Two hours before Mike Tyson lost his title on Saturday night, Christy Martin reconfirmed hers: most feared woman boxer on the planet. Just ask her husband. By Tim Cornwell
Bethany "Sweetbrown" Payne is tall and gangling with her head held too high. She fights like a schoolyard brawler, a girl playing at a man's sport, flailing with her fists, as if she were slapping rather than punching. And it is obvious, even to the most amateur eye, that from the moment she steps into the ring with Christy Martin she is dead meat.

Christy comes out of the corner weaving like an adder, with her head held low in the style of her hero, Mike Tyson. She punches to the head and body, then unlooses a right followed by a left. Payne shivers like a tree, staggers and reels in a kind of slow-motion dance as the crowd roars and the referee stops the fight.

Christy, who has won on a technical knock-out, pumps her fists in the air and grins. In the interview that follows in the ring, she tries to talk up an eminently forgettable encounter, the latest in her string of 31 wins, one loss and 25 knock-outs, a seven-year unbeaten streak: "Bethany is very tall and slim in the middle," she says, "I knew to lay the hard body shots and the head was going to come down and the chin would be there for me."

Two hours later on Saturday night, the Martin-Payne fight has become a forgotten footnote as, against all predictions, Mike Tyson loses his heavyweight title to Evander Holyfield. But Christy Martin's win has confirmed her pre-eminence among female boxers, at a time when a growing number of women are entering the sport.

Her success is due largely to her association with the all-powerful, shock-haired promoter Don King, who has been using the "one and only" Christy as a warm-up show to his heavyweight fights for three years. In September, he flamboyantly offered her not only the biggest purse of her career - $50,000 for a fight with one of the female police officers who dominate the women's ranks - but a BMW convertible. Her ambition is to be the first woman boxing millionaire, though her prize money has totalled little more than $100,000 in three years.

Her biggest asset, curiously, is her femininity. She fits the American male's perception of what a tough American country gal should look like. There may be tougher and heavier women out there, but boxing crowds don't appreciate females who look too manly. To stress the point, she invariably comes to the ring in pink satin shorts with white trim and shirt. But even her enemies admit that King has shown his gift for cornering the best talent, and that Martin is a fighter, no longer a novelty act to titillate the crowd with a cat fight. Sports Illustrated, the titan of US sports magazines, put her on its cover this year with the verdict that she was "the first woman boxer to be taken seriously for her considerable skills in the ring".

"She's the good-looking one," said coach Marshall Christopher, whose wife and protegee, Chris Kreuz-Christopher, had her nose broken by Christy about seven months ago. "She could be polite, she could go to a ball with the President, and she could go to a biker bar and drink a beer. She's got everything going, and she can fight."

Christy, like Tyson, enjoys a reputation that mixes admiration and near- hate. In pre-fight interviews, she promises opponents that she's going to "knock their lights out". Afterwards, she ignores them - no feminine camaraderie, no hugs for the defeated. Marshall Christopher describes how she goaded his wife into fighting with a series of telephone messages in which she called her a "yellow bitch". Then she destroyed her in the ring so completely that Kreuz-Christopher soon afterwards locked her gloves, shoes and robe away and retired from the sport. "If Christy Martin gets hurt, she'll kill you," says Marshall Christopher. "She's like a caged animal. She picked Chris two foot off her feet with her right hand."

The Coal Miner's Daughter, as Don King Promotions announces her, is 28 years old, five feet four inches tall with a 65-inch reach, and last weighed in at 138lb. Both her grandfathers died of black lung working in the coalfields of West Virginia, and her father followed them into the mines. She was born and raised along the Appalachian Mountains, a place that is a byword both for stunning natural beauty and pockets of extreme rural poverty and backwardness. She won a basketball scholarship to Concord College, West Virginia, and began boxing in 1987, when she entered, as a dare, a "tough man, tough woman" night. This is a common happening in parts of the South: there is a boxing ring open to all-comers, who wear extra- large gloves; whoever survives the night takes home a purse. Martin took home $1,000, so the story goes, and she came back to win two more years in a row.

She went to work as a substitute teacher. But in 1991 she was called by a boxing promoter, who suggested a trainer in Tennessee, Jim Martin. After initial scepticism on his part, Christy became not just Martin's protegee, but his wife, though at 52 he is 24 years her senior. Two years later, she caught the eye of Don King. Her real break came this March, when King staged a fight between her and Deirdre Gogarty of Ireland. Televised nationally before the disappointing Mike Tyson-Frank Bruno fight, the Martin-Gogarty encounter went the full six rounds (half the rounds that men fight) and became the real contest of the night. It put Martin on the TV talk-show circuit and brought literally hundreds of interviews, a book deal and talk of a movie.

"I've sparred with men way heavier than me, and I've never been put down before," said Gogarty, from her home in Lafayette, Louisiana, where she has a second career as a successful graphic designer. "At the time I thought, 'my God, what am I dealing with here?'" Martin, who trains following the same gruelling routine as a male boxer at her husband's gym, "has a very hard right hand", says Gogarty. "She hits like a man. She hits very hard."

The sport is growing: the Women's International Boxing Federation, founded three years ago in Miami, has 1,000 members around the world, and most of the big boxing gyms in the US now train women. But don't look to Christy Martin to speak for her sisters in the ring. In interviews, she makes it clear she fights for no one but herself. "I don't think any male fighter who steps into the ring is looking to promote men's boxing. He's looking at it as promoting himself," she told her local newspaper. "I'm not trying to promote women's boxing. I'm trying to promote Christy Martin"