Butterbean Turns 50: Pass the Cake (and a Slab of Ribs)

Butterbean. Turns 50 – Perhaps it was just a coincidence, but there was a late-night showing on cable TV on Aug. 1 of one of my favorite movies, “Forrest Gump,” which I watched in its entirety for what must have been at least the 10th time. It’s the Academy Award-winning 1994 film (Tom Hanks received his second Oscar in the lead role) about a slow-witted, kind-hearted and athletically gifted Alabama country boy who, by chance or fate, happened to be a participant in or witness to many of the most notable events of a 30-year span in the 20th century.

In many ways, the real-life story of retired heavyweight boxer Eric “Butterbean” Esch mirrors the fictional tale of Forrest Gump, the main exception being that the erstwhile “King of the Four-Rounders” is uncommonly bright for someone not blessed with the advantage of an extensive formal education. Where Gump’s most obvious trait was his below-average IQ, that shortcoming failed to hinder him throughout a remarkable life’s journey which proved, as if there ever was any doubt, that first impressions aren’t always the most accurate gauge of whom and what any human being is, or can become.

For Eric Esch, frequently bullied as a pudgy child growing up in Jasper, Ala., the first thing that is noticeable is his massive girth. He is, and always has been, fat. But, like Gump, who rose to renown in the fictional town of Greenbow, Ala., a remarkable set of circumstances enabled the really large kid who came to be known as Butterbean to tap into a hidden talent that would make him moderately rich and even more famous. That talent was the ability to knock a succession of other large men (although not nearly as much so) cockeyed, and so what if most of his victims were third- and fourth-tier types who were fed to The Bean as if they were so many barbecued ribs?

Aug. 3 marks the estimable Mr. Esch’s 50th birthday and, although it has been a little more than three years since his final bout, a loss to Kirk Lawton in New South Wales, Australia, that saw The Bean retire after the second round with shoulder pain, he waddled into well-fed retirement from the ring with a 77-10-4 record that included 58 victories by knockout. That number is all the more impressive when you consider that of his 91 pro fights, all but one were scheduled for four rounds, meaning his demolition work had to be done in a hurry. Including late-career dalliances in kickboxing and mixed martial arts, Butterbean’s overall combat-sports record stands at 97-24-5, with 66 wins inside the distance.

And while it is easy for skeptics to dismiss Butterbean as a freak show, a carnival act promoted by Top Rank impressario Bob Arum in much the same manner that legendary 19th-century huckster P.T. Barnum made major attractions of a dwarf he renamed General Tom Thumb, an immense African elephant called Jumbo, and opera singer Jenny Lind, “the Swedish Nightingale,” it is difficult to sell the sizzle unless there is at least a bit of meat attached.

The most notable entry on The Bean’s resume as a professional pugilist came in his one and only scheduled 10-rounder, on July 27, 2002, in which he was paired against long-reigning former heavyweight champion Larry Holmes. And while “The Easton Assassin” – in what proved to be his final bout — might have been 51 years old and, at 254, a good 25 pounds over his prime fighting weight, the fact he was unable to put away his 334-pound opponent was  shocking to boxing purists. Although he lost a unanimous decision, Butterbean managed to win some rounds and even registered a dubious knockdown in the closing seconds of round 10.

Eric Esch was a 400-pound-plus itinerant installer of flooring in prefabricated homes in Addison, Ala., when several co-workers challenged him to enter a local Toughman contest. He did so, on a lark, but the 5-foot-11 ½ youngster was obliged to pare off 20 or so pounds to get down to the weight limit of 400. He did so, primarily subsisting on a diet of skinless chicken and butterbeans (“which I hated,” he later admitted), and, to his surprise, and that of his buddies who urged him on with cries of “Butterbean! Butterbean!” the nickname stuck.

With his shaved head and considerable corpulence, Butterbean became a bit of a sensation, compiling a 56-5 record, with 36 KOs, on the Toughman circuit, albeit against assorted civilians who once had beaten up a classmate in fifth grade and figured they could somehow summon their inner Sonny Liston. Arum figured – with some justification – that a novelty act, if sufficiently distinctive, would be as valuable an addition to an undercard as a legitimately talented pro that wouldn’t add much to a promotion’s bottom line and would cost more to pay, anyhow.

Thus began the era of “Beauty and the Bean,” in which Butterbean often found himself on undercards along with lovely Latina fighter Mia St. John, a bit of eye candy who was once featured in a Playboy magazine pictorial. Butterbean and St. John quickly gained prominence as the lead-in to some of Oscar De La Hoya’s pay-per-view bouts in the mid- to late 1990s.

“I knew how they were marketing me,” St. John said years later, after her association with Top Rank had ended, as had Butterbean’s. “I don’t blame them. I was what you’d call a willing victim.”

