“Iron” Mike Tyson is arguably one of the most ferocious fighters ever to enter a ring. Mike isn’t a man typically noted for deep philosophical thinking. However, he once famously said “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” Well, what if your whole plan IS to get punched in the mouth? Better yet, to be the deliveryman of jaw-breaking punishment without the restrictions of things like rules or protective equipment. What if you want to feel the rush of adrenaline as your fist rockets into the side of another man’s skull? His nose erupts into a blood-sprinkler as you watch him spit out a tooth onto the hay-littered barn floor! If that’s your idea of a good time, then welcome to the world of bare knuckle boxing.
Invariably, when bare-knuckle fighting comes up in conversation, quotes from Mickey, Brad Pitt’s brogue-drenched gypsy character in Guy Ritchie’s film “Snatch,” start flowing. “I’ll fightyerferit” is as close to English as you’re likely to hear from him throughout the film.
In fact, the animal kingdom is full of one-on-one winner-take-all combat: Rams crack heads. Giraffes twist necks. Jerry Springer guests pull hair and throw chairs. Balling up a fist and bashing another human in the face is about as primal as it gets. Ultimately, there will be one person left standing victorious with the other contestant either unconscious or scurrying away in defeat. It’s the natural order of things, and it’s unlikely to change so long as humans exist. Want something in this world? Fight for it.
Long before the UFC, the Tough Guy Competition of the 70s, or even regulated boxing, men beat up other men in front of crowds. Fights would often go on for exhaustingly long periods of time. Ancient pottery from the Greeks and Romans depict hand-to-hand combat in incredible detail. Boxing itself became an Olympic sport in 688 B.C. If fell out of favor after a few hundred years when the contestants were awarded prizes rather than being beaten to death. Apparently, crowds can be fickle when they’re used to witnessing sanctioned murder. Unadulterated combat stirs feelings in your gut that have been suppressed by civilized society. There is a simple, binary calculation to street fights: Win or lose — there is no runner-up.
As the sport of boxing regained popularity almost two millennia later, champions were crowned and challengers were plentiful. The United Kingdom has been the center of the bare-knuckle world over the past 200 years. The British pride themselves on their ability to knock a man out.
So, what is it that drives guys to want to punch each other in the face until only one man is standing? Clearly, there are some who are just natural predators and who live to dominate others, consequences be damned. For some, it’s a chance at fame as an escape from the pressures and disappointments of poverty. For others, it’s the opportunity to prove to themselves that they are true warriors. Some just want the challenge. Some watched “Fight Club” and want to be part of a group. Others are running away from crushing guilt for past transgressions, and fighting is their self-imposed punishment. There are as many reasons for fighting as there are punches thrown.
In 18th- and 19th-century England, heavyweight bare-knuckle champions dominated the sport for years or even decades at a time. From 1734-1750, Jack Broughton ruled the world of fisticuffs, brutally finishing off opponents time and time again. He was such an influence in the world of bare-knuckle fighting that his original seven rules for fighting laid the groundwork for the boxing rules used throughout the world for over 100 years.
As America emerged from infancy and into the formative years of the 19th century, the sport inevitably crossed the Atlantic. American behemoths like Joe Goss, Larry Foley or the incredible John “Boston Strong Boy” Sullivan began to take center stage. Bouts could last 45-75 rounds. They ended when someone was unconscious or the fighters themselves were incapable of standing or throwing a punch. Sullivan won over 450 fights such as this in his career, and those are just the ones that were recorded.
But bare-knuckle is still a decidedly British cultural phenomenon. From its early beginnings as a civilized way to determine the toughest guy in the area, it devolved into a seedy community marred by gypsies, travelers, borderline psychopaths and East End criminals. Despite that, there has always been an undercurrent of more organized, semi-civilized culture trying desperately to raise bare-knuckle to the ranks of legitimacy. It’s a world that exists to foster young talent and to provide an escape for men that have no option to succeed other than fighting. There is no one personality type — fighters come from all walks of life.
For Shaun Smith, facing his own mortality was the motivation to leave the vicious world of an enforcer for British organized crime and to begin promoting bare-knuckle bouts. After decades of (allegedly) kicking the shit out of lowlifes, kidnapping enemies, and participating in any form of street brawl you can imagine, Smith started a gym in the hopes of training younger fighters in the art of bare-knuckle, using them as the foundation for his promotional organization. Think of him as a sort of poor-man’s Dana White who served time in prison.
Netflix chronicled his rise in the three-part miniseries “Bare Knuckle Fight Club“; it follows Smith and his merry band of face-crushers as he runs his ongoing debt-collection service and mentors his fighters’ bare-knuckle training, their personal highs and lows and their matches, all with an eye toward the future of the sport.
With seemingly endless energy, Smith helps men from all backgrounds and both sides of the law try to find an outlet for their rage. His closest employee, “Mad Marky” Winks, is a former soccer hooligan who served lengthy time behind bars and now works collecting debts alongside Smith. Covered in tattoos and sporting gold-plated front teeth, Winks is open about his time as a gangland enforcer, even noting that he had his lower lip bitten off in a street fight. “These things happen,” he said. “I’ve been a bare-knuckle fighter all my life. It’s just been on the streets and not in the ring. I wanted to be the hardest person in the fucking world.”
