The 56 Round

As dangerous as Toughman contests may potentially be, the company, headed by Art Dore, probably provides the “gold standard” for events of its kind.

That's indeed a rather scary notion.

What are even more perilous than these events; what offers very little in the way of standards at all, are “barroom brawls” – also referred to as “bar patron fights” – that are usually held as an “all comers” promotion at a nightclub.

How do I know they're more dangerous?

Because for a while, I was a part of it.

Way back – in the early '90s, as I was between full-time gigs in boxing, I got involved in one of these weekly promotions at a club in Miami, mostly as a ring announcer, also writing some press releases and helping out with some of the matchmaking – though there were so few matches there was not that much to do.

We had a doctor at ringside, and an ambulance right outside the backdoor. So what, right?

During this particular period of time I ran into Don Hazelton, who was then the executive director of the Florida commission, at a commission weigh-in. Don pulled me aside and said, in the friendliest way possible, “That kind of thing is going to wind up getting you into trouble. You don't need those kinds of problems,” or words to that effect.

Of course, I was a smartass who thought I knew everything there was to know, and I'm telling him stuff like, “Don't worry about it. You guys do what you gotta do,” or something like that.

Of course, he was right about it and I was wrong about it.

No, I didn't get into trouble. We didn't last long enough at the nightclub. But it's conceivable the club could have had some major-league difficulties if I wasn't around.

There was more than one occasion when someone tried to con his way onto the nightclub card. In one instance, I'm looking over at one of the kids who's taking applications from the contestants, and he's talking to a guy I knew to be an active, licensed pro fighter in Florida. Later, when I was glancing at these applications, I noticed that this pro fighter was trying to get into our event.

I immediately went over to him and told him that if he came around again, I was going to turn him in to the athletic commission. I didn't need to do that, but I do recall mentioning to some commission people that pros were attempting to infiltrate these contests.

At the time, there was another nightclub – one in Fort Lauderdale – that did things a little differently. These guys ran a highly successful weekly “barroom brawl” that drew a couple thousand people into the venue. After a while, I started seeing a kid on the shows named Steve Wolin, who not only had about 20 pro fights, but at least 80 or 90 amateur bouts and several state amateur titles under his belt.

Wolin, naturally, never lost any fights in this competition. Most of the people he went in against were unskilled, out-of-shape, drunk, or most likely, all three. Sometimes he fought twice or three times in one night, as did other contestants. At the end of the rainbow you had trophies, bar tabs, small amounts of cash, etc. to be won.

It was clear to me that Wolin was fighting just well enough to beat the neophytes, but not necessarily enough to seriously hurt them – at least that's what he must have been figuring. That was his choice. But what if that WASN'T his choice?

What if this frustrated fighter, who had by this time turned into an opponent, thought he had to look devastating in there? What if he were trying extra hard to impress his buddies, or some girl he wanted to pick up at the bar? What if he had utilized everything he had at his disposal, culled from years of experience, against this unsuspecting foe, who may have never had gloves on before? What if he were of the disposition that he just wanted to lay a little hurt on somebody else for fun?

You see, the amount of punishment doled out, and the severity of potential injuries, was more or less completely at the discretion of this pro. That absolutely shouldn't be the case.

The point is, there was no mechanism in place to prevent anything like that from happening.

Now, what if the opponent had gotten seriously hurt, even by accident, in a barroom fight against a professional boxer? What if he had gone into the ring intoxicated, something that was entirely possible, since no one had given him a breathalyzer test?

And do you think any of these contestants were told they were going into the ring with a pro? You bet your ass they weren't.

One night I was walking out into the lobby of this club, at the end of the evening, when I saw one of the fighters just lying there, having collapsed all of a sudden. There was no doctor around, no ambulance, and basically no one to attend to this guy for at least fifteen minutes.

This fighter's injury did not occur at the hands of Wolin, but it just as easily could have.

You know, I could've gone to the athletic commission and told them Wolin was competing in these events. But I really didn't have to, since some of the commission's inspectors were attending these fights on a semi-regular basis, just to check out what was happening.

I did approach some of the people organizing the fights – they didn't seem to be all that concerned with the presence of a professional in their midst.

Which brings me to another point. For the most part the people who organize these things – and that's regardless of wherever you go in this country – are so disconnected with the world of real boxing that either there is no way they'd ever know who was actually competing in their ring, or they just couldn't give a damn about the kind of problems they could create, even if they were armed with the knowledge.

Whichever way you slice it, you're talking about a lot of potential danger.

Mixing boxing with alcohol is one thing if you're a spectator. It's quite another thing if you're a participant. And as we've mentioned, it's not at all uncommon for people to be stepping out of a crowd, entering a boxing ring, and taking blows to the head without having been given a breathalyzer test.

The same problems you may run across from time to time, or more often than not, in the “Toughman” world – no doctor or an unqualified doctor, a very limited physical exam, no ambulance, irresponsible organizers, incompetent officials, no matchmaking, loose rules, huge weight differences, and unskilled, inexperienced, out-of-shape participants – can be exacerbated in this kind of wildly uncontrolled atmosphere, including the “alcohol factor”.

Needless to say, safety is not the major consideration.

And some clubs have had to pay.

Club Boca, in Boca Raton, Fla., lost a $10.5 million judgment to the family of a competitor who became a quadriplegic as a result of one of these bouts.

The man, Carlos Silva, had hit his head on a wooden stage in the first round of a fight he had at Club Boca in November of 1997; he was then allowed to continue fighting until he was knocked unconscious in the third round. he developed a blood clot in his brain that led to his condition and left him unable to speak or move. The club kept having fights for another year before they finally closed the doors. During the trial, the owners of this club used the “Art Dore Defense” – arguing that Silva had signed a waiver, thereby absolving the promoter (the club) of liability. But the jury didn't really buy it.

This wasn't the first problem for Club Boca. Two months before Silva's tragic injuries, a woman was knocked unconscious during a tag-team match, then was elbowed in the neck while she was laying against the ropes, all the time without any intervention at all by the ring “officials”. She later sued and got a settlement.

But Silva wasn't settling. And sensing the possible result, the owners of the club – Simon and Barbara Mandell – filed for bankruptcy a week before the Silva trial began.

Perhaps that is the position Art Dore and the Original Toughman Contest have to be put in. Perhaps that's what will finally bring an end to all this silliness – the kind of silliness that can end – and indeed has ended – in tragedy.

Of course, I have another solution.

That's upcoming.

Copyright 2003 Total Action Inc.