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Men's Journal: The 25 Toughest Guys in America
What makes a tough guy? How about perseverance, fearlessness, a high threshold for pain? And how about a little modesty, too? we asked more than 100 experts in more than a dozen fields. Here's who made the final cut.
1 BRETT FAVRE
Quarterback 34 Green Bay, Wisconsin
that brett favre has become one of the most universally liked guys in public life has a lot to do with the passion he brings to every game he plays, every play he makes. This fact is lost on him; in his world that's just what athletes are supposed to do. As he puts it: "I go through life saying, What can I do on the football field to make people say, 'Now, that guy's good. Not just because he can throw touchdown passes but because he's a great leader, he busted his ass, he was always there, you could always depend on him, he was tough'?"
In 12 seasons with the Green Bay Packers, Favre has known as much pain and glory as any athlete of his generation. So when he found himself living out a personal tragedy in front of the entire nation in December -- his father, Big Irv, had died unexpectedly of a heart attack a little more than 24 hours before Green Bay was to play a critical Monday night game in Oakland's notorious "Black Hole" -- was anybody surprised that he decided that not playing wasn't an option? Was it any surprise that he ended up putting on the single best performance of the year, a game that would pass immediately into legend? In a word, no.
Irv Favre, old "Hammerhead," a high school football and baseball coach and the son of a full-blooded Choctaw Indian, taught his son that commitment to one's teammates should never waver, no matter the circumstances. The son listened. Largely because Favre has started more than 200 games in a row, the Packers have won a Super Bowl and never had a losing season with him. What's almost as amazing is that, despite all the battle wounds he has suffered, Favre has had to leave only four games due to injury. This season he played 12 games with a fractured thumb on his throwing hand.
Accompany Favre to the rollicking family home in Kiln, Mississippi, not far from the Gulf of Mexico, and he will lead you to the spot where the legend really began -- and almost ended. It was July 14, 1990, and the 20-year-old Brett was gearing up for his senior season at Southern Miss by drinking all morning with some buddies out at Ship Island. On the way back, Favre says, he fells asleep at the wheel and flipped his car into the woods along a blacktop road not far from home. A vertebra was broken, and, worse, doctors told him his intestinal tract wasn't working right. On August 7 they operated and removed 30 inches of it. On September 8, having lost about 25 pounds, Favre quarterbacked Southern Miss to a spectacular 27-24 upset of Alabama. 'Bama coach Gene Stallings said the wraithlike Favre "looked like a damn scarecrow. You can call it a miracle or a legend or anything you want to. I just know on that day Brett Favre was bigger than life."
Two years later, after a rookie season in Atlanta during which he showed up drunk for practice two or three times, Favre was unceremoniously traded to Green Bay for a first-round draft pick. It didn't take long for him to endear himself to the Packers. Out one night with some offensive linemen, Favre noticed a big lunk lipping off to veteran guard Rich Moran. "Next thing I know Brett grabbed the guy by the neck," Moran says. "Right there I kind of took a liking to him."
On the field, though, he was inconsistent in those early years. In one game the bad Brett would be there, throwing interceptions and making poor decisions. In another the good Brett would make something out of nothing and the Packers would beat a much better team.
But always the tough Brett was there. They still talk about the Bears game at Lambeau Field in '95, when Favre missed practice all week with a grotesquely swollen ankle, then threw five touchdowns. Perhaps the most crushing shot Favre ever took was delivered by Bucs defensive end Regan Upshaw from the blind side on a bootleg gone haywire in 1998. It almost broke Favre's jaw, but guess who was the first one up? "It was a great hit," Favre said later, "but you can't ever let them see any weakness." The darkest period of his career came around the time Favre had a seizure following ankle surgery just after the '95 season. He was 26, the leader of a talent-laden team bound for back-to-back Super Bowls, and he had fallen into an addiction to the painkiller Vicodin. It wouldn't have been hard for everything to unravel at this point, but Big Irv didn't raise the kind of guy who would let that happen. Favre owned up to his demons at a memorable press conference, then spent 45 days at a treatment center in Topeka, Kansas. He got off Vicodin and eventually (after a 1999 ultimatum from his wife Deanna) quit partying.
