Like the Devil Needs Matches: Toughman Contest, Las Vegas 5-13-02

How and Under What Circumstances This Got Started

The cell phone was ringing, and being that I don’t have reception in my apartment building, I ran out to the street trying to find somewhere that the signal was strong enough to justify the money that I pay for the damned thing. It was Keller. He wanted to know if I’d like to go to Vegas in a couple of weeks. At the time, I was going through a fresh and nasty break up with my girlfriend of three years. My mind was divided. I needed to do something. Sure, I’d go to Vegas!

Keller said that a buddy of his in LA was going to enter the regional Toughman Contest. Hell yeah, I thought, I’ve never been to a fight but heard all sorts of stories about the craziness that goes on at Toughman fights. Keller told me that this one wasn’t a freeform fight where guys get in there and beat the shit out of each other with whatever they got – this fight was boxing. It sounded like a good time, then a few weeks passed, and Keller’s friend wasn’t going to fight. There was a wedding he had to go to the weekend before that would interfere with his training. It looked like the trip would not take place.

But wait! I wondered if Todd and Sean would be interested in a story on a trip to Vegas and a fight. And so it came to be that the day before Keller and myself left, with the help of Todd and Sean, we had secured ourselves press passes and ringside seats to the Toughman fight in Las Vegas.

Vegas and a fight! I’d never covered a sporting event in my life. I’d never seen a fight, of this type, in person – plenty backyard ass kicking, and what have you, but I didn’t know shit about boxing or sports journalism. I resolved that neither was to stop me.

The Man at the Bar

We rolled in to the Las Vegas Hilton a little past 3 AM. By 6 AM I was drunk and had already spent/lost then won back most all my money. Keller had crashed out earlier around four. I was sitting at the bar watching baseball highlights, trying to let the thoughts of the past few weeks slip from my mind. It was the late night/early morning crowd – stragglers and addicts of all sorts.

A couple was sitting next to me, making out at the bar. They were steaming things up pretty good. I imagine they were getting a little too hot for the taste of the floor managers at the time because they were shortly thereafter asked – then made – to leave, and go somewhere else with their spring break foreplay. The dude tried to protest, but the natural law of “don’t fuck with the casino” came around to his attention. I watched from the corner of my eye as the girl fixed her dress, then staggered across the floor, and away from the bar to unknown locations.

“They couldn’t wait could they?” said a guy sitting next to me.
“I guess not,” was my reply.
“Were you in from?” he asked.
“LA,” I said.
“I’m staying down in O.C. right now,” he told me, then asked, “What brought you out here?”
“I’m here with a candy-ass photographer,” I said. “We’re gonna’ see a Toughman Contest over at the Orleans”
He looked down at his beer. “A fight?” he said. “Who is it?”
I told him that it wasn’t pro, that it was a Toughman Contest, and that I didn’t really know that much about it.
“Yeah,” he said. “I’m here with my wife and daughter. She just turned two.” Then he looked back at his beer. I felt like there was some misery with that last statement.
“A buddy of mine back in Alabama’s got a little girl,” I said. “She’ll be turning two in about a month.”
“Yeah,” he said, “I had mine when I was 20.”
“Congratulations,” I said, and then asked, “You enjoying your time here?” I meant this to be more directed towards how the Hilton casino was than towards his emotional state.
“Yeah… my wife’s upstairs sleeping. It’s hard to get out and do stuff when you have a kid,” he said. “I’d like to pick me up one of these ladies down here for the night… go and put another room on my credit card.”
“Go for it man,” I said.

The guy seemed down. Hell, maybe he needed a good night with a girl to spice up his life at home. Who knows? We all have these problems at some point in time. Maybe he was only drunk and would regret it in the morning, and from there, for the rest of his life? In these positions, who can tell what will happen? I am in no position to judge the needs of others. I got my own women problems to deal with.

He ordered another beer, tipped the bartender five dollars on a five dollar beer, and went out to run with his angels and demons.

I went out to check on the sun’s position in the sky, but couldn’t find my way out. So I wandered around until I found the elevator up to the room on the eleventh floor of the Hilton.

