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The Fights of the Irish Travelers
Real Bare Knuckle Boxing: Volume 1
© 2013 James LaFond
Produced by Jake Shannon & Fergal McKenna
Edited by David Zorn
Lions Share Ventures
Okay, I just watched this thing for the first time in five years—whew! There is no listed running time. It took me exactly two hours to view the entire menu. The oddest thing about this to me was the UK heavy metal soundtrack. The producers did back off of the soundtrack when important prefight and postfight discussions were taking place. That is when the soundtrack began to make sense to me. Whatever the nomad Irish have done to the English language, they have done it better than the urban American blacks, by a long shot. I did not understand a word. It was actually easier to follow the growling, howling speed metal lyrics.
I have read the biography of an English traveler ‘champion’ boxer, so come to this film with some context. To me the biggest failing of this film, is that it could have been a documentary, and was just made as a fight catalog. Chances are your only exposure to this form of ritual fist fighting is the Brad Pitt/Jason Statham movie Snatch. One can view these events socially and technically. As a sport they make less sense than in either of the other contexts.
The trailers are cool, with videos of old time catch wrestlers.
The bloopers are outtakes from fights that were so sloppy they did not make the grade.
Before I get to the actual bouts, let me set the stage. These fights take place in secluded trailer parks, highway rest areas, and in walled and fenced gathering places that might either be elementary school playgrounds or some type of impoverished third world asphalt/concrete park.
The fights are usually between a smaller more skilled fighter with bare hands, and a larger less skilled fighter with wrapped hands. There are some hand-wrapping and taping variances that you want to pay attention to, as they really dictate the tactics. The weight disparity is usually two to three weight classes on the 17 weight class scale, and hence not ridiculous matchups.
These are not state sanctioned sporting events, but rather culturally sanctioned combats. These are not the only bouts of this kind I have seen, and generally represent some of the better officiated examples. The small private fights with a handful of spectators between respectful opponents of similar size may be refereed by one man. Family-feud type grudge matches will be refereed by three to five men, a pair to pull each fighter away, so that no Irish clansman is putting hands on his rival’s son. The big venues will feature two referees, with them splitting duties controlling the fighters and the crowd. The fighters, if near the same size, tend to be very easily controlled. The one superheavyweight versus light-heavyweight matchup was crazy, in that three men were required to control the giant fighter.
Overall the small venue fights seemed to be more heated as far as family rivalry. The large venue fights are insane on a different scale, with lazing dogs, milling children, gangs of menacing Irishmen, and even crying babies, all gathered in dozens and scores, slowly closing in as the fight heats up.
There are three bonus fights, one of which was a large venue bout between a skilled welterweight and a fit light-heavyweight that is not concluded on film. There is also a ten-minute ‘bonus’ fight that is tacked on to the 54-minute epic mentioned below.
The three feature bouts represent a nice cross section of size and talent: a welterweight schooling a light-heavyweight; a super-heavyweight bum-rushing a light-heavyweight, and a freakishly conditioned lightweight trading with a tough-as-nails middleweight for 54 minutes of blood spatter!
For the knowledgeable and patient observer there are many technical nuances to ponder. Overall there are three styles in evidence. Keep in mind that these are variants of the classic standup European amateur gloved boxing. European boxers tend to a narrow guard and don’t dip much, which inhibits their straight right delivery and produces very few good hookers. Internationally they are not considered power hitters, but show good jab and defense. This stands these fighters in good stead without gloves.
The best fighters operated out of a high open-hand guard with elbows tucked and head movement. The best example is the welterweight in feature Fight #1.
The second most common style is a ‘curled fist’ guard with the hands held close back over the shoulders and the elbows popping out. The light-heavy’s seemed prone to fighting in this manner, and also seemed to be weightlifters.
The other notable variation was a kind of Jeet Kune Do guard with a low lead and a high open rear hand. The super-heavyweight uses this very effectively, trapping with the rear hand and using up-jabs with the lead.
Overall you see a lot of jab variations, and little double jabbing. In this form of fighting the jab is often the power punch, or is thrown as an angular cutting blow. In either case, these types of jabs do not double well. The best fighters used three or more jab variations, with some thrown in combination. It is worth noting that the winners in most of these fights were clearly gym-trained fighters, two with pro level skill sets. The victors who appeared to be self-trained fought out of the low guard.
As a final stylistic note, I would like to mention that, in the longest fight, forearm interceptions were thrown. Jim Corbett is pictured using this technique, and thought to have been uncoordinated or primitive for having thrown it. [See the Fitzsimons photo] However, in a bare-knuckle context, the epic 54-minute fight shows clearly toward the middle of the contest, that this bare-knuckle tactic with its modern gung fu parallels [in Wing Chun for instance], has useful applications in the absence of hand gear.
I have fought these types of bouts. Indeed virtually all of my boxing experience is in these type of ‘gypsy’ rules encounters. As I sat and viewed the 54-minute bout I thought back to one I had fought against chuck Goetz, that went a full 60 minutes, before it was called a draw. It is weird, I suppose, when you look at these guys hitting each other for that long and note that they continue to dredge up seemingly untapped energy reserves up to the end. But I remember what it was like boxing for an hour, wanting to win, and also, somewhere inside, not wanting it to end because it felt so right to be in that special mental place. There is something hypnotic about that type of boxing that has its own peculiar appeal.
On another note, Charles and I watched some of these traveler bouts online, and we both looked at each other, and Charles, apparently with the same thought as I, said, “Those guys, those guys would do stick-fighting!”
Maybe a pilgrimage to the Emerald Isle with a set of sticks and fencing masks is in order…
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