The fortunes of his team have ebbed and flowed over the years, but Favre keeps playing with a kind of adolescent joy. Two years ago Lions cornerback Todd Lyght was livid after Marco Rivera jumped over a pile and nailed him late. Favre, ever the peacemaker, playfully slapped Lyght on the side of the helmet, and everything was cool again. When enormous Baltimore Ravens nose tackle Sam Adams chased him halfway across the field for a sack in 2001, there was Favre embracing Adams after the play as if to say, "You earned that one, big fella." Other things never change, either, like Favre's 35-1 record at home when the temperature is 34 degrees or below, or his delight when the opportunity to block someone presents itself.
Green Bay may have lost in the playoffs, but watching Favre that day in Oakland last December made the whole season worthwhile. Irv Favre raised his son to love football and play as hard as he could every down. And so, as on every other game day in his career, that's precisely what he did. --Bob McGinn
2 MICHAEL WEISSKOPF
Journalist 57 Washington, D.C.
WHAT MAKES HIM TOUGH When you work in a war zone where terror strikes claim fresh lives daily, courage is a necessity. Either you have it or you're 6,000 miles away, safe at home. Time senior correspondent Michael Weisskopf has it. On December 10 in Baghdad, an insurgent lobbed a hissing grenade into the back of an open-air army patrol Humvee Weisskopf was riding in with a photographer and four soldiers from the 1st Armored Division. Rather than diving for cover or freezing up, Weisskopf grabbed it and volleyed it away just as it exploded -- taking his right hand with it but saving the lives of everyone in the vehicle. "All I did was simply react," he says now, almost dismissively. "There was no other option in my mind." Of course, that's just what tough guys do.
EYEWITNESS "Michael chooses to take courageous leaps of journalistic faith in the corridors of power in Washington," says Time's managing editor, Jim Kelly, "so when he ended up in a back-alley Baghdad neighborhood with a grenade in his hand it was very much in keeping with his career."
WHAT'S NEXT Back to work. "I'm just going to get back on the bicycle," he says. "I grew up on the South Side of Chicago -- not many neighborhoods bother me."
3 MATT HUGHES
Ultimate Fighter 30 Hillsboro, Illinois
WHAT MAKES HIM TOUGH Matt Hughes was destined for fighting glory. He was a two-time Illinois state high school champion, a two-time junior college All-American, and a two-time NCAA All-American wrestler. Though he stands only five-foot-nine and weighs only 170 pounds, the five-time defending Ultimate Fighting Championship welterweight world champion is making it nearly impossible for UFC fight coordinator Joe Silva to do his job. "I don't want him fighting people that aren't real challenges," says Silva. "It's not that he'd just win -- he'd freakin' wreck them. Without a doubt he's the toughest fighter pound for pound in this sport." To win his belt at UFC 34, Hughes knocked former world champ Carlos Newton unconscious after slamming him against the mat. For his fifth defense, against Frank Trigg, Hughes jumped like a tree monkey onto Trigg's back, choking him until Trigg fell over backward and tapped out so the referee would stop the fight. When Hughes isn't training for a fight, he still manages to put in 15-hour days on the family farm he grew up on, running the combine and tilling corn fields. But when he is training, he's all business. A month out from a match he's been known to do sets of 110 leg presses with 450 pounds on the rack, sprint quarter-mile hills 14 times in a row with barely a rest, and fight fresh fighters one after another for five straight rounds.
EYEWITNESS "The last six guys he's fought have all been killers, with very good credentials, and he's just crushed them," says Joe Silva. "He beats them up badly."
WHAT'S NEXT Hughes is set to defend his title again in June, but, he says, "If there was any money on the farm, I'd give up fighting and go back home right now."
4 MIKE "GATOR" GAUTHIER
Rescue Ranger 34 Longmire, Washington
WHAT MAKES HIM TOUGH In 14 years on the job, with 150 rescues, Mike Gauthier, the lead climbing ranger at Mount Rainier, has come to know this treacherous peak better than just about anyone. The Washington native has been caught in at least five avalanches, been struck by lighting three times, and once lost two of his closest friends and climbing partners during a sketchy rescue on a glacier. And yet, through it all, Gauthier has maintained an almost otherworldly calm. "You gotta hold it together or you're toast," he says. "It's not about cockiness -- it's about confidence." One day in June 1998, for example, Gauthier was snowboarding near Rainier's summit when a chilling call came in: "Massive avalanche, Disappointment Cleaver -- possible ten dead." Without his ice ax, a rope, crampons, or a helmet, Gauthier descended the ridge and inched his way down to 11,300 feet, where the climbers lay in shock, splayed out on a shredded rope on the edge of a crumbly volcanic cliff. A single ice-picket held the group from falling. Gauthier took control, stabilized the lines, and performed triage on broken bones, eventually with the help of a team of other rangers who choppered in. Nine of the ten climbers survived. A daring rescue, but Gauthier shrugs it off. "I got lucky," he says. "Mountains are way tougher than me."
