By Kim Constantinesco
There’s an angelic quality and mystifying attraction to behind-the-scenes work.
It’s almost fitting then that the founder and president of Union City, New Jersey based SARTONK, the originator of the modern boxing belt, is a magician.
Edward Majian’s sleight of hand has enabled him to relate to the work that fighters put in well before they hoist iconic SARTONK belts above their heads.
“Boxing is very much about achieving the impossible,” Edward said. “That’s something that resonates with me because as a magician, the thing that made me most passionate about magic was performing things that showed us that, that which is perceived to be impossible may just be a matter of perspective. In boxing, it’s about overcoming barriers that are seemingly impossible.”
Technically speaking, SARTONK started five years ago when Edward performed possibly his biggest “trick” by reviving his grandfather’s legacy with the help of his wife and SARTONK’s executive manager and director of community affairs, Hasmig Tatiossian.
Edward’s grandfather, Ardash Sahaghian, 92, and grandmother, Nazeli, have been making title belts for over 40 years for the WBA (World Boxing Association), WBO (World Boxing Organization), IBO (International Boxing Organization), and IBF (International Boxing Federation).
Edward knew the business well because he was raised by his grandparents.
“My mom and my dad were never really in my life,” Edward said. “They split before I was a year old, and both of them for different reasons were not a part of my life. My grandparents raised me basically from the time I came back from the hospital after being born. The way I describe them is they were the two angels that kind of caught me where I could have fallen into who knows what.”
Long before they took Edward on as their “son,” Ardash and Nazeli immigrated to the United States in the 1960’s from Romania. Both of Armenian descent, they escaped communism, where Ardash was once tortured in a prison camp. They traveled to both South Africa and Brazil before finally settling in New Jersey.
Ardash started working in Weehaken for Phil Valentino, a huge boxing fan and jewelry store owner. He helped Valentino make title belts for the up and coming boxing organizations. Ardash was a skilled jeweler and leather craftsman, so he was perfect for the job. So perfect in fact, that Valentino gave Ardash the proverbial keys to the belt-making side of the business. Over the years, almost every major boxing champion has worn a belt that was made by Ardash and accentuated by Nazeli’s delicate touch.
Edward had no intention of getting involved in the family business despite helping his grandparents in the shop when he was young. Early on, he had his sights set on magic. In college, he got heavily involved with studying social justice and philosophy.
Hasmig, meanwhile, moved to New Jersey from California to start an internship at the Elizabeth Coalition for Health and Wellness, where she wrote curriculum for a homeless and economically disadvantaged children’s camp.
“That summer we just happened to serendipitously meet through a friend of a friend,” Hasmig said. “Somebody that I had just met asked what the origin of my name was, and I said it’s Armenian. He said ‘Oh, I know one other Armenian person.’ As the night developed, he said ‘You have to meet this guy.’ He called Ed and put me on the phone. We talked and Ed came to the bar we were at, and the rest of history.”
Edward and Hasmig decided to spend three months in Armenia in 2008 as part of a volunteer program for people of Armenian descent who had not yet visited the country, and wanted to immerse themselves directly into their heritage. Edward worked with the Red Cross to create curriculum for children who are grandchildren of refugees from the war. He used his background to promote lessons that focused on non-violent communication. Hasmig worked for a women’s resource center that helps empower and educate woman, which corresponded nicely with her master’s level thesis.
While they were in Armenia, they kept up with the news of the U.S. economy collapsing. As banks were failing and companies were tanking, Edward and Hasmig came back to an economy that was at an all-time low. They also came back to find that Ardash’s business and legacy were in jeopardy due in large part to a language barrier.
Edward had been a bit disconnected from the business because he started performing magic at 12 years old. Again, that was his passion in life and he didn’t foresee getting involved in belt making.
“When I came back, he had told me that things were not going well,” Edward said of his grandfather. “He had kind of been hiding it from me because he didn’t want me to get involved. He didn’t want to impose it on me.”
Edward and Hasmig got on the computer and started digging around to find out why there had been such a large decline in business.
“We found out that there were people claiming originality on his designs,” Edward said. “He had no voice essentially to communicate himself and to get recognition. At the time, virtually no one knew who the designer was of these immaculate, very intricate belts. It was completely taken for granted and there were a number of con artists and frauds claiming to be the original makers of these belts. That was nauseating to me. He hadn’t had proper representation.”
