CHARLOTTE – From a seat in the upper deck of the Grady Cole Center, a dusty, 3,000-seat venue on the campus of Central Piedmont Community College, Chris Wittekind reflected on what brought him there.
Last year, Wittekind streamed Rough N’ Rowdy, a backyard brawl-style boxing event that has developed a cult following across the South. A Navy vet, Wittekind, 30, had no boxing experience. “Just a heavy bag at my house,” Wittekind said. But the Gaston, North Carolina, native vowed that if Rough N’ Rowdy ever came to his state — he would be there to compete in it.
Wittekind wasn’t alone. More than 1,500 potential fighters applied for last Friday’s Rough N’ Rowdy event, a number that was eventually whittled down to 80. Reasons for applying varied. Alex Ledford, 23, is an ex-Marine who always wanted to enter a tough man competition. Gary Schreib, 26, a loan specialist at Bank of America, wants to be Instagram-famous. The self-styled “Milkman” — Schreib claims to drink five gallons of milk a week and arrived at Rough N’ Rowdy in a 1950s milkman uniform — Schreib hoped an impressive performance could lead to a different career.
Wittekind’s motivation: Money. Winners at Rough N’ Rowdy can earn as much as $2,500. “I plan on proposing to my girlfriend soon,” Wittekind said. “Not saying I won’t do it if I lose — but that $2,500 would make it easier.”
The brains behind Rough N’ Rowdy is Christopher MacCorkle Smith, an affable, 47-year-old former amateur boxer. Smith’s career ended in the mid-‘90s. “Threw my shoulder out in my last two fights,” Smith said. He was selling real estate when his wife, Andrea, recognizing his passion for boxing, suggested he try promoting. Early in his career, Smith fought in five backyard brawl-type events. He enjoyed it. He noticed the fans did, too. Rough N’ Rowdy was born.
In 1996, Smith held his first show, at the Charleston Civic Center. It was a 13,000-seat venue. Only 600 fans showed up and Smith absorbed a $20,000 loss.
“It was embarrassing,” Smith said. “Wrong dates. Wrong marketing. Wrong everything.”
Smith didn’t quit. To save money, he moved in with his parents. He painted houses to earn extra cash. And he studied the business. Marketing, Smith says, was key. In Charleston, Smith approached WQBE, a top-rated country station. Smith sold the station on the local flavor of his shows. Everything, from the fighters to the fans to the ring card girls, was local. It was a station event, Smith said. They agreed. WQBE started sponsoring the event, and has been a part of Charleston-area shows ever since.
Smith continued to fail — a Norfolk, Virginia, event shortly after 9/11 was a particularly big disaster — but his successes began to pile up. A breakthrough came in 1997, when Smith brought a show to Williamson, West Virginia. “Feud country,” Smith said. “Hatfield’s and the McCoy’s.” In the days leading up to the show, ticket sales were sluggish. Smith feared another disaster. On fight night, Smith walked out of his makeshift office — and into a capacity crowd of more than 3,000 people.
“It was standing room only,” Smith said. “That was a big night.”
Smith — who doubles as matchmaker and in-ring announcer for Rough N’ Rowdy shows — admits to taking a “Jerry Springer approach” to matchmaking. He looks for beefs. Personal grudges. Still, the majority of Rough N’ Rowdy applicants apply without requesting a specific opponent. So Smith looks to pair them with a natural rival. Fighters from different counties, different communities. He’s against letting brothers fight — a bad experience with two on a show, Smith said. On Friday, Smith had a fight featuring Clemson and South Carolina students. He had another headlined by bartenders from rival bars in Columbia, South Carolina.
Fights have an undeniable WWE flavor. Four ringside speakers blare music that mixes ‘90s hip-hop, “Jock Jams” and the “Rocky” soundtrack together. Everyone has a nickname. “The Caveman” Benjamin Moreno, entered the ring wearing an orange, leopard-print cloth and fought in Looney Tunes-emblazoned Chuck Taylors. James Sines, a local mechanic, was “The Plug Daddy.” When there isn’t a natural narrative, Smith might make one up. Justin Thompson, a North Carolina schoolteacher, fought Steven Stanley, who, Smith bellowed, “hates school teachers.”
“Actually, [Thompson’s] original opponent dropped out,” Smith said. “He really hated teachers. Sent us a video and everything. With [Stanley], we decided to just go with it.”
Rough N’ Rowdy isn’t traditional boxing. Fights are three, one-minute rounds. There are four weight classes: 139 pounds and below, 140-159, 160-184 and 185-400. No fighter can have professional boxing experience. Smith doesn’t want any USA Boxing alums, either. “In fact, 99 percent of the fighters don’t have any boxing or MMA experience,” Smith said. Most shows have 40-50 fights a night. To speed things up, Smith has fighters for the next bout waiting ringside; when action in the ring wanes, Smith grabs the mic and barks at them to pick it up.
Smith’s shows attract plenty of former street fighters, but they are far from street fights. Boxers wear headgear, chew on mouthpieces and pull up groin guards. Professional referees — many with decades of experience — are used. Smith works closely with the state athletic commissions. Doctors are ringside and an ambulance is nearby. There is a goofiness to Rough N’ Rowdy; a pre-fight Breathalyzer isn’t something you see at a mainstream boxing event. But it’s hardly barbaric.
Last year, Smith caught another break. Back in 2013, Rough N’ Rowdy caught the eye of Dave Portnoy, the founder of Barstool Sports. Portnoy attended a show — and loved it. The two stayed in contact, and last March Barstool, on a whim, went to Welch, West Virginia, and streamed a show on pay-per-view. A Barstool blogger, Tex, headlined the show—and more than 10,000 people paid for it. Last November, Barstool partnered with Smith to form Barstool Brawl LLC. Smith continues to run the day-to-day, while Barstool provides the marketing muscle and runs all the pay-per-views.
“The vision is the same,” Smith said. “Build the business up, build the model up, grow it and go. Everything is just multiplied times 20. It’s the show to be now. There is more energy behind it now than there has ever been.”
With Barstool behind him, Smith is thinking big. Interest is growing — Smith doubled the ticket prices for Friday’s event, and the show still sold out. Pay-per-view sales are, too. Rough N’ Rowdy II, in February, generated 41,000 buys; Friday’s show is tracking at a similar number.
Rough N’ Rowdy isn’t for everyone, and Smith admits several states have rejected his efforts to hold shows there. “We never push it,” Smith said. “We want to work with states to sanction us.” Smith likens it to UFC’s early years. In the 1990’s, UFC was called human cockfighting and was banned in 36 states. Today, it’s a $4 billion company — and sanctioned in all 50.
Rough N’ Rowdy isn’t the future of boxing, but it could be part of boxing’s future. Traditional boxing’s audience skews older; Rough N’ Rowdy’s is significantly younger. If athletic commissions warm to it, Smith’s events could spread nationwide, quickly. The first stop is New Jersey: Smith is there this week to meet with Larry Hazzard, the commissioner of the State Athletic Control Board, about bringing a show to Atlantic City.
“There are always going to be fighters,” Smith said. “Everyone wants to test themselves. Everyone wants a shot at glory.”
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