By J. Daniel Rollins
Register-Herald Sports Writer
Jerry Thomas didn’t set out to become the face of the Toughman Contest in West Virginia. It just kind of happened that way.
“When they first called me about it, I wasn’t all that crazy about it,” Thomas said.
Thomas may not have initially been wild about the idea, but the Mountain State was.
Tonight, Thomas’ West Virginia Sports Promotions will kick off its 35th year when The Original Toughman Contest invades the State Fair Events Center in Fairlea.
Thomas can’t believe it’s been that long.
“The beginning of the 35th season... it’s very interesting and hard to believe,” Thomas said with a laugh. “Every once in a while, we’ll start counting how many fighters we’ve had. Last year, we did a rough count and it’s somewhere around 30,000 fighters.”
Tonight, many area fighters will look to add their names to a list that includes Tommy Small, Bobby Thomas, Scott Morris and Christy Martin, as those who got their start fighting in The Toughman.
“We started recruiting at the State Fair in August and had 20 entries in one day and a couple ring girls,” Thomas said.
Thomas expects more than 100 fighters and 21 ring girls tonight, in an event that is sure to crown a new champion in each of the weight divisions.
“The heavyweight runner-up, Joe Hill, is back,” Thomas added. “He’s from Rock Creek and is 6-foot-1 and 260 pounds. Last year’s champ has won two titles, so he’s moved on. It’s wide open this year.”
There will be plenty of new faces and new names, and, as Thomas said, “That’s what The Toughman is all about.”
Two faces that will appear in the ring that aren’t unfamiliar to fight fans in southern West Virginia will be former Toughman winners, Butch and Ashley McNeely. The father-son duo will serve as referees for the event.
“Butch and Ashley are both former fighters,” Thomas explained. “Butch was the Toughman champion 30 years ago.”
It may not be the last McNeely that Thomas gets in the ring.
Butch’s daughter, Hope, a Bluefield State student, is working toward her pro debut — something Thomas hopes to have at the Beckley Toughman Contest early next year.
“I’ve talked to Butch and Hope a little about that,” he said. “It will be a subject we talk about this weekend. It would be neat to do that as a featured attraction in Beckley.”
Thomas wasn’t sure whom he would bring in as an opponent for McNeely, but he’s very aware of one possible opponent — last year’s champion in Beckley, Marissa Long.
“The key there is the weight difference,” Thomas explained. “Marissa is probably 20 pounds heavier than Hope, and I think it would be tough for her to cut the weight since she’s still young and growing, so it’s hard to tell.”
The jam-packed event begins at 7:30 p.m. tonight.
“We have all kinds of things going on,” Thomas said. “We have a lot more going on than ever. This may be our biggest in Greenbrier County, which we are calling the Greenbrier Valley Championship.”
Thomas expects a performance from Greenbrier East High School’s “Contemporary Ensemble,” a rock band created in 2008 for advanced guitar students, as well as an appearance from the Greenbrier Roller Vixens.
Tickets for the event are on sale at The State Fair office, Stop-In stores in Lewisburg and Ronceverte, and at the door, beginning at 6:30 p.m.
Ticket prices are $15 for general admission and $20 for reserved ringside seats.
— E-mail: jrollins
@register-herald.com and follow on Twitter at @JDanielRollins.