What do you call a street brawl masquerading as a boxing match? Simple. You call it Toughman. That’s right — one word, capital “T.” The national competition that measures the testosterone levels of those brave enough to call themselves “real men” is now sounding its casting call across the land.
Will the strongest men in Asheville please step forward?
“No kicking, no biting, no spitting and no head-butting,” growls the rules sheet — oh, yeah, and you must be at least 18 years old to enter. But those official guidelines only hint at what Toughman’s all about. Although it’s sanctioned by the North Carolina Boxing Association, anyone familiar with the event knows it’s unofficially billed as a wild fight. Anyone can go for the gold: The real test is just having the nerve to walk into the Civic Center and sign up.
“People need to sign up quick, ’cause we’re cutting back how many can fight this year,” warns Asheville promoter Rick Watkins. Only 20 fighters in each class will be accepted — and slots are filling up faster than you can say “dare ya.” (The light-heavy category is for 160-184 pounders, while the heavyweight division includes fighters up to 400 pounds.)
The secret to winning is an individual thing, counsels Watkins: “The general rule is, big guys [and] old guys hardly ever win, and the winners usually only smoke about half a pack of cigarettes a day. … Some run five miles a day, some go down to the mailbox and call it training. These fighters don’t have it down to a science.”
Their ranks are hardly uniform, either: Virile men, brawny men, old men and short men all champ at the bit for the chance to compete. Watkins reveals: “We got people from every walk of life. We got rednecks, we got bluenecks — even corporate suits show up to fight. The postman, the guy who loads the UPS trucks, the normal Joe off the street signs up for Toughman to see if he’s bad enough, mean enough or tough enough. Then we match ’em up by weight, ’cause that’s the most fair way to put these guys together.”
Signature visuals immediately differentiate Toughman from pro wrestling, the genre’s glitzy cousin. Contenders battle it out in jeans and work boots or cutoffs and sweatshirts — no namby-pamby, orchestrated costuming for these guys.
“A few of these characters, they’ll even give themselves fancy names — but none of ’em wear that spandex stuff. They wouldn’t look too good,” the promoter says.
Actually, women are allowed to fight, too, but not many of them sign up anymore. Nonetheless, Watkins’ preference is definitely with the ladies: “I’d rather referee 10 women’s matches, anytime. Women are nasty — they kick, scratch, [get] mad easier, and don’t care what it takes — ’cause they want to win at any cost.” The contest draws he-man wannabes from every corner of the district. Current champion Terry Dyer, perhaps the all-time local favorite, is adding a sensational slant to this year’s skirmish by announcing it’s his final fight, ever.
“I’m hanging up my gloves after this fight. I’m going to try to go out a winner, ’cause I’m getting old for the boxing game,” he discloses, referring to his upcoming exhibition battle with prominent Brevard Toughman Charles Williams.
“The Feb. l9 exhibition will be set up like a pro fight. Me and Charles come in during an intermission, which lets other fighters take a break,” Dyer explains. “Then we will fight four three-minute rounds — that’s what we agreed to; and we both receive financial compensation.”
Dyer, a 37-year-old employee of General Signal Laboratory Equipment in Weaverville, began competing in Toughman contests in 1984. A few years later, a financial sponsor picked him up and moved him to Bristol, Tenn., where he fought two years on the pro circuit. But he felt his career was stagnating. “Actually, it was costin’ more time and money than I was getting out of it, so I came back home and fought exhibitions in Asheville, Charlotte and Greenville.”
He has fought in more than 50 exhibitions (losing only four times), and has faced Williams — a fellow professional — three times, beating him twice. But for a 16-year combat veteran, Dyer seems just as anxious to discuss the more poignant aspects of his life. “I’m a single dad, have two sons, so I’m pretty dedicated to this,” he reveals. “I don’t have a trainer, and I work out two, three hours every day. I love the competition part of it. I don’t fight to show that I’m a mean person or a bad person. I don’t drink or smoke or do any of that. I do it because I love the sport.”
