The Netflix production from the Untold series is one of the best documentaries of the year
The documentary is a collection of interviews with Christy Martin, and almost everyone who knew her from childhood, documenting her mercurial rise as a World Champion boxer, surviving being stabbed and shot at, and finding peace and closure in her life.
The essence of any documentary rests entirely on how well the true events can be narrated with dramatic effect. However, there are some documentaries that just need the right people sitting in front of the camera telling their stories, and for the intensity and the drama in the story to make a documentary compelling. When there is Netflix’s production value added to it, it has the potential to become the new gold standard. Untold: Deal with the Devil is just that and more.
The first part of the documentary discusses Christy Martin’s childhood as a miner's daughter from a small town in West Virginia and a gifted athlete who became a local boxing sensation purely by accident. To call her a trailblazer for women in boxing would be an understatement. Her match with Deirdre Gogarty is regarded as one of the most entertaining bouts in the history of the sport. It is also the match that put women’s boxing on the map. Televised globally live from MGM Grand in the Mike Tyson undercard, after Tyson himself personally requested it, it was a testament to her ability as a boxer.
The filmmakers were able to get Tyson and Gogarty for the documentary, detailing the events leading up to the match and the match itself. There is an excellent mix of archival footage and interviews about the match, with Martin, Tyson, Gogarty, and others narrating the story. The match became a global sensation that inspired female boxers across the globe, even Laila Ali, daughter of the legendary boxer Muhammad Ali. Laila Ali admits in the documentary that it wasn’t her father who inspired her to become a boxer, but the Martin v Gogarty bout.
Martin’s persona and her cockiness would become a template for women athletes in years to come. Former UFC champion Ronda Rousey had a similar impact on mixed martial arts, which earned her the nickname ‘Rowdy’ Ronda Rousey. Multiple-time WWE Women’s Champion Becky Lynch adopted a similar persona for her storyline during her meteoric rise to the top of pro-wrestling in 2018, which saw her eclipse the even men’s division - in a sports/entertainment company which was once infamous for sexualising its female competitors.
Two-time World Champion, Laila Ali would eventually face Martin. The bigger and younger Ali would dominate the older Martin in what would turn out to be the turning point of Martin’s life, both personally and professionally. Martin’s relationship with her husband and trainer, Jim Martin, begins to take an ugly turn. The documentary highlights how it leads to drug abuse and her manipulative husband stabbing and shooting her, leaving her for dead. The filmmakers were remarkably given access to Jim Martin in prison, serving his 25-year sentence, as he gave his own account of his relationship with Christy and their life together.
Several themes of cultural and contemporary relevance such as mental health, drug abuse, and sexuality are discussed in the documentary through Martin’s life. Her sexuality as a gay woman in the ’90s married to an abusive husband is an interesting facet of the evolution of the cultural fabric in the United States. The documentary has enough drama and themes to rival a well-written feature film. The choice of the title, Deal with Devil, is vindicated after three-fourths of the documentary is complete. It is a metaphor for the trade-off she had to make - which is training under Jim Martin and eventually marrying him in order to become a world champion boxer.
Director Laura Brownson has created something truly magnificent. The documentary is a well-paced, well-narrated production that could easily be one of the best documentaries of the year.