EYEWITNESS Charley Shimanski, executive director of the American Alpine Club, says, "He's the Sammy Sosa of mountain rescue. He can adjust to absolutely anything thrown at him, any curveball."
WHAT'S NEXT Finishing the second edition of his book Mount Rainier: A Climbing Guide (The Mountaineers Books; $18).
5 JOHN McCAIN
U.S. Senator 67 Phoenix, Arizona
WHAT MAKES HIM TOUGH Asking John McCain to name his toughest moments is like asking Marshall Faulk to name his favorite rushing yards. How can he possibly narrow it down? To be taken prisoner of war in Vietnam, to be beaten, with both your arms and your knee broken, that would be enough for most men. But being offered an early release by his captors (on account of his father being an admiral) was a particularly cruel form of torture for McCain. So he refused to go, and his legend began. His captors beat him for a week until he finally copped to being a "black criminal" and an "air pirate." He later said of the confessions, "I failed myself. I failed my fellow prisoners. I failed my family, and I failed my country." Few have ever failed so nobly. When his Vietcong captors briefly let him out of solitary on Christmas Eve 1968, he told them, "This is fuking bullshit," and raised his middle finger to the cameras recording it. In his political career since then McCain has refused to let failures defeat him. During the 2000 presidential campaign his enemies slandered him by saying that he had fathered a child with a prostitute and that he gave his wife a venereal disease. McCain lost the race, lost the nomination, lost the presidency. But as a loser he captured the country's imagination, built a national following, and eventually persuaded Congress to pass his signature campaign finance bill. Is that failure, or toughness?
EYEWITNESS Bob Dole: "Spend five years in a box and you're entitled to speak your mind."
WHAT'S NEXT McCain's third book, Why Courage Matters, is out in April from Random House.
6 SCOTT STEVENS
Professional Hockey Player 39 Essex Fells, New Jersey
WHAT MAKES HIM TOUGH If Scott Stevens catches you with your head down he will crush you. It's his job. He'll destroy you like he did Eric Lindros in game seven of the 2000 Eastern Conference finals -- with a shoulder to the jaw, the resulting concussion nearly ending Lindros's career -- or like he did Slava Kozlov or Sami Kapanen or just about any player to face him throughout his 22-year career. "I've always played this way, so I don't know any other way to play," says Stevens, who often looks more like a linebacker when he flings his full six-foot-two, 215-pound frame at an opponent. And he's been doing it for a record 1,600-plus games, leading the Devils to three Stanley Cup victories in the process. He's played in nearly 900 regular season victories, more than any other hockey player, and 233 postseason games, the most for a defenseman. Perhaps most remarkable for someone whose job it is to hurt people, his career total of elbowing penalties is a measly three, and off the ice he's known as a soft-spoken, friendly guy. It's almost enough to make you question his toughness -- but then you remember that he's a guy who's had to have serious dental work done between periods without novocaine, a guy whose nicknames include Bam Bam and Concussion Man. And while he has felt remorse for some of his more catastrophic hits, he confesses to a certain delight in his dirty work. "It's like hitting the sweet spot playing golf or tennis," he says. "It just feels good."
EYEWITNESS "I've never seen a player so physically dominating," Rangers center Bobby Holik once said. "Teams were like, 'Oh, hey, let's not go this way, there's Scott Stevens.'"
WHAT'S NEXT At least one more season of slash-and-burn hockey. And after retirement he'd like to return to the Devils as a coach.
