Lawmaker Pushes For Ban Of Toughman Bouts

Jerrid Duncan of DeWitt, Ark., is wheeled out on a gurney from the boxing ring after getting knocked out during the Toughman contest, Friday, Feb. 29, 2008 in Little Rock, Ark. Questions about the fighters' health have plagued Toughman since its creation by Michigan promoter Art Dore.
AP Photo/Mike Wintroath
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."