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.
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!” cried out Bill Price, two years older, 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 tan-and-gray bleachers of the local armory to watch their friends and neighbors beat one another 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 entry-level work in the local mines.
“People love violence. You’ve got a bunch of people down here who just want to show they’re a badass,” 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 hollers” — the valleys that lay beneath the winding highways that cut through 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 sitting in the shadow of empty hillsides. Four out of every 5 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 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.
The brothers from War
The Price brothers first attended this tournament as boys, traveling the 30 minutes from their home in War — a small town on West Virginia’s southern rim — to stare in wonderment 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, his 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 between the ages of 18 and 35 can sign up, so 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.
Though 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 are unlikely to fight more than once.
The annual bouts happen during the first weekend of the month, just after many here have received their government assistance checks. That means fighters are more likely to have the $10 buy-in and their family cheering sections have cash for the $3 hot dogs drenched in warm chili. There’s no beer sold inside, so small groups dot the parking lot, tailgates gathered around coolers of Bud Light.
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 his match, which began about 10 minutes after his brother’s. It was 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. Bill, too, would advance to fight in the second round the following night.
“The Price is right!” an announcer declared from ringside, prompting a roar.
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.
“Look at him! Muhammad Ali!” Jordan wailed a few fights later as a childhood classmate stood victorious over his defeated foe.
“McDowwwell County!” Bill shouted as he leapt from his seat, both arms stretched in the air.
We ‘flock to these events’
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 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 gong 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 came out to support each fighter, some of whom came straight from the mines to their bouts, their faces still a smoky gray.
To foster local rivalries, Smith began having fighters “call out” potential opponents. In Welch, one local fighter vowed to stand over his defeated opponents and make a chicken call. Another pledged to train for the fight by eating only Krispy Kreme doughnuts. A brawler from the next county over said he’d defeat any McDowell County fighter who wanted a piece of him and that anyone who beat him could have his girlfriend.
“Your girl is ours now!” came a shout from the crowd when that fighter went down for the count in his first match.
In between each round, barely clad women compete to be voted the crowd’s favorite ring girl, waving cardboard round cards above their heads as they dance, with varying degrees of rhythm, to the rap song “Ms. New Booty.” They, too, stand to win a cash prize of $1,000.
“See, in West Virginia we don’t have any pro sports teams, we don’t have any semipro teams. We don’t have many concerts. We don’t have NASCAR,” said Leon Ramsey, chairman of the State Athletic Commission, as he hung out near ringside. “West Virginians flock to these events.”
Life on the hilltop
By the second night of fighting, the mood had changed. The room was still packed, but it was no longer overflowing. The county-fair atmosphere had morphed into something more akin to a serious boxing tournament.
Many fighters who win their first-round matchups at the brawl drop out before the second night. Most claim it’s due to injury or sickness, what Smith has termed the “chicken flu.”
After a successful opening night, many local fighters, especially those whose first fight was against a high school buddy who happened to be less prepared than they were, correctly conclude that they’ve got little chance of winning the tournament — and all they think about is the physical and emotional pain they’ll probably have to endure.
Jordan Price was having those thoughts.
He woke up bruised and sore the morning after his first-round victory. A cough, which he said he’d been nursing for a few weeks, had evolved overnight into a full cold.
But even the suggestion that he could back out of the tournament earned him hours of mocking from his father, brother and sisters and an uncle or two who stopped by the family’s hilltop home.
His father, Bill Price Sr., who fixes up and trades cars for a living, was one of 20 children in an extended family born and raised on this hill. Now he, his siblings and their offspring live in the homes and trailers where they had been raised a generation before.
“Prices don’t die, we multiply,” Jordan said with a smirk, pointing down at the nearby houses, white dots scattered across the brown mountain, where other family members live.
The brothers both hope to leave McDowell, though they both acknowledge that they probably will end up spending their lives on this hill above War.
Bill Jr. hasn’t worked much since graduating from high school last year, but he has asked around at the coal mines, where workers confident in the new presidential administration insist that this will be the year, after decades of decline, that the coal jobs come back.
“I hope they’re right,” he mumbles sheepishly. “Things are going to get better.”
Jordan, set to graduate this spring, had considered trying to become a game warden or taking a $14-an-hour gig as a steel welder in North Carolina. But for now, he’s staying put. His family is here, even if nothing much else is.
By the time they enter the armory for the second night of fights, both Price brothers are in sweatpants and T-shirts.
They’ve come up with a plan — rather than face other opponents, they’re going to fight each other, and Jordan’s going to let his older brother win.
“They’re blood brothers!” Smith exclaimed into the microphone moments later. “They’ve said that they’ve thrown down many times before! But this time it’s in the ring!”
It wasn’t much of a match, with Jordan largely crouching in defense as his brother landed halfhearted blows to his body. After two rounds, Jordan quit the match. And Bill, a few minutes later, dropped out of the tournament. They retreated to the crowd as fans.
They shouted for “T-Rod” Terry Foster, a baby-faced local baseball star from the small town of Cucumber who lasted several rounds in the heavyweight division. And Dakota “Cody” Kennedy, a lightweight who hopped around the ring in a circle before bursting forward with each punch.
Both made it deep, but most of the local fighters ended up bested by outsiders; five of the six weight classes went to fighters from outside McDowell County. Even the ring-girl prize went to someone from far away: Mercedes Gagnon, a bubbly blond 21-year-old who had driven nearly 400 miles from Myrtle Beach, S.C.
Gagnon donned the black winner’s jacket as she posed for pictures, vowing to use her prize money to fund a vacation for her and her boyfriend.
The Price brothers were across the room, each with an arm slung over the shoulder of a girlfriend as they prepared for the dark, cold drive back to War.
Bill looked forward and spoke about spending the coming year training so he can fight even better next March, when the Rough N Rowdy returns. Jordan tossed a skeptical smile. His brief time in the ring was victory enough.
“I ain’t fighting again,” Jordan said. “Ain’t nothing left to prove.”
This article has been updated.