After winning his first 15 pro fights, including 10 knockouts, The Bean – who, it should be noted, had even gotten down to a career-low 300 pounds for back-to-back fights, against Louis Monaco and Mitchell Rose, in 2015 – was surprised in losing on a second-round stoppage to Rose on Dec. 15 in Madison Square Garden, on the undercard of a Top Rank show headlined by De La Hoya’s two-round quickie over Jesse James Leija.

Considering it was his Garden debut, Butterbean was devastated to lose to the likes of Rose, who, despite having been a New York Golden Gloves champion as an amateur, had gone in with a nondescript 1-7-1 pro record, with just one KO victory. So incensed was Arum by the damage done to the Butterbean brand that he soon severed his relationship with matchmaker Ron Katz, whose job it was to find fighters unskilled and crystal-chinned enough to be added to the corpulent crusher’s roll call of the doomed.

“Beating Butterbean at the Garden was my version of the Thrilla in Manila,” Rose said in 2005. “I still get a lot of respect for that fight. I surprised a lot of people. It was fun to piss a lot of people off and spoil the show.”

Not one to stay down in the dumps for long, Butterbean consoled himself with bigger servings of his favorite comfort foods, and the notion that, at a relatively svelte 300 pounds, he was too undernourished to wreak the kind of damage he was accustomed to dishing out. So his weight began to creep up, slowly at first, then on an elevator straight to clogged-arteries country. For that final fight, the loss to Lawton, he came in at a career-high 426½ pounds. But by then he was 46, and acknowledging of the fact that there can indeed be too much of a good thing.

Was Eric “Butterbean” Esch a total fraud, or was there some legitimate skill encased in that ponderous body? Making it to the end of 10 rounds against Holmes suggests the latter, but The Bean admits to feeling insulted when the Miami Herald, in its Oct. 31, 1999, editions, claimed to have evidence that more than 30 Top Rank fights over a 12-year period had predetermined outcomes. Many of those fights, the newspaper said, involved Butterbean. A formal investigation, however, failed to prove any of the supposedly tainted fights were fixed.

“I was in damn good company in that investigation,” Butterbean said in January 2009. “They had George Foreman’s name on it, and other big-name fighters, too. In my opinion, Top Rank never rigged fights. But did they overmatch fights? Yes, many times. They do it in MMA and in every sport.”

While there are those who refuse to believe that Butterbean had even the tiniest trace of talent, be advised that more than a few of those who felt his power said he was a strong a puncher as they had faced. Remember Louis Monaco, the guy he whacked out in one round? Well, Monaco had wins over Peter McNeeley, Michael Dokes and Kevin McBride, and he also squared off against Vitali Klitschko, Buster Douglas, Michael Grant, Trevor Berbick, Lamon Brewster, Kirk Johnson, Monte Barrett and Fres Oquendo. If Monaco says The Bean had a sledgehammer for a fist, consider it so.

Is there another wide-bodied version of Butterbean around at present? And if not, might there be one to come along in the future? Doubtful, although some would say “Bronco” Billy Wright – who is 51, with a 52-4 record (43 KOs) – is an improved version. Bronco Billy, though, is 6-foot-4, and has never fought above 325½ pounds and has had only two scheduled four-rounders in his entire pro career. The Las Vegas-based Wright, who currently holds the FECAR Box and WBC Latino heavyweight titles (he fights mostly out of Bolivia), grunts in dismay when anyone dares to compare him to The Bean.

“If you think I’m a bum or a joke, say it to my face,” Wright, whose mood is decidedly less jovial than Butterbean’s, told me in November 2015. “I guarantee you won’t be laughing long. I can knock out anybody on the planet, with either hand. I can knock them cold. I train to break people’s ribs. I train to make their heads rattle so much that they don’t wake up for three minutes.

“OK, so I have a belly. So what? I don’t kid nobody about that. I like my sweets. Look, I know the public wants to see Calvin Klein underwear models that can punch like King Kong. But you don’t have to be an Adonis to be a heavyweight boxer.”

If there is any athlete whose disproportionate proportions, and amiable nature, approximate those of The Bean, it would have to be former Chicago Bears defensive tackle William “The Refrigerator” Perry, recently profiled in a “Where are they now?” story in Sports Illustrated. The 6-2 Fridge, who was in the 330-pound range when he was a member of the 1985 Bears’ Super Bowl championship team, is still livin’ large in his hometown of Aiken, S.C. – maybe too large, at a reported 450 pounds, an alcoholic and diabetic whose his NFL wealth is gone.

I was not able to get in touch with Eric Esch for this story, to find out how he is doing. His not inconsiderable nest egg – during his heyday, he was pulling down $50,000 a fight, and he fought frequently – might still be mostly intact, but his restaurant, Mr. Bean’s Barbecue and Steak, reportedly has closed. Here’s hoping that he is happy, healthy and able to enjoy the fruits of a life that, by all accounts, was Gumpian in most respects, which should be taken as the compliment it was meant to be.

Butterbean Turns 50