Like many Armenians living in Eastern Europe during the Cold War, Ardash Sahaghian and his wife, Nazeli, dreamed of making it to America and starting a new life free of the shackles of Communist rule. But while many of these immigrants came here directly, Ardash and Nazeli took a more roundabout route, first spending a year in Austria, and then five each in South Africa and Brazil. Ten years after leaving Bucharest, they settled in Weehawken in 1960, and Sahaghian, a jeweler and tanner by trade, took a job working in a New York factory.
He didn’t know then that nearly half a century later, he would be honored by the New Jersey Boxing Hall of Fame as the designer and craftsman of one of the sports world’s most iconic objects, the modern championship belt.
In fact, if you’d asked prominent members of the boxing community, they might not have ever heard the name Sahaghian. Unfamiliar with the American concept of marketing and advertising, he went about his craft quietly, and ultimately stumbled onto tough times financially because of it.
However, four years after his grandson, Edward Sahaghian Majian, started a family business, Sartonk Designs, in an effort to preserve his grandfather’s legacy and the integrity of an important part of boxing history, the Hall of Fame immortalized Sahaghian.
“I studied philosophy and politics in college, and worked with the Red Cross after that,” said Majian. “I watched my grandfather work as a child, but never planned to become a businessman or follow in his footsteps. I felt that that was his contribution to the world, and I had to find mine.”
Watching his grandfather struggle, however, changed Majian’s mind, and he began to feel an obligation to protect his family’s memory.
“After the belts became such iconic images in such high demand, lots of imitators and con-artists began making cheaper, low-quality belts and selling them on eBay for enormous amounts of money,” he said. “I didn’t want my grandfather’s role to be forgotten, and I didn’t want his hard work to go unrecognized.”
The road less traveled
Ardash Sahaghian’s life was interesting long before he ever crafted a boxing belt, beginning with the Communist takeover of Romania in 1947. Sahaghian and his brother, Vartkes, were both trained jewelers and tanners, and while jewelry-making was profitable prior to Communism, it proved significantly less so following its rise.
The new Romanian regime nationalized most artisan industries, including the metallurgy and tanning business, and attempted to gain revenue by regulating the businesses.
Soon after the regime gained power, Sahaghian was delivering some gold to one of his brother’s clients, and was questioned by the police. In an effort to save his brother, who was severely ill at the time and thus possibly unable to survive the brutal Romanian prison system, Sahaghian took the blame for illegally transported gold. He was given a sort of grace period during which he could turn himself in, as were most skilled workers. If he did this, he said, he would be given a substantially reduced sentence and would be subjected to a less-than-usual amount of torture.
During this grace period, Sahaghian, a phenomenal soccer player, played goalie for an Armenian side versus a team representing the Romanian Ministry of Justice. He put in a stellar performance, piquing the curiosity of some of the Ministry of Justice’s players. Months later, when Sahaghian arrived at the ministry to turn himself in, the Assistant Minister recognized him, and recruited him to the team temporarily before he began his sentence.
“They used to joke when we would come home from the games, because we passed the prison,” said Sahaghian in Armenian. “They said they’d have to drop me off there on the way home.”
Eventually Sahaghian did serve five years in prison, and was tortured. Upon his release, he began to focus on his future. He had asked Nazeli to marry him before his internment, and so following their wedding, they set a course, albeit a roundabout one, for America.
A master craftsman
After settling in Weehawken, Sahaghian was seriously injured on the job when he was hit with a sandbag while working in a New York factory. Forced to leave his job and temporarily crippled, Sahaghian began looking for artisan work in the jewelry stores along Bergenline Avenue. In one store, he noticed a piece crafted in the filigree style, which was more common in Europe than America at the time. After asking where it was manufactured, Sahaghian met Philip Valentino, a New Jersey businessman who owned a jewelry factory.
Valentino, an immigrant himself, had been involved in the New Jersey boxing circuit for some time, and had produced some championship belts for local bouts. But they were, for the most part, bland and flat, nothing like the elaborate designs seen on the modern belts.
After a year of working for Valentino, Sahaghian noticed the belts, and advised his employer that he could design ones far more intricate and beautiful.
