The Bare Knuckle Boys – The Sunday Times

On a bright spring morning, Joseph “Chubs” Lee is working his trainer hard. He pummels his coach’s outstretched palms. Bang. Right hook. Bang, bang. Right hook, left hook. Then four straight punches. Bang bang, bang bang. When his fists reach their target, the reports reverberate around the room. Joseph’s session finishes with one more shot. He makes a quarter-turn of his torso, inhales sharply, then uncoils a lightning right hook-cum-uppercut that sings when it hits. “Good boy,” says Joseph’s coach, before ruffling his messy ginger hair. The champ giggles, and goes to the fridge to find some juice. Joseph might have a tomahawk right hand, but he’s still a kid at heart. And why not? He is only six years old.

Joseph is trained by his father, John Lee, an 18-stone brute with light blue eyes and a mild manner. John has fought for most of his 36 years. When we meet, in his trailer on a travellers’ site off Gipsy Lane, outside Wellingborough, Northamptonshire, he shows me his giant mitts. Two knuckles on his right hand and one on his left have receded entirely through repeated heavy impact. He has done battle, as his children will, with no gloves — and no breaks between rounds to catch his breath. He has competed until he, or his opponent, is no longer able to continue. He has stayed true to the deepest traditions of bare-knuckle boxing. And he has never lost.

You could be forgiven for thinking that bare-knuckle boxing had disappeared with the steam engine. It seems a remnant of a more brutal England: a time of gin and smog. In the 19th century, when the sport was wildly popular, burly, moustachioed fighters with appealing names like “Gipsy” Jack Cooper and William “The Tipton Slasher” Perry would pound opponents to a standstill in bare-knuckle bouts watched by thousands. But the sport died as a mainstream pursuit with the formation of the Marquess of Queensberry rules, the onset of gloved boxing and a new era of regulated prize fights.

Among travellers, however, bare-knuckle boxing continues to flourish. Despite being illegal, these primitive contests remain the favoured method of settling family disputes among Britain’s 300,000 or so Roma and Irish gypsies. In 2011, the accoutrements of modern life may be changing the circumstances and outlook of travellers, but their community remains fiercely patriarchal. Fighting is at the centre of that testosterone-infused worldview. Hundreds of traveller boys like Joseph Lee are still being taught the rudiments of the oldest and most straightforward contest ever devised: one man against another, with only fists for weapons.

On a plush caravan site just outside the Oxfordshire town of Banbury — where a Bentley is parked outside the plot owner’s house, and satellite dishes adorn many of the trailers — I meet Fred Butcher, a 37-year-old Roma gypsy with a friendly manner, a split lip, and the wardrobe of a country squire. On the sunny day of our interview, his hair is slicked back and he wears a farmer’s checked shirt, a green Barbour gilet, and corduroy trousers. This veneer of respectability, however, masks a rough existence. Butcher is, and always has been, a fighter.

Butcher explains the difference between a “scrap” and a “straight fight”. A scrap, he says, is a brawl where anything goes. It can erupt at any time, normally in drink. He has endured plenty of these. Last year, for instance, Butcher says he was attacked in Gloucestershire by several members of the same family, who sliced him open with machetes. It took 360 stitches to sew his head and torso back together.

A “straight fight”, meanwhile, is a bout of boxing, organised in advance, and refereed for “fair play” (no weapons, gouging, elbows, low blows, or biting) by two respected elder statesmen of the families involved. The two men meet, at a designated place and time, strip to the waist and fight. At the end of a bout, the winner is encouraged to help the loser from the ground, shake his hand, and call a truce. More often than not, the boxers then go for a drink together.

“Even when I was younger it was drilled into us — have the best of respect for your opponent,” says Butcher. “Have a fight, shake hands, and the job is done.” Butcher had his first straight fight when he was 12 years old, at a horse fair in Epsom, Surrey. He won. He has, he says, won every fight since. In his family of four brothers, Fred is the only regular pugilist. The others, he says, will only fight if absolutely necessary. They are “more like businessmen”. His father, likewise, was not a fighter. But Fred never had any doubts. It is, he says, in his blood.

How many straight fights has Butcher had in his life? “I don’t know — hundreds, definitely,” he says. “When I was younger, I used to fight every weekend, sometimes twice on a weekend — once on a Saturday and once on a Sunday.”

The fights were not always over arguments. Sometimes, when he was in his early-twenties prime, Butcher competed for money — as much as £20,000, if enough was bet on the outcome — in front of hundreds of spectators. He even trained and fought in semi-professional (and unlicensed) bouts in London. But mostly he boxed to settle what he calls “trouble”.

“It’s not attractive,” says Butcher. “It’s an ugly game. But in the travelling community, you got to learn how to fight. It’s as simple as that. There’s got to be one man in the family that can fight. When I walk in somewhere I can hold my head up high, because I never backed down from a fight, and I’ve never lost a fight. This is the way we sort trouble out in our community. Travelling boys don’t go to the police. We are old-fashioned people, and our old-fashioned way is that we fight for pride and our family. It’s so our family can hold their heads up.”

What’s odd about this honour code is that, so often, a man will fight another because of a slight he has not personally received. For example, Butcher’s “hardest fight” took place when he was 23, against a “very experienced” boxer named Johnnie Hilldon, who was 29. It was arranged two months in advance because of a simmering argument between the two families, following a scrap between Hilldon and Butcher’s younger brothers. The argument escalated when Hilldon’s father walloped Butcher before telling him: “You’re going to fight my best boy.” This was a challenge that could not be refused. Butcher trained hard. He attended a local boxing gym, ran miles every night, and sharpened both his physique and technique. But training only took him so far. Among travellers, there is a belief that winning comes down to “heart”.

