It's got violence, sex - and it's not fattening
Jerry Thomas brings boxing to the masses
By Michael Lipton
It's 5 p.m. and promoter Jerry Thomas has already slipped into his freshly-pressed black tux. They say everyone looks good in a tuxedo, and Thomas is no exception. At 54, he's what people once called "dapper" - a slim, well-groomed man who exudes old-school class.
You won't find a more experienced - or respected - boxing promoter in all of West Virginia . Since the late ';70s, the former Marine Squad leader has promoted fights across the U.S. as well as in Mexico , Brazil , South Africa , Denmark , Italy , France , England , Canada , Puerto Rico and Switzerland . He's even promoted a half-dozen fights with infamous impresario Don King - and come away with not only his money but good things to say about the man.
For 24 years, Thomas has run the Toughman franchise in West Virginia . The Toughman "season" is from November to April and during the winter months, he spends nearly every weekend in some part of the state, introducing a new generation of would-be fighters to the ring (and, in many cases, the mat).
Tonight, he's in Huntington , at the newly-renamed "Big Sandy Superstore Arena." Standing next to a bridge table covered with papers, he's weighing in fighters for tonight's competition. He's registered a record 107 fighters - ranging from doctors, telemarketers and computer techs to truck drivers, prison guards and coal miners - and the line now snakes back through the bowels of the arena, almost out of sight into the sub-freezing January weather.
"How ya' doin' big guy, I'm Jerry Thomas," he says with a practiced-but-warm smile. He extends his hand to a young man who looks to tip the scales at about 20 stone (280 lbs.). Glancing at the line, it's obvious the Toughman call has attracted a varied crew - not necessarily the fittest - but ostensibly the toughest and scrappiest men and women from western West Virginia , eastern Kentucky and southern Ohio . And that's saying something.
But if you think the Toughman contest is merely a spectacle of free-for-all bouts where beer-bellied hillbillies charge into the ring, arms churning like a speeding sternwheeler, you're only half right. The contest has come into its own as a proving ground for tomorrow's pros.
None other than Christy "the Coal Miner's Daughter" Martin, the Beckley native now signed to Don King's stable and taking home upwards of a half-mill a night, fought her first fight at Thomas' Toughman match in 1988. It was his first event to include women (Thomas was "convinced"; to create a women's division by a hostile encounter with a would-be Toughwoman in a local grocery store). A few years later, Thomas co-promoted the first pro fights between Martin and her Toughman nemesis Andrea Deshong.
Other toughmen-gone-pro include Beckley's Tommy Smalls (who went on to win the WBF World Junior Middleweight title against former IBF champ Harry Arroyo), Tommy Morrison, Greg Haugen, Mike White (a world Toughman champion who KO'd Buster Douglas in Atlantic City in 1983) and Eric "Butterbean."
Hanging around the weigh-in table, I eavesdropped on the Q&A between Thomas and the line of hopefuls.
"Have you played sports?";
"Yeah ... I played football in high school," was a typical answer.
"Did you train for this event?"
The answers to that query were split 50-50 - either a nonchalant "no" or a "yes" that involved anything (and everything) from riding 10 speeds to sparring under the guidance of a real trainer.
This was the fifth Toughman bout for Dan Stapleton, a.k.a. "Barney the Dinosaur." In 1998, he unexpectedly won his very first fight. But his exhilaration was short lived.
"I thought I was doing pretty good," he said. "Then, the next night I fought someone who could really box and got killed. I came to in a chair back here," he said, pointing toward a bathroom. "My jaw hurt for close to a year."
His next try got him to the semi-finals in Parkersburg . Stapleton didn't train for tonight's fight (thanks in part to an on-again off-again divorce) and, although he was considerably more muscular than his opponent, lost handily.
A love for boxing runs deep in the Thomas family. Jerry Thomas was born and raised in Clarksburg . His father, Charlie, a lifer at Clarksburg 's Union Carbide plant, picked up his love for boxing in the Army. Jerry recalls listening to fights on the radio with his father in the '50s. He also remembered his first - and last - boxing lesson, the result of coming home from school with a bloody nose and torn shirt.
