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Inside The Brutal World Of Bare-Knuckle Boxing

Inside The Brutal World Of Bare-Knuckle Boxing

"I remember being hit in the mouth and then stepping back and feeling my teeth with my tongue and thinking, 'yeah, they're still here'. I remember that happening, but it was alright. It's not a big deal for me to get punched in the face."

If I were to say the phrase 'bare-knuckle boxing', what springs to mind?

Huge fellas knocking s*** out of each other in a darkened basement? Brad Pitt's character from Snatch? Dodgy fights in a barn somewhere with men outside keeping look-out?

Credit: Martyn Jones
Credit: Martyn Jones
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You might actually be surprised to learn that bare-knuckle boxing is having a resurgence in the UK, with professional events selling out venues up and down the country.

Hundreds of spectators pile in to watch the blood-soaked British bouts with fighters flying in from all over Europe to take part.

Former bare-knuckle boxer Shaun Smith runs Smithy's Gym in Warrington and Ultimate Bare-Knuckle Boxing with his wife Amanda and business partner Stu Armstrong. It's the UK's only bare-knuckle academy, and Shaun spends his days there training fighters before putting them up in bouts at major events.

"For me, it's the ultimate test of your manhood," he told LADbible. "You won't get anything more raw than having a fight with your bare fists.

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"Something's gonna get broken, something's gonna bleed...and these men are going into it knowing that this isn't a case of 'it might happen. It definitely will happen.

"It's the most extreme sport you can do. Professional boxing is good, MMA is good, Muay Thai is good, they're all extreme, hard sports, but bare knuckle has just got that extra venom."

Credit: Ultimate Bare Knuckle Boxing
Credit: Ultimate Bare Knuckle Boxing

Venom, yes, and injuries aplenty, too. Shaun, who has earned himself the nickname Britain's scariest debt collector, reels off the shocking things he's seen over the last seven years since setting up UBKB including broken hands, forearms, ribs and knocked out teeth.

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Recalling one particular bloody fight, he says: "One of my best fighters - a lad called Luke Atkin - he had a broken cheek bone, broken wrist, fractured jaw, broken nose from the second round. He carried on for the five rounds and he won."

Amanda chips in: "I remember being ringside, looking at my phone and a tooth flew out and landed on the table in front of me."

With the chance of injuries like that, you have to wonder why anyone would be willing to step in the ring, right?

When I speak to fighter 'Mad' Joe Clarke he says it gives him a 'buzz' that he just wasn't getting from gloved boxing.

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"I started boxing when I was about 11 and I used to do amateur boxing here in Spain, but I sort of lost interest in the amateur thing because I wasn't really getting much of a buzz from it anymore," he says. "I saw bare-knuckle and jumped straight on it."

'Mad' Joe Clarke's gloves post bout. Credit: Martyn Jones
'Mad' Joe Clarke's gloves post bout. Credit: Martyn Jones

Joe, who lives in Alicante, and flies over for the fights, says he knew as soon as he came across bare-knuckle on YouTube that he'd be 'alright' at it.

That's turned out to be something of an understatement, as he currently holds two belts - light welterweight and welterweight.

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The 31-year-old roofer ('I'm not mad by the way, it's just a nickname') says heading into his first ever bare-knuckle contest was a nerve-wracking experience.

"First fight I ever had, I must admit, I was really nervous," he said. "More nervous than I've ever felt doing anything.

"But the strange thing is, as soon as you get through the ropes, all that disappears and you're just focused on what you're doing. All your training takes hold. You just get on with it.

"That first hard-hit, without gloves, was a bit of shock. I remember thinking, 'wow - this is a massive difference.' But you get used to it and do a couple of rounds and you're adrenaline is going...you just get on with it and then you start to enjoy it."

For Joe, one of his main motivations is his five-year-old daughter.

"I love being a dad more than anything," he says. "And I love her more than anything. It helps with the training and the fights, because she gives me strength and, hopefully, one day she'll be proud of me.

Joe Clarke and Shaun Smith. Credit: Martyn Jones
Joe Clarke and Shaun Smith. Credit: Martyn Jones

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"Of course, she has seen my bruises, but I explain to her that I'm fine and she is OK with it. Once my eye was pretty bad and I had to explain to her that no matter how bad Dadda's face is, that I'm fine. She knows I train and that it's a part of my life - but being a dad is a huge motivation.

"Sometimes she says to me, 'you're mad Dadda'!"

