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Sport

Hard Knock Life

Words by Chris Anderson

British photographer Keith Vaughton popped into his local barber shop for a haircut and found himself being invited into the explosive, mysterious world of bare-knuckle boxing.

“I overhead a couple of lads talking, and one of them was a promoter,” recalls Vaughton, a snapper based in the north west of England. “After a bit of persuading they agreed to let me come down on the night and have free reign of the venue.”

Vaughton was granted access to an event being held in an old cotton mill in Bolton that had been organised by the Bare Fist Boxing Association, which formed during 2017 and arranges bouts in the north of England every few months. The night offered drama, blood and sweat, and Vaughton admits that his preconceptions – that he may have stumbled upon something illegal, undisciplined or even life-threatening – were quickly dispensed with.

“Movies like Fight Club or Snatch come to mind, but I soon realised it wasn’t like that at all,” says Vaughton. The photographer noticed the great emphasis placed on the safety of its fighters. Andrew Bowling, one of the owners of the Bare Fist Boxing Association says that in his opinion, bare-knuckle boxing events should be no more dangerous than MMA. “Like me, a lot of our fighters have done something similar before, so they are capable guys, no strangers to the ring,” explains Bowling, who competes internationally in Thai boxing.

“We always match the fighters according to weight and ability, and they have weigh-ins before the fight. “But our fights are a lot shorter – just three two-minute rounds. We have paramedics in both corners, and if they think a fighter isn’t fit to carry on, they’ll stop the bout immediately. Our fighters get a 20-second count in case of a knockdown, so there are a few subtle differences to regular boxing.

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© KEITH VAUGHTON. Vaughton was granted access to an event being held in an old cotton mill in Bolton.

I’d say with bare-knuckle, you’re more likely to pick up superficial injuries – like cuts – but the long-lasting damage is less. In boxing, with gloves, those guys just carry on, with more continuous blows to the head, but we’re more likely to stop a fight if someone looks like they’re in trouble.” Bowling believes the recent surge in popularity of bare-knuckle fighting is because it’s the “next big thing” after the likes of MMA and White Collar Boxing.

Although events like this are legal in the UK, there is no licensing body for bare-knuckle fighting, as there is with regular boxing, which is odd when considering that the origins of the two sports are so closely linked. Bare-knuckle boxing was merely ‘boxing’ until 1892 when gloves were first introduced. But ‘bare-knuckle’ in these events is a loose term as fighters wear tape to protect their hands and limit the damage to their opponent. But perhaps things are set to change, especially if the sport continues to grow in popularity.

According to Vaughton there is every sign that it could do, helped by the fights themselves being so action-packed. “The first fight I saw was between two first-timers and it was over in the first round after a powerful upper cut,” explains Vaughton. “The last fight featured a guy who was a local hero, and when he won he was mobbed for selfies and handshakes.” Vaughton describes the boxers he met as “normal lads” which, again, shattered his preconceptions.

“Everyone warmed up and got ready for their fights in the same area, and they were all really friendly,” he says. “I asked each of them why they were doing this and they told me the same thing: for the enjoyment, the challenge, and the adrenalin rush they get from the crowd. I met a couple of guys fighting for a kid’s charity. These lads had trained hard for months to get in shape – it takes commitment.” Vaughton concludes, “But what sticks in my mind is the way the fighters respected each other before and after the fight. There was no bad blood.”

In Pictures. Old Cotton Mill in Bolton, England

Photos. Keith Vaughton

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© KEITH VAUGHTON. In the midst of the action.

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© KEITH VAUGHTON. In the midst of the action.

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© KEITH VAUGHTON. In the midst of the action.

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© KEITH VAUGHTON. The fighters respect each other before and after the fight. There is no bad blood.

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© KEITH VAUGHTON.

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