"I was about 12 and [Dad] decided he was going to give me a boxing lesson," Thomas remembered. "I accidentally hit him in the nose. He whacked me back and I went through the glass in the front door. The next day my mother destroyed the gloves."
A longtime fan, Charlie and his friends traveled all over West Virginia to go to matches. Now 83, Charlie attended all his son's events until a year ago. "Now, he stays home and I bring him a video tape of the fight," Thomas said.
In the early-'80s, Jerry's younger brother Tommy was Clarksburg 's Great White Hope. He won the WV and Pennsylvania Regional Golden Gloves and advanced to the semi-finals in the nationals in 1977. At his peak, he was ranked 6 th in the world by WBA and 8 th by WBC.
In 1982, Tommy "Franko" Thomas fought Michael "Dynamite" Dokes for the North American Boxing Federation heavyweight title in Atlantic City . The bout was broadcast live on national TV and Thomas lost by a TKO in the fifth round. Dokes went on to become the world heavyweight champ. Thomas also lost close decisions to Jimmy Young and Leon Spinks.
It was his brother's ambition to become a fighter that led Jerry to the sport.
"Tommy was 19 when he decided he wanted to box," he said. "When I couldn't talk him out of it, I figured I'd better help him. It was moral support and publicity to start with. Then after a few years, I started promoting events for him."
Tommy, now a Clarksburg police officer, is one of the referees at all of his brother's events.
There's still an hour or so until "showtime" and Ellena Haddock is sitting nervously, taped and wrapped, on a table by herself. She explained that she's fighting because she lost a bet, a coin toss to be exact.
"And yes," said the 38-year-old mother of four, smiling, "there was beer involved - and tequila."
She was a construction worker by trade, and I wondered if she would be taunting her opponent in the ring.
"Talk shit?" she said. "I'm so nervous I think I'm going to throw up. I'll probably fight some bruiser who'll beat the shit out of me."
Haddock, who weighed in at 269 lbs. lost to 232 lb. Dana Hanna, but she went the distance and put up a good fight. That was around 9:30 p.m.
Seated ringside with the judges and doctors, we're within spitting distance of the action, and close enough for the refs to offer some funny asides ("I'll bet that hurt"). Earlier, I spoke to Dr. Gary Crimeans, one of three ringside physicians working the fight. He also does the quick, pre-fight physicals, querying entrants about recent broken bones, instances of sudden death syndrome and heart murmurs. A few months ago in Logan , a fighter who neglected to tell anyone he had previously broken his neck, was taken to the hospital after his fight.
"They use 16-ounce gloves instead of eight- or ten-ounce gloves," noted Crimean, a family practitioner who did time in an ER across the state line in Kentucky . "It's hard to get hurt with them; they're like big pillows."
At the moment, Kyle Hankins, 315 pounds, is losing to 280-pound Jeremy Little in fight 34. Midway through their second round, I notice drops of blood had splattered on my program.
For anyone who has attended any kind of "event" in West Virginia - or anywhere else, for that matter - it should be obvious that Thomas not only knows what he's doing but he cares enough to do it right. From the Marine Corps color guard and a rousing rendition of the national anthem to the barely-clothed ring girls, sometimes-clever musical selections (delivered via a quality sound system) and pyrotechnics, Thomas doesn't miss a trick.
But not all promoters are as conscientious as Thomas. Recently, some Toughman events were canceled in Indiana , allegedly due to safety issues. Others claim it had more to do with a rift between the promoter and the state boxing commission. As a result, this year, the Indiana Boxing Commission has asked the legislature to ban Toughman competitions.
At least eight deaths have been attributed to Toughman contests since 1979. Last September, Mike Kuhn, 26, fighting in a show in College Station , TX and Art Liggins, 44, fighting in a show in Boise , ID , died within a week of each other from injuries sustained in their bouts. Toughman contests are banned in at least four states.
