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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.