It's taken nearly 21 years, but Toughman Contest promoter Jerry Thomas now sees it all worth while.
From its humble beginnings in 1979, to an event which now regularly draws more than 5,000 spectators, the Toughman Contest is on the rise and Thomas believes the trend will continue.
For the fourth consecutive year, the event, held at the Nathan Goff Armory, was a sellout. A record 76 fighters participated, giving fans 65 bouts during the two-day event and nearly $5,000 in prize money was awarded. Thomas said even more fighters were denied entry because of the turnout.
"Everything went great," Thomas said. "We had a great crowd, and they got to see some great fights. We actually had to turn people away at the door and there was a lot of standing room only inside."
Instead of the true novices who experienced their first boxing at the Toughman, crowds are now entertained by more dedicated, experienced boxers. Thomas said the increased popularity in the event and the sport in general is in no small part due to the increased popularity in the Toughman Contest as a national event.
FX, a Fox Network affiliate, carries a 30-minute show every Friday night highlighting Toughman Contests and other amateur and professional events around the country. Each year, more and more prize money is offered. All of this, Thomas said, has led to more experienced, better conditioned athletes in the ring.
"I could tell just from the first few fights on the first night that there were better fighters this year," Thomas said. "There were a lot of guys who spent months in the gym working out and training for this event.
"I had one guy who trained extremely hard for over two months and five days before the event, got bruised ribs and couldn't box. He went to physical therapy for it, and it wasn't until a few hours before the fight did he call me and tell me he couldn't go."
The four champions from this past weekends events have the opportunity to advance to the National Championship in Detroit. There, boxers have the chance to compete for over $142,000 in prize money.
"The way it works, the winners of this competition can go to a Box Off which will take place sometime in early 2001," Thomas said.
"The winners of over 100 regional events like this one in Canada and the U.S. will be there. From that, they can advance to Detroit."
This year, West Milford's Clermont Gilbert, 27, won his second heavyweight title, defeating Morgantown's Gary Warman by decision. Gilbert also won the 1998 title.
In the light heavyweight division, Grafton's Tim Carr, 19, also won by decision over Kevin McClain of Shinnston.
Both of the women's titles also were decided by the judges.
Parkersburg's Jennifer Leister, 18, defeated Clarksburg's Kim Cody for the light heavyweight title, while Debbie Shaffer, 40, of Newburg, won the heavyweight title over Salem's Buckie McIntyre.
In the professional bout, former two-time Toughman Contest champion and Bridgeport native Darren "Bam Bam" Abraham knocked out Beckley's Tucker Lambert at the 2:20 mark of the second round to win the vacant West Virginia State Super Middleweight title.
Abraham won the Toughman in 1995 and 1997 and was runner-up in 1996.
Even if none of the four champions decide to advance to the Box Off -- Thomas said just over half do -- there are still plenty of options left for the fighters. Many past champions have turned professional, while others become trainers.
One former champion, Tim Wheeler of Shinnston, is now a nationally certified referee.
All of this gives Thomas reason to believe next year's Toughman Contest will be as big, if not bigger than this year's version.
"It's growing, there's no doubt about it," he said. "I really think when the founders of this sat down are thought this up, this is what they envisioned it would someday be like."