While Thomas - whose insurance agency writes the liability policies for his events - acknowledged that the safety of the matches can vary with the promoter, his track record is spotless. In more than 200 events - and tens of thousands of bouts - over 24 years, there has not been one serious injury.
Pete Ferrell has been supplying the fireworks for Thomas' shows for the past year. It's one of the extras that makes Thomas' events special. But an improperly loaded or aimed charge can ruin both his and Thomas' day in a split second. Ferrell, who, unlike many pyro techs, mixes and loads his own charges, also claims a perfect track record. After working for high-profile employers like Aerosmith, 'N Sync and Ringling Bros., Ferrell is happy to work in a more relaxed atmosphere and has become one of Thomas' biggest fans.
"He's the most honorable guy I've ever worked for," he said. "With most of the promoters you need a contract - and then you're not sure it's good until you get to the bank. With Jerry, a gentleman's agreement is as good as a written contract. And that's all I have with him."
If Toughman contests were once a novelty, they're now something of a tradition, predating today's inane reality shows. Thomas rattles off stories of second-generation fighters, brothers fighting brothers, friends fighting friends, mother-son entrants and extended families (a husband, wife, son, two daughters and a cousin) signing up. There's even been some in-the-ring marriages (a fighter and a ring girl) and proposals.
"A fighter in Martinsburg asked if he could propose to his girlfriend in the ring," said Thomas. "He got down on his knees and proposed in front of 3,000 people. She accepted.
"Toughman has been around a long time," he added. "When it first started, I wasn't sure how long this phenomenon would last, but it's continued to grow. We turn fighters away at every event."
There's also a surprising amount of sportsmanship for an event that plays upon our most primal instincts. After nearly every bout, the fighters shook hands or hugged. In 54 matches, there was only one obviously sore loser - and he called Thomas the following week and apologized.
After watching matches where at least half of the combatants end up shedding some blood, you might ask, why would someone - especially someone who hasn't trained - climb into the ring? Is it for the $1,000 first prize - for which you may have to fight three or four times?
"I don't think it's for the money," said Thomas. "I think they get into it for the excitement, the opportunities and the challenge. Where else can you get in the ring in front of your friends and family and not get arrested? It's got violence, sex and it's not fattening."
The Toughman Contest was created by a former boxer and then promoter- Art Dore, in Bay City, Michigan in 1979. Dore tells the story how he got fed up with listening to the armchair athletics talk about how "they coulda beat that guy". One week- end he and long time friend Dean Oswald rented a local arena and opened it up to guys who wanted to prove how tough they were. The boxing fans got to see what they really wanted: the hometown boys, real amateurs, the seasoned street fighters with little or no boxing skill, but lots of guts. Those first Toughmen were punching it out in the ring in front of their friends and family, for a little fame and fortune.
The first Toughman Contest was born. It was billed a clean, down-to-earth, back to basics fighting. No professionals, and no ringers, just big, tough guys that would get knocked down, and keep coming back for more until there would be only one left... the "Toughest Man in Town." The fans stood in line for over an hour in snow and two degree temp- eratures to get their tickets. The event sold out both nights, with standing room only within half an hour from the time the doors opened. The same was true at the second contest in Marquette, Michigan held only a short time later.
The event continued to grow and spread through Michigan, then Ohio and next to West Virginia, where Dore teamed up with Clarksburg promoter Jerry Thomas, who had been promoting pro and amateur boxing events. During the next two years, the local events spread into over 100 cities throughout the United States, with an annual World Championship event, that is now being broadcast live on Pay-Preview. The format was refined into the very entertaining production the fans now enjoy. Thomas' company West Virginia Sports Promotions Inc., owns the exclusive rights to promote the Toughman Contest in West Virginia as granted by Adoreable Promotions, Inc. This year ten events are scheduled in West Virginia and one in Ohio.
West Virginia Sports Promotions Inc. also promotes professional boxing events. Thomas' company also co-sponsors a boxing gym, located in Clarksburg, where all Toughman and Toughwoman fighters can train free of charge.