The new heavyweight champion Tyson Fury is said to be related to a legendary figure called Bartley Gorman who was for decades the bare-knuckle champion of the world. I was at Gorman’s funeral in 2002, a day that lives long in the memory. This is what I wrote at the time.
‘How many Gypsies are coming?” asks the shopkeeper. There are 400, maybe more, walking through the rain from town church to village graveyard, following a horse and cart. On it is the big coffin of Bartley Gorman, self declared King of the Gypsies and undefeated bare-knuckle boxing champion of Britain and Ireland.
The shop has been closed and its metal shutters drawn by the time the funeral procession arrives. Gorman was used to people fearing him, but he was also charitable. He might have chosen to take this closure as a sign of respect.
“He was the finest man to take his shirt off in the last century,” said Sid Smith, who used to spar with Gorman. “He fought anyone who challenged him for 40 years, and there are millions of travelling people out there.”
Smith has the wary eyes of a man who has been in a lot of fights. He speaks softly and scans the crowd, his throat protected against the mist by a red silk scarf. Mourners have come to Staffordshire from as far away as Newcastle and Ireland, and they include one or two big lads who quietly fancy themselves for the title. “They’re fighting each other in cages now, you now, in Milton Keynes.” The thought makes Smith shake his head.
The Gypsy life has altered a lot in the 57 years since Bartley Gorman’s father rode out to fetch a midwife on his stallion, One Eyed Jack. She sat behind him, riding bareback, all the way to the caravan.
Four plumed horses with traditional carts lead the way to Rocester church yard. They are the only traditional sights an outsider would recognise, aside from the long hair and earrings of the older men. The roads around here are jammed with four-by-fours. We walk to the grave to the sound of My Sweet Lord as villagers watch from their gardens. Somebody throws a pair of red boxing gloves in with the coffin, which is ironic. Gorman’s son Shaun is a rugby player with no interest in fighting to be King; even if he had, he’d probably not say so. Most Gypsy champions prefer to keep silent, to avoid silly challenges. Bartley Gorman V, on the other hand, was a showman, inspired by seeing Cassius Clay on a newsreel in 1960. “He tried to be to the Gypsies what Ali was in America,” says Peter Walsh, who helped Gorman write a book about his life, which will be published next month. “Nobody else would stand on the back of a truck at the races and say: ‘I’ll fight any man here’.”
He had flaming hair and the same sense of self as an actor or pop star, which made him the centre of attention. Gorman was unusual, too, in being so warmly embraced by his adoptive home, Uttoxeter. His name appears on a monument alongside other “town achievers” such as Joseph Cyril Bamford, founder of JCB, the heavy machinery company.
“He will be sadly missed,” Marilyn Betts, a town councillor and former neighbour, said. “I admired him and looked up to him. A lot of people tarred him as being a Gypsy but I got on really well with him. He was very jolly. He spoke his mind.”
Gorman had his first bare-knuckle fight at the age of 12, but he made his name by challenging the reigning champion in 1971. A meeting was arranged for Doncaster Races, according to Peter Walsh. “Bartley walked into the Park Royal Hotel and said: ‘I’m here to challenge Uriah Burton or any other man on the race course’. Thousands of people came to look, because these big fights never happen in public. Most Gypsies have never seen the top men fighting. There was pandemonium.”
But Burton didn’t show up. “I think Bartley called his bluff. So he abdicated.” Gorman beat his rival, Jack Fletcher, at a fight in a quarry in 1972 and was recognised as the Gypsy champion of Britain.
The title guaranteed trouble. Its holder was duty bound to fight anyone who challenged him. Tradition dictated they should hammer on the door of his trailer before dawn. In practice, many men tried to surprise him over the years, in pubs or at the races. The champion of Yorkshire ambushed him at Doncaster with a gang of followers, all carrying iron bars. Gorman was unconscious for a year, but went back to the race course and challenged all comers again. “That affected him emotionally,” says Walsh. “He was a man for a fair fight, but they were trying to kill him.”
His most brutal challenger was a character called the Staffordshire Wolf Man who bit the champion on the face and would not let go. Gorman bit back. “The bare knuckle world is not as romantic as people think,” says Walsh. “It’s not often that two men square up to each other in a ring. They might have a fight in a pub, one of them might be drunk as a lord. The crowd is pushing, people join in. The end is always messy.”
Formal fights are rare. They take place in secret to avoid the police. “There is no doctor. Nobody’s going to break it up. There might be a referee, but nobody listens to him. There’s no ring, no rounds, just supporters crazed with adrenaline, and who knows what sort of weapons they’ve got?” Gorman once fought down a coal mine, by the light of miners’ lamps. His last challenge was by Freedom Lee, at Badger’s Holt on Dartmoor in 1997. He was over 50 years old, but won with a single punch.
All these and many other stories are told again at The Lions pub as night comes and the ale flows. There is talk about how Gorman at his peak could easily have beaten “that animal” Mike Tyson. A few years ago he offered to challenge the boxer to publicise his book, but was persuaded against it.
The King did once have to defend his title, on the day he buried his brother. Funerals have often provided the setting for challenges. But this wake is subdued. Many mourners make for home early. It is as though the defeat of their friend, father, grandad, and champion, by cancer, has taken all the fight out of them.