Inside London's underground bare knuckle scene
Investigating the crusade to bring the 200-year-old sport into the mainstream
A BULLET-HEADED bare-knuckle boxer dubbed The Bull Dog throws his weight into a wild hook which crashes against his opponent’s skull.
Groggy but still in control, the fighter known as The Machine rallies and the two continue to trade ferocious blows.
Then comes the savage knockout punch — and The Bull Dog lies on the ground covered in blood.
The Machine roars to the baying crowd, brought to their feet around a tiny makeshift ring of hay bales.
The fighters had slogged it out for a torturous 11 minutes 36 seconds, raining strikes down on each other in the freezing night air.
Another scrapper called Smasher looks on smiling, nursing a broken hand after beating to a pulp a Geordie factory worker called Mad Dog minutes earlier.
Welcome to the twilight world of Britain’s real-life fight club, where hardmen from all walks of life go toe-to-toe “on the cobbles”.
Astonishingly, the events are all LEGAL and above board.
And it is coming to a town near you soon — in a bid to make the 200-year-old sport as mainstream as boxing or judo.
Legal bare-knuckle boxing is the latest craze attracting celebrities, the middle classes and even women as spectators.
Keanu Reeves and Ray Winstone are already big fans of B-Bad Promotions, the Leicestershire-based company behind the venture.
B-Bad is trying to clean up the sport and shake off its underworld image, making it safer by having doctors and nurses ringside.
Promoter Andy Topliffe, 37, a publican from Hinckley, Leics, said: “Surprisingly, bare-knuckle is much safer than Queensberry Rules (the generally accepted version of modern boxing) because the fights are shorter, typically one to three rounds, as opposed to 12 or 15.
“There are 20-second counts instead of ten seconds and fighters can drop to their knee during the bout for a five-second breather.
“It looks gruesome but the worst injury we’ve had is a broken nose.
“Knockouts are revived quickly by the off-duty NHS nurse, who holds their legs up so the blood rushes to their heads.
“Two centuries ago, bare-knuckle was Britain’s biggest sport in much the same way that Premier League football is now. It’s just that it’s been demonised, forced into the shadows after gangsters took it over — now we’re reclaiming it.”
Before setting up his business, Andy joined forces with legal academics at Bangor University to find out whether the sport was against the law. They found bare-knuckle boxing had never been outlawed fully and was legal unless described as Queensberry Rules and if events didn’t break Trading Standards regulations.
A veteran bare-knuckle fighter, Andy launched his crusade to legitimise the sport after saving the life of a Polish fighter who was left to die by the side of the road by unscrupulous promoters.
He said: “The welfare of fighters is paramount. We’ve got a solicitor, an engineer, a mechanic and a PE teacher who all fight for us. Others are blue-collar guys with families — scaffolders, labourers, farm workers. Bare-knuckle is already legal but we need it to be mainstream so it can be governed properly.”
Ultimately, Andy wants B-Bad to form an official board of control so fighters can be licenced, all in the interests of safety. The fights now take place in manicured back gardens — not gypsy campsites or deserted warehouses packed with pit bulls and gangsters. During the last fight, the police turned up to make sure everything was in order.
The fighters are paid a flat fee of between £100 and £500 and any profits from ticket sales go to Cancer Research. Prize money and gambling are strictly off limits.
Ex-para John “Smasher” Stuart, 31, got into the zone before his fight by sitting in a dark corner and listening to his iPod. After winning the evening’s first bout, the construction worker from Leeds said: “I broke my hand so I’ll need some ice on it when I get home, but it was a good night.
“It’s not a lot of money but it means I can take my kids away for Christmas now. It’s the perfect setting if you want to get your aggression out. It’s primal.”
First-time fighter Decca “The Machine” Heggie, 29, from Carlisle, said: “The reason I do bare-knuckle fighting is because I want respect. I’m doing it for my family, especially my mum.”
Decca, who won his fight against garage-owning family man Bull Dog, added: “I’ve never stepped foot in a boxing gym. My technique comes from the street. But it’s safer for the public that blokes who want to prove themselves fight in the ring, not pubs.”
Factory worker and part-time fighter Michael “Mad Dog” Ord, 26, said: “Even though I lost my fight to Smasher, I feel great.
“I love getting in there and having a good scrap. In the day I do a dead-end job, but this is a hobby.”
Saturday’s fights took place in a back garden in a leafy south-London suburb, with a pre-paid token-only bar to discourage drinking.
The crowd included IT executives, soldiers, farmers, van drivers, builders and a church pastor.
IT manager Samantha Watkins, 29, was one of about 20 women in the crowd. She said: “It is pretty brutal. I’ve never been to anything like this before. Everyone here has been quite friendly so far, so it seems all right.”
Despite the efforts of B-Bad, bare-knuckle boxing still attracts shady characters. On Saturday notorious ex-gangster Dave Courtney was there with villains and ex-football hooligans.
He said: “In the old days the crowd would have been 90 per cent villains. Now we’re in the minority. It’s the most gladiatorial form of combat available for the normal person to go and see — and I’m glad it’s less underground.
“Today, it’s all about the glory.”