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A former bare-knuckle boxer, known as ‘The King of the Travellers’, has shared his story of growing up in a Travellers’ community and becoming an undisputed fighting champion.
Bare-knuckle fighting is particularly popular among groups of people from Traveller backgrounds, and will often involve one fighter challenging another to a bout, with both money and prestige on the line.
Speaking on the Anything Goes podcast with James English, James Quinn McDonagh remembered how he turned to bare-knuckle scraps after being being bullied growing up.
After being taken out of school to start work at the age of 12, James explained why young men might risk their lives for a fight, suggesting: “The first thing a traveller does when he learns how to walk, is he learns how to fight.
“You’ve got to be able to hold your hands up for two reasons; not to be bullied, and if you’re challenged or if your dad is challenged, you’re stepping into his place.”
As well as prestige being on the line, James claimed that significant sums of money can change hands between clans, with referees holding the money that has been wagered until a winner is declared.
“Fights can range from £1,000 up to a couple of hundred grand. There’s fights there that were a £180-200,000 purse”, he explained. “That’s a lot of money for any family to lose.
“The one guy doesn’t put the money up, it’s the family’s. So the one guy doesn’t want to lose £80-90 grand, so there’ll be really bad blood for years after that if someone takes your money.
“So what the referees try to do is let them fight for a few minutes, let them blow off a bit of steam, and then try and get them to shake hands, so then everybody gets their money back.”
The fighter, who only lost twice in his career, went into further detail about how a bare-knuckle fight works, saying: “If you’re challenged, you accept the challenge.
“We try to organise it where there’s only one referee on each side, one cameraman, and the referees have got full responsibility for the fight. If they think you’re being beaten enough, they can call the fight, even if you don’t want to call it.
“If they think there’s a foul – as in someone headbutting, kicking, or biting – they can disqualify you.
“There’s no rounds, no breaks, no timeouts, just fight until one puts his hand out, or he’s on the ground and can’t get up."
Yet, despite the dangerous nature of his sport, the fighter confessed that the worst injury he has suffered actually came from an incident away from his bouts, when he was stabbed in the neck with a bottle.
The Irishman explained how his friend had been attacked by a group of four off-duty bouncers in a nightclub in Dublin when he got into a scrap.
“They took into him and gave him a terrible beating”, he recalled.
“But they didn’t realise that there was a wedding party in the nightclub that belonged to us, about 40 of us, and it didn’t work out well for the bouncers.
“But during that altercation, one of them put a bottle in my neck… A lot of blood, and a lot of pain.
“I’m lucky to be alive. This is why I tell people; stay out of trouble.”
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