Sport on TV: White-knuckle ride as right hooks become meat hooks

Click to follow
The Independent Online

The first rule of fight club is you do not talk about fight club. The second and third rules are don't say anything at all and keep your eyes on the floor. Gypsy Blood (Channel 4, Thursday) provided a gruelling, 90-minute bout of incredulity as the travelling community's liking for unlicensed bare-knuckle fighting was laid bare. You would scarcely believe your black eyes.

Hughie Doherty wants his sons to follow the tradition and is seen training his 18-month-old in the front garden. When he says, "You don't think about the consequences, you just do it", you wouldn't disagree with him. Older brother Francie, seven, is already a keen pugilist: "No biting, no pinching, no nails, a fair fight." His father tells him he would drown him if he ever lost a fight. Dad doesn't really mean it, of course, "but you've got to get it into his head".

So we witness the lowlights of a fight between Francie and a boy two stones heavier than him that lasts 40 minutes. At least they have gloves on, but Francie is knocked down and bumps his head on the concrete. Hughie tells him to keep fighting. One supposes that if you kept hitting your head, you wouldn't know any better when you grew up. If you grew up.

Hughie explains his theory: "For every little travelling boy, someone's going to be on his case. Stand up for yourself." But where proper boxing provides an environment for young tearaways to channel and hone their aggression, there is no discipline here, let alone any hope of financial reward. It's all about revenge.

The fight is where the travellers settle their disputes, because "we don't need courts". Actually they do, as Hughie chillingly takes on the big brother of a bloke who said the wrong thing. The early-morning scrap, which has all the hallmarks of a duel, takes place on a tennis court. Quite what the denizens of the local club would have made of it if they had turned up for an early hit is anyone's guess: not even their rackets are that highly strung. Hughie then rushes home to show the kids a replay of the fight.

At least Fred Butcher seems to have had a little sense knocked into him. "I want my children to be boxers," he says. "They'll hold their hands up. But I don't want them to be fighters." That's as clear as concussion, then. His son, Freddie Cole, is nine and hates his father's scraps and scrapes, not least when he comes back from refereeing a fight in a pub with two long machete lacerations in his skull.

Fred revels in the tradition of trading punches. "If it's a good fight, it could be talked about for 10, 20 years," he says wistfully, and harks back to a famous bare-knuckle bout between his grandfather and the King of the Gypsies, Bartley Gorman, in 1952 which lasted two hours and 20 minutes. They had to take granddad's hand off because he had done such damage to his ligaments. He got a hook instead, but it wasn't long before the police told him to take that off too.

These fisticuffs date back some 200 years, but fighting to keep old customs alive is not always the right thing to do. As Fred finds out, the world is changing around the travellers, with their cock-fighting and hare-coursing and not wearing seat-belts. It might seem better to settle a score with fists rather than knives or guns, but that's one fight they are never going to win.