The New (blood-soaked) Kid on the Block

When Tyson Fury walked into MGM Grand last June for a press conference, all eyes were on him. Not because of his absurd height though, for a change people where captivated by his suit.

It was certainly unique, he wore a checked piece and inside each small square there was a boxer from days gone by. A call-back to the art’s early days carried out in the Tyson Fury-iest way possible.

The thousand-pound suit featured boxers from the turn of the twentieth century, one thing that they all had in common was a significant lack of gloves.

These men where the final remnants of Broughton’s law, an early attempt at a boxing ruleset.

These rules were brought into play by an almost mythical figure; Jack Boughton. He saw in an age of prize-fighting so brutal that today’s boxers look like they’re padded up with bubble wrap.

Rounds would last until a fighter was knocked down, then both fighters would be granted a thirty-second break, the fight would go on and on until one of the two boxers either called it a day or was knocked out. And of course, the fights where bare-knuckle.

Boxing was almost unrecognisable from what we see today. Fighters held that stance that we are all familiar with – ye olde tough man – with their hands down low and their arms extended outwards.

They did this as the skull is a rather hard bone. Fights contested in the early days involved a whole lot of body punching, with only a shot or two to the jaw to close the show if need be.

This was a strange time for boxing, with wealthy patrons backing their fighters from the comfort of the legendary Old Slaughter’s Coffee House on St Martins Lane.

Boxing events were spectacles. They’d do anything to get folk into the venue back then, that included a time where event promoter (and former boxer) James Fig under-carded fights with a bear who had TNT taped to it. Cultured individuals, wouldn’t you say?

That was just to bring the workies in though, the rich where more than content with the gentlemanly art of hand-fighting. Probably because of the ridiculous amount of money they were making on bets.

Still, the sport was messy, it needed to be refined which is why the Queensbury rules took over in the late nineteenth century. There were three-minute rounds, and only fifteen of them, a scoring system if the fight happened to go the distance, and most boring of all; gloves…

The diluted and frustratingly sensible rules took over, and let’s be fair, we have seen plenty violence under the Queensberry’s rules; the rise and fall of Muhammad Ali, The insanity of the Mike Tyson era, the four horsemen of the 90’s and the modern wing with future greats such as Vasyl Lomachenko, Canelo Alvarez,  and the aforementioned jolly boxing giant, Tyson fury.

It seemed like the end for bare-knuckle boxing, which although not deemed illegal, seemed immediately outdated compared to the new rules. Bare-knuckle boxing was relegated to the sport of travellers who swung wildly at each other to settle disputes. You know; as distinguished gentlemen tend to do.

It lived on solely through folk tales in the 20th century, only brought to light in the noughties, through a series of Youtube videos that saw travellers punch lumps out of one another barehanded in the local alleyway. So basically, the same as any other street fight ever with a fancy name to make the participants feel more macho-macho.

A spotlight was shone on the first attempts at legitimising the brutal art by Vice’s Clive Martin for their Rule Britannia series in 2014. The ‘sport’ if you could call it that, was in a sorry state.

It was sold as a Great British Blood-sport. It was not. It was two untrained ‘ard men throwing foul, overhanded haymakers at each other in the local pub. The ring was made from bales of hay… Seriously, bales of hay.

We followed the story of a lovable cheeky chappy from Newcastle, James “Gypsy Boy” McCrory, who was fighting for (what was passed off as) the transatlantic championship against the most cliché, bald-headed, steroid pumped, black military geared American that You’ll ever see. He called himself “The Bald Eagle”. You just can’t make this stuff up.

The hometown hero, McCrory showed up hours late, downed a pint of Guinness and knocked the American out. Legendary.

Bare-knuckle boxing was clearly still Sloppy, unorganized, and unfathomably violent. When men were knocked out their heads were bounced off of the pub’s concrete floors.

The newly formed organization featured in the documentary that was trying to spearhead bare-knuckle fighting was called UBBAD promotions. It was certainly an uphill battle trying to legitimise boxing‘s much bloodier, misfit brother.

There was no rings, no real venues, it was the same thugs fighting each other time and time again. Oh, that too, it was thugs, fools and convicted criminals fighting. There was no talent.

The appeal was simple, knuckles are sharp, they’ll cut a forehead open with enough force. It was the place to go for those who loved to see blood. Bare hands are fragile too, a clean punch to the forehead is much more likely to crumble the hand than the skull. Thankfully, these lads didn’t care.

A year after the documentary had been released, UBBAD had come surprisingly far, they had actual venues, a real ring with ropes and everything! They had even had some proper boxers trying the sport out such as Dave Radford, who had gone the distance with boxing legend Roberto Duran.

Their rules seemed fair, anywhere between three and seven two-minute rounds depending on the fight’s significance, twenty second counts after a knockdown instead of ten. wrists were also to be professionally wrapped to ensure the fighters were slightly less likely to leave the ring with shattered hands.