The Las Vegas Poolside Family Hour

I was thumbing through a Las Vegas entertainment magazine – Tony Bennett was playing on page seventy-six – I wasn’t going to fuck with Tony Bennett, but I might go for the Honky Tonk Angels on the other page. Keller was trying to talk me into hitting the pool. I’m not much of a pool person. I don’t get into it, but what the fuck, we had to kill some time between then and the fight. I put on some shorts, poured myself a glass of Ten High with Pepsi, threw on a sleeveless tee shirt, grabbed my sunglasses, then made my way down to the poolside.

It was family hour. Everyone who was staying at the Hilton with kids decided to come out. I saw the single mom circuit, and imagined somewhere in that division was the sub-division of the not-single mother, her husband bedded down with some Vegas call girl.

It was 10:30 AM. I was operating on about three hours sleep, drinking a margarita with salt while sitting poolside, shirtless, dehydrated, and no suntan lotion on.

There is something weird about suntan lotion. Maybe I’m not used to rubbing cold, slimy goo on my skin. I’ve never liked that sort of thing. I also don’t like having my face painted. It is also weird sitting around the pool with a bunch of white people trying to get brown, not that there’s anything wrong with it. The history of how the suntan became popular is interesting. Check out http://www.coolnurse.com/tanning.htm if you want to know about that sort of thing.

“Come on rookie!” said some hairy dude in the pool. “Rifle that ball back here.” He was throwing a football with two little kids. He stood in the shallow end. The kids were in the deep end. I like football, but this guy was getting on my nerves. Every two minutes, “Hey rookie, catch this,” “throw that,” “hey Rookie.” This was pool side Vegas? I had to get out of here. It was familial hell.

With little sleep, I was approaching, rapidly, a state of drunkenness that I hadn’t felt since Senior Week in Panama City Beach, Florida, 1993. I scanned the single mother division once more for signs of daddies in the bed with another woman, but my perception was jacked up. My skin was dry and burning. I withdrew from poolside and backtracked my way up to the room.

Fish ‘n Chips ‘n Free Drinks

Keller had gotten a full night’s worth of sleep. He was shitting fire and ready to go.

“Oh, it’s on!” he said. “We’ll go to the fight and then be chilln’ with some fly honeys.” Then he proceeded to dial up a number on his cell phone.

“Alright,” I said, “if you can pull it off, we’re there.” And I went over to the sink and poured myself another Ten High and Pepsi. Keller was talking on the phone, and I was getting drunk. I’ve done this before, tried to get a story, ended up getting drunk, blacking out, and the story gets bent. I didn’t want to do that with this one. “I got a mission,” I told myself, “I got a job. I’ve got to get to the people about the Toughman Contest in Las Vegas!” That meant I’d to be on point. I needed to have gotten a good sleep. I needed to not be drunk at two in the afternoon, three hours from fight time. We didn’t even know where the casino holding the fight was. We needed food, so it was down to one of the Hilton’s finer eating establishments.

It was called The Hawaiian Grill or something like that. I ordered an emergency coffee, Budweiser, and a big plate of fish ‘n chips. Grease is important when you’ve got to go the long haul with the machine running ragged and no stopping point in sight. After that, we made a round of the casino floor, losing money, looking at ladies, and having free drinks.

“After the fight, it’s nothing but natt-boody dog,” Keller said. “I can work with that.”

Finding the Fight and Mr. Ron Jason

“I hope that the Orleans is out this way,” Keller said
“We’ve run out of casinos,” I said. “There ain’t shit out here.”
“Fuck,” Keller said. “Let’s go back the other way.”

After driving all the way through Vegas in the opposite direction, we found the Orleans with its marquee advertising the Toughman Contest. All right, time to go to work.

After a visit to the ATM, the bathroom, and then the bar, we picked up our press passes and got set up ringside. What we were about to see and learn of, we had not much of an idea.

The seats we had were roped off from the rest of the arena. Yes sir, we were oh-fish-e-al media. Since I knew nothing about boxing or the Toughman Contest, I started asking around.

As it turned out, we had missed the first night of the fight, which was the actual Toughman fight. What?! “Then what is going on tonight?” I asked of the man sitting next to me who I came to know as Ron Jason actor/producer of such films as High Desert, Las Vegas Serial Killer, Mission Kill Fast, and War Cat.

“Tonight,” Mr. Jason said, “is the Las Vegas Police Department vs. the Las Vegas Fire Department.”

