By Alan Hubbard
Mention bare knuckle boxing and mind drifts back to the 19th and 18th centuries – even beyond to the 1600s. Then, before horse racing was to become the sport of kings, boxing was the sport of the landed gentry, the super-rich nobility and the Regency Bucks.
Yet it is a popular misconception that bare knuckle boxing has died out. It is still very much alive and punching. It is thriving in Britain – if you know where to go – and only recently in the United States the former two-weight world champion Paulie Malignaggi was involved in a bare knuckle contest against Russian Artem Lobov, which left him with an broken hand and formally ended his ring career.
And the 38-year-old has since been banned indefinitely by the Florida State Boxing Commission on medical grounds.
But if you want to know the ins and outs of bare knuckle boxing then sit down for hour or so with Nathan Gorman, who fights Daniel Dubois for the British vacant British heavyweight title at London’s O2 on July 13 – with gloves on of course.
Gorman’s uncle was the legendary Bartley Gorman of bare knuckle fame in the mid and late 90s. And before Tyson Fury, who also claims to be a distant blood relative of Bartley Gorman, like his half-brother Tommy, came along he was known to as the original Gypsy King.
Tyson’s dad, Gypsy John Fury, also did his share in the roped-off paddocks between his 13 pro fights.
Nathan Gorman, who is one of the nicest young fellas you could wish to meet outside the ring, is rightly proud not only of his Romany heritage but of the part it has played in fist to face boxing over the centuries.
Rough and brutal as it was, the bare knuckle stuff had a certain romance about it. And it also has a certain value among collectors of memorabilia.
On my study wall are a couple of prints depicting bare knuckle contests conducted in Hertfordshire back in the 18th century. I am told they will be worth a good few quid to my grandkids when I finally go to the great referee in the sky. No, not that Sky. Though it might be ITV – on Dickinson’s Real Deal!
Most boxing matches of the early 1800s were conducted under the “London Rules,” which were based on a set of rules laid down by an English boxer, Jack Broughton, in 1743. The basic premise of the Broughton Rules, and the subsequent London Prize Ring Rules, were that a round in a fight would last until a man went down. And there was a 30-second rest period between each round.
Following the rest period, each fighter would have eight seconds to come to what was known as the “scratch line” in the middle of the ring. The fight would end when one of the fighters could not stand, or could not make it to the scratch line.
Theoretically there was no limit to the number of rounds fought, so fights could go on for dozens of rounds. And because the fighters punched with bare hands, they could break their own hands by attempting knock-out punches to their opponent’s heads. So matches tended to be long battles of endurance.
The Marquess of Queensberry Rules, which superseded the London Rules in 1867 and on which modern boxing is based, were the first to mandate the use of gloves in boxing.
Bartley Gorman followed some illustrious names in the bare knuckle business: among them Tom Cribb, Jack Broughton, Tom Sayers and James Figg.
Gorman who died 2002 aged 57, was not only the self-styled “King of the Gypsies”, but celebrated in the shadowy world of illegal fighting as the Undefeated Bareknuckle Champion of Great Britain and Ireland.
Gorman was, he estimated himself, “the most dangerous unarmed man in the world”. He would never fight a “normal man”, because “I am liable to kill him with one punch”.
He was born in 1944 at Nottingham, the son of a Welsh father and Irish mother, and the fifth in a line of Bartley Gormans. He once said: “Bartley Gorman the third was the champion of North and South Wales. Bartley Gorman the fourth wasn’t a fighter, he was a great lover. Then there’s Bartley Gorman the fifth. That’s me, champion of the world.”
Young Bartley started fighting at 10.”My father took me to the gym where I would fight the big boys there. They would hurt me and make me cry, but all the time I was crying I was still fighting.”
He moved to Uttoxeter when he was 20 and succeeded as “King” at 28 in 1972, on the death of the previous king Uriah Burton, and after a bare-knuckle fight with a man named Fletcher.
He was undefeated over the next 25 years of bare-fisted bouts, which took place down a mine shaft, in a quarry, at horse fairs, on camp sites, in bars and on the street. Among the opponents from the underground boxing scene to whom he delivered a bare knuckle sandwich were Lenny McClean and ‘Pretty Boy’ Roy Shaw. He is also said to have had a secret mock sparring session with Muhammad Ali when the retired champion visited Birmingham in 1983.
The illegality of bare knuckle boxing rendered Gorman’s chosen pursuit all the more perilous. He recalled on one occasion squaring up to a “so-called champion”. “I hit him with one shot, bang straight on the forehead and down he went.
“Then his men set upon me. I tried to get to my car and there were about 12 of them hanging on to me. They pushed a bar into my mouth and down my throat, knocking out my front teeth. I started to kick out my legs, and with that they started trying to saw my legs off . . .”
One of Gorman’s final bouts, against an American in 1994, took place aboard a ship in the north Atlantic. In 1997, he declared that although he could still beat everyone, he was “too intelligent to fight”.
Aside from fighting, Gorman was a pillar of his local gypsy community, always quick to help those less fortunate than himself.
A staunch anti-abortionist, he drew attention to his cause by organising a “hedgehog barbecue”, to which he invited Tony Blair and the Prince of Wales. The plan was to feed them a traditional gypsy dish of roast hedgehog marinated in honey, before the hedgehog-welfare lobby stepped in to stop it.
Gorman also tried to set up a “rehabilitation camp”, where he planned to teach New Age travellers how to become proper Romanies.
Hundreds of gipsies from across the country came to the town for his funeral in January after he died from liver cancer.
As nephew Nathan says: “He was a unique man, a one-off. He was a lovely man with a wicked sense of humour but a streak of melancholy that never left him.”
Tickets for ‘Heavy Duty’ featuring Daniel Dubois v Nathan Gorman for the vacant British Heavyweight Title, plus Olympic silver medallist Joe Joyce v Bryant Jennings are on sale now. The show also features British Middleweight champion Liam Williams who clashes against France’s former European champion Karim Achour for the vacant WBC Silver middleweight crown. Super-flyweight sensation Sunny Edwards meets Mexican Hiram Gallardo for the vacant IBF super-flyweight title. WBO super-featherweight champion Archie Sharp risks his crown against Jordan McCorry. Returning after an impressive debut is Kent bantamweight Dennis McCann. Hamza Sheeraz, Mark Chamberlain, Jake Pettitt, Louie Lynn, Mickey Burke Jr and Florian Marku add to an exciting line up and tickets are available via AXS.com, Eventim and Ticketmaster and are priced as below:
£300 – (Hospitality)
£200 – Floor
£150 – Floor
£100 – Tier/Floor
£75 – Floor/Tier
£50 – Tier
£40 – Tier