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.

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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.

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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.

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“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.

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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?”