7 MEL GIBSON
Actor 48 Los Angeles, California
WHAT MAKES HIM TOUGH Say you're a big shot producer and onto your desk drops a script that's epic in scope, at its center a character who, despite all odds, must scoff at danger and defeat a much bigger and mightier foe. What do you say? This part was made for Mel Gibson! The brick-jawed Aussie/American owns the role of big-screen tough guy. Consider: There are the credits you barely remember -- The Year of Living Dangerously, Gallipoli, The River, Hamlet. And there are those you can recount in glorious bloody detail -- Mad Max, Lethal Weapon, The Patriot, We Were Soldiers, and, of course, Braveheart, the tough guy role that won him an Oscar. In real life, too, Gibson has never been meek. "I used to be a real hard case, a wild boy," he has recalled, "knocking back lager and whiskey -- liquid violence, I call it." When he showed up at his Mad Max audition he came prepared, with a shiner he'd earned in a bar brawl. Of course that was all a long time ago. He still fights, but now it's different. When word leaked of Gibson's new project, a strictly by-the-Book film of Jesus's crucifixion (with all dialogue in the dead languages of Latin and Aramaic) called The Passion of the Christ, the actor-director found himself in a familiar situation: facing a firestorm, seemingly outgunned. Before anyone had ever seen the movie, religious groups protested, labeling the film anti-Semitic. Critics pilloried the idea, calling it a dangerously insensitive vanity project. Studios turned their backs. "They think I'm crazy, and maybe I am," Gibson said at the time. Questions of sanity aside, no one can deny the toughness of putting a superstar career on the line for a higher cause. It's also not hard to see why Gibson isn't rattled. You've seen his movies. You know how they turn out: with Gibson -- probably bruised, definitely bloodied -- emerging from the fire, victorious. Well, except for Braveheart, where he ended up flayed like a Thanksgiving turkey. Can't win 'em all.
EYEWITNESS "Often Mel plays this sort of goofy nice guy. And there's a side of him that's like that," friend and former costar Jodie Foster once said. "But there's a side of him that's very comfortable with anger and the darker sides of the psyche. And I think it's much truer to who he really is."
WHAT'S NEXT The Passion of the Christ will open on February 25, God willing.
8 JUSTIN WADSWORTH
Adventure Racer 35 Bend, Oregon
WHAT MAKES HIM TOUGH Justin Wadsworth knows pain. Last year he finished in the top five with Team Montrail in five major adventure races: multiday, multisport events that were invented for the crowd that finds triathlons too easy. And even for his lesser finishes he has pretty good excuses. Take the 2003 Primal Quest: On day two Wadsworth's shins began to ache from tendinitis, and his lower legs and feet became so swollen that he had to wear shoes two sizes too large. Despite warnings Wadsworth continued on for days, until the team had to default because doctors couldn't find a pulse in one foot and were concerned about having to amputate both. "It was the worst pain I've ever been in," says Wadsworth. "But I didn't want to let down the team." That's the attitude he brings to everything he does. Before taking up adventure racing in 2002, Wadsworth was America's brightest hope in cross-country skiing, a sport considered one of the most physically grueling things a person can do. A three-time Olympian and winner of four U.S. Championships, Wadsworth and his 4 x 10K relay team finished fifth in the 2002 Olympics, the all-time best finish for the U.S. In the 2001 World Cup he worked his muscles so hard that they depleted his stomach lining of blood, causing internal hemorrhaging. Still, what he most remembers is that he finished eighth. "If you can push yourself that hard, it's a good feeling," he says. "Then you at least know that you're getting everything you can out of yourself."
EYEWITNESS "Justin can tow or carry more weight than anyone, and he never complains," says Adam Chase, of Team Salomon USA, an adventure racing rival. "A lot of the stuff we do is easy for him."
WHAT'S NEXT Wadsworth will compete in ten adventure races in 2004, and this spring he and a fellow Olympic skier plan to bring a TV crew along when they set out to climb Mount McKinley -- mostly on skis.
9 CAREY HART
Motocross Racer 28 Las Vegas, Nevada
WHAT MAKES HIM TOUGH Carey Hart was 16 when he broke both of his legs. He was riding laps on a practice track in Las Vegas when he launched over a jump at 60 miles an hour and slammed into a tractor that was prepping the track. He broke both femurs, his arm, and almost bled to death. It was a fitting start to his career. Hart has broken 56 bones in the past 14 years, and each break has a spectacular story. At the 2001 X Games he had to bail mid-backflip and plunged 40 feet to the dirt track, breaking 14 bones in his foot, crumbling his tailbone, and cracking several ribs. Most recently, at last fall's Boom Boom HuckJam exhibition in Tacoma, Washington, Hart jumped off his bike during a miscued synchronized routine to avoid colliding with Tony Hawk and flew 60 feet into a vert ramp -- breaking his femur on one leg and his heel on the other. All the bone-splintering tends to overshadow Hart's less painful accomplishments. He has expanded the X lexicon with namesake tricks such as the Hart Attack, a midair handstand on the seat of a motorcycle. As the first person to pull off a backflip on a motorcycle, he's the most famous biker on the planet. Last fall's injuries will probably keep him out of the 2004 X Games, but barring another catastrophic wreck he'll ride the HuckJam again this year. Such is the rhythm of Carey Hart's life: Get hurt, get healed, get back on, get hurt, get healed. "I can't even count how many surgeries I've had in the last three years," he says. "I've had my foot reconstructed, my legs reconstructed, my hand reconstructed, my shoulder bolted back together. There's just so much that goes into this. You take such a beating." And then, of course, you get back on.
