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Sports

Inside the British Bare-Knuckle-Boxing Underworld

There's a certain beauty to watching grown men pummel one another in the face.

by Clive Martin, Photos: Tom Beard
Jun 25 2014, 3:07pm

The author with James "Gypsy Boy" McCrory

“Bare knuckle” is a phrase that seems to run deep in the collective imagination of the British Isles. Those two words manage to evoke an ever-present but elusive underworld of vests, caravans, lurchers, bald heads, broken noses, gold bracelets, bales of hay, and dodgy pubs. It's the world of Charles Bronson—before he started smearing his naked body in butter and attacking prison guards. It's a world that can't abide weakness, a world that believes punching people with gloves on just isn’t as fun.

As such, we seem to be both sickened by and enamoured of bare-knuckle boxing. You’ve only got to look at the True Crime section on Amazon, or Snatch, or Bronson, or the comments on Traveler fight videos to understand that there's an innate fascination out there with the world of BKB. Big-time boxers have title belts, "Sports Personality of the Year" awards, TV dance-show appearances, and tabloid coke busts, but the murky, mythical, quasi-legal world of bare knuckle seems to hold a more illicit intrigue. And that’s why we wanted to make a film about it.

Bare Knuckle, which is coming soon to VICE.com, isn’t a film about fighting per se, but instead a film about a subculture—one whose history dates back centuries but hasn't yet penetrated the mainstream.

It seems odd that bare knuckle, the oldest combat sport of them all, is generally regarded as just something that happens exclusively in Guy Ritchie films and on Gypsy sites. Bare knuckle is somehow still beyond the pale, even by today’s standards—even in the post-MMA era, when mano-a-mano, bone-on-bone violence could be repackaged as a multibillion-dollar composite of NASCAR, wrestling, and ceremonial gang beatings.

But look a bit harder and you’ll see that there's a thriving, fast-growing scene in the United Kingdom, which many people hope will prove to be as popular as the UFC in years to come.

Andy Topliffe (on the left) and Sean Rowlands

Andy Topliffe is an ex-fighter who was left with a bitter taste of the BKB underworld in his mouth after seeing a young Polish fighter left for dead in a field. He's also arguably the biggest player in the game right now.

His promotions company, "B-Bad," has been rapidly gathering attention for a while now; the video views are racking up, the papers are starting to take notice and he's got a band of obsessive fans and a stable of fighters from around the country, all ready to knock the shit out of one another in the grand tradition of Britain’s most feared pastime.

The name of Andy’s game, however, is legitimacy. The fights might take place between bales of hay and people might get their faces smashed in, but there are medics, corner men, security and sometimes even curious police officers overseeing proceedings. The bulk of the audience look like they’d be ready to step into the ring themselves (or at least offer somebody a pony to take a dive in the fourth), but Andy stresses that he does everything he can to make sure there’s no gambling, diving, gangsterism or skulduggery of any kind at his events. That said, he concedes that there will always be certain elements of this whenever the phrase bare knuckle comes up.

One punter's B-Bad tattoo

This ambiguity is typical of bare knuckle itself, which seems to exist in a hinterland of loopholes, side-steps and crossed hearts. From what I understand, it’s not quite sanctioned, not quite “a thing." There are no proper guidelines for everyone to go by, but as long as nobody is pressing charges against each other and there’s no illegality on the side, then it’s all above board.

However, it’s not just in a legal sense that bare knuckle is surprisingly legitimate. As hard as it might be to believe, given its rep, BKB is actually somewhat safer than the regular Queensberry Rules style (and MMA, too). The science behind this misconception is simple: People get knocked out when a punch rattles their cranial fluid around, causing a blackout. A right hook to the chin is so effective, not because of the power, but because of the way it causes maximum rattling.

While people do get knocked out in bare knuckle (frequently), it's safer because of the lack of gloves—ironically, the part that tends to attract the most criticism from people who don't really understand the sport. Because boxers use gloves, which are much heavier and have a much larger surface area, traditional boxing actually has a higher risk of causing more serious internal damage to your opponent. Fists bared, the surface area is smaller and hands are more likely to break, so fighters will either give up earlier, or else feel compelled to pull their punches a little more.

For the violence fetishists out there, the upside of all this is that bare knuckle is more likely to cause surface wounds, meaning a lot more blood. Essentially, it looks more gruesome, when in actual fact it’s far less likely to cause the lethal internal injuries that can show up in boxing, both in the long and short term.

A couple of fighters hanging out in their pub

Despite the argument that it’s a safer and more entertaining sport than its legitimate cousin, BKB's superstars continue to languish in the kind of niche, fan-boy obscurity usually reserved for Babestation models and forgotten 80s pop stars. They have notorious nicknames, but they travel on coaches and drink pints at the bar after the match.

And while boxers are some of the highest paid sportsmen on Earth, bare knuckle boxers can be expected to take home as little as $425 for a win and $70 or so for a loss. There are no professionals in the scene, and most of the fighters make a living from a variety of blue- or white-collar jobs. Many have previous convictions and most come from rough backgrounds. Frequently, fighters are well into their 40s.

