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Fighters line up, unfazed by death

Changes have been put in place after a woman died during a match in June. Still, it could be the last one here in the state.

TOM ZUCCO
Published September 26, 2003

FORT MYERS - They stood serious and shirtless next to the scale and stole glances at their reflections in the mirror. About a dozen young men waited their turn Thursday at the ceremonial weigh-in before this weekend's big boxing card at the TECO Arena.

A few feet away, for the third time in the last half hour, fight promoter Lydia Robertson found herself on the defensive.

"We're safer than high school football," she told a reporter. "But the state refuses to acknowledge that.

"We're an easy mark. We're not coercing people to fight. Whatever happened to personal responsibility on the part of anybody over the age of 18?"

Toughman competition has returned to Florida.

Maybe for the last time.

Toughman, a no-holds-barred fighting event between amateurs, has staged bouts in Fort Myers at least five times in recent years, and few other than the fighters and their friends seemed to notice. But Thursday afternoon at the Lani Kai Island Resort, there were four television stations and four newspapers on hand to record the exact weight of a handful of total strangers.

The reason: Today's fights are taking place three months after the first Toughman death in Florida. On June 16 in St. Petersburg, 30-year-old Stacy Young, a Bradenton mother of two who had never fought before in her life, died from injuries she received during a Toughman bout two days earlier in Sarasota.

One of the fighters waiting for the scales Thursday was Larry St. Amand, who had brought his girlfriend to the Toughman fights here last year. During that competition, when fight officials learned there was only one woman registered, St. Amand said ring officials asked if any woman in the crowd wanted to fight her.

The woman in the ring was Sarah Kobie, who would later land the blows that killed Young.

"I asked my girlfriend if she wanted to fight, and she wouldn't," St. Amand said. "It's a good thing, too, because the girl they did get to fight (Kobie) looked like a rag doll at the end. I mean, Kobie probably could've beaten a lot of the men there. She was like a tornado. My girlfriend never let me forget that."

The two are no longer together. But St. Amand, the owner of Larry's Auto Shop in Cape Coral, is back. At 42, he will be one of the oldest participants. It will be his first time in the ring.

But he said he has trained hard with a former professional fighter. And he'll have support; he bought 60 tickets for his friends. "The only thing that worries me is that I might freeze out there when I see all those lights," he said. "They make everyone over age 36 get a doctor's note, and I got one.

"No, I've done stuff way more dangerous than this. But that's not to say this isn't dangerous."

It's that danger that has drawn the scrutiny of state officials. After Young's death, the fourth Toughman-related fatality nationwide in the past year and at least the 13th since Toughman began in 1979, state Rep. Donna Clark, R-Sarasota, filed a bill that would require any amateur boxing match to be sanctioned by an organization approved by the state boxing commission. Some counties, including Sarasota, also have discussed banning the competition, though a recent move in Polk County was voted down.

In California, Ohio and a few other states, Toughman is regulated by state boxing commissions. But in most states, including Florida, it is not.

Toughman competitions in Florida are regulated by American Boxing & Athletic Association Inc., a Michigan-based corporation controlled by Toughman founder Art Dore. Prizes are limited to $50 or less so the fights are considered amateur.

Robertson, a licensed promoter for Toughman, has sent letters to the Florida State Boxing Commission asking that it regulate Toughman events. If the commission does that, she said, Toughman could avoid trouble with the Legislature.

But help from the boxing commission is not on the way.

"It would be real easy for them to be regulated," said Chris Meffert, executive director of the Florida State Boxing Commission. "All they'd have to do is pay their fighters $51 and they'd qualify as professional boxing.

"But once they do, they'd have to follow all the safety requirements."

That would include having all fighters undergo a comprehensive physical before a bout, and having judges, ring doctors and referees appointed by the state commission. It also would require that Toughman pay 5 percent of its gross receipts to the state, obtain permits and a state license.

For those reasons, Meffert doubts that Toughman will be regulated by anyone other than Dore.

"This is just a publicity gimmick to try to legitimize their operation," Meffert said. "When I was told this could be their last fight in Florida, my response was, "Good.' "

Robertson isn't waiting for stricter regulations. Toughman has already changed the rules. Unlike previous bouts, spectators in Fort Myers won't be allowed to enter the ring, and fighters will use 16-ounce gloves and headgear that meet USA Amateur Boxing regulations. Fighters will also be given Breathalyzer and drug tests.

Despite the criticism heaped on Dore and Toughman after Young's death, the organization hasn't had trouble staging the Fort Myers event. Officials at TECO Arena, where the fights will take place, explained that they are in the third year of a five-year contract with Toughman, and that both the arena and Toughman have insurance coverage. After Young's death, the arena added provisions to the contract that include having medical doctors and licensed ring officials at the event.

"We have a contract with them, and what they're doing is legal," said arena president Craig Brush. "If the state had stepped in and stopped it, we would have complied. But they didn't, so we're obliged to fulfill the contract."

"It's dangerous to bungee jump, it's dangerous to jump out of an airplane," Robertson said. "And this is as old as the Roman Coliseum."

And for some, just as brutal.

Jodie Meyers, Stacy Young's sister, said Thursday her family is too worn out emotionally to protest at this competition. "I just saw the entire fight video for the first time," Meyers said. "Stacy's birthday was last week.

"There are times when we have tears and times when it's okay."

Meanwhile, the show goes on.

In line for their shot Thursday were tree-trimmers, security guards, waiters and men "with nothing going on right now." Their tattoos of choice: tigers on the shoulder, razor wire around the biceps.

Wearing a baseball cap with the outline of a naked woman on the front, Eric Freitag hung back from the crowd around the scales. He had come to the hotel to see if anyone had registered in the lightweight division. "I'm not going to give my money to Art Dore if I'm not going to fight anybody," he said.

A part-time commercial fisherman, Freitag, 32, fights in the underground club circuit around Port Charlotte. But it's the Toughman competition, with the lights and the crowd and the attention, that he wants now.

"If you ain't in shape, this ain't no place to be," he said. "A lot of people can't do it.

"A lot of people shouldn't do it."

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