When the Original Toughman competition comes to the Statehouse Convention Center Friday and Saturday, it will bring controversy. After a series of ring deaths over the last few years, the 29-year-old boxing tournament has faced new criticism because of a recent death in Texarkana. At least 15 states have banned it completely and one lawmaker would like to see that happen in Arkansas.
The latest Toughman fatality occurred two weeks ago in Texarkana after a competition at the Four States Fairground. Brandon Twitchell, 23, of Elkhart, Texas, was injured while fighting and died five days later at a local hospital.
In an interview with the Texarkana Gazette, Toughman's Southern coordinator, Lydia Robertson, said Dr. Lee Buono, a neurosurgeon, checked fighters and monitored them throughout the event. Dr. Buono did not return a call for comment. Robertson said she knows no details of Twitchell's death beyond what she read in the newspaper.
Twitchell's girlfriend, Joni Witcher, said she attended the fight and the pre-fight weigh-in. According to her, Twitchell was dressed and wearing steel-toe boots when he was weighed. That put him in a higher weight class than his 136-pound frame would have otherwise allowed.
Twitchell fought once on Friday and three times on Saturday. A half hour passed between Twitchell's first two Saturday fights. There were 15 minutes between the second fight and the third, which was the final. Twitchell's opponent continued to hit him past the bell during the third fight, despite the fact that he threw up his hands, she said. The referee did not immediately intervene.
Witcher said the only medical attention Twitchell received between fights was a check on a bloody nose. He complained of feeling bad and asked for a doctor after his final match. An EMT gave him an IV, but the stretcher on site was occupied by another injured Toughman fighter. The ambulance came 20 minutes after Twitchell's initial complaint.
“It really disgusts me that [Twitchell] hasn't even been gone a month and they're already doing another one not even that far away,” said Witcher of the Little Rock Toughman bout. “That's like a slap in the face to me and his family.”
Fighters assume risks when they enter elimination-style boxing tournaments such as the best-known Original Toughman. Unlike professional boxers, who are trained athletes and generally fight under more scrutiny from state regulators, Toughman fighters need only the thirst for a brawl and a $50 entry fee. Many fighters have little experience. Twitchell's boxing history, for example, was limited to sparring at home.
Under contest rules, combatants outfitted in boxing helmets and 16-ounce gloves pound each other for three one-minute rounds or until a knockout occurs. The winner of each match moves on until a champion is determined. Contestants can fight a maximum of 12 rounds in a day. They are required to sign a waiver acknowledging the danger of boxing.
Fighters are grouped into weight classes. They vie for cash prizes, the amount of which depends on the number of participants. This weekend there will be $3,000 split among the winners of three men's divisions and a women's division.
Arkansas law requires Original Toughman to meet certain health requirements. A licensed physician must be present ringside; contestants have to pass a pre-fight physical and a pre-fight breathalyzer test; and Original Toughman must carry at least $1,000 in medical insurance for fighters. The penalty for non-compliance is a $1,000 fine.
But none of these provisions are overseen by the Arkansas State Athletic Commission, which governs other non-amateur ring sports in the state. Original Toughman was exempted from this oversight by a 2001 state law, which also added rules for elimination bouts.
The 2001 law was sponsored by Bill Gwatney, who was then a state senator and who currently heads the Arkansas Democratic Party. It was lobbied for by Robertson, the Toughman promoter, who had herself once served on and chaired the Arkansas Athletic Commission.
Through a spokeswoman, Gwatney deferred comment about the history of the legislation to Robertson. Robertson said the new law increased the amount of paperwork Original Toughman has to do and was copied from legislation elsewhere.
Both Robertson and current Arkansas Athletic Commission secretary John Mattingly said several elimination-style boxing tournaments were acting outside state regulation before the 2001 law change. “There were several wannabe shows, and they were not following the rules,” Robertson said. “[Legislators] felt like if they had it under state code — it has a misdemeanor, it has a fine — that it might be easier to bring those guys under control.”
Mattingly, who is in his fourth year as secretary of the commission, defended Original Toughman. Though he acknowledged the commission has no legal authority to govern or investigate Toughman, a representative will attend this week's show.
There are slight variances between Athletic Commission regulations and the requirements of the 2001 law. Athletic Commission rules state that an ambulance must be present at boxing matches, while the law for Toughman does not. Both require a pre-bout physical. The 2001 law mandates that a ringside physician examine boxers who lose by knockout or technical knockout. The Athletic Commission has no such requirement.
Boxing oversight is much tougher in states such as Nevada, where professional ring sports are more common. Original Toughman has passed in and out of legality in Nevada, where it is currently barred. Nevada rules stipulated that elimination boxers undergo eye exams, MRIs, and testing for HIV and hepatitis. Robertson said Original Toughman requires an eye exam and a basic neurological test, but not an HIV test.
Arkansas Athletic Commission regulations require fighters to submit their professional records in order to ensure a fair match. The 2001 law governing elimination boxing does not require similar scrutiny. Weight classes in Original Toughman are broader than the Athletic Commission-sanctioned divisions, so some fighters may have a considerable weight advantage over their opponents.
Robertson said Toughman contestants are very evenly matched. However, a conversation with one of this weekend's participants suggests that some competitors have more experience than others. Justin Fiser, known as “The Kamikaze” in honor of his Okinawan roots, said he has mastered five fighting styles and routinely participates in amateur mixed martial arts, which mixes fighting styles that include kickboxing and wrestling.
Fiser was ambivalent about Toughman's potential hazards. “I have mixed emotions about that,” he said. “There should be concern for safety. But people sign a waiver — they know what they're getting into.”
Original Toughman's amateur spirit has caused friction with advocates for other ring sports. “Toughman isn't even a sport,” said Elias Cepeda, editor of the Chicago-based web magazine InsideFighting.com, which covers mixed martial arts and boxing. “In my opinion, it's a brand of unskilled boxing. It does a disservice to what boxing really is.”
Advocates for Ultimate Fighting bolster their argument by pointing out that there has been only one recorded death in professional mixed martial arts since Nevada and New Jersey began to regulate it in 2001. There have been at least six fatal injuries in Original Toughman bouts over the same period.
Conventional boxing has also been marred by fatalities. According to data compiled by the Journal of Combative Sport, there have been 11 deaths across all weight classes of professional boxing in the United States since 2001.
Twitchell's recent death in Texarkana brought Toughman's dangerous potential closer to home. State Rep. Steve Harrelson (D-Texarkana) said last week that he might try to ban Toughman during the 2009 legislative session. He has asked the Bureau of Legislative Research to study how other states have handled the issue. He cited a recent Texas law banning elimination boxing as a possible model.
Robertson, for her part, is ready to tap gloves. Informed of Harrelson's proposal, she said, “I would ask him: Has he ever been to a show? Wouldn't that be incumbent on him before he outlaws an event that's been held for 29 years?”