School of hard knocks

Patrick Vaughan is clearly a man who welcomes adventure and is not afraid to take a chance.t These traits are evident in his account of an all-comers boxing event during his graduate study days.

I blew my knee out in March 1994 playing in Stansbury Hall in Morgantown, W. Va., the gym Jerry West made famous when he took the Mountaineers to the NCAA finals in1959. He was my boyhood hero, so I thought it symbolic my basketball career ended there. [Editor’s note: One of the greatest players of all time, Jerry West’s fame was such that his image graces the NBA logo.]

I took up boxing to stay in shape, and after a few years I turned into a pretty good fighter. A friend had a gym in a basement and I trained there on a pretty regular basis.

The West Virginia Tough Man contest is one of those televised weekend stunts. It’s held every January for two nights in the Clarksburg Grand Armory and has taken on quite a cult status over the past 20 years. They pack the armory with 3,500 people to watch 100 guys try to kill each other. People are hanging from the rafters and going bananas. There is a lot of blood lust involved.

I thought it might be sort of a George Plimpton type thing, but Jim March, my trainer and the one who urged me to enter, said, “George Plimpton! Hell, you can win it!” Jim is a Tough Man legend because he’s the only guy to win both the light heavyweight and heavyweight titles.

[Editor’s note: George Plimpton, a famous American author of diversified writings and many books, set up so-called participatory journalism events in which he did such things as pitch to both lineups of the Giants and Yankees, play a number of pre-game scrimmage downs as quarterback for the Detroit Lions, or get into the ring and box with Archie Moore, the legendary light heavyweight champion. He then wrote vividly about such personal experiences for Sports Illustrated, which assisted in arranging the events. Plimpton died last year]

I thought being the toughest man in West Virginia would be really something, like being the smartest guy in Cambridge or the tannest guy in Palm Beach. Most of the guys are in their early 20s and slightly crazy. Many guys travel about throughout the region fighting in such contests.

Headgear is required, as are 12-ounce gloves, and you fight three rounds of one minute each. Each fight divides the competition by half.

I weighed in at 204 (6'- 3"). That put me in the unlimited weight class along with some giant guys. Some of them looked pretty rough with tattoos, bare arms in the snow, flannel shirts, that sort of thing. Just crazy. It was snowing that day, and I really wondered what I was doing there. The announced introduced me to the crowd as “The Professor.”

I was happy I got to fight one of the first bouts – anything to get out of that locker room where some of the guys tried to get into your head with intimidation stuff like trying to size you up and stare you down when they were not looking in the mirror and listening to their music.

I won two fights – one each night – and got to the final 16, which wasn’t bad. I lost in the quarterfinals to a big, long-armed heavyweight named Tony the Tiger. He hit me with the back of his arm in the first round and knocked out both my contact lenses. Just popped right out of my eyes. I could feel them on my cheeks, and for the first time I was really a bit frightened because I’m pretty nearsighted.

I fought blind for a round but got nervous when he knocked me down hard with a punch I didn’t see. The ref stopped the fight. I think the crowd thought it was the best fight of the night. With decent eyesight, I think I could have beat the guy.

If I had won, my next opponent would have been Gary Warman, who won the contest. He had played for the Pittsburg Steelers as a linebacker. After he quit playing football, he made his living traveling around the Midwest fighting in these contests. The winner gets $5,000 and the runner up $2,500, as I recall. I guess in a way I was happy I didn’t have to fight him.

I drove home that night by myself. I intentionally did not tell anybody I knew what I was doing, so nobody came to see me fight. I was a big apprehensive about the whole thing, but somehow it made the papers, and on Monday my students seemed to have more respect for their history professor.