The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

Latest Sports

March 31, 2012

The man behind Toughman

Promoter Thomas has turned boxing show into a main event in state

BECKLEY — The annual Toughman Contest rolled into town this weekend to another rousing reception from fight fans across the area.

Needless to say, it has seen its share of changes over the years.

When the first contest came to Beckley, there were a total of eight fighters registered and a total of 20 tickets sold the night before the event.

This year, 132 fighters preregistered and ticket sales at the Beckley-Raleigh County Convention Center were brisk up through the day of the fight.

Back in 1982, there were two weight classes, and no women’s event.

Now, there are six weight classes, including two for the ladies.

Back then, the gloves were 10-ounces — smaller than the gloves used today— and headgear was optional, and not used by most fighters

Today, the gloves are much bigger, 16 ounces, and headgear is mandatory.

There has been one constant, though.

Jerry Thomas, the promoter and owner of exclusive franchise rights to West Virginia Toughman.

He has been it since Day One.

Which requires a bit of a history lesson.

The Toughman started in Bay City, Michigan, where Art Dore, affectionately known to Thomas as “the grandfather of Toughman” was promoting boxing matches.

After a less than impressive card, Dore and an associate went to a local watering hole.

“They got into a discussion with a few guys about how the weren’t very good, how these guys thought they could have gone into the ring and won,” Thomas said. “Art told the guys if they were that good, get in the ring and prove it.”

The fellows weren’t that long into the night, and mentioned that they weren’t trained fighters. They said if Dore created an event for average guys, they’d enter.

After a few beers the deal was struck.

“And with that, the Toughman was born,” Thomas said.

It was supposed to be a one-night event, for heavyweights only.

But word spread fast. One town led to another and the craze spread across Ohio and on into West Virginia. Less than three years later, Beckley was hosting a Toughman event of its own.

“There had already been a Toughman in Wheeling. They were working with a concert promoter and I don’t think it went over welI,” said Thomas, who was then promoting boxing events in the Clarksburg/Fairmont area. “When they offered me a chance to partner up,  wasn’t real keen on the idea. But my brother was just starting out as a fighter. I told them if they let me put my brother on the card, I’d do it.”

Some 33 years later, he is still at it. And he has made the pilgrimage to Beckley every year for 31 straight years.

Beckley replaced Charleston early in the Toughman rotation, which now counts 10 different venues annually.

“I thought Beckley was a better market, knowing the boxing history of the area,” Thomas said. “And after a scary start, they event really took off. It’s been in the same building for 31 years, and is the second longest running event we have going. Clarksburg is older, by a couple of months.”

Thomas said the event will remain strong, because of those three decades of popularity.

He even has former fighters, like the father and son team of Butch and Ashley McNeely of Mullens, now serving as referees, and a staff that has been loyal over the years.

“There is a definite family type atmosphere here in Beckley,” Thomas said. “Every year, we see a lot of Toughman jackets (given to the winners) running around the building. It’s great.”

Thomas still serves as PA man for the event, sitting ever present at his ringside seat in his tred jacket and black tie. It’s a labor of love.

“I couldn’t se myself doing anything else,” Thomas said.

— E-mail: demorrison@

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