EYEWITNESS "I've never met anyone as normal as Carey who has been able to take such pain and just deal with it," says pro skater Bucky Lasek, who has toured with Carey on several events.
WHAT'S NEXT Acting lessons and a move to Santa Monica, where he wants to work his way into the movie business. He also plans to ride the Boom Boom HuckJam in 2004.
10 JEREMY JONES
Big Mountain Snowboarder 28 Truckee, California
WHAT MAKES HIM TOUGH At the end of Teton Gravity Research's breakout film, Harvest, you see this flyspeck of a guy, Jeremy Jones, ripping down an untracked Alaskan chute. Suddenly the mountain seems to shift and then there it is: a high-speed wall of snow barreling down upon him. The avalanche overtakes Jones (who, by the way, triggered the thing when he dropped in) and you wonder if perhaps you're watching his last ride. The slide gains momentum. Seconds go by slowly. Finally it slows and -- bam! -- somehow Jones rides out of it, as if he's just passed through a London fog. Clearly this is something he's done before. "A lot of people think I've got a death wish," Jones says. "But I can read where that avalanche is going to go and I flirt with it." The Cape Cod native has won multiple "Big Mountain Rider of the Year" honors and, according to Snowboarder Magazine, has had more film exposure than any other rider over the past five years. He's also had a few close calls, like the time in New Zealand when the snow pack he was standing on broke. In eight seconds he fell 1,200 feet. "That was the only time I've been truly at the mercy of the mountain," he says.
EYEWITNESS Says Jim Conway, TGR's lead guide and avalanche expert: "Watching Jeremy ride is watching snowboarding history in the making."
WHAT'S NEXT Taking big-mountain riding to the next level by incorporating technical tricks usually reserved for terrain parks.
11 RULON GARDNER
Greco-Roman Wrestler 32 Colorado Springs, Colorado
WHAT MAKES HIM TOUGH The youngest of nine children, Rulon Gardner has been tough since birth. He has a learning disability and struggled to get through school. He was overweight. And even though he excelled at wrestling, he wasn't even the best grappler in his family: That honor went to his brother Ronald when the boys were young. (Ronald died of aplastic anemia when he was 14.) So Gardner's upset of Russian Alexander Karelin, who hadn't even been scored upon in ten years, at the 2000 Olympic games was the culmination of a life of struggle -- not to mention one of the greatest wrestling moments ever. And yet the challenges didn't stop coming for Gardner after he'd won gold. In February 2002 he got separated from one of his buddies while snowmobiling in Wyoming's Salt River Range and ended up spending 18 hours -- soaking wet, in subzero weather -- in a snow-covered valley. He was rescued the next morning with his feet literally frozen, and the initial prognosis was that he'd have to have portions of his feet and all of his toes amputated. He promptly said no to that, and no to painkillers, preferring to battle his misfortune like he'd battled everything else in his life. "Why not recover 100 percent?" Gardner says today. (He lost one toe as a result of the accident.) "One of the reasons I didn't want to take painkillers is because my feet are part of my body. They went through a really traumatic situation, and if I allowed myself to not feel the pain I don't think I would have learned as much as I did."
EYEWITNESS "Rulon's not intimidated by anything -- he has no fear," says Dan Schwab, Gardner's lifelong friend, who had gone snowmobiling with him the day of the accident. "His toughness is beyond human."
WHAT'S NEXT He's back on the mat and in the running for this year's Olympic team. "My goal," Gardner says, "is to be ready for the 2004 games, win a second gold medal -- and then retire."
12 TYLER HAMILTON
Professional Cyclist 33 Boulder, Colorado
WHAT MAKES HIM TOUGH In professional cycling the rider who performs best in the mountains is called the King of the Mountains. Call Tyler Hamilton the King of Pain. Not even Lance Armstrong himself -- who, let's be honest, has suffered mind-blowing pain -- can rival Hamilton's in-the-saddle endurance. Take last year's Tour de France: On the second day Hamilton broke his right collarbone in two places in a crash that injured dozens of riders. At that point most people would say, "Okay, the race is over." But not Hamilton. He kept riding, eventually won a stage, and completed the Tour in fourth place overall. A year earlier he finished second in the Giro d'Italia after breaking his shoulder in an early stage. When he was in college he broke his back skiing; just a couple of years ago he lost 25 percent of his blood when he ran into a car on a training run. "I've had a lot of bad luck," Hamilton says, laughing, "but I'm not going to let that get in my way."