If you have the will to continue, it is thought, you will find a way. As such, the winners of fights are not just those who are better boxers, but better men. The outcome of the fight depends as much on moral superiority as physical capability.

Two months later, Hilldon and Butcher stood toe to toe for 42 minutes, without breaking for water or breath. “He was stocky, he was stronger,” remembers Butcher. “But I just kept flicking him with my jab. Every time he came close, he was hurting me. He broke my ribs, smashed my teeth out, broke my nose. He had knuckle marks from his forehead to his belly. I broke my left hand and fractured my right hand. But, in the end, I beat him. I was knackered, but he couldn’t go on. And afterwards, we shook hands.’”

After the fight, the two men did not go to the pub, as tradition dictates. Instead, Hilldon challenged Butcher to a game of golf. And so, that day, with teeth missing, hands broken, eyes closed, and blood streaming from their faces, the pair sneaked onto a local course and played nine holes. Hilldon won. They remain close friends.

“To this day, we’ve never had a bad word to say to each other,” says Butcher. “Whenever we see each other, we have a party. We go on holiday together to Butlins. We’re mates, and we always was — even before the fight.”

As dirtily glamorous as bare-knuckle fighting seems, it remains both dangerous and illegal. Although many travellers say the police are often unwilling to break up fights between gypsies — preferring them to “sort it out among themselves”, as Butcher says — one might imagine that this instinctual recourse to violence is hardly the best example to set for children.

After he has finished his impromptu workout with his son, I ask John Lee whether his kids get upset watching their father fight. “Believe it or not, mate, they love it,” he says. “They’re always out here, fighting all the time themselves. When I had my last big fight, against a bloke from Cambridge, my wife didn’t let the kids see it. But yeah, they knew all about it.”

That fight, three or four years ago, was watched by a crowd of hundreds, with police helicopters circling overhead. Nobody was arrested, because, says Lee, the police had been reassured that there would be no knives or guns.

Lee does not seem like a thug. So why does he, like the rest of his community, choose to solve arguments through combat rather than dialogue? “I don’t know exactly,” he says. “I think it’s your pride more than anything. If you’re having an argument and someone challenges you to a fight, you’re not going to back down, you’ll fight. It’s to do with your name. You can sort arguments out through talking, but nine times out of 10 it’ll end up in a fight.”

Despite his belief that his children will become boxers, however, Lee is worried for them. “There’s a lot more weapons involved in this day and age,” he says. “A lot of people today would rather beat you with a knife or a gun. They don’t want to beat you the fair way, they’d rather beat you the dirty way. Often, you get someone coming out of the crowd at a fight trying to chop the other bloke up. I’ve seen it happen a few times. Families will be trying to chop each other up because they don’t like to lose.”

Butcher, meanwhile, is adamant. “I don’t want any of my boys to fight,” he says. “I’ve got two boys, and I don’t want them to go through what I’ve been through in my life. I’ve had my ear bit off. I was shot. I’ve been stabbed. I don’t want my boys to go through any of that pain. They’ve got to learn how to fight, but I don’t want them to have to.”

Butcher, however, sees a future for “straight fighting” as a sport. He says that bare-knuckle bouts, however brutal they seem to outsiders, are a way for travellers to assert their identity in a hostile environment.

“Travellers are the most hated community in the world,” he says. “The police don’t like us, simple as that. And a lot of people don’t like us.

“I could walk into a pub and the man could say, ‘I’m not serving you, because you’re a traveller.’ To what other races could someone say that and nobody does anything? What if he said that to a black man, or a Muslim, or whoever? No other race gets that. But the man won’t serve me because I’m a traveller… Fighting’s what we’ve always done, it goes back through time, and it’s all travellers have ever known. It’s who we are.”

The persistence of bare-knuckle fighting is also a testimony to the traveller community’s deep conservatism, and the low price they put on education. In the caravan site in Wellingborough, in term-time, it was shocking to see so many children out of school. These kids are, at best, irregular attendees at lessons — and many are expected to finish their schooling early. Indeed, Butcher says he hardly received any formal education. “We’d go to a new school for three or four days at a time,” he says. “We’d end up fighting all the kids in the end, because they would call us dirty pikies, and stinkers. That would happen at every school we went to. So we didn’t go.”

Meanwhile, Lee, a doting father, fully expects his boys to leave school by the age of 11. “My oldest little boy is 9, and he’ll probably stay another year,” says Lee. “He can read and write, and he can use computers. He’s clever. I think once they can read and write, it’s all they need to learn. I did that. I left to go and work with my dad when I was 10 or 11, and I used to love it.”

Love it or not, having such an intermittent and short education straitens one’s life choices. In a traditional community where the emphasis is on physical work — where children are expected to help their fathers work from their early teens, and marry at the earliest opportunity — is it any wonder that bare-knuckle fighting prevails as the preferred solution to complicated problems?

There are, however, deeper motives. Listening to the traveller men, it becomes apparent that when they fight, they’re not really fighting each other. They’re fighting for each other: fighting for their half-antiquated way of life; fighting for an old-fashioned honour code that outsiders fail to understand; and fighting for intangible family pride. Mostly, though, they fight because their daddies fought. And that is a tough chain to break.