Love and hate, those are fighting words. For the Quinn McDonaghs, Joyces, and Nevins, rival Irish Traveller clans scattered across the Emerald Isle and England, they are the reason that hard men perpetually clash in unsanctioned bare-knuckle boxing matches. The love and pride that these pugilists feel for their own is only equaled by the loathing they feel for their opponents, who are, rather ironically, close relatives.
In this world of illegal street fights, James Quinn McDonagh is a considered a king, a BKB champion who was never defeated by the many Joyces and Nevins who challenged him. That he fought reluctantly only adds to the romantic air surrounding these defenses of clan honor. A fascinating character, James became the protagonist in Irish filmmaker Ian Palmer's gripping new documentary, Knuckle, which captures a decade of conflict and explores the roots of the bad blood and the cyclical nature of the violence it's bred.
To celebrate last week's U.S. release of Knuckle, Complex recently spoke to James. Keep reading for his take on the damage he's seen inflicted in bare-knuckle contests, the non-combatant "back-seat drivers" who stir up hatred in widely circulated, rap battle-esque insult videos, and his toughest match.
Interview by Justin Monroe (@40yardsplash)
When did you become aware of bad blood between your family, the Quinn McDonaghs, and the Joyce and Nevin families?
I was born in 1967 and going back to '76, '77, I witnessed a street fight. I remember standing outside a courthouse where at least 15 of the guys from all sides all got very small prison sentences, like between six and 12 months. From then on I knew the feuding was going on. And then it was just like tit for tat, bits and pieces, and it got more serious after the incident in London in 1992.
Is that incident, in which a Quinn McDonagh accidentally killed a Joyce in a pub fight, still in fighters’ minds?
When I started fighting for our family I was hoping that it would settle the feud. I would only accept a fight on the condition that we’d shake hands after, then walk away and let it go, and that’s what was happening. In my day, the feuding would stop for a year or two years and everyone would be happy. But the feuding and the fights right now, I think, if one family loses, they tend to train and groom someone else up, then send him out just to knock us off the pedestal.
Knuckle director Ian Palmer made a good point about the financial motivation in the fights, because if you’ve not been working during training and you then lose the fight and the prize money, you want to recover it as quickly as possible.
It is. At the beginning of my career, when I would fight for the family, again I was hoping it wouldn’t happen but I would put a price on the fight, to say, “I’m gonna fight for 10, 15 grand, and at least in that way I’ll win something." We lost a lot of money as well. But I was hoping that the challenger wouldn’t set the fight and would back off when money was involved. Secondly, I would train for 12-18 weeks and in that period I would have to go a long period without earning money, so I thought it would help compensate for the losses of earnings.
Would you encourage or discourage your son if he had any interest in fighting for the Quinn McDonaghs?
I wouldn’t and never did or will encourage anyone, nevermind my son. I wouldn’t like to see that happen anymore, as in feuding, bare-knuckle boxing. I would actually like to see it legalized or sanctioned. I’ll get back to my son in a second, but I would like to see bare-knuckle boxing, or BKB as it’s called, be sanctioned as soon as possible, the reason being, somewhere along the line, if not sanctioned or organized in the proper way, someone may well be killed in it because it is a vicious sport. If it’s sanctioned you would have a medical team, or doctors, or some fairly well organized organization to kind of take it over.
I would like to see it that way, but no, I wouldn’t recommend it or encourage anybody to go out and do it on the streets because I know the dangers on the streets. If my sons were to do it, I would discourage them but if I couldn’t talk them out of it, I would like to see them be ready for it, so I would probably train with them. But I would rather them not do it, I would rather them do something else with their lives.
I would like to see bare-knuckle boxing be sanctioned as soon as possible, the reason being, somewhere along the line, if not sanctioned or organized in the proper way, someone may well be killed.
You mentioned the inherent danger of bare-knuckle boxing. Were you ever concerned about inflicting that kind of fatal damage on someone? Did you ever hold back?
In all of my fights, I would like to see the opponent give up quicker. Because I knew when I was fighting those guys, I knew I was in tip-top shape, I knew I was ready. I knew [with] 99.9% [certainty] I was never gonna lose them fights because I would never fight a guy unless I was 100% ready. And so when I was inflicting damage I would rather have hit them and hurt them, or maybe knock 'em out. Knocking a guy out would be better, to me, than prolonged punishment to the head and body. If I’ve got a good punch and knock 'em out, it’s over. It woulda been OK that way. If a fight goes on for a duration of 20-25 minutes it can lead to a lot more damage, so the quicker the fight the less injury.
What is the worst harm you’ve seen done to someone?
I’ve seen people be knocked unconscious, I’ve seen people be put in a coma. I personally have given people a lot of pain, inflicted a lot of pain on ‘em, and not really wanted to do it but it’s something I had to do. I’ve inflicted a lot of stitches, a lot of cuts. I’ve seen people lose teeth, broken noses, busted eyes, busted eardrums, busted chins. There’s a lot of damage involved, especially if it’s a mismatch and one guy is too much for the other guy. Also, if there’s two guys and they’re well matched up, that can be very dangerous if both of them are fit and both are strong and both have this hatred for each other, then no one will give up until one of them is almost half dead.
