Troy “Headhunter” Huff is in a bad mood.
He’s holed up in a windowless, cinder-block room at the ABC Sports Complex, a dank warehouse gymnasium in a Springfield industrial park. Huff and other amateur fighters have gathered here for the finals of the Northern Virginia Toughman contest, a sort of human version of cockfighting: brawl ers with gloves instead of roosters with steel spurs.
But the spectacle has been delayed for nearly an hour.
Pacing in a corner, Huff, 24, sports a puke-green bathrobe over his battle uniform: piña-colada-colored shorts, black socks, and soiled sneakers. At 6-foot-6 and 300-pounds-plus, he is the biggest Toughman in the building. However, it is obvious that he developed his bulky physique—a Soft Taco Supreme with extra beef—in places besides training gyms. He resembles less a battle-ready warrior than a pissed-off couch potato confronting an empty refrigerator.
Outside Headhunter’s lair, the Sunday evening crowd gets restless as event organizers await tardy contestants. Several winners of preliminary bouts two nights before have phoned in cancellations, complaining of soreness or exhaustion; others haven’t even bothered to call, opting to lick their wounds in silence. Huff is tired of dallying for these cream-puff no shows, who obviously weren’t so tough after all.
It’s already proven a frustrating weekend for Headhunter.
Unlike his rivals, who were lured by the $1,000 cash prize, bragging rights, or the sheer challenge of competition, Huff simply craves kicking butt—a pleasure that he’s being denied. In fact, he has yet to throw a punch: Friday night, minutes before his scheduled fight, his opponent fled the gym, leaving Headhunter with the empty taste of a forfeit victory.
Moreover, Huff has doubts about the toughness of the contest itself. He’s annoyed by the official regulations: Contestants must wear boxing gloves, head gear, padded groin protectors, and mouthpieces—similar to the cheesy gear featured on TV’s American Gladiators. In addition, there’s a referee, a ringside physician, and judges. The whole setup rubs him the wrong way, and the glove requirement irks him the most—it’s like trying to tell a Hell’s Angel to don a motorcycle helmet.
This is definitely not the Headhunter’s typical gig, that’s for sure. Real tough guys don’t need these kinds of safety trappings. They just get in a ring and go at each other until one can’t stand up anymore. That’s the way it’s always been and, in some places, still is. Down South, Huff regularly competes in bouts that are bare-fisted, ultrasavage, and, according to him, immensely enjoyable.
“I’m used to fighting against fucking Georgia-country-beating motherfuckers that weigh 500 pounds,” he grouses as anAC/DC song blares from a nearby boom box. “I wouldn’t fight those motherfuckers with gloves on—fuck no! Could you wound a 500-pound man with gloves on? The only thing you could do is bruise him.”
Only in these bare-knuckle “straight-up fights,” claims Huff, can one really punish an opponent and find out who’s boss: “I go headhunting to knock ’em out—that’s how I got my nickname.”
Hailing from Alexandria’s Mount Vernon area, the former bodyguard recently ended a brief pro-wrestling career as “The Terminator.” He says he was suspended for fighting outside the ring in a Norfolk match. The forced retirement suits him just fine: He now claims to enjoy an easy, unemployed life, thanks to a trust fund. In fact, he could be at home right now, relaxing with a 12-pack, a couple of pizzas, and a Chuck Norris movie.
Instead, he’s standing here in his bathrobe, his hands balled into fists, with mayhem on his mind. And the continuing delay isn’t exactly soothing him.
Finally, the echo of the ring announcer reaches his inner sanctum: The Toughman contest is about to begin. The crowd howls and Headhunter seems momentarily pleased. He promises a victory, although not one as swift and sure as a recent triumph when he knocked out a buzz-cut Neanderthal in South Carolina in a matter of minutes: “It won’t be that quick tonight ’cause we got gloves on, you know.”
In a fittingly dramatic entrance, Headhunter and the dozen surviving Toughman finalists march single-file into the gymnasium, a solemn but proud entourage moving to the distorted strains of the Rocky theme song, “Gonna Fly Now,” which screeches from the low-fi P.A. system.