Oh fuck, I thought. Just my luck. We miss the fight and end up seeing cops fighting firemen. What the hell was I going to say about that?

“Most all these people here tonight are police, firemen, or their family,” Mr. Jason told me.

Regardless of the drinks I had been having all day there is something about a room with some 400-odd police in it that gets at me. “So is this something that normally goes on?” I asked.

“This is something they’ve just started,” he said. “It’s for charity. They’ll get their prize money, but half of it goes to charity.”
“How are these fights set up?” I asked. “Is it just like regular boxing?”
“There are the same basic rules, but some things are different, like there are only three one-minute rounds. It was the same last night. They got to get in there and go to it. There’s no time to dance around. They have to fight. And they wear head gear, but like you’ll see, it doesn’t cover much.”

“I don’t drink, but thanks,” he said. “You hear that music they’re playing?”
It sounded like the Superman theme song to me.
“Last night there was more rock type songs,” said Mr. Jason. “The fighters were coming out to those songs and getting pumped for to fight.”
“So, you think it was better?” I asked.
“Last night, the fighters train more, they’re more technical. They train for this, but tonight it’s good because it’s cops vs. firemen. It’ll be crazy.”

The first fight was almost over. The cop called himself Spider. He was a cocky looking, skinny, 22-year-old white kid. He had this smirk on his face that he tried to keep even after the blood was running from his nose and down his chin. He lost that one for the cops.

The firemen’s crowd rose up, out of their seats, cheering. There was anywhere from 700 to 800 people in there and most were drinking. My nerves had loosened plenty by this time.

The Plumber and His Daughter

There were two beer lines, and for each line there were two smaller lines. One was for drink tickets; it ran beside a table that sold pizza, pretzels, and hotdogs. In that line I bought as many tickets as I could afford then got in the real drink line to trade them in for as many drinks as I could.

In line behind me, there was an older man with full grayed hair and beard. Next to him was a young blonde girl. The girl was going back and forth from the line and a chair that she would stand in to see over the crowd. I watched her up in the chair stomping and cheering as the cop and fireman slugged it out in the ring. I turned to the man with the gray beard and asked.

“So who are you pulling for?”
“Oh I don’t give a shit,” he said.
“Are you not a cop or a fireman?”
“Hell no,” he said, “I’m a plumber.”

The girl got down off of the chair and came back to the line. This time she spoke to the grayed plumber. He leaned close to her to hear what was being said. I saw him nod in agreement. As he did this, I saw that she was looking at me. She said something to the grayed plumber again. He turned to me and asked my name.

“Brad” I told him.
“This is my daughter Angie,” he said. “She’s the reason we came to this.”
“Really, why’s that?” I asked.

She leaned in close. I could smell her make up. She rose her voice to a pitch so as to pierce through the crowd noise, and almost bust my eardrum at the same time. “It’s my birthday and I like fights.”
“A fight for the birthday girl,” I said.
She leaned in close a second time. “Yeah, I like fights,” she said, trying to give me a tough smirk
“Well, here’s to a happy birthday,” I said, slightly bowing my head and raising my drink to her.
“I’m twenty today,” She said and took a pull from her beer.

I smiled, not sure whether to believe it or not. Why the hell would someone say they were under age and drink in a hall full of police and firemen? Was she trying to act rough? Who knows? Maybe she was a boxer herself. Before I could think to get any further with this conversation, I had made it past the drink ticket line and was only a few steps away from having my hands filled with as many drinks as I could carry.

The present fight was coming to an end, and the crowd was getting louder. By the time I had gotten my drinks, the plumber and his daughter had their hands full with their own. I looked over to them and she was stepping up on the chair. The plumber’s daughter had lost the tough look and replaced it with a grin and a new beer. The plumber stood beside her with his head and eyes raised high to see what was taking place in the ring. I craned my neck to see. In the ring, the officials where picking a man up off the mat. I made my way back to the ringside.

He’s a Cop, a Fighter, and He Dances in a Burlesque Show

Even though these fighters where police and firemen, it wasn’t what was to be expected. These men came out to fight. Some of the police looked like ex-gangsters, fully covered in tattoos, were scarred, and chiseled like Apollo. There was a mixture of big bruiser-looking guys, and then the ones who looked like they weren’t too sure they should have been up there. Like Mr. Jason had said, these guys don’t train for fighting. They may work out, but lack the speed, endurance, and knowledge of combinations to last. But then, Mr. Jason told me, “This is Vegas, and some of these guys are dancers.” A lanky and muscular black policeman entered the ring.