In the film it seems like people challenge each other based on pride and honor but not necessarily because they’re equally skilled fighters. Are the matches indeed made to be even?
It’s either way. Bare-knuckle boxing in the Traveller community, especially within this three-way feud [between the Quinn McDonaghs, Joyces, and Nevins], there’s been a lot of mismatches but there’s been a lot of weight difference and height difference and age difference; it’s because it’s limited to the competitors that each family will have. Each family will have maybe 20, 25 fighters, so sometimes they’re not in condition to fight and other guys will step in for them and you get a 40-year-old fighting a 25-year old, and 18-year-old fighting a 23-year-old. Sometimes it can be a mismatch but we try to match them age, height, and weight as much as possible and as accurately as possible to give each guy a fair fighting chance.
In the insult videos that get sent back and forth between the rival families, there appear to be a lot of family members who don’t even fight hurling insults and getting caught up in the emotion and sometimes carried away with alcohol.
A lot of it is back-seat drivers, as I would call them. That’s exactly what it is. A lot of those guys are back-seat drivers who never have fought in their lives going out and putting their guys up front and talking through a lot of drink, or through their backsides, should I say. If you look at the tapes that are even going around today, from the early ‘90s right up to last week, 90% of the time it will be guys who’ve never fought and never will fight. It’s very easy for those guys to say that because they don’t have to do the 12-14 weeks training, get up and leave the wife and kids, they don’t have to lose earnings from all this training (right, James training his younger brother Michael). It’s very sad.
Have you ever told these talkative guys that they shouldn’t be stoking the fire?
Yes. I’ve often spoken to them. But, you know, a lot of those tapes are made when there’s alcohol consumed. When drink is in, things come out.
Travellers aren’t known for opening up to outsiders, so why did you allow Ian access into your lives?
As Ian probably explained to you, he came to my brother Michael’s wedding in ’97 and it just took off from there. Knuckle took on a life of its own. We invited Ian to tape a fight because our usual video guy was unavailable at the time. We invited Ian and he got hooked himself, and in turn he started coming to the fights and videotaping them for us and giving us tapes.
The families, we don’t usually open up to anybody, especially in the settled community, country people [non-Travellers]. We opened up to him and the more we opened up to him the more he came towards us and the more we came towards him and we started to build kind of a friendship, as in not just him being there hired to video the fights. It was more of a friendship thing and he started putting things together. Six, seven years down the line, he said, “You know what, James, there’s potential here for a very good documentary. What do you think of it?” I said yes. I said, “Personally I don’t give a hoot,” and he started speaking to the Nevins and Joyces and it went on from there. He put it together, did some good editing and some good [narration] and it worked for him.
My last fight was against my first opponent’s son. I was 10 years older than him. I had to take that challenge to give the family respect.... The fight with the son lasted for two hours, 47 minutes.
What was your toughest fight?
That’s a good question. I fought Nevins and Joyces and in both families there are tough guys, but thank God I was just that little bit extra above them—not saying that I’m any good, not saying that I’m bad or I’m good. There was tough guys there. I fought a guy called Ditsy Nevin. It was my first fight. He was supposedly King of the Nevins. He lost in three minutes. I went on and fought his cousin and it lasted 47 minutes; I wasn’t ready in my training at the time. I found my second wind and I continued to fight and it lasted 47 minutes. That was good. And I had fights that lasted 7 minutes, 14 minutes, 22 minutes, and my last fight was against my first opponent’s son. I was 10 years older than the son; the son was about 27 at the time, I was 37. I had to take that challenge to give the family respect because I fought his dad when his dad was a few years older than me, and that [final] fight lasted for two hours, 47 minutes. So that would probably be my toughest, physically and mentally.
After that fight, was there ever any urge on your part to fight again? Were people trying to drag you back into it?
If I was to listen to and pay heed to everybody who wanted to fight me, I would fight 365 days a year. That’s actually honest. I decided I’d stop taking challenges right after that for the simple reason being I was getting too old. Also guys were getting bigger and stronger because of whatever they were using, maybe substances. They were training more, training a lot harder, and as they were coming up, I was starting to go downhill. I decided to get off when I was winning without losing to those guys and walk away from it and try to educate the younger lads that if they want to do it, do it in the ring, do it professionally.
I’m in the process of setting up a sanctioned body of bare-knuckle boxing to get those guys off the street and into well-organized venues where we can monitor the situation with medical teams and put some rules on the bare-knuckle boxing game. It’s very advanced. I’d love to say more at the moment but I can’t because I’m waiting for contracts to come my way to sign. It is in a very advanced stage, where there’s a commission in mind that’s ready to sanction it, plus we have a major competition organized, and that will give the Irish Travellers something to do and something to look forward to, not just be involved in the feuds but be involved in it professionally under professional supervision with professional medical teams in the venue at all times. Also if they want to do it professionally there will be good prize money.
Interview by Justin Monroe (@40yardsplash)