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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."