It's Friday night in northern Alabama's hill country, at the edge of a town called Jasper. A winter wind whips in from the east, slicing through scraggly pines and beating against the metal walls of what looks like a warehouse. The dirt field surrounding the building is jammed with pickup trucks, a Confederate flag flapping from every antenna. Almost every man and boy climbing down from those pickups is wearing a 'Bama ball cap.
This is hard country, coal country. But lately the mining companies haven't been hiring, and men in these hills are trying to make ends meet any way they can. Twenty-seven of them are ready to try tonight, inside that building, with their fists.
It's called "Tough Guy Boxing." At least that's what Freddie Franks calls it. That's the name he made up when he started this thing two years ago. It's the name he uses in the newspaper ads that invite all comers to take a shot at the $1,000 cash prize he hands to the last man left standing in each of the two weight categories—under 185 pounds and over. And it's the name printed on the canvas of his custom-made boxing ring—printed in the same blood-red shade as the stains that are smeared across its surface.
Few of the men who climb into that ring have sparred anywhere but in a bar. It's the smell of money, or perhaps the chance to make a reputation, that has lured them here. Mostly, it's the money. A thousand dollars apiece to the winners, $500 each to the runners-up.
As for the 700 men, women and children who have paid $10 each to watch—it's the scent of something else that has drawn them in.
"Lord God," says a grandmotherly woman, settling onto the aluminum bleachers and wrapping an afghan around her legs, "who'll get whipped tonight?"
The man beside her spits a stream of tobacco juice off to the side. It lands on hard-packed dirt. There is no floor in here, just four walls and a ceiling. There's an American flag roped to the rafters above the ring. An ambulance is parked ringside. "We've had several people leave in it," says Franks. He proceeds to recite a litany of separated shoulders, broken ankles, fractured ribs, busted noses and cases of sheer exhaustion. "A lot of boys find out they're not in as good shape as they think." Each fighter must sign a waiver releasing Franks from responsibility for "loss, damage or injury, including death." Franks hasn't had anyone die yet, but he has heard of it happening, down in Texas, where he says they do this without gloves. Franks requires fighters to wear gloves, 16-ouncers. Headgear and kidney belts are also offered, but most fighters spurn the extra equipment. This is, after all, about toughness.
To prove toughness, that's why 140-pound Ricky Sanford is here, ready to enter into a slugfest with men nearly a third again his size. "I used to be a little bigger," says the wiry 31-year-old, "but married life took it out of me—twice." Sanford comes from Good Springs, 15 miles to the south. He trims trees for a living. He has had his share of fistfights, he says, but never in a ring. He also says he has never lost a fight, except once, when a man broke his nose outside a poolroom.
"He cheap-shot me," Sanford says. "Heard I'd been foolin' with his girl. I'd have busted him except for two things. He was my best friend. And he was right. I was foolin' with his girl."
Every fighter this night is bigger than Sanford. The biggest is Alton (Baby) Huie from West Blocton, who tips the scale at 325 pounds. The scale he tips is a bathroom scale, the only piece of equipment in the drafty back room where the fighters weigh in. The men mingle back there before the bouts. Some are clad in sweatpants, a few wear shorts, but the uniform of choice seems to be jeans or camouflage fatigues and a T-shirt. Everyone wears sneakers, some without socks. Huie, who has won the Tough Guy heavyweight title before, arrives in a pair of leopard-spotted pajama trousers. "I'm kinda like the George Foreman of this game," says the balding 35-year-old brickmason's helper.
Huie had no boxing experience before he climbed into a ring eight years ago on a girlfriend's dare. "It was in a bar," he says. "I hit the boy about four times and he quit." He has fought once every few months since—sometimes here, sometimes at Tough Guy competitions elsewhere in Alabama and North Carolina. His worst showing was one night in Birmingham, when he made the mistake of getting into an all-comers kick-boxing match. "A Mexican fella caught my eye and swelled it shut," says Huie. "Then I got a rib cracked and had to quit."
