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