The talent pool was still shallow. With the exception of a few fighters who were struggling to make it in boxing. They came in, battered the local tough guy, broke their hands in the process because they forgot that they didn’t have ten ounces of padding and then never returned.

Despite this, there seemed to be a solid ruleset, there was an organisation putting on shows that weren’t in pubs or pool halls, and there where medical teams, it was all beginning to seem quite legitimate.

A few of their bigger, more official “UBBAD: BKB” shows came and went, the promotion really began to build momentum. They dropped the UBBAD, becoming BKBtm.

Despite a slow, hay bale-ey, start, they really had things moving by this point.

BKBtm where doing big things, in 2018 they had done what would have seemed unthinkable only a few years prior, BKBtm had secured a show with the Liverpool Echo Arena as well as four shows in London’s Indigo at the O2.

2018 was also the year that the talent went from sloppy, gloveless boxing, to bare-knuckle boxing, an art in its own right.

There were some high-level fighters coming through, notably “El Tornado” Tyler Goodjohn, a professional gloved boxer who held a record of thirteen wins and five defeats.

The man was tattooed head to toe, with long hair and a well-kept beard, he resembled a pocket-sized mix between Jason Momoa and Capitan Jack Sparrow. Too pretty for such a violent sport surely?

Nope. His boxing was beautiful, he made opponents miss, miss, miss and then came back with a thunderous hook, uppercut or cross.

They also had their homegrown talents, such as Tony “The Tiger” Lafferty, the modern-day bare-knuckle-boxer, an absolute savage inside the ring, but an absolute gentleman outside of it. He has been with the promotion since their eighth show in Coventry, and he has provided non-stop entertainment so far.

When asking the Scottish ex-serviceman what drew him to bare-knuckle fighting, he said that “It’s like battle in Afghan”.

Tony intends on being the first Scottish BKB world champion, with a slight detour to try his hand at Lethwei, Myanmar’s national martial art, which is considered the world’s most brutal fighting sport with bare-knuckle fighting, elbows, knees and kicks as well as headbutts (yes, headbutts) as he is naturally attracted to the toughest challenges available to him. He is a lunatic in the best possible way.

So far, the promotion has had two in ring spectacles that has made everyone stop and look, Tyler Goodjohn versus Marc Navarro, and Tony Lafferty versus Dean “Smudger” Smith.

Goodjohn faced the “Dundee Soldier”, Marc Navarro, a Scottish, Half Puerto Rican, European kickboxing champion of dubious sanity.

The Dundee man walked in to BKBtm’s fifteenth show with a spiked dog collar on a leash. He’s certainly an interesting chap.

He was one of the characters the promotion where trying to build, because who doesn’t love a crazy highlander with dreadlocks?

Navarro was good, but Goodjohn, with eighteen professional boxing bouts as well as an abundance of amateur fights, was simply better.

It seemed Marc Navarro’s opponent was the air that night, as he swung furiously with two and three shot combinations which all skiffed past Goodjohn who bobbed, weaved, slipped and countered with grace.

Goodjohn spent ten minutes in the matrix, he was two and three steps ahead of Navarro for the entire fight.

Navarro’s toughness must be credited, he took bombs from Goodjohn, who is now a world champion by the way. Navarro is the only man to survive “El Tornado” without hitting the canvas.

The fight was released to Youtube and has since gone viral with over a million views. It was exactly what the brand needed, it wasn’t brawl; It was bare knuckle boxing, Navarro was good, Goodjohn was fantastic, it showed a craft to bare knuckle fighting; head movement, angle cutting, body shots.

There was then the Lafferty – Smith fight. It was the semi-final fight for the £10,000 prize fighter tournament, it was what followed after the fight had ended that garnered attention however.

The fight itself was what could best be described as a slobber-knocker, Despite Smith’s promise to box while Lafferty brawled the two men stood in the pocket throwing heat at each other, which was often met with raised hands and a “YEEAHHHHH” from the recipient of the heavy blow (both men took a good few turns at being the recipient).

After the final bell sounded both men went to their corner, Lafferty got his Argyles cap, while Smith put on his Prince of Wales’s beret, they took centre-ring and saluted each other. A powerful moment, two men, now bound by blood.

Smith won. He beat Lafferty in a five round war however the men where all smiles afterwards, and that’s because in reality both men won. Bare knuckle boxing won.

Both of these events have been invaluable to Bare Knuckle Boxing. One highlighted the art, the skill and the science while the other showcased the grit, and the subsequent pride and honour. As of late, it has begun to resemble a real sport.

As the promotion’s director said, “There was no rules to bare knuckle… besides meeting in the car park and having a punch up”. BKBtm has taken the art of drunken fools and turned it into… well, an art, just a bit more of a well-organised, savoury one to be honest.

The bar scraps are behind us.  It is time to take bare knuckle boxing seriously.

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