-  Bare-knuckle boxing / Men’s Health / June 2015  -

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Two insufferable minutes and 31 chastening seconds. That’s all it takes for sophomore fighter Nige ‘The Cannon’ Tunningley, a pipe fitter from West Yorskshire, to incapacitate Neill ‘The Blue-eyed Rhino’ Manning, a Tarmacer from Berkshire. Standing in a dimly lit Oxfordshire warehouse on a cold Saturday evening in March, an inebriated crowd drafted from a nearby pub watch in awe and excitement as Tunningley discharges a battery of unorthodox moves. The final sequence begins with a punishing, mid-air Superman punch to the jaw and ends with a flurry of sickening jabs. As The Cannon holds his arms aloft, his night’s work considerably shorter than his commute, The Rhino sits limply on his backside, stunned, defeated, blood gushing from one ear.

Bare-knuckle boxing has been staged in subterranean lock-ups and caravan sites since time immemorial. While never completely outlawed, it has nonetheless become the stuff of fantasy and folklore. You’ve heard the stories, you’ve seen the films. What’s going on here in Oxfordshire isn’t that, and not just because no-one looks like Brad Pitt. This is a gory advert for bare-knuckle boxing – or BKB, to use its newer, more sanitised moniker – as a fledgling commercial sport.

The rules – for there are some – are thus: no biting. No headbutts. No eye-gouging or punches below the waist. If a fighter is floored they have 20 seconds to find their feet; should they drop to one knee, five seconds grace is awarded before the contest resumes. Gum shields, referees and corner men are mandatory, while medics are on hand to treat any injuries. Rounds are three-minutes long and unlimited in number. Bouts go on until one fighter either concedes, is knocked unconscious, or is adjudged to have taken enough by the referee or medical staff. But seldom do they last long, largely because the 12x13ft hay bale pit (roughly half the size of a standard boxing ring) in which the fights take place offers no place to hide. With no protection to speak of bar flimsy cotton hand wraps affixed with tape, it means that – win, lose or draw – bloodied, busted faces are the norm.

“The one certainty in bare-knuckle,” says Andy Topliffe, promoter of tonight’s Field Rage event, “is this: if you can’t take pain, you cannot be in this game. Why? Because it bloody hurts. Simple as that. If you get punched in the ear or whacked in the gristle under your nose, it’s bone crunching on bone.”

Topliffe, a former publican and great-grandson of Edwardian prizefighting legend GC Joynes, is the man responsible for giving this venerable sport an image refresh. With his former company, B-Bad Promotions, he successfully lobbied authorities to make bare-knuckle boxing permissible in venues holding a mixed martial arts licence or on private land. Last year Topliffe sold B-Bad – which courts a mainstream audience with upmarket arena shows and fight cards held in boxing rings – in order to honour BKB’s more rustic, grass-stained roots, with events like tonight’s. “Field boxing was the original boxing going back 300 years,” explains Topliffe. “It was incredibly popular. Even members of the Royal Family would have a bet. The best fighters were revered like superheroes.”

“If you can’t take pain, you cannot be in this game. It bloody hurts.”

While the fighters on parade tonight don’t look much like the modern idea of a superhero, it would be wrong to make stereotypical assumptions of the kind of men attracted to the sport. “I’ve got solicitors who have fought for me,” says Topliffe. “I’ve got scaffolders, IT engineers, you name it. And the majority are not doing it for the money. The thing they all have in common is grit. It takes
a certain breed of man to step into a bare-knuckle pit. He’s got to be able to take pain and control fear. Make no mistake, these are tough men.”

The toughness of tonight’s victor is never in question. Following a misspent youth involving drugs and mischief, Tunningley, 33, joined the army in 2001 and did tours in Northern Ireland and Iraq. There, he says, he became a man. “The military gave me a kick up the arse. But it also made something click inside me. I realised I love combat. When I left the army I started working on the doors and all of a sudden the fear I used to have as a kid turned into an intense rage.” Tunningley has studied virtually every kind of combat sport and martial art: Brazilian jiu-jitsu, judo, boxing, kickboxing, Muay Thai. He trains hard – high intensity cardio work, pad sessions, sparring – and when he fights, he says, it’s with hate in his heart. “I miss the army life. To me there’s nothing better than getting in a cage, or on some mats, and having a good tear-up.”

Not all fighters take their preparation so seriously, however. Tunningley’s opponent, 31-year-old Manning, has a physique that attests to his admitted fondness for McDonald’s and Chinese takeaways. “I wouldn’t consider myself an athlete,” he says in the aftermath of the contest, cigarette in one hand, can of strong lager in the other. “But if I get a good shot on someone, full power, it does something.”

Followers of BKB are hopeful that, with significant investment and a change in public perception, the sport will make a return to the limelight and attain the status of other high-profile combat events such as UFC. Many even contend that it’s a safer option than gloved boxing since the head of a bare-knuckle fighter doesn’t take such sustained punishment. On tonight’s evidence, it’s difficult to view this as anything other than credulous. But BKB’s popularity is clearly on the rise – Topliffe claims to have already fielded calls from Sky Sports about broadcasting bouts in the future. There will no doubt be resistance from many quarters, yet one thing is certain: the gloves are off.

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