Long before I was a first-generation college student or professor of rhetoric and composition, I was the son of a full-time West Virginia coal miner and part-time boxing coach, Mike “Lo” Snyder. For a short period of time, my father was one of the most respected boxing trainers in the state. For just over 40 years, he was a coal miner. I write about both sides of my father’s masculine ethos in my book 12 Rounds in Lo’s Gym: Boxing and Manhood in Appalachia, which will be published March 1 by WVU Press. It was in my hometown of Cowen, West Virginia, that my perspectives on Appalachian life were shaped by the beauty and brutality of life in coal country – experiences that continue to inform my research and writing on Appalachian culture.
12 Rounds in Lo’s Gym is about my father’s experiences but also – through stories of young fighters from West Virginia – about individual and community strength in the face of globalism’s headwinds. I hope readers will see it as a corrective to narratives that blame those in the region for their troubles.
In this space I wanted to share interviews with two West Virginia fighters who went on to notable success. Both originally appeared on my own blog, Hillbilly Speaks.
With 49 professional wins (31 coming by way of knockout), she is one of the all-time greats of women’s boxing. She is a world champion, a pioneer of the sport. She has fought on major pay-per-view cards alongside legends of the ring such as Mike Tyson, Julio Caesar Chavez, and Felix “Tito” Trinidad. She is the first female boxer to ever appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated. She is “The Coal Miner’s Daughter,” the one and only Christy Martin.
In 12 Rounds in Lo’s Gym I write about your improbable rise to fame, from Beckley Toughman Contest Champion to World Champion. Legend has it you entered that Toughman Contest on a dare. Give us the story.
CM: The very truth is I loved watching boxing and I had that “I will show you” attitude, so when the opportunity came for me to compete in the Toughman contest I was ecstatic. I was playing basketball at Concord and thought I was in shape to box if I was in shape to play basketball. I didn’t factor in timeouts and substitutes, if I had known then what I know now I would have never entered. I had no idea how much work it took to be a fighter. As my career grew, I found myself across the table from Don King – that was a bit overwhelming. Boxing paid for me to see lots of the world and I met a lot of great people that I still am friends with today.
My father was in attendance that night in Beckley. He had worked with a woman from our hometown named Kathy Cochran. Kathy ended up being your opponent in the championship bout. Any specific memories from that fight?
CM: Yes I remember that fight well. She was much bigger than I am and I thought “how am I going to reach her” but lucky for me I landed a great right hand and knocked her out. This was probably the night that I truly became hooked on boxing. The adrenaline rush from the punch and the cheers from the crowd are indescribable.
Some twenty-odd years later, my father finally met up with you again at the International Boxing Hall of Fame. It was a real treat for my father to tell you how much of an inspiration you have been to the boxers in our gym (especially the young girls). During your career, did you feel an obligation to represent the state of West Virginia?
CM: I was always introduced as The Coal Miner’s Daughter from West Virginia. I felt I was always loyal to West Virginia and represented positively. I regret that during my career I didn’t have a stronger West Virginia presence, but I was controlled and not always allowed to do what I wanted to do. I am reaching out now to assist with domestic violence groups and Fairness WV. It was great to meet your dad so many years later and swap stories. He had actually worked with some of my family in the coal mines.
Give us an update on what The Coal Miner’s Daughter is up to these days. I hear that you are making a name for yourself as a promoter.
CM: I miss being in the ring very much, so the next best thing is to be a promoter. I have promoted four shows in Charlotte over the past year with big plans for 2018, including bringing a show to West Virginia. This has been a great year, recently the BWAA named an award after me that will be awarded to the top female boxer yearly and a feature film about my life/career will start production soon.
Thank you for the love and support. On behalf of Lo’s Gym and all of West Virginia, we wish you the best.
CM: You are welcome. I love West Virginia and haven’t forgotten where I came from.
He was born in Diana, West Virginia, the son of an elementary school teacher and a Baptist pastor. He was my cousin John’s best friend; both were four years older than me so I was always the tagalong. Even before he and John shipped off to West Virginia University, out into the world to become accomplished and successful, they were the kind of guys I wanted to be. My cousin would go on to become an endodontist with his own successful practice, his best friend a Hollywood actor, screenwriter, and director. They were just two Webster County boys from families no better off than anybody else around town. Their courage was infectious. They were dreamers. And that’s the thing about hanging around dreamers.
I was just about to enter my first year of graduate school at Marshall University when he made his network television debut. I can’t quite explain it but that was the point in my life when I truly started believing in my dream of becoming a writer. If he could make it, I could make it. And now here we are. One of us in California and the other in New York. “We can’t straddle the boat and the dock with our two feet,” he once told me. “Sometimes we just need to see someone jump in the boat and go down the river. That’s all I did,” he added. True words. Perhaps even truer for kids from economically downtrodden Appalachian towns like ours.
You’ve seen him on the big screen in films such as The Dark Knight Rises, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, and Law Abiding Citizen. He’s the star of the terrifying horror franchise The Collection. You know him from popular television series such as Criminal Minds, The Walking Dead, and USA Network’s recent breakout hit Shooter. He is the writer and director of independent films such as The Hunted and the upcoming opioid-epidemic drama Back Fork. Folks around my way simply know him as Josh. In anticipation for the release of 12 Rounds in Lo’s Gym, I decided to check in with my longtime friend, Webster County, West Virginia’s hometown movie star, Josh Stewart.
The opening scene in 12 Rounds in Lo’s Gym takes place at Simon’s Gym in Morgantown, West Virginia. I hear you spent some time boxing at Simon’s Gym during your days at West Virginia University. Care to share a few memories from Morgantown’s boxing dungeon?
Rumor has it that you’ve also spent some time training at the slightly more famous Wild Card Gym in Los Angles, California (where legendary trainer Freddie Roach works with world champion boxers such as Manny Pacquiao). What brought you to Wild Card? Tell us about the experience.
You had just joined the cast of NBC’s Third Watch when my father officially opened the doors to Lo’s Gym. If there had been a Lo’s Gym in Webster County when you were coming up, what are the chances that you’d have been in that ring working the mitts with my father?
My motivation for writing this book was to show the world what life is like for young men in our neck of the woods (Webster County, West Virginia). I hear that you recently shot a film in the area. Tell us about your upcoming Back Fork project.
Now for the million-dollar question. I’m going to need you to put on your director’s cap for this one. If we turn this book into a movie, who should be cast to play Mike “Lo” Snyder?