Decca "The Machine" Heggie, the bareknuckle boxing champion of Great Britain, chickened out of his first fight. As a child growing up in Old Harraby, a council estate on the outskirts of Carlisle in the north of England, he was horribly bullied. Older kids would hit him, put cigarettes out on him, and worse. When his dad finally made him face up to one of his tormentors, he refused to raise his fists.
"That horrible sensation of crippling fear, of shame and embarrassment at my own weakness, of being alone, frightened and friendless, has never left me," Heggie writes in his new memoir Prizefighter: The Searing Autobiography of Britain's Bare Knuckle Boxing Champion.
The difference is that, today, Heggie is a champ. It wasn't a straight path to the top. There were drugs, street fights, anxiety, depression, and a near death experience to deal with first. But in 2015, after ten ferocious bareknuckle fights – both legal and illegal – Heggie finally took home the title.
What does bareknuckle boxing bring to mind? Perhaps the racially insensitive scene from Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels, in which Brad Pitt plays the porkpie-sporting, dog-loving, Gypsy knockout artist Mickey; or the brutal, gruelling fights between Irish Traveller clans recorded by Ian Palmer in his incredible work of documentary filmmaking, Knuckle; or perhaps the legendary eighteenth century British prizefighter Daniel Mendoza, whose career reportedly began with a dispute over the price of tea.
Away from the myths, the legends, and the pure fictions, what is life really like as a bareknuckle fighter? FIGHTLAND called up Decca Heggie to find out.
Hi Decca, how did you get into bareknuckle boxing?
From the age of 19 to 29 I was a drug addict. I was going nowhere in my life. Then one day I was watching some gypsy fights on YouTube and I told one of the guys, "I could beat this fella." I didn't think anything would come of it. Then two days later my father got a phone call offering us a fight in [celebrity gangster] Dave Courtney's back garden. I took the fight and I won. It spiralled from there.
How bad a drug addict were you?
I was very bad. I was close to death. I nearly died of a cocaine overdose in 2013. My daily routine would consist of a bottle of whisky and taking the drugs all day. It was a really dark time in my life. It brought me to the brink.
You were bullied badly when you were growing up. Is that where a lot of that anger came from?
When I was a kid these older lads used to tie me to trees, stub fags out on me, call me names. They messed with my head. It left me with body dismorphia, depression and anxiety. There was a build up of rage. Then when I was 15 something just clicked in my mind. I fought back and I won. That's when I realised I could fight. I carry that stuff with me today. I think about the past and it gets me through the fight. I think of when I used to get bullied as a kid when I go into a fight and that's what motivates me and builds my aggression in the fight.
Those bullies must regret having picked on you now.
I saw one of them about two months ago in town. He was there with his dog. He's homeless now. I went up to him and bought him some food and a blanket and told him that I forgave him for what he did because it made me the man I am today. I don't believe in hitting a man while he's down. When a man is down you put your hand out and help them up.
How does bareknuckle differ from modern boxing?
I defend with my head. When someone throws a punch I'll put my head down and they'll break their hand on it. There's other little tricks, like when you're in close with someone you can hit their knee with your knee and it throws them off balance. There's a lot of little tricks to bareknuckle fighting.
The human face can be a surprisingly sharp thing – do you have to be careful where you hit?
I call them soft tissue punches. You have areas of the body and the face where you can hit. Don't hit on the head because you'll break your hands. The open jaw area is good. Bareknuckle fighting is actually safer than boxing, you know. Nobody's ever died bareknuckle fighting. When you wear boxing gloves, the damage is prolonged. You can just keep punching away. The head takes so much punishment. With a bare fist, your hands can only take so much.
What's the illegal scene like? I've only really got Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels to go on.
It's exactly like that. My first three bareknuckle fights were illegal. One in the gangster's back garden, then I went over to America and had two illegal fights out there. I won all of them. Bareknuckle is always linked to the underworld. It attracts the wrong sort of people. I wouldn't advise kids to go into it. My family suffered death threats in 2013. The gypsy community weren't happy with me being ranked number one in Britain. They took is personal. We got death threats and stuff like that. It's not a very good world to be in.
Bareknuckle is going to be the next UFC in the next ten years, I guarantee. It's going to be absolutely massive. UFC started off bareknuckle, if you remember, back in the early 90s and it's now a billion dollar business. As bad as it sounds, everybody loves crazy fights. Especially in China – that's where I'll be taking my next fight.
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