Williamson is a city divided by two. The Tug Fork River literally cleaves the area in half, giving the southern part to Pike County, Kentucky, and the other to Mingo County, West Virginia.
The Kentucky side is high and dry, full of all the fluorescent chains. The South Side Mall is there. The whole thing is carpeted, very weird, and the old timers sit on benches in front of places like Shae's Tanning to talk about their gardens. There's no place left for them to go.
The West Virginia side is low. It is dank. The whole thing is surrounded by a floodwall that looks like it was designed for a maximum security pen and graffiti-splotched trains haul coal right through the center. Little shards of it are always crunching under your feet or smudging the street in dull swaths as if you're walking on a drawing that's being erased right out from under you.
This is the land of the original Jerry Springer episode. You know, the one about the Hatfields and McCoys. This is the land of fighting for no good reason. Because you're bored. Because you're proud of accomplishments that aren't your own. Because you're mad at the mountains that won't move to let the light in. This is the land that spins you out at two o'clock in the morning, wild on Xanax bars and Bud Light, into the parking lot of a Marathon station, holding a fighting cock by the talons, setting your neighbor's stolen sweatshirt on fire, screaming into a stranger's camcorder about how you're the baddest motherfucker who's ever lived, that anyone who dares step into the ring with you better get right with God, that you're an insane person, that you don't give a shit, about anything. This is the Rough n' Rowdy Brawl.
"What about her? Would you?"
"What!? Hell no! She got a cottage cheese ass!"
"Which one then?"
"One in the hard hat. The one that done the Chinese splits. You can tell she's wilder'n hell."
"Meth Mouth!? You're nasty, son. Your fuckin' bird would fall off."
And the debate goes on like that between a few pimply teens in squeaky clean Red Wings. Would you or wouldn't you? Why? Why not? And would the STD be worth it? Not one of them would have a clue what to do with the objects of their scrutiny, the dozen or so honky tonk specials teasing the whole antique Williamson Field House with their Confederate flag string bikinis, their invisible jean shorts and stilettos and bejeweled belly buttons. They're up there writhing around on the sweaty blood-splattered canvas of a ratty boxing ring for the chance to be crowned Miss Williamson Ring Girl and not much else. It's obvious these chicks are in it for the thrill anyhow. Every clap and every whistle lights their fuse. The one that did the splits does them again, this time bouncing her crotch off the mat so hard her miner's helmet falls off. The pimply teens cream.
And when the blonde winner is announced they loudly disagree. They say, "At's booooshit!"
"Give it to brown hair! The splits! She done the splits!"
"Yeah! At's booooshit!"
But they get over it pretty quick. This is only halftime entertainment after all. A sideshow to keep the animals from eating each others' faces while mommy buys a chili bun. The city's whole police force forms a phalanx by the entrance, trying not to enjoy themselves. EMTs ready their gurney. The house lights dim and the hallways clear. Now you can see into all the private nooks and niches, by the old lockers and into the equipment closets. The Butcher. Copperhead. Playboy. Too Smooth. Big Kentucky. They're wrapping their fists and taking jabs at ghosts, pressing their foreheads against the walls and asking the Lord to take away their fear and lay it upon their opponent.
Help me, dear Jesus, to get buck wild up in here.
Do you have a grudge against somebody? Examples: You'd like to beat up your old boss, landlord, ex-girlfriend's new lover, etc. Let us know about it.
That's an excerpt from the Rough n' Rowdy Brawl's online entry form. It nicely sums up the attitude of the endeavor. This isn't the rarefied pugilism of Ali. This is street fighting with headgear and gloves. It's three one-minute rounds of brutal haymakers. A lot of guys wear jeans for some reason. The Rough n' Rowdy masterminds, promoters Chris and Andrea Smith, Don King entire towns into a pre-fight fervor with absolutely insane "call out" videos posted to the RNR YouTube channel. A 7-foot-tall crosseyed giant whips a running chainsaw at the camera and threatens to eat his adversary's heart. A man brags about his regimen of dragging engine blocks behind Wal-Mart. A snaggletooth uses his fighting rooster as a metaphor for the beatdown he's about to bestow.
The Williamson brawl on the state line yields some of the best material since the rules dictate that fighters must live within 75 miles of the event site. This creates a unique Kentucky vs. West Virginia dynamic that doesn't exist at the other purely West Virginian bouts. You get stuff like:
"I'm gonna show you West Virginia boys what a Kentucky ass whoopin' is all about."
"The Thundering Herd? More like the Thundering TURDS 'cause I'm gonna knock the SHIT outta ya'll."
"Ya'll know them West Virginia women love us Kentucky boys. I hang out over there all the time. Probably laid up in one of ya'll's girlfriend's beds."
Then the guy sets a WVU shirt on fire in the parking lot of a Giovanni's Pizza.
