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Lawmaker Pushes For Ban Of Toughman Bouts

The roundhouse punch that caught Jerrid Duncan took with it his memory of the night.

The boxer from De Witt stood for a moment against the yellow and black ropes, his eyes glassed over as if he were mesmerized by his 90 seconds in the spotlight of a local Toughman tournament. Slowly, he slid off the ropes onto his right side. While a ringside doctor checked his vital signs, 2,000 fans unsatiated on $2.50 cups of beer booed the delay.

The crowd-pleasing fights went on, but it would be several hours before Duncan fully awakened in a University Hospital bed. His concussion was the latest injury for a boxing attraction in which 11 fighters have died since it started in 1979.

Duncan didn't know until after paying his $50 entrance fee that many on the card had far more experience than what the contest's amateur billing suggested.

"With Toughman, it's a 'If you want to do it, you can do it' type thing," said Dr. Robert Cantu, a Massachusetts neurosurgeon critical of the tournaments. "The potential for injury is much higher than it would be if there weren't that mismatch of experience and training."

And, in Arkansas, the state Athletic Commission hasn't had authority over the matches since a 2001 change in state law.

"We actually don't have the legislation to regulate Toughman," said Johnny Mattingly, the sole part-time employee of the commission, which meets quarterly in the back of a Little Rock janitorial company. "They don't pay any gate receipts and we don't license anybody or anything."

But after the February death of a Toughman fighter in Texarkana, an Arkansas lawmaker is working to ban the events.

At Little Rock's Powerhouse Gym, fighters hoping to enter that week's Toughman competition line up, padding shoeless across industrial gray carpeting for a weigh-in. Factory linemen, construction workers and the unemployed seek to show their dominance or let off steam.

"We just had a tornado up there in Clinton. I got my house tooken away," said 22-year-old Johnnie Arnold. "I just want to go let some anger out."

Arnold, like others before him, wasn't bothered by previous deaths in Toughman events.

"Man, I'd hate to be the dude who died or the dude who killed him, but man, you know, ... it's a competition," said Chris Haycraft, a 22-year-old tattoo artist from Jacksonville.

Promoter Lydia Robertson warns contestants they'll fight shirtless - unless they are women. Boxers can step into the ring in work boots if they like - as long as a pre-fight breathalyzer test found no traces of alcohol.

"Certainly no alcohol or drugs," Robertson said. "You can go back to that Monday."

Questions about the fighters' health have plagued Toughman since its creation by Michigan promoter Art Dore. Ronald Miller, one of the first to die from injuries suffered in a Toughman tournament, climbed back into the ring for a second fight in 1981 even though he felt dizzy and was seeing double. A former Golden Gloves winner and one-time Olympic hopeful also have died from injuries suffered during the fights.

Toughman promoters stress that each of the hundreds of fights staged across the country are monitored by a ringside doctor and an experienced referee. Fighters also are required to wear 16-ounce gloves, headgear, groin protection and mouthpieces.

Stephen Coppler of AdoreAble Promotions Inc., the Bay City, Mich., company that owns Toughman, said his company puts on fights in 16 states, while franchises run the rest, including those in Arkansas. He referred questions to Robertson, who works for On the Move Advertising of Little Rock, which organizes the Arkansas bouts.

"There's tremendous risk. Every fighter is advised of that. It's laid out in laymen's terms, it's laid out in legalese," Robertson said. "Clearly, all of these young men and women are made aware of the risk that they take when they enter the ring."

Arkansas Vacuums Janitorial Supplies sits in southwest Little Rock, a nondescript factory look-alike off a street of worn strip malls and fast-food restaurants. Bright yellow mop buckets, floor polishers and shiny trash cans line the showroom floor.

The Arkansas State Athletic Commission meets in the back, next to a display of spa cleaning supplies.

Mattingly, the commission's secretary, said he tries to go to wrestling and boxing events throughout the state, but sometimes his schedule doesn't allow him the time. One of the panel's seven unpaid commissioners might attend a bout instead.

But with Toughman, commission members simply have no authority if they see something they don't like.

In 2001, then-Sen. Bill Gwatney sponsored a bill, passed into law, exempting "boxing elimination contests" from the commission's oversight. The bill instead simply limited the length of matches, required that fighters be sober and said a doctor must be ringside.

Arkansas, however, does not track fighters to ensure they don't enter new contests soon after being knocked out in another.

Robertson provided the bill, said Gwatney, now chairman of the Arkansas Democratic Party.

"Lydia Robertson knows more about boxing and boxing regulation than anybody in Arkansas and that's who brought me that bill. She's a real safety-conscious person," Gwatney said. "Trust me, that bill there was for the good of boxing, not for its detriment."

Gwatney said that, without his bill, amateur boxing matches could have gone on without ringside physicians.

Louisiana, Missouri, Tennessee and Texas all ban Toughman-style bouts. Oregon makes getting a license for a tournament nearly impossible.

Arkansas state Rep. Steve Harrelson became interested in banning the fights when 23-year-old Brandon Twitchell of Elkhart, Texas, died after two nights of fights at Texarkana in February. Harrelson said Toughman is wrong to let the unconditioned and unprepared enter the ring against fighters who have mastered martial arts.

"Those guys are trained professionals. They train under instructors," Harrelson said. "Here, these guys may have been sitting on bar stools a couple of hours ago."

As the lights fell in the basement of Little Rock's Statehouse Convention Center, Stubby Stumbaugh - a former Cabot mayor, former congressional candidate and that night's ring announcer - chastised the crowd into silence for the national anthem. With whoops and screams punctuating the end of "The Star Spangled Banner," the fight was on.

For Duncan's bout, opponent Corby Billingsley entered the ring first. The 35-year-old Billingsley had fought in five other Toughman contests in Arkansas and Texas, once breaking a bone in his right hand against another man's skull.

"You've got to be smart about things. Everyone thinks it is just a brute show of skills," Billingsley would say later at the bar he manages. "It is more than just getting out there and trying to hit the hardest. It's knowing when to hit and knowing when to move out of the way."

Duncan entered the ring after lifting some weights the week before the fight and knocking around a punching bag at a local gym. He had seen some of the other fighters at mixed-martial arts contests and boxing matches; Toughman rules say fighters cannot have more than five victories in the previous five years.

"What's the reason for me to pay $50 to go out there and to be some professional amateur boxer's punching bag? It's unreal," Duncan said.

Nonetheless, Duncan waited in the corner for the bell, wearing black head gear - his hands sweating inside the gloves.

The bell rang. The two shirtless men came to the center of the ring and Billingsley started throwing punches. The punches weren't the practiced, tested jabs of a professional, rather the roundhouses and body jabs of a street fight. It caught Duncan off guard.

But Duncan countered with much of the same - trading blows until the end of the 60-second round.

Duncan, weary, emerged for Round 2 with his arms up to protect his face, but within seconds was backed into a corner. Billingsley's right hand connected with Duncan's jaw. Duncan's eyes rolled back, his body tensed and his hands dropped to his side.

The world slipped away.

Duncan awoke several hours later in a hospital bed to a "Wizard of Oz" moment - family and friends circling his bed. A doctor said Duncan suffered a slight concussion and discharged him.

Duncan spent a half-hour trying to remember where he parked his car and it was days before he began, vaguely, remembering parts of the fight. He couldn't recall whether he landed any punches against Billingsley.

Still, Duncan hopes the effort to ban Toughman doesn't come too soon. His 1½ rounds lit a flame.

"It drives me to want to fight more in the Toughman just because of people like this guy," Duncan said. "It makes me want to fight more because I want to go and I want to show those people that, hey, someone just off the street can fight as good as them."

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