“CELTIC WARRIOR” BOBBY GUNN — In the late 1980s, when a young, seemingly invincible Mike Tyson was widely recognized as the “baddest man on the planet,” someone asked him how he thought he might fare if he were to swap punches with Evander Holyfield, the undisputed cruiserweight champion who was moving up to heavyweight.
“If we went down into a basement and locked the door,” Tyson sneered, “who do you think would come back up with the key?”
Tyson and Holyfield eventually did fight, twice, but in a boxing ring while wearing padded gloves, not in some bare-knuckle brawl in a locked basement, or an alley, or an abandoned warehouse, or on a barge. Let the record show that Holyfield won both times, although there are more than a few Tyson supporters who are steadfast in their belief that their favorite unhinged wild man would have emerged victorious in any duke-out unencumbered by such hindrances as referees, judges, commission overseers and ring physicians.
In the uniquely violent world of the itinerant ethnic group known as Irish Travellers, a bit of ear-gnawing, which got Tyson disqualified in his rematch with Holyfield, likely would have drawn winks of tacit or outright approval from spectators, not condemnation from a higher authority charged with the responsibility of ensuring that more civilized rules of engagement are adhered to.
Perhaps, under different circumstances, Bobby “The Celtic Warrior” Gunn, defiantly proud descendant of Travellers on both sides of his family, would be favored to make short work of the faded remnants of once-great Roy Jones Jr., whom he faces in a scheduled 12-rounder Friday night at the Chase Center in Wilmington, Del., for something called the vacant World Boxing Federation cruiserweight title. If word-of-mouth tales of his unsanctioned, bare-knuckle scraps are to be believed, the 43-year-old Gunn has won his last 72 such confrontations, all by knockout. He might not be quite as renowned as the original “Gypsy King,” Victorian Age legend Jem Mace, or the current successor to Mace’s legacy, former heavyweight champion Tyson Fury (who supposedly will be flying in from England to be at ringside, as will reigning WBO middleweight titlist Billy Joe Saunders), but Gunn long ago established his bona fides as a man you wouldn’t want to bet against in any fight staged under the sort of almost-anything-goes conditions in which the toughest of the Travellers have thrived for centuries.
But professional boxing is almost genteel by comparison, likely putting Gunn (21-6-1, 18 KOs) at a disadvantage against the 48-year-old Jones (64-9, 46 KOs), a future first-ballot inductee into the International Boxing Hall of Fame. Even if Jones is this close to running on empty, he has won 10 of his last 11 bouts, albeit against mostly second-tier opposition, and he’s facing someone, Gunn, who’s coming in on a three-fight losing streak and 38 months of inactivity, at least in the kind of pugilistic contests that get listed in BoxRec.
Gunn, however, said that this could be his last, best chance to gain more widespread legitimacy for the kind of fighting that has made his clan feared and reviled throughout Europe, and to a somewhat lesser extent in North America. The Irish Travellers are gypsies, here-today-and-gone-tomorrow wanderers who once moved about in caravans of horse-drawn wagons, but have since upgraded to car- and truck-drawn trailers. In legend and in lore, they are societal outcasts, their nomadic lifestyle sung about by Cher in Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves and depicted in such movies as 2001’s Snatch, starring Brad Pitt as a Jones-sized Traveller who flattens much larger men with a single blow.
Strictly speaking, neither Gunn nor Tyson Fury is as adherent to the Traveller image as their forebears in that they have had the temerity to sink roots into a particular place. The Furys call Manchester, England, home these days, and have for some time, while the Gunns have settled in Hackensack, N.J. But just because a Traveller doesn’t move around as much as tradition dictates doesn’t alter the fact that the fuel that heats their pugnacious blood is always set to high flame.
“Travellers have been persecuted for thousands of years. Even now, as the heavyweight champion, no matter what I achieve, or who I beat or what country I represent, deep down I’ll always be a dirty gypo ’cause every country a Traveller goes to, they’re hated. They’re the most hated race of people on Earth ,” said Fury (25-0, 18 KOs), whose WBA, IBF, WBO and IBO championships, won by virtue of his upset of long-reigning titlist Wladimir Klitschko on Nov. 28, 2015, were subsequently vacated for inactivity stemming from cocaine abuse, in a Jan. 26, 2016, segment of HBO’s Real Sports With Bryant Gumbel.
Gunn has also felt the sting of prejudice, if not always as blatant as that described by Fury. He was born and raised in Niagara Falls, Ontario, after his parents emigrated there in search of the kind of acceptance that was in precious short supply back in his father’s homeland of Scotland and his mum’s native Ireland. He said he has been called, at various times, such derogatory words as “gypo” and “pikey.”
