Brawl Game

updated 05/23/1994 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/23/1994 01:00AM

THE SPARRING BEGINS IN THE DRESSING room, down in the bowels of the seedy old New England arena, where even the walls seem to be sweating. Wayne Patton, a 6'10", 255-lb. nursing-home waiter, is grilling a dozen or so men who will be going toe-to-toe with him for $1,000 in prize money and the title Toughest Man in Portland, Maine.

"So why you taking the risk?" Patton, 29, asks Andrew Dahl, an out-of-work history teacher.

"Hell," says Dahl, 26, "I'd dance buck naked for $1,000."

"What if somebody busts you in the nose, and you taste the blood?" says Patton, ominously. "You going to run to your mama?"

"Wooooeeee!" says Dahl in mock terror. "That's it—I'm going home!"

Welcome to the Toughman Contest, the rankest of amateur boxing events, where guys with big shoulders, big guts and big dreams get to play out their manliest fantasies. All over the U.S., men like Wayne Patton are paying $20 apiece to enter some 70 Toughman tournaments. Donning 16-ounce gloves—virtual pillows compared with the 8-to 10-ounce milts used by the pros—they fight up to four limes a night for two nights running.

Some hope to make it to the Toughman finals in Las Vegas on May 20, where $50,000 awaits the ultimate winner. But most are simply interested in exercising their god-given right to explore their manhood and give and take a few whacks.

"You know who enters this thing?" asks local Toughman promoter Johnny Bos. "Guys from all walks of life. We got businessmen changing out of their suits. We got an actor from a local theater company and a state racquetball champion. We got fishermen and loggers, a pair of prison guards and a convict who did 14 years. What do they all have in common? They all want to test themselves in the ring."

That's what Wayne Patton is doing. Patton grew up in a Jamaican village that had neither electricity nor running water, but no shortage of violence. He remembers an uncle getting "so mean on ganja, he kills his girlfriend. This cause the village to cut him up."

Rolling up his sleeves to display his own gaudy scars, Patton would have you believe that he is capable of mounting his own reign of terror. In fact in the 10 years since he arrived in Portland, Wayne has been a model citizen in the familiar immigrant mode. Until recently he worked three jobs: Denny's during the day, McDonald's at night and the nursing home on his day off.

No matter. Just hours before his debut in the ring, Wayne is standing in the kitchen of his little house in Gray, Maine, throwing punches into the air. "I have such strong strength, I have to be careful," he says. "But tonight there will be no carefulness."

The Portland Expo is packed with close to 3,000 fans. These aren't the high rollers with their moussed-to-the-max consorts who make up the ringside crowd in Las Vegas. These are workingmen and their families who have come out to watch their buddies sweat and stumble under the lights.

The fighters emerge, inevitably, to the theme from Rocky. Led into the arena by bikini-clad women, they are a motley crew, in sneakers and baggy shorts with their Skivvies peeking out, tattooed with a variety of hearts and daggers, lizards and trees, tempest-tossed galleons and jungle beasts. They parade around the arena, then perch in the bleachers, where they strike poses from old Charles Atlas ads and wait to be summoned to combat.

Toughman rules call for just three one-minute rounds, and the fights are often fast and furious. Alas, Wayne Patton's is not. Down in the dressing room, Wayne had vowed to "use the jab for teasing," then snuff' his opponent with his "killer right hand." He ends up throwing neither. Instead, Patton and Phippsburg lobsterman James Robinson, 32, begin a wary ballet. Soon Robinson launches a series of bull-like rushes, causing the towering Jamaican to slap down at him, as if trying to squash a bug.

"Get mad, Wayne!" screams his wife, Joyce, a hairdresser.

"Why don't you join the Jamaican bobsled team!" shouts a fan.

Of the 40 fighters who began the tournament, 20, including Wayne Patton, are left to slug it out on the second night. So far the damage includes a concussion or two and several cases of dehydration but, says attending physician Don Werner, no serious injuries.

Still, the mood in the dressing room has taken on a new edge. Some of the fighters can almost taste the$1,000. Others, like Rumford's Ed Cadorette, are bent on less tangible rewards. Scrawny and weary-looking, Cadorette used to be a pretty fair amateur boxer. Then he spent 14 years in stir. "I had a cocaine habit and was robbing dealers," says Ed, 35, out on probation since 1990. "The Toughman Contest has saved me. It's kept me right."

The fans cheer for Ed every time he fights. They are riveted as well by the 6'10" apparition from Jamaica, who talks trash in and out of the ring.

Actually, Wayne has toned down his act. Sore and tired, he had planned on going to work at the nursing home today, but Joyce had no trouble persuading him to stay home and soak in the tub. "Those were the longest three minutes of my life," he says. "But if I get by my first fight tonight, I should be home clean."

Wayne does get by his first fight, winning a decision from Tom "H-Bomb" Hines, 32 a blues-band drummer. Given Wayne's height and curious, praying-mantis style of attack, no one quite knows how to get at him. They tend to rush at him, and he cuffs down at them, scoring points. "I feel raped," says Tom the Bomb after his loss.

"I get in with that big Jamaican," Curtis Van Brocklin, 24, had said earlier, "I'm bringing a chair." Matched later in the evening with Patton, Van Brocklin—who dives professionally out of South Portland for sea urchins—might as well have been using a table leg. He clobbers Patton from the side, stoving in his shoulder. Wayne looks more puzzled than hurt as he exits the ring, trailing Joyce and others like a kite's tail.

The evening winds down to its inexorable finish—with Cadorette taking the under-181-pound title and Van Brocklin the heavyweight laurels. Afterward, the fighters gather to tell war stories over the karaoke machine in a blowzy hotel bar. Well after midnight, Wayne comes in with Joyce on one arm and his other in a sling. "It's dislocated," he says.

Not the least bit bummed, Wayne is thinking of training for real at a local gym. "I never have this much fun in a long time," he says with a smile. "I am not discouraged."

Neither is H-Bomb Hines. "Hey," says Hines, "this Toughman Contest is like a dream come true. It's a truly American thing. I mean, where else could a bunch of regular guys pay $20 and beat each other up without getting arrested?"

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