Earliest Boxing Memories: Butterbean
By Dean Wigzell
Boxing and football are the two sports that I love and my earliest memories of both are ones that I’m very fond of. Recently I got the opportunity to have a chat with the man responsible for my first experience of boxing in the flesh.
It was the June of 2001 and until this point boxing was just a sport I had occasionally seen on TV.
I was 12 and my mum wasn’t so keen on me watching two blokes knock seven bells out of each other in the years leading up to this moment. But here I was sat in a half empty Wembley Conference Centre, frozen half in amazement and half in fear at the large men sat around me screaming at two fighters to ‘get behind the jab’ and ‘go on, fucking have him’.
I was sat with my dad, who I had listened to for years talk about Hearns, Hagler, Rocky Marciano, Ali et al, and some friends of his- one of which was a coach at the Kronk Gym that had opened in London, it was him who had sorted the tickets although to be fair judging by how freely we moved into seats closer to ringside we probably could’ve rocked up on the day and still been ok.
In April of that year, I had witnessed my first early hours of the morning PPV. Getting up at some ungodly hour only to return to bed fairly swiftly after watching the great Lennox Lewis get put on his backside by Hasim Rahman.
That was great, I remember being so excited and then ultimately devastated. But this was for real! The arena was small enough that I could see and hear everything and I couldn’t wait.
There had been a lot of buzz about this particular show, a big American heavyweight was in town and he was the main draw on the card.
You couldn’t get much bigger than this heavyweight and we were certainly dragged into the hype as tales of Eric Esch ‘The King of Four Rounders’ were told by all who had bought a ticket.
And whilst he may not have been entirely happy with the role he was expected to play, he knew what was required and was perfectly aware of the value it lent to his income.
‘One thing fighters don’t like is to be just entertainment. That is what I got paid for, to make the fight interesting and to put bums in the seats and I was good at it.’
Butterbean as he was more widely known was due to make his UK debut in what was hoped would be a packed house. That hope was wide of the mark, some reports suggested the promoters ran at a £25,000 loss, believed to be the amount paid to Esch for a nights work. None of this registered with 12-year-old me of course.
‘It was a fight and I have never turned down an opportunity to make money and fight’ he told me when I asked him what he remembered about the arrangement to bring him to the UK.
Butterbean dispatched of Shane Woollas in the first round of the bout scheduled for 4. I vaguely remember Woollas connecting with a solid shot which rocked Butterbean, only for the American to shake his head and then deliver a knock out blow. That memory may have been dressed up a bit over the years but I can still see it vividly now, it was like something out of a film.
When I put it to him how impressive it was for me sat watching on, his response slaps me back to reality with a straightforwardness that makes heavyweight boxing seem so simplistic and pure.
‘One thing I learned about fighting in someone’s hometown is don’t leave it to the judge, I go for the KO every time.’
58 knockouts from 77 professional wins in a boxing ring suggest that he had that simplicity down to a tee.
A friend of mine, around the same age, also in attendance told me before the fight that Butterbean had to learn how to knock people out inside four rounds otherwise he might die. I believed him.
Of course just over a year later that rumour would be dispelled, Butterbean went 10 rounds with 52-year-old former heavyweight King Larry Holmes.
‘Holmes went 10 rounds, no one believed I could go the distance.’ He tells me, without me even mentioning the daft rumour that I had been lead to believe.
‘I proved them all wrong, and had him running scared. I was trying to knock him out but he run and beat me with his jab.’
I ask him what he thinks of the current crop of heavyweights and whether he would fancy having a go at any of them.
‘When I retired I was done, I don’t watch boxing. I am spending time with my family and 8 grandchildren. I loved fighting but first it was a business I had nothing to prove but how much I could put in the bank.’
And with that, our conversation comes to a pleasant end.
I thank him for providing me with my introduction to this great sport and I tell him I will be in touch once I’ve put my memories of that night onto paper.
It may not be your conventional introduction to a sport but for me Butterbean will always be more than the novelty fighter that many have him billed as.