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Toughman a perennially popular event in Tri-State

Jan. 15, 2011 @ 11:37 PM

HUNTINGTON -- It only took a pair of boxing gloves and a little bit of encouragement from his dad for Sam Scaff to take up boxing when he was 12 years old.

Years later, it only took a newspaper advertisement for him to take his first shot competitively in the ring during one of the first Original Toughman Competitions in 1981.

"Slammin'" Sammy Scaff went on to win that Toughman competition, place fifth in the World Tough Man competition in 1982, hold the West Virginia Boxing Championship title for eight years and fight Mike Tyson in Madison Square Garden in 1985. The Flatwoods, Ky. native also turned down an offer to be Billy Ray Cyrus' bodyguard, pre-"Achy Breaky Heart."

Nowadays, Scaff spends his time ringside with his wife, Terri, judging the very same sort of Toughman competitions that gave him the break he was looking for 30 years ago.

"You gotta go out there and be aggressive and clean with a good attitude, and land some blows," Scaff said from the judge's table Saturday night. "It takes a lot of experience to know to look for, and a lot of people don't agree with the judges. They definitely let us know when they don't, but that's just something that comes with the turf."

Scaff, who has been judging boxing contests for 27 years, is one of a cast of dozens who willingly forfeit their weekends during the Toughman season from November to April to ensure that the competitions stay as safe and professional as they are original.

Dr. Allen Saoud has been ringside at the competitions for more than 25 years. Saoud said his participation at the Toughman competition began as a favor for his childhood friend, Jerry Thomas, executive director of the West Virginia Toughman competition.

"When they started the Toughman competition, it was in 46 states. Now, it's only in six, and Jerry runs half of them," Saoud said. "A lot of the reason why this event is successful is because of Jerry and how he runs the events."

Saoud, an admitted boxing fanatic since age 5, was one of two ringside doctors and two teams of paramedics who are on-call from the first punch to the final bell during the Toughman competition.

The safety of the fighters is the absolute top priority for everyone involved, and Saoud noted that there has never been a fatality or major safety violation during any of the West Virginia Toughman competitions, which he said is a major reason the Toughman franchise no longer exists in many states.

In fact, Toughman competitions in Indiana were so lax on safety that the Indiana Boxing Commission lobbied the Indiana State Legislature to ban Toughman competitions completely.

That is something that is very unlikely to happen in West Virginia as long as Thomas is in charge, Saoud said.

"I mean, boxing is a violent sport. The winner of the sport is the person who does the most physical damage to the other," Saoud said. "We have to work together to make sure these competitions go off as smoothly as possible."

Scaff said the Toughman competition ranks right up there with any of the professional fights he's participated in. Scaff's fight versus Tyson ended with a broken, bloodied nose for Scaff, and he said while it can be tough to lose like that, he knows it's important to make sure safety comes first.

"It's frustrating to lose that way, but what are you going to do?" Scaff said. "The refs know what they're doing."

While the referees decide when a fight is over, it's the doctors who decide if the fighters even get to step into the ring to begin with, Saoud said.

"You have to be looking behind their eyes to see what's going on. Head injuries are our biggest concern, especially during the second night," Saoud said. "If they're fit to fight, I'll let them do as much as they're capable, but we don't take any shortcuts here."

While the organizers don't take any shortcuts on safety, Scaff said it appears that lately, a lot of the fighters are taking shortcuts when it comes to training.

Scaff admitted he was a little out of shape when he first began boxing, but he quickly learned what he needed to do if he wanted to make boxing more than a hobby. He said getting into shape might not be a sure-fire way to win the Toughman competition, but it certainly would increase one's chances.

"These guys are fighting one-minute rounds, which doesn't seem like much when you're watching, but it feels like a long time when you're in the ring," Scaff said. "I'd just like to see some of these guys get into shape. After the first round they're winded, and a lot of them have trouble getting past the first bell. That makes these doctors have to work a little harder. This could be something big for them if they take it seriously enough."

That being said, Scaff said he would never miss any of the Toughman competitions he's invited to. He even brings his wife, Terri, along as a scorekeeper, so he doesn't have to keep track of the paperwork.

The event also is a family function for Saoud, who has been bringing his wife, son and daughter to the competitions for more than 20 years.

He said, when it's done the right way, the appeal for the Toughman competition is universal.

"People have a great deal of fun here. I mean, it's a chance for some of these guys to get their 15 minutes, and a lot of fighters who are now professionals started out at Toughman," Saoud said. "There's a lot to be said for the fact that this is one of the remaining competitions, and I think a lot of people would tell you that they'd like to see it only get bigger and better when they come back next year and the years following that."

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