When the weigh-ins are done, the pairings are drawn. Then the 13 lightweights and 14 heavies who are entered make their way toward the ring. Families and friends circulate, some warming their hands around hot cups of coffee, others clenching wads of bills. "I got 20 on the boy in the blue corner," says a man in a Stetson. "Ain't never seen him before, but I like the way he looks." A hush falls over the crowd as a blonde in pink high heels and a bikini enters the building, escorted by a man wearing rattlesnake-skin boots and a fringed jacket.
"That's Roxanne, our ring girl," says Michael Abner, the ring announcer. "Brought her up from Sammy's Go-Go Lounge down in Birmingham."
Rebel yells pierce the air as Roxanne climbs through the ropes hoisting a card for the first round of the first fight. Abner, who is also Freddie Franks' cousin, grins. "Ain't the South great?" he says.
A referee and three judges, all former Tough Guy champs, have been hired to handle the scoring. Each fight is scheduled for three two-minute rounds, but few go the distance. The opening bout, in fact, ends within a minute, after a Falkville man in red shorts floors a Cullman man in camouflage fatigues three times. When the referee steps in to stop the beating, the crowd screams to let it go on.
The fans laugh as Sanford climbs in for the second fight. Sanford has drawn a 172-pounder from Curry; Sanford's nose comes to his opponent's chest. "Mama, look at that little man," says a boy, tugging at his mother's sleeve.
Sanford answers the opening bell by charging the other man, his chin thrust toward the ceiling, his arms flailing, his shoulders and face instantly turning red and swollen from the punches they're taking. When the first round ends, the crowd is amazed that Sanford is still standing. It cheers his effort. Sanford lands a wild right in Round 2, then leaps upon the stunned big man with churning fists. The bleachers start shaking. The big man is down, and when he refuses to get up, the referee raises Sanford's arm. The bell rings, and the place explodes.
By the end of the evening everyone has fought once. Several of the losers have suffered minor concussions, a couple have cracked ribs and some of the winners have bloody noses. Nothing real bad. No new stains on the canvas, no trips in the ambulance. Nothing dramatic. No ring collapsing, the way it did the first time Franks staged one of these things two years ago. "It didn't matter," he says, recalling the incident. "It was the last fight of the night, and those two fellas kept on punchin' even after the thing fell down. We couldn't pull 'em off each other."
The losers are through. The winners return the next night, Saturday, to fight their way to the cash. Huie is back, along with Sanford and a crowd even bigger than the one on Friday.
John Bo Smith, a 180-pound, 20-year-old TV technician from Curry, is still alive, too. He's the fighter many of the fans have come to see. Smith is the county's lightweight champ, thanks, he says, to the man taping his fists. "His name's Ben Montabana," says Smith, nodding toward the small figure huddled over his hands. "He used to be a pro."
"A welterweight," mumbles Montabana. "From '37 to '42. Once in New York, but mostly I boxed around Birmingham." Montabana has worked with Smith for two years and has taught him to fight like a real fighter.
Sanford, who has no trainer, is facing a 184-pounder from Oakman in a quarterfinal bout. Again the crowd is doubtful. Again Sanford attacks chin-first, swinging at anything he can reach. And again he connects, nailing the man's head in the second round, knocking him senseless as the crowd erupts. Two little girls rush up for Sanford's autograph. He's only two fights away from a thousand dollars.
"I need the money," he says. "That's why I'm here."
But he doesn't get it. In the semis, a 180-pound factory worker from Carbon Hill decisions Sanford. Smith wins the final, and retains his title.
On the heavyweight side, Huie runs into a 315-pounder named Eric Esch and comes away with a mouthful of blood and a fourth-place finish—out of the money. The heavyweight prize winds up in the big hands of Steve Hyche, a 242-pound 27-year-old from Cordova. Hyche, a pro football linebacker, is between jobs. He was released by the Chicago Bears last season and is biding his time until the start of the new World League of American Football. As it turns out, just three months after boxing in Jasper, Hyche makes the cut with the Birmingham Fire.
As Hyche collects his cash, rebel whoops can be heard echoing in the moonlit field outside the building. The pickups are pointing back toward the highway. Ricky Sanford is already long gone. He has trees to trim tomorrow.
Mike D 'Orso, a frequent contributor to SI, has recently finished his third book.