However, Dyer’s rival in the upcoming “grudge” match — sure to be the event’s highlight, according to Watkins — will be risking more than the usual bloody nose or sprained wrist. For Williams, it’s nothing less than his personal best on the line. “He wants to set the record straight,” says Watkins: “He wants one more chance to be the champion.”
It seems that Williams has more on his mind than guts and glory, however. In a recent interview, the fighter described himself as a family man who is “deeply religious … though I don’t act like it at times. I believe that, through Christ, you can do anything.” Defending his career choice by paraphrasing select verses from I Corinthians, Williams intoned: “If you don’t fight to win, you will be a castaway. Any man should strive for mastery.”
But win, lose or draw, Williams’ 10-year career automatically heats up a notch after this fight: World-famous promoter Don King plans to sign Williams to his fold of top-notch fighters regardless of the match’s outcome.
Though the winner in each division collects a thousand-dollar prize, money is usually not the main force that drives men to face Toughman’s brutal challenge. “Most of these guys have more heart than you can haul in a wheelbarrow,” insists Watkins. “Real quick, Friday night separates people who can fight and people who can’t. But once the ropes close behind them, there’s this big empty look in their eyes. Their pride’s on the line, and they’d rather get their butts beat than walk away scared.”
Now in its 21st year, Toughman’s grassroots attraction continues to grow. “Toughman is amateur boxing at its finest,” confirms Asheville Civic Center Assistant Director Bill Borenstein. “It’s a positive thing because it is real. This is great sports entertainment for people who don’t get a chance to see the professional fights, like Tyson. And it’s a great example of a community-based event, because 95 percent of the fighters are local.”
Curiously, there’s an emotional current supporting this macho tournament that runs deeper than mere ringside blood lust. “The guy next door could be the next champion,” points out founder Art Dore, who started Toughman in a rented building in Bay City, Mich. “It’s that Rockylike twist that makes Toughman unique — and really appealing.”
And appealing it is. Not only is Toughman fought in civic centers and college gyms throughout the country: The contest’s thundering success has spawned its own industry. The Toughman World Series airs every Friday night on the FX Network. The contest was the basis for a Sega Genesis game and the premise for the movie Tough Enough, starring Dennis Quaid. Toughman — which has been featured on The Tonight Show, in People magazine and on Real TV — is now an entrenched aspect of mainstream America.
Though Watkins dearly loves his job, his post as ringleader is never easy: “I feel like I’m dragging 100 tires behind me getting ready for this show,” he says with a laugh. For the past 17 years, Watkins has been the local event’s referee, announcer, marketing director and fight recruiter. As such, he’s no stranger to the controversy that comes with defending an organization boasting the “baddest of the bad.” Undaunted, he declares: “I get pot shots taken at me all the time, ’cause of this violence thing. People got it in their minds that we’re promoting violence, but I can prove that you like it. [It’s] much more fun, isn’t it, to watch the bull chase the cowboy at the rodeo, ‘stead of the other way ’round? So we tell people, if you don’t like it — don’t come.“
Elimination rounds for the Toughman contest begin Friday, Feb. 18. On Saturday, Feb. 19, contestants fight to the finish. Both events begin at 8 p.m., and all fighters come from within a 75-mile radius of Asheville. Tickets for each night start at $13, and are available by calling 251-5505. For more info, call the Civic Center at 259-5544.
Intermission will be enlivened by the Dyer-Williams match (Saturday night only) and by a half-time show courtesy of the local Jerry Dula Karate School, which has performed at Toughman contests for 21 years. The school features students from first grade through middle age, and will enact a 25-minute demonstration each night.
Many karate instructors discourage significant physical contact between students, but not Dula, who proclaims, “I’m an advocate of [fighting], because to teach otherwise gives students a false sense of security.”
Because Dula’s students are required to prove themselves, the shows he choreographs are a natural fit with the contest: “We’re not cruel — but I try to teach them that, just because they’re taking karate, doesn’t mean they’re tough [yet].”