As other people were trying to rewrite the history of the belts so that they could establish their own businesses on false terms, Edward started SARTONK so that he could preserve his grandfather’s dignity and give him the recognition that he deserved.
“In a way, the founding of this small business is an experiment in social justice in the sense that I wanted to create a company that allows the marketplace to choose authenticity,” Edward said. “I also wanted to create a company that championed social contribution.”
In regards to that, SARTONK started a literacy program, which features the Ali-King Award.
The Ali-King Award is an essay writing contest open to 17 to 22-year-old boxers or boxing enthusiasts in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut. The contest was named after Martin Luther King, Jr. and Muhammad Ali, and it is unique in that it is sponsored by all but one of the major sanctioned bodies in boxing. The contest prides itself on encouraging youth to explore their own social contributions through boxing and writing.
“Hasmig and I both as young students in academics had opportunities to enter essay contests, go to conferences, and speak at conferences,” Edward said. “We recognize the value of doing those kinds of things such as improving your writing skills, improving your comprehension, and having opportunities to do public speaking.”
Contestants may choose the topic of their essay based on five categories: Autobiographical, Ali and King, The Role of Champions, Women in Boxing, and Materialism and Meaning.
“The point of the contest isn’t to write an essay for the sake of writing an essay,” Hasmig said. “The point is to get the youth to think critically about their own lives and whether that’s through the lens of thinking about a champion or a figure like Martin Luther King. The bottom line is to reflect about their own lives and to see the role that boxing plays in their lives. We also want them to think about the historic role of boxing. Boxing has been the sport of the oppressed. How do they figure into that history?”
The essays are reviewed by a committee of judges with three winners being selected and presented with Ali-King statues (made by SARTONK) at an awards ceremony at world-famous Gleason’s Gym in Brooklyn. The first-place winner receives a training session at Gleason’s and lunch with a former World Champion in addition to his or her statue.
Most of the entries for the annual contest have come from females. Despite calling over 100 gyms in the Tri-State area at least twice, Edward and Hasmig have not received as many essay submissions as they initially hoped for.
“We’re having trouble getting a lot of entries because these are youth that have the most problems with literacy,” Edward said. “Although they have incredibly reach, deep stories, they’re intimidated by the written word.”
“The challenge is in getting boxing trainers to support this,” Edward added. “A lot of boxing trainers themselves were at-risk youth who grew up and had a meaningful life through boxing, but did it without much formal education. For the trainers themselves, writing an essay isn’t that much of an intuitive thing, so passing it on to the youth is kind of hard to imagine.”
Boxing, like most sports, is a phenomenal metaphor for life.
“The reason why I think the Rocky movies became such a huge success is because boxing speaks directly to that part of every one of us that wants to strive despite adversity,” Edward said. “A lot of the people in this essay contest for instance have something that’s keeping them down. They have a missing parent, maybe two missing parents, a rough neighborhood, or they don’t think that they can go to college. When boxers get in the ring and face each other, sure there’s two people going up against one another, but really, it’s the boxers going in there to face themselves. They go in there to be the best version of themselves as they can be. When they go into that ring, they’re facing their missed workouts, their failed diets, their lack of commitment just as much as much as they’re facing the other person. Boxing is very much about getting up and doing the best that you can.”
To dig even deeper, Hasmig explained how each round of a boxing match is just a condensed version of life.
“If we look really carefully at each round, we can detect the psychological development each fighter is going through,” Hasmig said. “When is that moment that they lost confidence? When is that moment when they became overconfident and as a result, took at hit because they were overconfident? When does that positive affirmation when they do something right become the positive perpetual cycle and they keep winning? You have these micro experiences within every fight that really are a reflection of what life is about. What does it take to get us down and what is it going to take to bring us back up?”
As Edward and Hasmig went from scholars and social activists to business people in the boxing world, they didn’t lose their original identity or their passions. It was just a lesson and a progression in redirecting them.
It’s clear that their ultimate purpose is to contribute to society and seek out more purpose all while honoring the family legacy.
That kind of behind-the-scenes work is more than just sleight-of-hand. It’s perspective and ultimately, it’s true magic.