James "Gypsy Boy" McCrory

James "Gypsy Boy" McCrory is the undoubted star of the British BKB scene. A charismatic young fighter with a touch of the Sébastien Chabal about him, he’s racked up over 200 fights in his time and has beaten some of the best—including Dave Radford, a plasterer and BKB OG who once went the distance with the Panamanian professional boxer Roberto Durán. 

We visited James at his home in Newcastle in the days leading up to his historic fight against Jason "The Machine Gun" Young, the first UK-vs.-US fight in more than 150 years. He’d had to put on a lot of weight to fight Jason, achieving this by drinking an inordinate amount of Guinness—presumably not a move that would impress the diehards at Team GB.

Seth Jones after a fight

At 32—an age by which many boxers would have retired—James is a relative youngster in the scene. Perhaps it’s a strength of mind thing, or the fact that the bare-knuckle scene seems to be something that people stumble into rather than strive to join—or maybe my generation is just a bit wimpy—but the scene is full of grey steel. In Colwyn Bay, North Wales, we saw ex-drug-smuggler-turned-trainee-solicitor Seth Jones fight a man 20 years younger than he is.

"The Leicester Bulldog"

“The Leicester Bulldog” (a.k.a. Tony) was another veteran fighter we met on our travels. Standing in his garden—his oil-stained vest covering the largest chest I’ve ever seen on a man—he revealed an unlikely sideline: making trendy barbecues out of gas canisters and flipping them on eBay.

Decca "The Machine" Hedgie, a juggernaut of a man—and such an intimidating fighter that he once made his scheduled opponent vomit and pull out of a fight just by looking at him—might seem like he caused a bit of bovver at the Battle of Hastings, but in fact he’s a 20-something family man who once had trials for Newcastle United.

But that’s not to say there aren’t any youngsters, as proved by Ross Chittock, a.k.a. Youngblood, a.k.a. MC Andrenalin, a.k.a. a laborer and rapper from Abingdon in Oxfordshire. A lovable rogue with a diamond smile and a fitted cap, he had the easy charm of a man who’d steal your girlfriend and buy you a pint afterwards.

James Lambert, a.k.a. "Mr Happy"

We also met one character with a very different story to tell of the scene. James Lambert was a bare-knuckle fighter, unlicensed boxer and bouncer for years, who was undefeated until he turned his back not just on fighting, but on aggression of any kind—reinventing himself as “Mr Happy," a lifestyle and fitness coach. A punching bag hangs in his garage, but James refuses to even make a fist, let alone show us what he can do with it. He preaches peace, but it’s easy to see flashes of his past in the way he carries himself. He moves suddenly, glares with wide eyes and occasionally reverts to the kind of language he would have used in his previous life.

He reminds me of recovering alcoholics I've met who can’t even have a glass of wine at a restaurant—trying to beat his demons but perhaps also longing for them—and provided a sobering counterpoint to much of the bravado and swagger we came across.

Aaron Gaughan (on the left) squaring up against Seth Jones

During the shoot, I hardened to the constant violence. At first, the fights were astonishing and stomach-churning. As a boxing fan you’re used to fights being stopped when the blood starts pouring, and you’re used to people throwing in the towel and referees halting the fight. But with bare knuckle, the constant feeling is: 'I can’t believe this is still going on.' You can’t help but assume somebody is going to get very badly hurt, but within minutes of a fight ending, the guys are all drinking with each other. They press their cold pints against bruises you can see growing as the night goes on.

I learned a lot in my journey through the world of bare knuckle. At one point, I began to wonder if perhaps everyone has a right to exercise the talents they’ve been blessed with, including ordinary guys like this who happen to have been blessed with a talent that many would find repugnant. The guys I met worked jobs that seemed to offer little in the way of a future—jobs that just paid the bills. Because their real skills lie in something that’s so underground, bare knuckle for them can only remain a hobby, an earner on the side and a small shot at glory in a life that probably isn’t the one they dreamed of living.

Because of that, I began to see a softer side to the world of bare knuckle. Put aside what actually happens in the sport and you realize that they’re as much hobbyists as they are fighters. The fanatical fan base, the everyman stars—it reminded me of lower-division football or heavy metal, a macho pastime set in an almost bygone world.

Decca "The Machine" Hedgie (on the left) fighting "The Leicester Bulldog"

Whatever you think of violence in society—and the impact that organized combat has on it—it’s impossible to deny the romance and the heartening camaraderie of the bare-knuckle scene. It’s as if people who were always destined to exist on society's margins have found a sense of place by sticking together and cultivating this subculture of their own. And also—as pure spectacle—it’s pretty fucking exciting.

Bare Knuckle isn’t just a film about fighting; it’s a film about a subsection of the British male. These are guys who hate their jobs and have a hard time fitting in, but through this blood sport they've found a kind of peace. Even if, on the surface, it might not look that way.

Follow Clive Martin on Twitter.

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Decca 'The Machine' Hedgie
The Leicester Bulldog
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