Joining the procession are the obligatory handful of scantily clad women; they double as waitresses and ring girls, whose job is to prance around the ring holding round cards. Bursting from bikini bottoms and halter tops, these muscle-toned beach bunnies are in far better physical condition than most of the slouching Toughmen. In fact, several are bona fide bodybuilders who could fare well in a fistfight. One is a striking Hungarian émigré who calls herself Cassidy: Boasting a jet-black, Louise Brooks-style wig, a flapper’s makeup job, and outlandishly minuscule cutoff jean shorts, she will prove the evening’s most popular performer.
The lineup of beauties and beasts weaves through the audience, a few hundred strong seated in fold-out chairs on the concrete floor. The crowd is a rowdy bunch, mostly friends and families come to cheer on their favorite Toughmen. Some kissing couples are apparently here on dates: At $15 per ticket plus refreshments, this isn’t a cheap night out, but it’s a bargain for those hungry for live brawling. Though the organizers weren’t able to secure a liquor license in time for the fights, tobacco is welcome and chain smoking encouraged.
After ceremoniously circling the entire gymnasium, the parade finally stops in a section of reserved seats in a far corner. The women scramble for the snack bar to resume their jobs delivering hot dogs and sodas; the Toughmen remain herded together—shadow-boxing, stretching, and cracking their knuckles, knees, and necks—imitating warm-up styles of real fighters they’ve seen on TV.
Headhunter—now stripped of his green bathrobe and wearing a sour, bored expression—towers above this motley crew, which shuns idle joking or fraternization. The other Toughmen come in all shapes and sizes (mostly in the big dude range), but they all boast jumbo-size chips on their shoulders. If not exactly fearsome, this group makes an unsettling sight: a high-school reunion of detention-hall alumni ready to decide once and for all who is the biggest bully.
One contestant stands apart from the group, holding a baby in his arms. His name is Terry Uphold, a 28-year-old telephone technician from Woodbridge; Friday night, as “Terrible” Terry, the squat, 5-foot-6, 260-pounder won a decision over a gray-bearded maintenance worker to qualify for the finals. Cradling his 8-month-old son Daniel, Uphold says the bout was his first appearance in a ring. Like most of the Toughmen, his boxing experience has been limited to bar brawls and neighborhood grudge matches. His wild, windmill punches and lumbering steps proved ungraceful but effective, as he knocked his opponent down twice. Indeed, in the Toughman competition, determination is worth a thousand push-ups.
Just a week before, Uphold spotted a flier for the contest at Fast Eddie’s Billiards in Springfield: “WANTED: $1,000 CASH REWARD FOR THE TOUGHEST MAN IN TOWN,” the announcement read. “No sissies or momma’s boys allowed.” Uphold couldn’t resist the taunt; born and reared in Morgantown, W.Va., he can’t abide a challenge to his manhood, even from a poster. His wife, who was playing pool with him that night, told him, “Go for it.”
So Uphold paid the $25 entry fee and bought his $2.69 plastic mouthpiece; now he’s a fight or two away from snagging the title of Toughman of Northern Virginia, as well as qualifying for the national Toughman finals in Las Vegas, shown on pay-per-view TV.
The evening’s opening bouts disappoint everyone, including the participants. These slow-motion slug ‘n’ hug fests aren’t just sloppy but downright dull. Like drunken tussles exploding from backyard barbecue arguments, they feature every sort of inept flailing imaginable, short of biting, kicking, and spitting. Few punches hit their mark, and nobody crumples to the canvas.
That isn’t nearly enough violence for the impatient crowd.
Then the ring announcer shouts, “Terry Uphold, come on DOWN!” in the style of The Price Is Right. Uphold hands little Daniel to his wife, who is seated nearby with the entire clan (his brother and his family also made the drive up from Woodbridge, a former cockfighting haven that has provided nearly half of the Toughman contestants).
In the ring, things don’t bode well for Terrible Terry. His opponent is one of the few Toughmen not burdened by a beer belly. In fact, this guy has the build of a serious weight lifter. Another thing: For such a rock-solid ox, he’s lightning-fast. On the opening bell, he’s all over Uphold, who barely gets out of his corner before an onslaught of punches forces him to the canvas. It’s all over in a matter of seconds. Dazed, Uphold gropes on his knees until the ref calls off the fight.