In 1976, Valentino told Sahaghian to get to work, forming a partnership that would produce nearly every famous championship belt from boxing’s modern era. Sahaghian’s belts were raised by the champions of all three of the sport’s main competitive bodies, the International Boxing Federation (IBF), the World Boxing Association (WBA), and the World Boxing Organization (WBO). Most of the belt’s now easily recognizable features, the detailed three-dimensional reliefs, the thick leather fabrication and the colorful paint jobs on the belt’s medallions, were all created by Sahaghian.
Oscar De La Hoya lifted one of Sahaghian’s designs in 1997, and Don King was presented with an honorary Sahaghian belt following his retirement. The craftsman produced replicas for various boxing historical societies of several historically important belts dating back to the early days of boxing, including the belt awarded to the heavyweight “champion of champions,” Jack Sullivan in 1887, and the controversial belt worn by German champion Max Schmeling before he fought American Joe Louis in 1936 and 1938.
Sahaghian’s most impressive design, however, was not even a belt at all, but a crown awarded to the sport’s undisputed king, Mohammed Ali, at his retirement banquet in 1979. Wrought with gold and red velvet, the crown is a beautiful piece of art, and a replica is displayed today in Sartonk’s workshop.
Following Valentino’s death, Sahaghian found himself at somewhat of a loss as to how to continue with his craft. Unsure of how to manage the business side of the boxing belt industry, hard years followed, and Sahaghian was taken advantage of by misleading business partners, con artists, and others in the boxing industry who sought to capitalize on his designs.
“My grandfather never told me, I think to protect me, when the business was suffering,” said Majian. “When I found out I felt that it was my job to do something about it.”
So four years ago, Majian, who was raised by his grandparents, returned from his work with the Red Cross in eastern Europe to rescue his grandfather’s legacy. He founded Sartonk, purchased a workshop in Union City, and began to go about courting the clients that his grandfather produced belts for years prior. Hiring a team of designers and honoring his grandfather as the genius directing them, Majian and his wife, Hasmig Tatiossian, have guided the company through the complicated waters of the modern business world.
Today, championship belts are only one aspect of Sartonk’s business. The design firm produces sculptures and other metallurgy projects, as well. And just recently, they have begun to play a part in an oft-forgotten part of the boxing world – the fates of those boxers who gave the sport all they had, but failed to make it big, and have suffered because they do not have a skill set to fall back on.
Tatiossian, who studied international relations in college and holds a master’s degree in peacemaking, became aware of the problem soon after Sartonk’s founding, and proposed that once the firm was on its feet financially, it organize an essay writing contest to promote literacy and critical thinking within the boxing community.
The contest was sponsored by many of boxing’s regulatory bodies and easily recognizable brands. The inaugural Ali-King Award for Boxing and Writing (named for Mohammed Ali and Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.) offered boxers and boxing enthusiasts from the TriState area the chance to compete by answering one of four essay questions.
The winners, Joseph Rinaldi of Tom’s River, N.J., Chance Solem-Pfeifer from Jersey City, and Nafisa Umarova of Staten Island, N.Y., all spoke to the importance of perseverance, both in boxing and in life. Their words echo almost chillingly the long path that the Sahaghian family has taken to get to where they are today.
There’s a magic to the boxing champion,” wrote Solem-Pheifer, who studies journalism at the University of Nebraska. “When we talk about fighters who capture the public imagination, we’re appealing to the idea that one man’s struggle in a boxing ring for 36 minutes is a community’s struggle for recognition.”
Majian said that the same themes are deeply ingrained in his family’s struggle to protect his grandfather’s legacy and the historical integrity of the sport of boxing itself.
“Obviously our story is about boxing. But in many ways, it is a boxing story,” he said. “Our journey was not easy, it was a fight against the adversity of people who lie and cheat. That’s exactly what boxing is.”
Now Ardash Sahaghian is mostly retired, although he still spends the majority of his days in Sartonk’s workshop, advising the designers on their work and overseeing the production of the firm’s most important orders. Currently, this includes the belt that will be up for grabs by Manny Pacquiao and Juan Manuel Marquez, when the two champions cross gloves on Dec. 8 at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, Nev.
And while the majority Sahaghian’s long career was for the most part spent comfortably out of the spotlight, his induction into the hall of fame last month served as a fitting culmination. It was, in many ways, his own moment in the ring, holding an award that, for once, he himself had not designed.