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State goes easy on Toughman 

When the Original Toughman competition comes to the Statehouse Convention Center Friday and Saturday, it will bring controversy. After a series of ring deaths over the last few years, the 29-year-old boxing tournament has faced new criticism because of a recent death in Texarkana. At least 15 states have banned it completely and one lawmaker would like to see that happen in Arkansas.

The latest Toughman fatality occurred two weeks ago in Texarkana after a competition at the Four States Fairground. Brandon Twitchell, 23, of Elkhart, Texas, was injured while fighting and died five days later at a local hospital.

In an interview with the Texarkana Gazette, Toughman's Southern coordinator, Lydia Robertson, said Dr. Lee Buono, a neurosurgeon, checked fighters and monitored them throughout the event. Dr. Buono did not return a call for comment. Robertson said she knows no details of Twitchell's death beyond what she read in the newspaper.

Twitchell's girlfriend, Joni Witcher, said she attended the fight and the pre-fight weigh-in. According to her, Twitchell was dressed and wearing steel-toe boots when he was weighed. That put him in a higher weight class than his 136-pound frame would have otherwise allowed.

Twitchell fought once on Friday and three times on Saturday. A half hour passed between Twitchell's first two Saturday fights. There were 15 minutes between the second fight and the third, which was the final. Twitchell's opponent continued to hit him past the bell during the third fight, despite the fact that he threw up his hands, she said. The referee did not immediately intervene.

Witcher said the only medical attention Twitchell received between fights was a check on a bloody nose. He complained of feeling bad and asked for a doctor after his final match. An EMT gave him an IV, but the stretcher on site was occupied by another injured Toughman fighter. The ambulance came 20 minutes after Twitchell's initial complaint.

“It really disgusts me that [Twitchell] hasn't even been gone a month and they're already doing another one not even that far away,” said Witcher of the Little Rock Toughman bout. “That's like a slap in the face to me and his family.”

Fighters assume risks when they enter elimination-style boxing tournaments such as the best-known Original Toughman. Unlike professional boxers, who are trained athletes and generally fight under more scrutiny from state regulators, Toughman fighters need only the thirst for a brawl and a $50 entry fee. Many fighters have little experience. Twitchell's boxing history, for example, was limited to sparring at home.

Under contest rules, combatants outfitted in boxing helmets and 16-ounce gloves pound each other for three one-minute rounds or until a knockout occurs. The winner of each match moves on until a champion is determined. Contestants can fight a maximum of 12 rounds in a day. They are required to sign a waiver acknowledging the danger of boxing.

Fighters are grouped into weight classes. They vie for cash prizes, the amount of which depends on the number of participants. This weekend there will be $3,000 split among the winners of three men's divisions and a women's division.

Arkansas law requires Original Toughman to meet certain health requirements. A licensed physician must be present ringside; contestants have to pass a pre-fight physical and a pre-fight breathalyzer test; and Original Toughman must carry at least $1,000 in medical insurance for fighters. The penalty for non-compliance is a $1,000 fine.

But none of these provisions are overseen by the Arkansas State Athletic Commission, which governs other non-amateur ring sports in the state. Original Toughman was exempted from this oversight by a 2001 state law, which also added rules for elimination bouts.

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