“To call a Traveller a `pikey’ is like calling an African-American the ‘n’ word,” Gunn said. “In England, to this very day, in certain restaurants they have signs that read, `No dogs, no pikeys, no gypsies allowed.’ We’ve been persecuted like Jewish people were in Nazi Germany. Nothing ever comes easy for us.”
Little wonder then that Gunn began fighting at the tender age of six, and turned pro at 16. He has had a good if not great career with gloves on his hands, winning the fringe IBA cruiserweight title on a seventh-round stoppage of Shannon Landberg on Sept. 16, 2016, in Hayward, Calif., and sharing the ring in real bouts or in sparring with 27 world champions. Although he came up short in his three most recent pro bouts, he notes that his opponents were Tomasz Adamek, James Toney and Glen Johnson, all former champs. Two of those defeats – against Adamek and Toney – were inside the distance, but, like a bloodied and battered Jake LaMotta told Sugar Ray Robinson after Robinson’s 13th-round TKO victory in the final installment of their six-bout series, in neither case was the winner able to knock Gunn off his feet.
So now it’s on to his twice-postponed shot at Jones, whom he holds in utmost respect despite mounds of evidence that the Pensacola, Fla., fighter is edging ever closer to the exit from the ring wars he probably should have slipped through years ago.
“How many times have you seen an older fighter show up and give a glimpse of what made him great in the past?” Gunn asked, rhetorically. “On a given night Roy could possibly do that. If I didn’t respect him as if he was going to come in at his best, I would be a fool. For two to three rounds, Roy can still mix it up with the top fighters in the world.”
Gunn was to have squared off against Jones 10 years ago and again three years ago, but in both instances the matchup failed to materialize.
“Me and Roy first were supposed to happen 10 years ago,” said Gunn. “It didn’t happen. Three years ago we came close, but he pulled out. I was disappointed, but they say the third time’s the charm. Maybe for me this is the best time. Actually, it is the best time. When Roy was the Roy everyone remembers, I couldn’t carry his jockstrap. But this is my time. I feel younger and fresher and stronger.”
And if Friday night’s fight was of the bare-knuckle variety, without three-minute rounds and all the other rules and regulations that give boxing the veneer of civility that the underground circuit presumably lacks? It is an intriguing thought, not unlike that of pairing Floyd Mayweather Jr. and mixed martial arts superstar Conor McGregor with rules that allowed McGregor some latitude to kick and grapple. Might not that give a decided edge to Gunn, the guy with a purported 72 straight knockout wins and who last year was pronounced as the “first bare-knuckle boxing champ the U.S. has seen in more than 120 years” by Men’s Journal?
“That’s what people around me calculate, but, truthfully, it might be more like 80,” Gunn said of the 11 years he spent out of pro boxing and engaging in the rough-and-tumble pastime of the Travellers.
“You have to understand, any bare-knuckle fight I ever done was not a barroom brawl. I was very good at bare-knuckle boxing because I am a gypsy Travelling man. My people are born-and-bred fighting men. Fighting is a religion to us. My great-grandfather was a champion bare-knuckle fighter, as was my grandfather and my father.
“I’m kind of the poster boy for bare-knuckle boxing. I put it on the map. I do believe that bare-knuckle boxing will eventually become a sanctioned, legitimate sport. I mean, why not? At my fights I have seen Mafia members, politicians, judges and lawyers. They watch a good fight, then go about their business.”
Once upon a time, not so very long ago, mixed martial arts was banned in many parts of the United States and was denounced by Senator John McCain as “human cockfighting.” But some of that sport’s more jagged edges were smoothed over, public acceptance was gained and its leading promotional outfit, UFC, recently sold for a staggering $4 billion. If it could happen for MMA, why not for the manner in which Travellers settle disputes, earn some spending cash and affirm their manhood?
It would be a fight that might not be so easy to win in America, where Irish Travellers are still a splinter group with little or no political clout. In 2011, Tim Lueckenhoff, then the head of the Association of Boxing Commissions, called illegal, bare-knuckle bouts “abhorrent, barbaric, egregious, in contravention of a multitude of federal, state and tribal boxing laws and regulations, and perhaps, criminal.” And this from the Commission on Itinerancy, appointed in the Republic of Ireland in 1960, which found that “public brawling fueled by excessive drinking further added to settled people’s fear of Travellers.”
The U.S. census does not presently recognize Travellers as a separate ethnicity, and estimates of the group’s numbers vary from 10,000 to 40,000 because few births are ever recorded in any state or point of national origin, in part because gypsies by their nature aren’t nesters. But despite all that, Gunn has managed to amass 200,000 followers on Twitter and he expects at least a thousand Travellers, or those sympathetic to the group’s cause and plight, to be in the Chase Center to cheer him on against Jones.
“I ask no quarter and I give no quarter,” Gunn said. “I’m going to fight my gypsy heart out.”
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