Fight Flicks is a new recurring column on CagePotato that focuses on overlooked, underrated, or just plain awesome fight-centric films currently available on Youtube. For our first installment, we revisit the 2012 Irish bare-knuckle boxing documentary, Knuckle.
“It will never stop, but as long as no one else is hurt or killed, just let them fight and get it out of the way.”
So goes the emotional core of Knuckle, Ian Palmer’s twelve year exploration into the seedy underbelly of Irish bare-knuckle boxing, and more specifically, a perpetual, unresolvable feud between several traveling families that has revolved around the sport for over half a century.
That’s right, Knuckle is about pikeys — temperamental, occasionally drunk, and eternally irrational pikeys. But don’t be fooled, Knuckle isn’t all funny accents and caravans. Well, there *are* funny accents (the film is in English yet subtitles are required) and caravans abound in Knuckle, but the film just as much about the kind of ruthless barbarity depicted by Brad Pitt & Co. in Snatch as it is about family, loyalty, and tradition triumphing over reason. Essentially, it’s Snatch meets Hatfields & McCoys.
Spanning over a decade and focusing on three feuding families — The Quinns, the Nevins, and the Joyces — Knuckle is like a guerilla version of one of those gang-centric television shows you’d see Spike TV or the History Channel at 3 in the afternoon. Like the Hell’s Angels and Bandidos or the Bloods and the Crips, these three clans (and some outside, lesser-despised families thrown in for good measure) are locked in a decades-old rivalry with no apparent end in sight. Unlike the latter gangs, however, the families in Knuckle do not fight over territory or drugs; they fight “over names.” They fight for a diluted sense of honor and the “right” to take the piss out of their relatives while getting piss drunk with their *other* relatives afterward. Oh yeah, and the winning tribe also gets “some cash for the holidays.” It is as insane as it sounds.
What was the catalyst for all this violence? None of the families will say directly, but we do know that these rivalries often involve pre-taped, insult-laden callouts and, in the case of the Quinns and the Joyce’s, a drunken pub brawl that saw one Joyce killed and another Quinn convicted of manslaughter back in 1992. The Quinns and Joyces have been fighting across Ireland and England ever since, resulting in countless concussions and the death of a few along the way, all in the name of “honor.”
Knuckle begins in 1997, at the wedding of Michael Quinn McDonagh. Michael’s older brother James, a quote unquote “legend” of bare-knuckle boxing, is on the eve of the biggest fight of his life against Paddy Joyce. “He’s one man fighting a whole breed” says Michael of his brother, as James has been brawling with (and beating) Joyces for years now and years to come. In fact, should he defeat Paddy on this day, he will be left alone to live out the remainder of his days in peace with his family. So sayeth the Joyces, at least.
After defeating his opponent soundly, James declares that he is done fighting. “I never look for fights,” he says, “I’d love to see that being an end to it all but that just keeps it going. It’s sad to see that.”
Unfortunately for James, his brother Michael’s unkind words in the aftermath of his win would see his this come to fruition. Over the years that followed, James would be ridiculed, attacked, and at one point, shot, until he and his brother agreed to step back into the…uh…
cage ring mud road to fight again (although in Michael’s case, he is seeking redemption more than anything else). The feud would eventually involve everyone from the neighboring Nevin clan to “Big Joe” Joyce, the 50+ year old leader of the Joyces often featured in the aforementioned trash-talking tapes.
As with most stories that focus on gang rivalries, Knuckle is less about the day-to-day trials and tribulations of the clans themselves and more about the ultimate, heartbreaking futility of gang warfare in general. While the participants in Knuckle abide by the thinly-veiled rule of “fair play” during their spats, they also choose to engage in a method of dispute-solving that offers no actual possibility of a resolution. Regardless of who wins what fight, it’s only a matter of time until both clans are back at square one, fighting for a respect they can never possibly earn. Because although one side or the other may emerge victorious on a given day, the victories serve as little more than motivation for another generation to rise up to challenge the old and young alike, fueled by a hatred they can’t even begin to understand, a hatred that has been programmed into their systems from birth.
Like this year’s Academy Award-winning documentary, The Act of Killing, Knuckle is able to make a profound statement without making a statement at all, really. It presents an eye-opening look into a completely foreign world while remaining almost completely objective, allowing its audience to simply sit back and revel in the insanity of it all. But in a film full of bewildering scenes, the most poignant moment in Knuckle might just come from Palmer himself, who while filming a fight between Big Joe Joyce and Aney McGinley, each in their sixties, offered this straightforward yet revelatory remark about the heart of the film he was trying to make:
“I’d now been recording these fights for nine years, and here I was in the middle of a forest filming two grandfathers beating each other up.”