EYEWITNESS "It's the greatest feat in this year's Tour," said Lance Armstrong after Hamilton won a tough mountain stage with a broken collarbone. "Incredible."
WHAT'S NEXT "I'm on a new team, Phonak, and they've built the team around me for the 2004 Tour," Hamilton says.
13 TERRENCE WHITCOMB
Chief Drill Instructor U.S. Marine Corps 30 San Diego, California
WHAT MAKES HIM TOUGH The most feared drill instructor in the United States Marine Corps is five feet, five inches tall. He weighs 145 pounds. He's known around the marines' recruit depot in San Diego as the "Little General." And if there's one thing you need to know about the guy, it's this: Don't fuk with him. Gunnery Sergeant Terrence Whitcomb is demanding, relentless -- some might say brutal -- and his discipline is unsurpassed. "If he sees one stray whisker he'll go ape shit," says one supervisor, Captain Jackson Doan. "He won't even say words; it's just continual screaming." Whitcomb puts recruits through the incentive-training combination from hell -- side straddle hops, push-ups, mountain climbers, crunches, rifle extensions -- and holds his charges to the highest standards. If they screw up, Whitcomb might scream -- or he might not. "Sometimes he'll just whisper, 'You owe me,' inches from a recruit's face," says Doan. "They know suffering is coming." Recruits are so awed by his presence that legends have sprung up around him: He stays awake for seven days straight; he does 500 push-ups before breakfast. Is any of it true? No one's quite sure. "Everyone is looking for a flaw," says Doan. "They want to prove he's human."
EYEWITNESS "He may be a little guy," says Staff Sergeant Harold E. Lucas, "but he commands the respect of a giant."
WHAT'S NEXT Whitcomb was named the marines' top drill instructor this past December, and in April will start at the Drill Instructors School, where he'll teach others to be more like him.
14 DEAN POTTER
Rock Climber 32 Yosemite, California, and Moab, Utah
WHAT MAKES HIM TOUGH Forget that he holds more than a dozen speed-climbing records in Yosemite National Park or that he's widely regarded as the best climber ever. What really makes Dean Potter a tough guy is that he does most of his climbs free-solo -- he uses no gear, no ropes, no protection against plummeting to certain death. Consider his record-breaking 2002 summit of 11,070-foot Fitz Roy in Patagonia: Ropeless, Potter climbed almost 5,000 feet under a massive ribbon of ice that could have broken off at any moment, reaching the summit in a scant 6.5 hours. But the feat that best demonstrates his fearlessness is his "slack lining": tightrope-walking between cliffs on a one-inch-wide length of nylon. Most climbers won't try slack lining at high altitudes, and those who do wear a leash. Potter does it wearing only a pair of shorts. Last year he walked a 55-foot-long span in Yosemite, 2,900 feet above the valley floor. "You have to stay calm, even though all your senses are telling you to be afraid and tense up," he says. "It's a huge head game."
EYEWITNESS Professional climber and photographer Jimmy Chin: "His capacity to keep his shit together when the cards are down is superhuman."
WHAT'S NEXT Aside from tackling new climbs wherever he can ("There are unclimbed routes on pretty much every mountain -- even Everest," he says), Potter plans to cultivate his newfound interest in base jumping.
15 STEPHEN "STEVE-O" GLOVER
Jackass 29 Lake Worth, Florida
WHAT MAKES HIM TOUGH Steve-O's résumé reads something like a high school rap sheet: On MTV's Jackass he became a household name by pulling stunts such as diving into pools of elephant dung. More recently, on his Don't Try This at Home World Tour, he ate enough glass to grind all the enamel off his teeth, and stapled his scrotum to his thigh "at least 50 times." All of which raises the question: Is this toughness or stupidity? It's that fine line that makes his brand of clowning -- he graduated from the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Clown College -- so riveting. Jumping off London's Tower Bridge wearing only Union Jack boxers, tightroping over an alligator pit with his jockeys stuffed full of raw chicken, getting electrocuted by a six-foot-long eel: All of these qualify as tough and stupid -- a combination that lands Steve-O in the hospital more often than not. "We call the ambulance before we start shooting," he says. "It's kinda funny to call for an accident that hasn't happened yet."
