Inside the world of bare-knuckle boxing

Once the favourite past time of East End gangsters, bare-knuckle boxing has witnessed a distinct overhaul lately, with a vast collection of videos on YouTube making its appeal more mainstream than ever before. The videos show men like Barney ‘Gorilla’ McGinley, ‘Big’ Joe Joyce and Paddy Doherty reciting threatening monologues and calling out bitter rivals, while on-going family feuds continue to fuel bitter contests in nondescript yards and empty car parks.

Without stadium audiences, media press conferences or ring walks, the sport as a live spectacle is all but a closed affair for outsiders. A typical bout can last up to 45 minutes before being ended by a designated ‘fair play man’ or referee. Unlike professional boxing and mixed martial arts, there are no rounds or protective gloves.

In its 1970-80’s heyday, men like Lenny ‘The Guv’nor’ McLean and Roy ‘Pretty Boy’ Shaw brought a fierce notoriety to bare-knuckle boxing in the UK. In conversation with writer Jon Hotten (who chronicled the pairs’ three fights), he says that the media interest in their rivalry was staggering and even included ‘Time Out’ magazine featuring Shaw on their front cover. Both men were archetypal London gangsters in a bygone era of merciless villains. This past tradition followed a routine of unlicensed fights in small hall venues, with the winner taking a modest fee for his nights work.

These days, something of an unspoken code has developed within the sport. As mentioned, senior figures within the Travelling community known as ‘fair play men’ often intervene in a fight or stop it, should one or other participant be judged unfit to continue. Where gambling is concerned, Eamon Dillon, author of ‘Gypsy Empire,’ tells me that a trusted third party will, on occasion, be tasked with holding cash of up to £60,000. The expense, he says, is usually “bankrolled by families rather than an individual.” Such a cost also ensures a barrier to entry for fighters considered to be weak, likely to be a nuisance or whose only interest is self-gain. While unplanned fights tend to be considered dishonourable, they can also lead to legal proceedings, in some instances for public order offences. These fights usually take place on or near Traveller sites across Ireland and England, with a small crowd of onlookers. No matter the occasion, family pride is always at stake. A brother or cousin of the fighter will film the event, and replays can be watched at the touch of a button.

Digital media and camera phones have led to a proliferation of video clips with inexperienced fighters on show and children scrapping on the street. While professional boxing has witnessed a noticeable decline in television viewing figures since the age of Muhammed Ali and later Mike Tyson, the popularity of mixed martial arts and UFC has given greater legitimacy to what Hotten refers to as ‘ultra-violence in the ring.’ His is certainly a theory that makes sense when the fame of athletes like Conor McGregor and Ronda Rousey are considered. Worldwide press tours and a forward-thinking social media strategy have resulted in casual fans tuning into UFC events they once dismissed as boring. The use of tight fingerless gloves does of course mean that MMA bouts are not – strictly speaking, bare-knuckle contests, but the two sports do overlap insofar as concussive punches are expected.

There have also been well-documented cases of bare-knuckle boxers attempting to excel in MMA fights. After a number of street and backyard fights, internet sensation, Kimbo Slice, originally from the Bahamas, won his first three UFC heavyweight fights before eventually retiring in 2010 after losing to Matt Mitrione. To most observers Slice’s early antics were a mixture of senseless violence and limited skill, where upon his next victim would dare to antagonise a daunting physical specimen. Slice’s fights were a guaranteed blood fest and he was bound by no man. His challengers were a contrast to Traveller community bare-knuckle boxers, competing in ‘straighteners,’ local fights organised to settle a score. A one-minute scuffle with Slice could prove priceless for potential heirs to a coveted YouTube throne.

The difficulty in accessing the achievements of a fighter like Slice (and bare-knuckle boxers elsewhere) is that they make excessive claims about their ability. Similarly, if a Traveller community fighter is identifying himself or herself as the best in town, it’s almost impossible to judge. A largely unskilled opponent can expect to be soundly beaten by a well-trained amateur.

The exceptional case of seasoned bare-knuckle maestro Joe Savage and former heavyweight Smokin’ Bert Cooper tested this logic in 1994. Claiming to have over 40 wins, Savage was beaten within minutes of the opening bell after suffering two knockdowns. Despite the grainy video footage that remains of the bout, its clear Cooper has talent befitting his profession and the mismatched Savage is not fit to be considered a journeyman.

Had Cooper been at his peak he would most certainly have entered a ring with Tyson Fury. The latter’s newfound fame is likely to continue at breakneck speed given the appetite from media and boxing fans to see him sell out Wembley arena in a rematch with Klitscho or further down the line with Anthony Joshua. The Gypsy King, as Fury likes to be known on social media, is unlikely to avoid the limelight either. From controversial comments on homosexuality and outlawing abortions, to sexist rants aimed at Katie Hopkins, he is not always on his best behaviour outside of the ring. His post-fight celebratory singsongs won’t be chart hits either, but he does bring unpredictability to a heavyweight division that has largely been dismissed as lumbering giants contesting dreary fights.

Bare-knuckle boxing will continue to heap praise on Fury and hope that his reign is remembered like the fighting spirit of his father. It’s safe to assume, too, that bare-knuckle boxing’s latest stars will continue to fly below the radar of traditional combat sports. Those inhabiting this world are revered within it, but taken out of it they are likely to flounder against men who have been properly trained to defend themselves.

Best of bare-knuckle

  1. Lenny McLean – The original bare-knuckle hard man, claimed to have had over 4,000 fights to his name and famously played ‘Barry the Baptist’ in Guy Richie’s ‘Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels.’
  2. Roy Shaw – A constant menace to McLean, Shaw served time in Dartford prison for armed robbery and befriended the Kray twins while in Broadmoor hospital.
  3. Kimbo Slice – Making a name for himself through YouTube with countless backyard victories, Slice also appeared on ‘Jimmy Kimmel Live,’ America’s long running late-night talk show.
  4. Paddy Doherty – Best known as a celebrity big brother winner, Doherty is better remembered in bare-knuckle circles for two brutal fights with the Joyce family.
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