the Tyson-Bruno undercard had all the suspense and brutality the main event lacked. By the second round, blood flowed like a geyser from Martin's nose to her pink trunks. By the fourth, Gogarty's chin became a landing pad.
The sellout crowd in Las Vegas was instantly hooked.
"The arena was just jam-packed," Martin, 43, recently recalled. "As you look around, it's all the movie stars, Magic Johnson, all the superstar basketball players, football players. And here I am, Christy Martin, this little girl from southern West Virginia. So far out of my league."
Not only did Martin win the fight by unanimous decision, but she put women's boxing on the map, giving it an air of legitimacy for the first time. No longer were ring-card girls the only women capable of drawing attention between the ropes.
Martin gained a slice of fame, to boot. Within weeks, she was on the cover of Sports Illustrated, tapped as "Boxing's New Sensation." Interview requests from Jay Leno to Katie Couric flooded in, and a cameo on "Roseanne" soon followed. Tyson was so impressed with Martin, whose right hook seemed every bit as powerful as his, he bought her a BMW.
Over the following months and years, as interest in women's boxing reached a fever pitch, the confident and outspoken Martin was at the epicenter of it all. With Don King promoting her fights, she appeared on both Tyson-Holyfield undercards, in 1996 and 1997, always wearing her signature color, pink. In 2003, shortly before women's boxing met mainstream Americana with the Academy Award-winning film "Million Dollar Baby," Martin fought Laila Ali. They, not men, were the main event.
"Christy Martin was a special fighter," said Ken Hershman, executive vice president and general manager of Showtime Sports. "She fought on this network and on Showtime pay-per-view 10 times, and each time she was more impressive than the last. She must have knocked out seven of those 10 opponents. Our objective is to televise the most significant and compelling fights in boxing. And Christy Martin was nothing if not compelling."
From the outside looking in, Martin's story seemed like a fairy tale, the improbability of Cinderella neatly fused with the ferocity of the Brothers Grimm. But like any good fairy tale, Martin's life had a twist: It was filled with secrets and deception.
"There was never any passion there," Martin said, referring to her 19-year marriage to Jim Martin, who trained her for nearly all of her career. "Just two people living in the same house, playing this game, putting on this show for everyone."
As interest in women's boxing fizzled in the mid-2000s, Martin's personal life began to unravel, leading to a cocktail of blackmail, drug addiction and ultimately an alleged attempt on her life.
In an "E:60" feature scheduled to air Wednesday at 8 p.m. ET on ESPN, Christy Martin candidly discusses her personal life, revealing many details the public has never known. She addresses a marriage she characterizes as chronically abusive, the truth about her sexuality, a three-year cocaine binge and allegations that, on the night of Nov. 23, 2010, Jim Martin repeatedly stabbed her and shot her in the chest with a pink, 9mm gun she owned.
"He always made threats that he would kill me if I ever left," Christy Martin told "E:60" reporter Lisa Salters. "He would ruin my reputation with the boxing world, tell everyone I was a lesbian."
Martin said her husband became enraged when she told him she was leaving him for a woman. Jim Martin, 67, was charged with attempted first-degree murder and aggravated battery with a deadly weapon. His trial is scheduled to begin in January in Orlando; he has pleaded not guilty.
Despite the tumult she has experienced in her personal life, or perhaps because of it, Martin is still fighting. The popularity that women's boxing gained in the mid-1990s has vanished. But to Martin, this is irrelevant.
"I'm a fighter and that's what I do," said Martin, who has fully recovered from her injuries. "That's all I know how to do, is fight."
Going to a Martin fight these days is like stepping into a bygone era. The crowds are significantly smaller, and Ali, the sport's biggest name, stopped fighting four years ago. But if you look closely enough, the fire Martin displayed in Las Vegas 15 years ago still burns.
Martin (49-6-3 with 31 knockouts) is one right hook or left uppercut away from her 50th career victory, a goal she is determined to reach. During her most recent fight, in Los Angeles in June, she was ahead on all three cards when the referee stopped the bout with 51 seconds remaining because she had a badly broken right hand.
One more victory would do more than just pad Martin's stats; it would further solidify her place on the boxing landscape.
"Christy has meant a lot to the sport of boxing," said Ed Brophy, the executive director of the International Boxing Hall of Fame, located in upstate New York. "Don King's promotions and Showtime's network brought Christy to a higher level, which brought female boxing to a high level of recognition."
He added: "Christy broke the walls down."
Will Martin become the first female boxer to be inducted into the Hall? It's a legitimate question to ask, Brophy said, noting that only boxing writers and historians get to vote. Boxers must be retired for five years before they can become eligible for induction.
Even after all these years, Martin has no plans to retire.
"I'm just that athlete that always wants a little more," Martin said. "I don't want to be one of the fighters that stays around too long. But if I can still go out there and raise a little hell in the ring, and get the fans on their feet, give them what they want to see, I want to do that.
David Picker is a producer for "E:60."