Inside Bare Knuckle Boxing: Where The Bout Only Stops When Someone Drops

Decca Heggie's first bare knuckle fight was in 2013 in a gangster's backyard in London. It wasn't in a fancy ring with ropes, it was in a circle of haybales with dozens of people crowded around, hoping to see a blood-drenched match.

He was up against Tony 'The Leicester Bulldog' Goward, a rock-solid bloke dressed in a white singlet and tracksuit pants. A few seconds into the bout, Decca landed a short yet brutal right hook to the side of Goward's head, which knocked him to his knees.

They traded uppercuts, jabs, and a few haymakers, before Decca absolutely throttled Tony with his right hand, causing him to hit the deck.

And this is all within the first 60 seconds.

Credit: Cage Amateurs UK

The fight lasted another seven minutes before Decca landed one last right-hander, leaving 'The Leicester Bulldog' unconscious on the floor. It was an incredible performance from Decca, who had no official training for bare knuckle boxing, except for what he learned while growing up in Carlisle, UK.

Despite having a massive frame, Decca was the victim of severe bullying as a teenager, telling LADbible: "Carlisle was a rough place back in the day - there wasn't much to do but get in trouble with the law. I was a talented footballer back at school, so I focused a lot on that, but from the age of 12 I used to get bullied terribly for being a bit of a fat kid.

"My old man, Decca Senior, was a hard man, so I would keep the bullying from him. I knew if he found out he would have dragged me to their house and had a straightener, but I didn't have the bottle then."

But even after the bullies stopped, his mood didn't improve.

Decca Heggie
Decca Heggie

Credit: Decca Heggie

As he revealed in his book, Prizefighter, he tried to exert some of his anger on people around town: "When I was 15, the puppy fat gave way to muscle and, of course, I started flexing them. I laid waste to my tormentors. You'd only have to cross paths with lads off the next estate, or from the other side of town, or just look at someone on a night out, and it could lead to a scrap."

Decca got mixed up with drugs before landing a job as a bouncer at a club in town. But that only introduced him to cocaine and steroids, which exacerbated his depression and anxiety. He decided to turn his life around in 2013, after suffering two drug overdoses.

One day during his recovery, he was watching traveller fights on YouTube and thought he might be alright in the ring.

Decca Heggie book
Decca Heggie book

Credit: Amazon

"Two days later I got a phone call saying I had a fight lined up in a gangster's back garden," Decca says. "I remember the day like yesterday. I didn't really train for the fight because I was just off drugs and recovering from nearly dying.

"I kind of went into the fight with the attitude of 'I have nothing to lose'."

A few days after beating Tony Goward, he was flown to America for two more illegal fights, and won both. His reputation skyrocketed and he started competing in larger, legal fights. But Decca has always been a fan of the haybale fights, which can fall either side of the law. He says: "When I come up against a great boxer it isn't a boxing match, it's a street fight, and that's the way I like it, raw and up close."

Bare knuckle fighting, also known as 'prize fighting' or 'fisticuffs', has been around for centuries. Rounds typically last in the region of three minutes, but usually there's no round limit like there is in regular boxing. The match pretty much stops when one person hits the deck. It's popular in Irish traveller communities, which was illustrated in Guy Ritchie's brilliant English gangster film Snatch.

The supposed record for the longest bare knuckle fight is six hours and 15 minutes, with the match in question taking place between James Kelly and Jonathan Smith in Victoria, Australia, on 3 December 1855. Kelly was crowned the winner when Smith conceded defeat.

Despite its raw brutality, bare knuckle boxing has been described by some as safer than regular gloved boxing. Gloves were designed more to protect the fighter's hands rather than the opponent's body or face. This protection allows boxers to repeatedly hit an opponent in the head with shocking force - which, over time, causes a whole host of issues related to brain damage.

