WHEELING - With a record number of 191 fighters entered, the 33rd Annual Budweiser Original Toughman Contest is set to begin Friday and Saturday at WesBanco Arena and head promoter Jerry Thomas could not be more excited to get the event underway.
"I've been involved for all 33 years," Thomas said, "and just like all the fans, it still puts me on the edge of my seat. It takes a lot of work, but I enjoy it all. Maybe even more than anybody else."
To go with the record number of fighters came a record number of entries that Thomas had to short thought.
"We received over 300 total entries," he explained. "About a third didn't qualify or were not accepted for various reason. You have to be 18 to 35 years of age and must live around the Ohio Valley. Also, you can not have professional fighting experience.
"This is the largest number we ever had, not just in Wheeling, but anywhere. We currently do events in 10 different cities in West Virginia and this is the biggest by far."
Because of the amount of fighters involved, Thomas says fans will experience nonstop action from the second the event starts at 7:30 Friday night.
"This weekend we're going to have potentially 60 or 70 bouts," Thomas pointed out. "It's going to be nonstop. We had to hire additional staff members, but we're ready."
Of course, you can't mention Toughman with talking about the ring girls.
Twenty-two women from across the area came to River City Ale Works last weekend to participate in the ring girl competition, where a group of judges picked their six favorites.
"Toughman wouldn't be Toughman without pretty girls in bikinis," Thomas laughed. " We might need add a few more to go with all the bouts.''
Even tough the tournament is local, according to Thomas, it's a great start for a career.
"People who participate in toughman who do well, turn pro. A lot of people have done that. A lot of well-known professional fighters got there start at Toughman."
According to Thomas, a big reason why winners turn pro is because of a rule change that only allows a person to win the competition twice.
However, turning pro isn't the only option fighters have after appearing in the tournament. Several move on to become both trainers and referees.
"People become a part of the Toughman family," Thomas said. "Out of the ten trainers working the event, seven or eight are former toughman champions. Chuck Woods, Glen Easton, Todd Carney, there's a bunch.
''Rig Huffman who won 29 years ago, called me the other day to say hi and that he was going to bring his grandson. It's just neat things like that.
"Typically, when we have Toughman, it's like a reunion. You only see these people once a year. Some of these guys who work the event fought each other. Now they work together and help the new people."
"That's what Toughman's all about," Thomas added. "It's an opportunity for someone to try their hand at boxing. Maybe even become Rocky for a weekend.''