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24 September 2014
Inside Out: Surprising Stories, Familiar Places

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   Inside Out - East: Monday 6th October, 2003


Tom Saunders boxing
Boxing laid bare - Boxing's roots in bare knuckle fighting

Tom and Billy Saunders are widely known on the boxing scene. What is less well known is that both boys are from a long line of bare knuckle fighters.

Tom and Billy Joe Saunders are two teenage boys widely known on the amateur boxing scene. Tom is a four times winner of the National Schools Championship and Billy Joe has won the Four Nations Cup.

What is less well known however, is the fact that both boys are gypsies and come from a long line of bare knuckle fighters.

Inside Out delves into the illegal world of bare knuckle fighting to see how these two boys have turned their gypsy traditions into a legitimate sport.

15 year old Tom and 13 year old Billy Joe live on a traveller’s site in East Herts. Their Dad, Tom Senior was a boxer, as were their cousins, grandads and even great grandads.

Bare Knuckle rules

A round is not timed, but ends when a fighter is knocked down.

Once floored, a fighter has 30 seconds to come up to the ‘scratch’, which is a marker in the centre of the ring.

Fighters are not allowed to rest and are instantly disqualified if they fall from exhaustion.

But whilst Tom and Billy are fighting within the system and rules of the Amateur Boxing Association, previous generations were upholders of the ancient gypsy tradition of bare knuckle fighting.

Bare knuckle fighting was particularly popular in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The few rules that governed the fights were drawn up in 1743 and remained the only written rules for over a century.

Tom and Billy Joe’s Great Grandad Absolom Feeney was champion of the fairground fighting booths.Tom senior explains that travelling boys learn to ‘look after themselves’, amidst a lifestyle that is cruel and incredibly tough.

Tom Senior reveals that bare knuckle fighting in England is commonly used to settle disputes on site and in his view, it is the best way;

"Over in Ireland they do it for money. In England it's to settle arguments... If there was a fight on the site today everyone would be out watching it,"

However violent it may appear to outsiders, Tom Senior assures us that "No one gets killed. You can walk away if you want to. No one likes punching each other's faces off. It's about honour."

According to boxing coach Martin Patricks, it is not unusual to have gypsy boys in the gym and like Tom, many show great potential. Tom’s only trouble now seems to be finding boys prepared to fight him and not surprising when you consider that out of 28 fights, he has only lost three.

Bare knuckle fight
Bare knuckle fighting is a tradition in travelling communities

Schoolboy boxing may be amateur in status, but it’s extremely professional in execution. The boys have stringent training regimes, diets and coaching sessions; a world away from the crude bare knuckle fights of previous generations.

Coach Martin Patricks candidly warns of the pitfalls that may await Tom and Billy Joe. Many boys turn 16 and fall into bad ways, reverting to old traditions of illegal fighting to settle differences.

Tom Senior certainly hopes this won’t be the case for his boys. Tom hopes to turn professional. Although Tom has inherited his talent from gypsy traditions, his father hopes he won’t be inheriting the lifestyle and that success will allow him to exchange wagons on wheels for the security of bricks and mortar.

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