After the debacle, a bruised Uphold slowly wobbles back to his family, who greet him like a war hero. Led by his angry wife, they curse the referee’s decision, claiming that the final flurry of punches came when Uphold was already down. The quiet, stoical Uphold, though, takes his defeat without complaint. He puts a wad of chewing tobacco in his mouth and takes Daniel—sucking his own pacifier—back in his arms.
“He didn’t really hit that hard, he just come so fast,” says Uphold softly, rocking Daniel. “I ain’t really in too good of shape. After I get in better shape, I’ll try it again—it’s a lot of fun.”
The knockdown has spurred the crowd into a frenzy, and Cassidy’s appearance during the next bout as ring girl only fans the flames. By now, she has sold more lukewarm hot dogs and watery colas than all the other waitresses combined. Her turn in the ring confirms her walloping triumph, and she slinks around in a Pulp Fiction-style victory dance.
Cassidy’s the champ, all right. Suddenly the camera hounds get real busy: The flashbulbs pop and wink as she holds the ring card aloft and flexes her washboard-firm midriff to the roar of the crowd. It’s like watching an ex-Soviet-bloc-gymnast-turned-Atlantic-City-stripper.
Arms folded over his chest, Headhunter Huff observes the scene, a raucous parody of a big-time prize fight. He remains unimpressed, as if the whole damn thing has been a supreme waste of his time: After all, he could be down in the Carolinas beating the hell out of farm boys. With his bare hands.
Finally, the ring announcer calls Huff’s name.
Once in his corner, Headhunter seems to feel right at home, but it’s obvious that he’s no crowd favorite. There’s barely a ripple of applause when the announcer bellows “Troy “Headhunter’ Huff—self-employed—from Alexandria!” Sneering at the cold silence, Huff obviously relishes his bad-guy role and plays it to the hilt. He’s got at least 80 pounds on his opponent, Tommy “TNT” Thompson, who receives a rousing reception. Clearly the underdog, Thompson boasts an enthusiastic peanut gallery, one of whom dutifully videotapes the event. Headhunter has no such entourage, except for a wisp of a girlfriend who watches from the balcony.
The bout itself very nearly lives up to Headhunter’s vow. Indeed, for pure action—meaning number of punches meeting flesh—the fracas that follows proves the best of the evening.
Headhunter charges around the ring like a raging water buffalo, his chubby arms churning in a never-ending motion of continuous jabs. The simple mathematics—mass times energy—of Huff’s maneuvering is an impressive, if horrific, spectacle. It becomes obvious why the playacting of pro wrestling couldn’t contain Huff’s pent-up fury.
But this is by no means a rout: Thompson, a scrappy brawler, more than defends himself, landing some damaging punches of his own. Headhunter answers with a tortured howling and more jabs. By the third and final round, the crowd is firmly in Thompson’s camp, and the bout remains even.
Suddenly, Headhunter halts his attack, and juts out his belly like some Saturday morning TV wrestler gone berserk. He’s not fooling around; something’s wrong. For a full 30 seconds, he takes a barrage of punches to his undefended gut and chest. By the time he resumes fighting in earnest, the bell cuts him short, and the bizarre interlude has cost him the match. Thompson wins on a split decision, to the audience’s deafening approval and Headhunter’s obvious disgust.
Later, Huff arrives at the snack bar, looking more like a Hollywood hotshot than a whipped Toughman—sweat-soaked hair pulled back in a ponytail from his bruised, Marlboro-red face, and his eyes hidden behind movie-star dark shades. He’s wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with “HEADHUNTER” over a grinning skull. The bout has obviously worked some cathartic spell; it doesn’t even seem to matter that he lost. With a satisfied, almost cheerful demeanor, he nonchalantly discusses his defeat without a trace of his pre-fight anger: “I squared off because I was trying to get a grip on my gloves,” he says by way of explaining his strange belly-defense strategy. “Did you see the gloves falling off me?”
Despite the equipment problems, Huff says he could have taken Thompson if he had had a little more time: “I had him knocked out four or five times. If there was another round I would have beat him to death.” He scoops up an impressive pile of hot dogs and heads back to the gym to watch the remaining fights. Over his shoulder, he announces his upcoming Toughman tour plans: “In two weeks, there’s another one down in Manassas.”
Then Headhunter Huff ascends to the balcony with the swaggering gait of a satisfied man.
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Lenny Gonzalez.