There was a time not long ago when women’s boxing was in the wilderness, writes Steve Bunce
LUCIA RIJKER was lost in boxing’s wilderness years at the end of the last century.
Christy Martin ran those years with a formidable reputation and the promotional power to back her every decision.
As we approach a massive fight between Savannah Marshall and Claressa Shields, it is essential to remember just how close and how far away a fight between Rijker and Martin was at different times. It would have been, trust me, the first one-million-dollar female fight. It’s quite a tale. And it’s true.
In early 1998 the women had never met, never been face-to-face. That happened sometime before June of 1998 at a press conference to promote the doomed Henry Akinwande world title fight with Evander Holyfield. It was meant to be at Madison Square Garden in June of 1998; Christy Martin was prominent on the bill and so was Roberto Duran, in a last stand at the Garden, fighting for the middleweight world title against William Joppy. Duran was 46, but I watched him train that week and he had turned back the clock. The show never happened; Akinwande had hepatitis B and Martin’s opponent was pregnant. Very pregnant, it turned out. Oh, and it was a bad top of the bill and ticket sales were slow. Damn, I really wanted to see Duran in the Garden.
At the conference for the night, which took place a couple of weeks earlier, Rijker walks in and Martin is not impressed. Martin was feisty, a handful back then in the Nineties. And certainly not the glorious and loved and respected pioneer she is now considered.
Rijker asked if Martin would fight her? Martin said it was in the hands of television and Don King, her promoter. Martin also added: “I’m a woman, there is no need to doubt that.” It was part of the snickering debate at the time; there was a belief that Lucia was a man. Let’s not hide from the brutal truth of the day. Rijker had agreed to take whatever tests Martin demanded and that included the demeaning tests. This was not long ago, but it was archaic stuff.
Martin also warned that the fight had to be soon because she was off to have babies. Jay Larkin, the great television boxing guru of Showtime, was at the conference and discussed a few things, made some suggestions. Rijker was keen: “I accept the offer.” That was in 1998; Rijker was unbeaten in about eight fights and Martin had lost only once in 35 fights. It should have been a mismatch, but the insiders knew: Rijker was the favourite.
They clashed again at an open training session for a Martin fight in 2000. That was uglier and Rijker ended up with clumps of Martin’s hair in her fists. There had been punches. Rijker admitted to Don King after that altercation that she enjoyed it. Rijker was accused of throwing a sucker punch – Martin took it. Martin was tough.
They were both 37 in 2005 when the fight was finally signed, sealed and so nearly delivered. The winner would have walked away from the July fight in Las Vegas with a million dollars. It was dubbed: Million Dollar Lady. Bob Arum was the promoter; Million Dollar Baby, the Oscar-winning film starring Rijker, was due for release on DVD a few days before the first bell. Uncle Bob knew an angle when he saw one.
It was a unique deal, perhaps something that could be revisited in the future with other fights that have taken eight or more years to make. They were both guaranteed 250,000 dollars and the winner would get an extra 750,000 dollars. It was a million, baby, and it would have been history. We had to wait until this year for that piece of history to happen.
And then it collapsed. Rijker was injured just eight-days before the first bell at the Mandalay Bay. Martin still believes that Rijker refused the fight. Details of the surgery and the surgeon were circulated. Martin will only ever believe that Rijker was scared. In Martin’s exceptional book, written with Ron Borges, she is not a happy camper. But, then again, neither was Rijker in the slow build to the million-dollar showdown.
Rijker insisted the media loved Martin’s “dirty mouth”; Martin had called her “a steroid dyke.” This stuff was personal, make no mistake. Martin and Rijker had been at each other’s throats for a long, long time.
Still, the Hollywood tinsel fell all over the fight. It would have been, in many ways, the real end of the wilderness years. The years when nights of women’s boxing had names like, ‘Lips of Rouge, Fists of Fury.’ The super-fights at that point had been created, they were fake; Martin v Laila Ali and Martin v Mia St.John were both stained by the demands of weight.
I wonder if Martin had heard what so many insiders had said? I wonder if, in 1998, she had been told what Manny Steward thought? It is brutal, but then again Rijker converted so many witnesses to her gym wars. She had an unofficial shrine at Freddie Roach’s Wild Card. Here is Manny when told that there was talk in 1998 of a fight between the novice, Rijker, and Martin: “Lucia doesn’t fight like a girl. She doesn’t come out and go nuts. When the bell rings, she comes out and takes control. Christy Martin is never going to fight her. If she do, it’ll be the end of Christy Martin.” There are still boxing people that talk about Rijker sparring with Vince Phillips at some point in 1997. It was like “life and death”, they say.
Martin never liked Rijker and probably, even at peace, will never like her. It is something that understandably gets lost when her story is told. It’s tiny compared to her husband’s abuse, getting shot, stabbed and left to die when he tried to murder her. The book with Borges is legend and not for the squeamish.
So that was it, the sad tale about the early end of the greatest women’s fight in history. Parts of the story are unbelievable and that is the way I like it.