Bare knuckle campaigner Dr Alan J Ryan told the Independent: "Gloves do not lessen the force applied to the brain as it rattles inside the skull from a heavy blow. In fact, they make matters worse by adding 10oz to the weight of the fist.

Bare knuckle Boxer
Bare knuckle Boxer

Irish-American bare knuckle boxer John 'The Boston Strong Boy' Sullivan in the 1800s. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

"In 100 years of bare-knuckle fighting in the United States, which terminated around 1897, there wasn't a single ring fatality." Since the Marquis of Queensberry Rules were introduced in 1884, which required fighters to wear gloves, there have been roughly 500 deaths in the ring or as a result of boxing.

Bare knuckle boxers need to be much more careful during their matches. A misplaced punch to the head can cause any one of the 27 bones in your hand to break. Defence is also a bit harder as BKB fighters can't use their gloves to protect themselves against deadly jabs, uppercuts, crosses or hooks.

Decca says the worst injury he suffered during a fight was a broken jaw, broken hand and cracked rib. He was up against Warrington fighter David Price, who Decca describes as 'ruthless' and 'fearless'. Their first fight ended in a draw after a gruelling 45 minutes, but Price was knocked out in the second round of their next encounter.

He rose through the ranks until he was offered a shot at the 'Guv'nor' title, which was named after Lenny 'The Guv'nor' McLean. McLean has been referred to as 'the hardest man in Britain' after competing in 4,000 fights, and even appeared in Lock, Stock and Two Smoke Barrels as Barry the Baptist in another Guy Ritchie movie.

Decca was up against Julius Francis, who had previously fought the likes of Mike Tyson and Vitali Klitschko. The Carlisle man held his own for six rounds of the gloved boxing match and won the title, becoming the youngest man to do so.

Decca Heggie
Decca Heggie

Credit: Decca Heggie

Despite its popularity in small communities, bare knuckle boxing is still largely considered an underground sport.

The UK's boxing regulatory body's General Secretary, Robert Smith, tells LADbible in plain and simple terms: "The British Boxing Board of Control is totally against bare knuckle boxing." Professional fights are managed by the World Bareknuckle Boxing Association, but they aren't recognised as a sports organisation anywhere except for America."

However, the tide could be turning. London's O2 arena played host to 14 ungloved fights earlier this year with thousands of people in attendance. Promoter Jim Freeman told the BBC: "Within 18 months or two years, it will be as big as MMA [Mixed Martial Arts] or gloved boxing."

Since becoming the bare knuckle boxing champion twice, and securing The Guv'nor title, Decca has been looking at other ventures to fill his time. He recently ran into one of the men who used to bully him as a teenager, who had ended up homeless. Instead of ridiculing the man who caused him so much pain, Decca popped into a nearby store, bought him some food and a warm drink and told him that he had forgiven him.

Decca Heggie
Decca Heggie

Credit: Decca Heggie

Decca says: "I believe when a guy is down, you don't hit them or knock them. You put your hand out and help them."

Even though those days of being a victim are gone, he still suffers from anxiety and depression. Decca says: "I have lived with it most of my life, but when I started taking drugs, that made it even worse. I have changed my life around my depression and my anxiety has got worse, but I have learned to live with it and succeed with it, instead of fighting against it.

"I treat depression as a friend. I learn to live with it, accept it into my life, and move forward by creating goals and achieving them.

"The hardest fight I have ever had is with my depression, but it's a fight I am winning."

Sources: BBC, Independent, Trove

Featured Image Credit: Decca Heggie / Cage Amateurs UK/YouTube

Stewart Perrie

Stewart Perrie is a Trending Journalist at LADbible. His first job was as a newsreader and journalist at the award winning Sydney radio station, Macquarie Radio. He was solely responsible for the content broadcast on multiple stations across Australia when the MH17, Germanwings and AirAsia disasters unfolded. Stewart has covered the conflict in Syria for LADbible, interviewing a doctor on the front line, and has contributed to the hugely successful UOKM8 campaign.

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