EYEWITNESS Says Chris Pontius (another Jackass alum): "If Steve-O's not looking at death he's completely bored with life."
WHAT'S NEXT Season two of Wildboyz, a Jackass spinoff in which he and Pontius ply their trade in unsuspecting third-world countries.
16 J. MICHAEL FAY
Explorer 47 Loango National Park, Gabon
WHAT MAKES HIM TOUGH If you crossed Tarzan and Teddy Roosevelt, you'd get someone like J. Michael Fay, the National Geographic Fellow and Wildlife Conservation Society biologist who, on a 1999 trip he dubbed "Megatransect," bushwhacked 2,000 miles across most of the Republic of the Congo and Gabon -- documenting some of the last pristine ecosystems left on earth. Four hundred fifty-six days later and 33 pounds lighter, Fay reached the coast of Gabon, but only after having blown out two pairs of Tevas and 12 rolls of duct tape (ersatz moleskin, naturally), quelled a porter mutiny in the middle of a 200-mile-wide bog, and filled 87 waterproof notebooks. The payoff? Three years later the government of Gabon, with Fay's guidance, announced the creation of an enormous national park system -- a 13-zone, 10,000-square-mile rain forest network filled with endangered elephants, gorillas, and leatherback turtles. It wasn't the first -- or last -- time Fay had suffered for the greater good. Over the years he has survived, among other things, malaria, run-ins with armed poachers, and a plane crash in the jungle. On New Year's Eve of 2002 he was leading a team of field biologists in Gabon when a female elephant pinned him to the ground with its tusks and gored him 13 times. To save himself from being crushed to death, Fay seized the beast's tusks and held on like a crazed bull rider, eventually getting bucked off and escaping on foot. And yet even that close call didn't deter him from his work. When you're focused on the right thing, he explains, "the pain doesn't hurt, the bugs don't bite, the mud isn't deep, and you can't get lost. Hardships are not even on the radar screen."
EYEWITNESS Fay is like "a half-mad, half-brilliant military commander gone AWOL," wrote naturalist and Monster of God author David Quammen, "rather like Brando's version of Conrad's Kurtz in Apocalypse Now."
WHAT'S NEXT A second African Megatransect (this one, wisely, by plane) begins later this year.
17 SID STEINER
Cowboy 28 Bastrop, Texas
WHAT MAKES HIM TOUGH In Texas, the rodeo is an institution that's not what you would call trendy. So when Sid Steiner started sporting Versace shirts and body piercings in the ring a few years ago, folks were livid. First there was talk about how he was ruining the sport; then, this being Texas, things turned physical. There's the story about the 12 professional rodeo riders who, one by one, tried to give him a beatdown -- and one by one got knocked out cold. Or there's the one about the three guys who wouldn't stop taunting him one day at a roping; Steiner took out all three at once. Before long, "Sid Rock" earned himself some respect on the circuit -- but as a brawler, not a cowboy. Traditionalists said the only way he'd ever make the national finals was if he bought a ticket. Of course, that left him no choice but to go qualify for the thing, which he did in 2002; he walked away with the gold buckle and the world championship. Not bad for a guy who wears crushed velvet pants.
EYEWITNESS "I've seen the man knock out 25 or 30 guys," says Steiner's coach, Butch Stokes. "But I've never seen him start anything."
WHAT'S NEXT Steiner has been spending a lot of time wakeboarding at the aptly titled "outlaw" level, just below pro. He and his brother Tommy Shane -- a top-40 country star -- have filmed a pilot for an action-sports travel show for Country Music Television.
18 JOSH BENDER
Freerider 29 Virgin, Utah
WHAT MAKES HIM TOUGH Two days before Josh Bender was set to jump his bicycle off a 48-foot cliff, over a highway, and into a landing zone surrounded by moving vanΠsize boulders, he ripped his chin open jumping a 55-foot gap in Big Water, Utah. The following day, freshly stitched, he fell off his bike while jumping a 12-foot cliff -- just before tumbling off another cliff, a 20-footer, and breaking two ribs. Such is life when you're one of the pioneers of freeriding, a mutation of mountain biking that largely consists of riding off cliffs. "At the level I'm riding at -- and I'm hanging my shit way out the window -- any stupid mistake pretty much ends your career," he says. Or your life. Bender swears he's cautious, but then, a moment later, he's telling you about how, the day he broke those two ribs, he pushed his bike back to the top of the hill to do the jump again, and stopped only when he realized he couldn't breathe.
