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Toughman kicks off Friday

Jan. 09, 2013 @ 11:24 PM

HUNTINGTON -- The forecast for Huntington this weekend ... cloudy with a chance of knockouts as the Big Sandy Superstore Arena hosts the 25th annual Tri-State Original Toughman contest.

Boxers will battle for more than $12,000 in prize money and bragging rights.

Doors open at 6 p.m., and the four hours or so of boxing gets started at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday nights as local boxers with nicknames such as The Sledgehammer, Ghost Rider, The Drunk, Pretty Boy, Smokey, Speedy, Killer and The Fightin' Cop all take a swing in the ring.

Those full nights of fast and furious blasts of boxing (three one-minute rounds) are punctuated with a booming soundtrack of boxing songs like "Eye of the Tiger," crying baby sounds when a boxer goes down and the roar of more than 5,000 family, friends and boxing fans.

Toss in the ring girls strutting their stuff between rounds, the emcee work of Jerry "The Suit" Thomas and you have the perfect recipe for a buckwild night of entertainment.

Organized by Thomas, the veteran boxing promoter who since the late 70s has been from Brazil to South Africa, the Huntington event also features a Saturday night pro bout. State cruiserweight champion Bobby Thomas Jr. will try to defend his title against Warren "Hitman" Browning in a scheduled 10-round bout. Thomas' pro record is 11-1, 8 KOs, and Browning's record is 17-2, 12 KOs.

Tickets are $15 general admission, $20 reserved and $30 for VIP ringside to watch the night of boxing that features lightweights, middleweights, light heavyweights and heavyweights who come as big as Jason "The Tow Man" Skeens of Chesapeake -- weighing in at 310 pounds and 6-foot-6-inches tall.

Tickets are available at 304-669-4400, at all Ticketmaster Outlets or by charging by phone 1-800-745-3000.

Huntington is the first event in 2013 for Thomas, whose Toughman franchise will work its way around the state with nine Toughmans as well as three Hard Knocks MMA events (Clarksburg, Beckley and Wheeling).

While Huntington is in its 25th year, the oldest events are Clarksburg and Beckley, which are both in their 34th year of existence. Thomas and his West Virginia Sports Promotions Inc., hooked up with Toughman founder, Art Dore, who started the amateurs only contest in Bay City, Mich., in 1979.

While Thomas has had to do business battle in-state with new competitors such as Rough and Rowdy Brawl (being held at the Charleston Civic Center this weekend), just a quick turn of the clock back to 2011 will show you why he still loves the sport of boxing because anything can happen and it does.

Like a scene out of a movie, a 19-year-old Nitro slender man, Jason "Toothpick" Waters, waltzed into the ring last year and against all odds won the middleweight crown taking out such veterans as 2009 champ Nate Butcher and Deron Keeton as 5,000-plus fans chanted "Toothpick, Toothpick, Toothpick."

"When people saw me, they probably thought (I had) no chance," Waters told The Herald-Dispatch last year. "They don't know what's on the inside."

Thomas said it is the magic of discovery of fighters like Toothpick, who went on to also win the Beckley Toughman last year, that keeps him excited about the business.

And indeed through the years, Toughman -- which you can only win twice -- has been a stepping stone for many.

Christy "The Coal Miner's Daughter" Martin, out of Beckley, fought her first Toughman in 1988 and co-promoted her first pro fights with Toughman arch nemesis Andrea Deshong before Martin went on to work for Don King.

Sam Scaff, known as "Slamming Sammy Scaff," one of the Toughman judges now, placed fifth in the World Toughman in 1982 and fought Mike Tyson in Madison Square Garden in 1985.

More recently, Huntington's own Jason Pettaway, who now lives and works at a gym in Columbus,Ohio, won a pro bout last year at Toughman, then went onto fight in March 2012 at Madison Square Garden.

"Joe Manchin once referred to it as the proving ground for tomorrow's pros, and that is very true," Thomas said. "A good example right in hand is this Saturday night as both Bobby Thomas, Jr., and Warren Browning are both seasoned pros who came out of the Toughman contest. That is their history and the list goes on and on and on."

Interestingly, even with competition from mixed martial arts fighting (Thomas is promoting three of those events this year), Toughman is stronger than ever, especially in Huntington, which draws the biggest crowds of the 10 Toughmans he produces.

"It's stronger than ever," Thomas said, "and we can't handle the number of people who want to participate. We've already received 300 entries that we've had to turn down."

Thomas said they've got 181 boxers signed up (as of Wednesday) and had to turn away more than 100 because of Toughman's rigorous entry that ensures fighters are truly amateur and that they are also in good health.

Now in his 36th year as a boxing promoter, Thomas said they are still making tweaks and adjustments to events, but have built the Toughman legacy on keeping a low-priced ticket for spectators, and by assembling a team of professionals (doctors, EMTS, boxing coaches, referee and employees) in every city to make sure everything goes safe and smooth.

"We take a lot of pride in what we do, and we do our best and I'm always trying to improve on what we are doing," Thomas said. "It is a work in progress and I'm always trying to make it better. We partner up with people in every city and make friendships and keep those relationships going and we have a lot of people working with deep roots in the sport."

Thomas said there will be nearly 200 folks helping put on the event in Huntington an event where Thomas leaves an empty ringside seat for the late boxing writer and The Herald-Dispatch sports editor, Ernie Salvatore.

Noah Kirk, who has been a boxing coach since 2002, volunteers to run the corners with his fellow coaches Rob Townsend and Terence Kelly, of 304 Boxing Academy, 1639 7th Ave., Huntington.

Kirk, who ran Buckeye Boxing for four years in Chesapeake before moving his gym to Huntington, said Thomas' event is good, safe entertainment because of the strict event during which boxers use head gear, 16 ounce gloves and box just feet away from attending doctors who check fighters before the bouts.

"The good thing about Toughman is that you get a lot of people who are just trying to prove they are tough to their girlfriends or buddies and who are tough and have no training," Kirk said. "It opens the door for entertainment and it also opens the door for some people who actually want to become serious about it. Butterbean is probably the most famous example of that."

For tough guys entering the ring this weekend, Kirk, whose gym has a couple of contenders including Brandon Kitts, who was a Toughman winner last year, has some free advice.

"The best advice is to have your cardio in shape and then it's hands-up, elbows in and throw straight punches," Kirk said. "A straight punch wins every time."



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