“You see that guy there,” Mr. Jason said, “he’s a cop, a fighter, and he dances in a burlesque show.”
“He’s a dancing cop?” I asked.
“Yeah,” he said. “The ones that dance are in top shape. They have to be. They’ll get in the ring and wear the other fighters out.”
“I suppose this sort of thing is common in Vegas?”
“These people have their dreams too,” he said.

I sat back with my beer and watched as the dancing cop put down the other fighter in two rounds. This was not turning out to be the lame, candy ass event I’d at first thought.

From there on out, the fights had three knock outs, countless bloody noses, and busted eyes – the head gear didn’t seem to protect anything but their hairlines and their ears. The roughest fall of all was by a cop who, because his kneecap went out, dropped down on our side of the ring. He had turned wrong; the kneecap popped over to the side of his knee, and left it looking like a golf ball under the skin. He was taken from the ring and the next fighters came up.

It went on, back and forth, with the cops winning one, the firemen winning another. There were a few more busted noses and a couple of knockdowns. All in all, there were thirteen different fights with the firemen coming out on top.

The Ring-Card Girls

Keller and myself had been eyeing the ring-card girls who, it just so happened, sat directly across from us on the other side of the ring. The way things were set up was to give us a ringside seat, and allow us anywhere but the other three sides of the ring. The side to our left was for judges, the Las Vegas boxing commissioner, and the medics. The last two, according to Mr. Jason, were present ringside at any boxing match that took place in Vegas. Ringside on our right, were what appeared to be the chief of police, the fire chief, and their families.

Mr. Jason was pointing out to me that the Orleans Hotel and Casino, regardless of its namesake, wanted to portray itself as an environment not quite as risqué as the Big Easy. Hence, the girls all had to cover up their tattoos, which I think may be common at other Vegas establishments, but the one thing that the Orleans asked of the girls that other places wouldn’t, was for them to wear a sash around their waist. They didn’t want the girl’s Southern Hemisphere showing, but that didn’t change cheers or misdirect anyone’s attention. These cops and firemen were here to drink, look at women, and see guys try and knock the shit out of each other. The same as us.

The fight was over and people were going back and forth in and around the ring. We were looking to talk to the ring-card girls, get our pictures taken, and ask some questions. But as soon as things let up, they were gone.

“The man you want to talk to is the announcer,” Mr. Jason said. “He’s the guy that runs the show.”
“Really?”
“Yeah, he owns this show and is the front man for it.”
“What’s his name?” I asked.

I was drunk and high from the fight when Art Dore walked up. I introduced myself, and seconds later realized I was in no condition to talk with this man. I would try to contact him later. Not only was he the ring announcer, but he ran the whole show from top to bottom. This would be an interesting man to talk to, but later. We got the shit together and began to make our way outside.

After the Fight – Into the Wilds of the Vegas Night

Coming out of the fight, we were pumped to high heaven. Seeing two men put their minds and bodies through punishment, not for the enjoyment of others, but for something inside themselves, whether it for charity, a dream, or personal commitment, it is impossible not to feel.

But there had to be more to what was going on. I wanted to see more of these fights. Mr. Jason said there are female matches and matches with other combinations. I decides I’d have to go again and find out more.

I hung my head out of the car as we drove past streets of people, fountains, and lights. I saw the couples. I saw the kids. Somewhere out there men are miserable with their wives. They’re out there debating over whether or not to lay down the plastic on another room. I wanted no part of it.

Supposedly, at the Mandalay Bay we were to meet up with some LA women. I was waiting to see.

I let the though of my busted relationship slip back into my mind. That’s not what this was about at all. This trip was to see a fight, and that we had done. Now we had to stay focused, to play what was dealt our way. I resigned and let handle-it handle-it. The night was just starting. We had much to do, but first we pulled into a gas station, and staggered behind a dumpster to take a piss.

For more information about the Toughman Contest check out
http://www.toughmancontest.com/history00.htm and
http://www.wvtoughman.com/Information.asp