EYEWITNESS "Just the pure balls factor of what he does is retarded," says Bender's skiing counterpart, Seth Morrison. "Because of him, some bikes now have almost a foot of suspension."
WHAT'S NEXT Searching for his dream cliff: the elusive huckable 100-footer.
19 STEVE HAKALA
Bush Pilot 61 Sand point, Alaska
WHAT MAKES HIM TOUGH Steve Hakala flies his plane in a part of the world called the "Birthplace of the Winds." It's a place, to put it in cold, hard numbers, where pilots have a one in eight chance of dying over the course of a 30-year career. Hakala has spent close to 40 years here, in the far reaches of Alaska -- flying charter flights, supply drops, land surveys, search and rescue -- and not without his share of close calls. In 1989 he downed his plane and had to spend two nights, outfitted with only an apple and a shotgun, before being rescued. In true MacGyver fashion, Hakala got a fire going using driftwood, gasoline, and the plane's battery. Another time when he was stuck out in the bush he got charged by a brown bear, shot it dead, and then kept warm by sleeping inside its fresh carcass. "This is tough country," is all he has to say about that. "I wouldn't encourage other guys to do some of the stuff I do."
EYEWITNESS Biologist Arnie Shaul, who often flies with Hakala: "You're flying low and all of a sudden you get some turbulence and you have to land on a beach. If the beach is too soft, the plane flips over. Steve always manages to get out of those situations, and that takes a lot of know-how."
WHAT'S NEXT Hakala, an avid diver, plans to explore the shipwrecks in Micronesia's Truk Lagoon with his son, who's also a pilot in Alaska.
20 JET LI
Martial Artist 40 Los Angeles, California
WHAT MAKES HIM TOUGH He's taken out 14 guys in a matter of minutes. He's fought off opponents using a woman as human nunchucks. And he's taken the sting out of 20 martial arts students at once -- all while jumping and flying with catlike stealth and agility. Sure, he dealt these beatings on movie sets rather than in dark alleys, and faced actors rather than real evildoers, but don't let that fool you: Li is easily the greatest kung fu fighter alive, and what you see onscreen reveals his raw talent, not that of stunt doubles. Li began his practice at age eight, and four years later captured the Chinese national martial arts championship. It was the first of five titles, each competition pitting him against fighters twice his size and at least 15 years his senior. From there he went on to make 24 Chinese kung fu films, and now six in Hollywood. He's fought and filmed through broken limbs and open wounds, including a fractured leg in 1981 so severe his doctor advised him to stop kung fu altogether. "I decided to continue, even though it was possible I'd end up in a wheelchair," Li says. "You have to understand when you become a soldier that one day, you might have to go to war."
EYEWITNESS New York Times film critic Elvis Mitchell once said, "Li's mercilessly swift onscreen moves -- he's like a cobra with star power -- make his countryman Jackie Chan look as if he's hobbling on crutches."
WHAT'S NEXT The Chinese epic Hero, which arrives in American theaters in August.
21 Donald Rumsfeld Love him or hate him, Rummy has taken on the U.S. military leadership, the press, the United Nations, Iraq, and Afghanistan -- and he's won every time.
22 Rupert Murdoch Single-handedly built the world's first global media empire through ruthless deal making.
23 50 Cent After reportedly being shot nine times, drove himself to the hospital. Turned lead into lucrative street cred.
24 Rusty Haight World's best live-human crash-test dummy (really). Has been in 740 car crashes and suffered only one injury: a laceration from an air bag.
25 Hillary Clinton Is there anyone who doubts that the toughest penalty Bill paid for the Monica scandal was at home?
Written and reported by: Benjamin Chertoff, Christian DeBenedetti, Josh Dean, Seth Fletcher, Tyler Graham, Michael Slenske, Danielle Stein, Chris Suellentrop, and Geoff Van Dyke
The most valuable commodity I know of is information
RE:Men's Journal: The 25 Toughest Guys in America
Sorry LC but when the "toughest guys in America" is a pain killer addict it kind of makes you guys look like a bunch of wimps, which you're not. I'll put Marty McSorley up against any one of these guys and take my chances.
RE:Men's Journal: The 25 Toughest Guys in America
Its a bullshit list!!! I mean JJGOLD didnt even get an honorable mention?!?!?! C'mon!!!
Stats are like girls in bikinis. They reveal a lot but not everything.