On a cold February day in 1809, thousands of people gathered in a dank patch of grass on Epsom Downs, a large slab of rolling fields outside of London. They came to witness Tom Cribb – the greatest bare-knuckle fighter of his era, and the man who reportedly survived a 500-pound-crate of oranges falling on his chest–pummell fellow pugalist Jim Belcher for 31 rounds. Cribb won. The prize, aside from a pot of cash, and eternal folk-hero status, was a belt. It was adorned with a silver buckle and lion skin and, for the time, it was spectacular. When Cribb died in 1848, his grave was marked with a carved stone lion, the paw placed on an urn and a belt placed across it.
The sport has changed since then, obviously. But, the prize hasn’t. There’s still money, there’s still glory, and there’s still a belt—a spectacular symbol of the champion that fighters live for.
For the last five decades, those belts were a product of one man, his mind, and his hands. Like those who work, and sweat, and bleed for one of his belts, Ardash Sahaghian, now 93 years old, is a fighter – his life propelled by the necessity to survive. It’s perhaps why he’s able to make the belts he does; only a person who understands a good fight, would be able to create something worthy of the greatest fighters.
The son of Armenian immigrants in Romania, Sahagian worked as a grocery shop worker and cobbler, before following in the footsteps of his older brother, to become a jeweller. When the name “Sahaghian” was given to the communist authorities as the man who fashioned watch parts made of gold – a metal illegal to possess under the regime – the younger Sahaghian took the fall. His brother was recently married and too frail to survive punishment. Arrested, tortured and made to stand for a week, he returned home with the flesh hanging off the side of his boots. When his mother saw him, the shock killed her. It was time to escape.
After stops in Austria, Brazil and South Africa Sahaghian and his wife, Nazeli, finally settled in Weehawken, New Jersey in 1970. There, he returned to craft jewellery, and there he crafted his legacy—one his grandson now works so hard to protect 40 years later.
A local jeweller and boxing enthusiast, approached Sahaghian to modernize old boxing belts and create designs for new organizations. Sahaghian, himself once an amateur boxer in Romania, agreed. While the IBF, WBO and WBA soon got batches of freshly designed belts with a look that’s remained virtually unchanged till today, the credit as to who was responsible for such an emblematic addition to the sport soon came under threat – almost disappearing into the dust of the Wild West of professional boxing.
“We would have champions sending us belts that were falling apart,” recalls Edward Majian, Sahaghian’s grandson, who in 2009 founded SARTONK, a boxing belt design firm using a word derived from the Armenian word for “rebirth”. He did so with the express goal of maintaining his grandfather’s legacy after belts made by imitators began circulating around the sport in the past few decades, claiming to be the work of his grandfather. Fractured organizations, little communication and Sahaghian’s limited English meant people tried to take advantage as cheap replicas flooded the market.
For Majian who was raised by his grandparents and spent his childhood running around his grandfather’s workshop, the difference in the work was, and is, obvious. He knew precisely how many hours his grandfather worked at his bench, producing belts that confidently stride across the line between craftmanship and art.
“When I first started working with my grandfather I thought that university had taught me how to think, and that my grandfather would teach me now how to work,” explains Majian. “But I remember watching him at the bench and thinking that he has the discipline and strength of mind of a Zen monk. He would spend hours and hours at a bench doing something that would drive most people mad.”
It takes a lifetime to master, and a master to teach how to place crystals the size of needle heads on a piece of metal personally cast from a mold you’ve hand-sculpted from rubber, then polished and plated with gold. You need expert tools, some custom made and passed on through generations, all wrapped carefully within a thick bundle of trade secrets. There’s also the will to never stop creating and crafting – both for Majian and his grandfather.
“He still comes to the shop regularly,” laughs Majian. “And once he sits down at a bench, we can’t get him to leave. If he picks up a tool then he’ll be there for five hours.”
Under Majian’s guidance, Sartonk has expanded to a larger facility, with more room to produce more belts, and are hiring, and training, extra craftsmen to deal with the added demand for their belts. They have started collaborating with artists, using their belts in exhibits. The goal is to use the artistry of the belts to fund, pursue and foster other artistic endeavors.
“If you’re going to strive for excellence it’s because there is an emotional reason for it,” Majian says. “Those emotions come from my grandfather and his understanding of how hard champions work. We create belts with as much hard work as the champions who win them.”
Long gone are the days of Sahaghian sitting alone at a workbench, painstakingly crafting one-of-a-kind championship belts with his young grandson bustling in the background. He has since been inducted into the New Jersey Boxing Hall of Fame. Now, it’s Majian that creates prizes that prize-fighters treasure till the end of their days. There’s much work to do: three of the four major boxing sanctioning bodies exclusively use SARTONK belts. It’s a victory of artistry over imitation. Amidst instant replays, highlights, and shots of the sweaty, blood splattered victor, arm raised with a belt strapped on, consider how they are a product of a different battle won decades ago. It makes the prize somehow even more meaningful.