With seven fights under his belt, Joe says he's happy to keep going while he's fit to. His next fight is lined up for February.

"I'm going to go as long as my body will let me," Joe says. "The whole process, the training, everything - it just makes me feel great. If I can get fit enough to do it, then I'll fly over and do it until whenever.

"Some of the lads are in their 40s and they're still in really good shape and winning a lot of fights. I'm only 31, I still feel really young."

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Cinematographer Lucas Marshall, 34, who originally hails from Brazil but now lives in Scotland, got involved in bare-knuckle after initially looking for white collar fights.

He tells me: "I saw the training day advertised, I just thought it would be something to keep me busy. I got here and Shaun invited me to fight at his next show, which was last March, and I won."

Lucas enjoyed his first fight so much, he signed back up and fought again last month.

Talking about stepping into the ring for his first bare-knuckle fight, he said: "I'm very calm when I'm fighting. I'm very conscious.

"I remember being hit in the mouth and then stepping back and feeling my teeth with my tongue and thinking, 'yeah, they're still here'. I remember that happening, but it was alright. It's not a big deal for me to get punched in the face."

Credit: Martyn Jones
Credit: Martyn Jones

Shaun says he's had fighters from all backgrounds - solicitors, ex-armed forces, accountants - and they come from all over, flying in from Norway, the US, Bulgaria and Spain to take part in fights.

He adds: "People have this idea that it's all thugs and people who fight in the street - pub fighters. But UBKB is a legitimate sport. You get weighed in, you get drugs tested, everyone has to train.

"We do get calls from people who say: 'I'm fit, I've never had a professional fight, but I fight every weekend when I'm out.' And I have to say, 'well, f*** off, mate. This isn't for you.'

"Anyone can get physically fit to fight, but you have got to be mentally fit. I think I'm very good at getting people to believe in themselves. I ask people, 'what has any man got that you haven't got?'

"But I can't train anyone for a fight; people can come to me and want to do it and be physically fit but mentally they're not ready...

"I've had grown men begging me to give them a chance and I've had to say, 'look, you're not ready, go and have few white collar matches and then come back to me'. Because when you get in that ring, it's a different f****** world."

Shaun is keen to stress that his bare-knuckle fights are properly run, with strict training camps and coaching sessions beforehand and medics present on the night.

Shaun also points out that while the sport is brutal and often very bloody, fighters don't die during bare-knuckle. He talks about several high-profile cases involving the deaths of professional boxers in recent months and insists that can't happen in bare-knuckle.

Those involved are, perhaps naturally, a little bit put out by the reputation bare-knuckle still has and are hoping to change that.

Credit: Ultimate Bare Knuckle Boxing
Credit: Ultimate Bare Knuckle Boxing

Joe, who follows a plant-based diet, says he understands why perceptions of the sport and the people who take part in it can often be skewed.

"I think people think it's a load of thugs fighting each other, but to me, honestly, some of the fighters I've met coming over to England, they're some of the nicest people I've ever met in my life," he says.

"They're so genuine. I think we need to get away from the idea it's just thugs off the street fighting each other - we actually train really hard for this and it's a sport.

"Most people think it's two lads in a field having a fight, but it's really professional and the people involved work so hard for it."

Technically though, the sport does exist in a bit of a legal grey area. It isn't illegal, but it isn't licensed by a governing body either.

For now, to put on an event Shaun only needs to seek permission from the local authority - and, of course, the venue. But one day, Shaun hopes that he can set up the licensing body.

Credit: Ultimate Bare Knuckle Boxing
Credit: Ultimate Bare Knuckle Boxing

He adds: "I hope one day bare-knuckle will be as big as MMA and pro boxing - and I think it will.

"We wanted to be the first bare-knuckle company in the UK to be licensed and sanctioned by the British Boxing Board of Control, but they just won't do it.

"So, we want to be the sanctioning body. We want to set the rules. We set the standards and we set the weights. We want to be recognised, so that if other people want to start other bare-knuckle companies, they come to us for advice and we can certificate them.

"Currently, we're the only gym in the UK that has a bare-knuckle academy - so we get interest from all over the world. It's only getting bigger and bigger."

Featured Image Credit: Martyn Jones

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Claire Reid

Claire is a journalist at LADbible who, after dossing around for a few years, went to Liverpool John Moores University. She graduated with a degree in Journalism and a whole load of debt. When not writing words in exchange for money she is usually at home watching serial killer documentaries surrounded by cats. You can contact Claire at [email protected]