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.