Scott “Pretty Boy” Midgley seems to defy the common stereotype of a bare-knuckle brawler. He has good looks, an easy laugh and an affable, constant smile. A British Army vet working construction jobs with his father, he appears to be a standard family man with two young daughters and a wife that are his entire world. But despite his otherwise seemingly normal life, what drives him to fight is the classic motivation of male dominance: “It is about manlihood. It is about that male ego. And that’s why I wanted to get into it.” Midgley’s story is simultaneously inspiring and heartbreaking, but it is a tale often repeated in the world of bare-knuckle. No one can truly understand what drives a man to fight except the man himself.
James “Gypsy Boy” McRory is easily one of the most storied bare-knuckle fighters in the United Kingdom. Irish by birth, with a brogue that could very well be the inspiration for Brad Pitt’s Mickey, McRory is the poster child for hard-ass brawlers with a soft side.
The 2014 Vice documentary “Bare Knuckle” shows McRory at the top of his game. He’s feisty and ready to defend his heavyweight crown against American challenger Jason “Machine Gun” Young. After a super-hyped promotion, McRory nearly missed the fight, getting drunk in his hometown then passing out in the cab ride to the fight. But regardless of where he lives, the ring is his home. McRory emerged victorious, hammering the American challenger, knocking him out cold and retaining the heavyweight title.
Fast forward three years to the Netflix series, and McRory is again front and center, this time fighting in his final bout before retirement. With his livelihood hanging in the balance, McRory realizes that this lifestyle is not only hard on the body and brain, but on his family life as well. As McRory progresses into retirement, his struggles with self-worth, depression and finances are as formidable as any opponent he has ever faced.
Despite what you may think about the glory of bare-knuckle combat, it clearly takes a toll on relationships. Throughout many of the interviews in “Bare Knuckle Fight Club,” there are undercurrents of desperation, sadness and, ironically, hope that offer insight into the emotional strains of this sport. Wives or partners clearly know what their men do. They also typically support it, albeit reluctantly, knowing full well the risks associated with stepping into the ring.
The fighters know that the sport doesn’t have a track record of lengthy careers. They try to make the most of it in a short period of time. The goal is to provide for their loved ones. By aligning themselves with more legitimate groups like Smith’s, they strive for fame, fortune and respect.
Smith himself struggles with depression, anger, and anxiety — all carryovers from his previous life of crime. “What I’ve done to people in my life. What I’ve had done to me. It makes you or breaks you, doesn’t it?”
Despite this common thread of mental adversity among its participants, don’t get the impression that the bare-knuckle community is on the ropes. One look around one of Smith’s wall-to-wall, packed events and you’ll find a surprisingly eclectic mix of gangsters, hooligans and wannabe tough guys. You’ll also find celebrities, boxing pros, MMA fighters, politicians and, of course, the entourages that follow all of them. Smith is charismatic, engaging and fearsome, and he pulls double duty as promoter and referee. His passion for bare-knuckle fighting is only exceeded by the bloodlust of the crowds he attracts. For this reason, these matches have medical technicians and ample security, since everyone’s safety is a top concern. It’s the only way to gain credibility, in Smith’s opinion.
While the United Kingdom is considered today’s hotbed of bare-knuckle fighting, the U.S. has a storied history of backyard brawls as well. In the 2015 documentary “Dawg Fight,” the viewer is taken into the dark and desperate scenes of backyard boxing matches in the Deep South.
Fights were run by the “Don King of the Backyard,” Dhaffir Harris, aka Dada 5000. Enforcers-turned-champions like Kimbo Slice made their names obliterating other fighters in these matches. Sometimes the fights were for free, sometimes for significant amounts of cash. Ex-convicts and gangsters fighting for street cred or minimal amounts of money saw their YouTube stars rise. Fights launched them beyond anything they could have previously imagined. These stories in the U.S. are no less violent or heartbreaking than their British counterparts. The crowds stateside continue to grow along with the fascination of this brutal sport.
With the rise of combat sports, there is a rush of small-time promoters and trainers who are trying to push bare-knuckle fighting into the spotlight. Organizations like B-Bad, BareKnuckle Promotions in Missouri, Bare Knuckle Fighting Championship or Shaun Smith’s UBKB are constantly searching for venues for their events. Previously, it was not uncommon to find the fights happening in warehouses or back lots. They used rudimentary rings defined by hay bales.
Looming crowds stood within inches of the fighters. They’d drink beer and shout a colorful mixture of encouragement, hatred and profanity. The fighters were as no-frills as you could get. But today, legitimate organizations are staking big money that bare-knuckle matches will flourish. Professional rings have replaced the hay bales, and the spectacle of these events has truly transformed. They’ve gone from barely legal human dogfighting to widely promoted, pay-per-view events. MMA and UFC athletes, such as Joe “Diesel” Riggs and “Rowdy” Bec Rawlings have migrated into the world of bare-knuckle.
The evolution of modern combat sports from gentlemanly boxing matches to mixed martial arts to bare-knuckle fighting is happening faster than most would have predicted. As word spreads and crowds grow, promoters around the world are banking on the rise of bare-knuckle. The only question left is who will win the fight for your — the viewers’ —dollars?