Ori­gins

The Denver Post - - NATION & WORLD - By Wes­ley Low­ery

welch, w.va.» He ex­haled heav­ily, ruf­fling the light brown hair near the bot­tom of his goa­tee. Two vol­un­teers tight­ened red head­gear snug around his chin.

Jor­dan Price hadn’t planned to fight. The 18year-old and his older brother had signed up as a joke. But it was too late to back out now.

Price in­sisted to friends that he wasn’t ner­vous, but he sounded as though he were con­vinc­ing him­self. He hadn’t even trained, a choice his anx­ious eyes in­di­cated he’d now be­gun to re­gret at least a lit­tle. Then a shout of en­cour­age­ment broke his con­cen­tra­tion.

“Tear ’em up, Price!” Bill Price, two years older, cried out, en­thu­si­as­ti­cally smack­ing the black box­ing gloves now fas­tened to his brother’s fists. The bell rang. Time to brawl.

One week­end ev­ery March, al­most ev­ery res­i­dent in this town crowds the tanand-gray bleach­ers of the lo­cal ar­mory to watch their friends and neigh­bors beat each other bloody. The box­ing-brawl­ing event — known as “The Rough N Rowdy” — draws more than 2,000 spec­ta­tors a night in a 3,000-per­son city nes­tled so deep in the moun­tains that your cell­phone won’t ring. The win­ners leave with a tro­phy, a jacket and a check for $1,000 — the same take-home as a few weeks of soot-cov­ered work in the lo­cal mines.

“Peo­ple love vi­o­lence,” said Breyer Mor­gan, 21, who has been com­ing to the fights since he was a lit­tle boy and has worked the bell at the event for the past three years. “They see that $1,000, and you’ve got peo­ple com­ing out of the wood­work. There is noth­ing else to do out here ... and that $1,000, that’s a whole lot of beer, man.”

McDow­ell County was once the largest coal-ex­port­ing county in the United States. At its peak in the 1950s, when the county had 100,000 res­i­dents, Welch was a bustling down­town that housed the state’s first mul­ti­level park­ing garage and was sur­rounded by a smat­ter­ing of vi­brant vil­lages planted in “the howlers” — the val­leys that lay be­neath the wind­ing high­ways that cut through Jor­dan Price, 18, throws a punch at an op­po­nent dur­ing a Rough N Rowdy Brawl in Welch, W.Va. Price won the match. He fought his older brother, Bill, in the fol­low­ing round. Bon­nie Jo Mount, The Wash­ing­ton Post the sur­round­ing Ap­palachian Moun­tains.

It wasn’t long af­ter its height that the mines be­gan to close, the be­gin­ning of a half cen­tury of eco­nomic col­lapse that would rob McDow­ell of its jobs. The prospect of pros­per­ity went with them.

Welch is now a grave­yard of shut­tered store­fronts in the shadow of empty hill­sides. Four out of ev­ery five peo­ple moved away as the coal in­dus­try fal­tered. Lo­cal shops closed. Even the lo­cal Wal­mart closed last year.

McDow­ell is the state’s poor­est county, home to one of the short­est life ex­pectan­cies in the na­tion. The peo­ple who coal left be­hind here have a movie the­ater, a dol­lar store, a liquor shop and a few fast food joints. On week­ends, and many week­nights, peo­ple gather around 30-packs of beer in their garages; there’s no bar, and the near­est wa­ter­ing hole is nearly an hour’s drive.

But ev­ery March, when the first blades of grass break through the melt­ing snow, they still have the Rough N Rowdy. War — a small town on West Vir­ginia’s south­ern rim — to stare in won­der as their older cousins and un­cles stepped into the ring to be pum­meled.

Now it was Jor­dan’s turn. Much of his fam­ily — his fa­ther, step­mother, a sis­ter and a brother-in-law — set­tled in the front row, some wear­ing cus­tom-de­signed T-shirts declar­ing their al­le­giance to “Team Price.”

The rules of the brawl are sim­ple: Any­one age 18 to 35 can sign up as long as they haven’t boxed pro­fes­sion­ally. Af­ter pass­ing a phys­i­cal, they en­ter a sin­gle-elim­i­na­tion tour­na­ment to com­pete in ref­er­eed box­ing matches with three one-minute rounds.

Although a few se­ri­ous fight­ers lurk in the field, most are un­trained, tak­ing to the worn ring to see if their play­ground prow­ess will yield a few mo­ments of glory. Most have lit­tle chance of fight­ing more than once.

Jor­dan Price threw the first punch of his bout — strik­ing near the top of his op­po­nent’s head­gear. For two minute-long rounds, Jor­dan landed blow af­ter blow, each con­nec­tion of glove and flesh punc­tu­ated by the crowd’s elated howl. His over­whelmed op­po­nent, another lo­cal boy fight­ing in his first Rough N Rowdy, ducked his head in fear, flail­ing his arms, un­aimed, find­ing lit­tle but air as Jor­dan ducked and bobbed. With six sec­onds left in the sec­ond round, the match was called. A tech­ni­cal knock­out. Jor­dan had won.

Bill Price would have sim­i­lar luck in a scrappy fight with lit­tle style or tech­nique. Af­ter three min­utes of paw­ing at and chas­ing each other around the ring, the judges con­cluded that the el­der Price brother had landed more blows.

Af­ter hugs from his brother, his girl­friend and his fa­ther, Bill Price took a seat with Jor­dan near the front row as they cheered on the oth­ers, most of whom they knew from school. The Rough N Rowdy event was cre­ated by Christo­pher MacCorkle Smith, 45, a tow­er­ing for­mer boxer who, at his wife’s sug­ges­tion, left sell­ing real es­tate in fa­vor of host­ing and pro­mot­ing am­a­teur box­ing tour­na­ments. The ven­ture started out rocky, with events stum­bling fi­nan­cially in Rich­mond, Va., and Charleston, W.Va. He turned in­stead to a small West Vir­ginia coal town called Wil­liamson.

“It was the last show we were go­ing to do,” Smith said. “Ei­ther we were go­ing to do well here or we were go­ing to hang it all up.”

The Wil­liamson event drew dozens of ea­ger par­tic­i­pants and thou­sands of spec­ta­tors. Lo­cals cher­ished the chance to duke it out with their child­hood friends — and ri­vals — in the ring. En­tire fam­i­lies

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