But the women are the worst. Or best depending on how you look at it. They're not in it for the $1000 prize money or the satin jacket. It's always something personal with them. They're driven by hatred. "So and so took my man" or "So and so said they seen me at the bar when I's really at home takin' care of my mammaw". Chris, the maestro promoter, exacerbates all this over the intercom. He sits ringside at all the fights in a tuxedo, greasing the gears of rage for everyone to hear. He makes cracks about all the terrible tattoos and says things like, "You gonna let her talk to you like that? I wouldn't. I'd do something about it. Now's your chance."
In the Williamson instance, where the two female grudge matchers had a combined weight of about 600 pounds, the source of their rivalry, a scrawny tweaker with an affected pimp limp and oversized Carhartt jacket, was brought to the judge's table prefight and given a microphone. It was a lot of, "I don't love you. I never did. I'm with her now. She knows what I like. Deal with it." And the crowd goes ballistic. The bell rings and the two brutes charge at each other like bulls. Everybody waves their glow sticks and flashing plastic swords and bangs their empty Pepsi bottles on the bleacher seats. People scream, "Beat that ass!" and "Flog her head, sissy!"
Laughter erupts at the slow emergence of butt cracks.
In the midst of all this chaos a solid theme is forming. Kentucky is busting skulls. Kentuckians only make up, at most, 5% of the entrants, but they're winning about 75% of the matches. And they're doing it with style.
Sam Preece, from Sydney, Kentucky, wins the bantamweight division and, in a rare moment of sportsmanship, donates his prize jacket to his opponent who was hoping to bring it home to his cancer-stricken father.
Robert Lawson, a lightweight from Pikeville, ends up winning his division after basically scaring his adversary into submission in the semifinal round. The guy just threw his hands up and ran away.
Fighting out of McAndrews, Kentucky, Tiffany Shepherd crushed the female competition and Steve "House of Pain" Layne from Phelps, Kentucky, was inducted into the Rough n' Rowdy Hall of Fame.
But everybody's here for the heavyweights, that's no secret, and one dude is clearly cutting through the fat. No nickname. Clean shave. White shorts. Black shoes. He's real quiet, disappears between fights and just sort of materializes out of thin air when the time is right.
Most of these fighters are obviously strong. They're big. They "work out". But this guy is different. You can tell that he doesn't work out. He trains. Like it's his job. He looks like a futuristic sculpture, like Umberto Boccioni's Unique Forms of Continuity in Space if you've ever seen it, and right away his opposition starts to sweat because, and you can see it in their faces, all at once they realize that whatever they'd done to prepare was not enough. This guy, Dustin Looney, this origami of muscle from Fishtrap, Kentucky, was going to embarrass the hell out of them.
And he did. One after the other for two nights in a row. In the semifinal round he hit some sorry bastard so hard and so square that the bloodthirsty crowd went silent for a second out of respect. They thought he might be dead. They sent a doctor in to slap his face and shine a flashlight into his vacant eyes while his body oozed into a puddle. When he finally rejoined the living he went and sat in a dark corner for the rest of the night, ignoring his girlfriend while she tried to tell him that it wasn't so bad.
"You'll get him next year, babe."
He cupped his throbbing head. It only made things worse. He knew that she was lying.
In the championship round Dustin Looney stood opposite of Bo Darby, a West Virginian who looks exactly like you'd think he would based on that name. Like a grizzly bear. Like he's made out of beer kegs and hair.
It was body shot after body shot. Chris the promoter stokes the fire one last time.
"This is it, folks! Who wants it!? The money! The trophy! The bragging rights!"
Looney stays cool, never once giving into the temptation to throw the kind of showstopping punch that would leave him vulnerable to a counterattack. He stays close to Darby, leans against the ropes and lets him exhaust himself. It drives Darby insane. He backs off and gives Looney the "come get some" gesture. Doesn't work. He has no choice but to fight Looney's fight. Head to head.
And he's just…too…slow.
After the brawl the Field House empties and people flood the streets like the Tug Fork River is known to do. They pile into the beds of pickup trucks and hang out the too-dark tinted windows of souped-up SUVs. They let their engines growl and melt their tires like it's their last day on Earth and they want their legacy to be a stinking streak of rubber.
They go, "Rough n' Rowdy, by God! Woooo! Hell yeah! Rough n' Rowdy!"
They're all headed to Starters, a sports bar down on Second Avenue where they pound bottle beers and play an odd paradoxical mix of music on the Touch Tunes jukebox to heal their wounds, a mix that only a defeated mountaineer could understand: Hank Jr., Eminem, Merle Haggard, Big Sean. And they oscillate between the poles, rapping along about how they're untouchable and then wailing about how life has touched them so very cruelly. They say, "At was booooshit, son! Shit's rigged!" and "Muhfuggin' Kentucky boys better watch thurr backs next yurr!"
And, when they've filled the balloon of their egos with as much booze as they can hold, they slither back out into the wild, looking for a fight they can win.
Story, video and photos by Coleman Larkin