For those who have seen Knuckles – the documentary – the story of the families (Joyces, Nevins, and Quinns) and their bitter feuds and fights is quite well known. Over 12 years, the documentary filmmaker Ian Palmer followed the lives of these three families from Northern Ireland and explored their way of settling scores: clandestine face-offs in the midst of the Irish countryside. With bare fists obviously. The documentary presents some rather grotesque characters such as Big Joe Joyce, undisputed heroes like James Quinn McDonagh, and anti heroes like Michael Quinn McDonagh whose main objective is to make life a living hell for the members of the Joyce family. Even more grotesque is the way in which different families decide to challenge each other: via a video message recorded on VHS.
Big Joe Joyce
But Ireland isn’t the only country where bare-knuckle fights are rooted in popular culture. And Guy Ritchie knows this all too well (Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels anyone?). Zingaro, nomad, gypsy, traveller … call them what you will, but they are the ones responsible for spearheading this movement. Although there is a link with the ancient and noble art of boxing, the fights involving nomadic families are far less elegant. They are often the result of former feuds (exact motives are often unknown) that have been handed down from one generation to another. Oh, and they do it for the money of course.
Within this vehement practice, very often the urban landscape plays a significant role. It is no coincidence that many of the backdrops to these illegal meetings can be found in the deepest and darkest depths of the United Kingdom. It is also no coincidence that the several attempts to bring these clandestine meetings to the mainstream have consistently failed. There are cases like the striking of Kimbo Slice or Dada 5000 who have managed to emerge within more structured Mixed Martial Arts worlds, but these are isolated cases. Anyway, Dada 5000 continues to organize backyard fights in Perrine, Florida. When Dada is questioned on the alleged legality of these meetings his point seems fair enough: the backyard fights are illegal but are still tolerated by law enforcement who often attend simply to make sure that trouble does not occur between spectators. So, on the piece of land behind the house of Dada, the rules are respected after all.
These illegal encounters continue to garner popularity, and there are some that believe it has the potential to become a real stadium-filling activity like the UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship) encounters. Danny Provenzano, 51 and former mafia member, sees it as a sport for boxing purists, explaining that not having gloves allows contenders to better measure up the other opponents fists and that, on average, smaller injuries (cuts or abrasions) occur more often, but there are far fewer traumas that impact the fighter long term.
No matter whether it’s the Irish countryside, garage or an American backyard, fighting with bare hands will remain confined to closed circles, which can be accessed only through direct knowledge or word of mouth. Or in the circles of families who for generations have hated and challenged each other to impose their supremacy.