Regional | Tauranga

Inside New Zealand’s bare-knuckle fighting circuit: Amid a police crackdown, hopes of fame and fortune remain

Cannon Williams is an aspiring bare-knuckle fighter, but the sport he loves is illegal in New Zealand. Photo / Paul Taylor

The fights are blasted as brutal. The sport is slandered, shut out, pushed underground. Then one day, it’s on national television. The dizzy path to Mixed Martial Arts’ mainstream success is inspiring a vicious form of bare-knuckle combat currently illegal in New Zealand.

The organiser of a local circuit, and Flaxmere fighter Cannon Williams, are breaking the first rule of fight club to explain the sport they love to the masses, as police say they’re likely to continue to shut them down. James Pocock reports.

From the back garden to the world?

The bare-knuckle fights Thomas Peato organises have boxing rings, medics on hand, and a group of young men happy to take and throw a punch with their bare hands.

What they don’t have is New Zealand law on their side. Nor does Peato have a public venue willing to let him host the fights there.

Peato says he ran bare-knuckle fights in Tauranga in December 2021 and early 2023, following a model developed in the United States, the United Kingdom and Thailand, where bare-knuckle fighting is legal.

But police have since shut down his attempts to do more, including one just last month.

“We had to jump through a whole lot of hoops to get it off the ground,” Peato said of the first fight.

“We ended up having to have it at a private venue because we couldn’t get a council venue because of all sorts of complications.”

He said checks and balances were in place, including medics, to prevent harm to fighters.

“I’ve been involved in combat sports for about 18 years, so it is all about the safety of the fighters before the entertainment of the crowd.”

Peato said he felt police did not have a legitimate reason to shut down the April event, but he cancelled it anyway because he wanted to play it safe.

He said he was working on ticking every box he could and had a tentative date for later this year in mind.

“It is just like every other martial art that tried to come into the country and eventually did, they went through the same battles,” Peato said.

“When kickboxing first came into the country it was slandered and shut out, now it is on national TV. Same with MMA.

“The next one is bare-knuckle and we are at the forefront of this.”

Peato’s view is not one shared by police. They say the Boxing and Wrestling Act, administered by the Department of Internal Affairs, is clear.

“Any bare-knuckle boxing, regular boxing, or wrestling contest must first receive a permit from police,” a police spokesman said.

“A bare-knuckle boxing contest is unlikely to get a permit as it doesn’t meet rules set out in the Act or rule 6e of the Boxing and Wrestling Regulations which requires that boxing gloves be worn.”

A police spokesperson said when a December 2021 bare-knuckle combat event went ahead, police had not issued a permit for it, and it triggered them to look closely at the legislation.

“After police became aware of the event in 2021 we looked into the legality of bare-knuckle boxing in NZ.

“As a result of these inquiries, and upon becoming aware of a second contest, we contacted a person involved, which led to the second event being postponed.

“[We] spoke to a person involved to raise concerns that the event would be in breach of legislation including the Boxing and Wrestling Act and the Sale and Supply of Alcohol Act.

“The organisers of the event decided to postpone.”

Dreaming of a title

Flaxmere man Cannon Williams says when he steps into a ring with his bare fists he’s not just fighting his opponent, he’s fighting for his future.

The 29-year-old is trying to forge a career in bare-knuckle combat, one that he says could provide for himself and his four kids and give him an outlet to improve his mental health.

“When I was growing up I used to get bullied a lot. Then later on I took up boxing and when bare-knuckle came along I just went for that,” Williams said.

Williams grew up in Auckland and moved to Flaxmere in 2012 and began bare-knuckle fighting a couple of years ago after his coach introduced him to it.

In that time he has fought in and won two fights on Peato’s circuit and if he wins his next fight he will hold the ‘New Zealand cruiserweight title’.

But Williams said it was a “shock” when his title fight in April was shut down by police, despite the promoters trying to tick all the boxes.

“I have just been waiting so long and I just wanted to get this over and done with and move on.

“I wanted to give up, because the fights kept getting shut down or moved on, but the coaches and my brother kept telling me ‘Stay in there, stay in there brother’.”

Williams has big ambitions, in spite of the risks, and hopes to take his skills international so he can one day earn a living to buy a house for himself and his kids.

“My dad is telling me to stop doing the sport, but it is something I love,” he said.

“I am just trying to do something positive with my life instead of all that negative.”

He says there’s more of a chance of losing an eye in a bare-knuckle fight, but says longer fights with gloves, with sustained hitting, also have the potential to be dangerous.

Williams said he had a big support team behind him, and hoped he could stage his title fight sometime next month.

“My kids are already asking me, ‘Are you going to bring that trophy home to me, my trophy?’,” he said.

“I just hope the law allows this one to happen.”

Coach Russell Tangiwai said Williams was his only student who did bare-knuckle fighting.

“It takes a lot of heart to do that sort of thing and that is what Cannon has got. He is a man with heart, he is a hard worker and he knows what he wants to do. Especially when it comes to combat sports and the bare-knuckle scene,” Tangiwai said.

“I had approached a couple of my other students, but it was a bit too much for them.

“Cannon was the only one who put his hand up and put himself out there. That’s his game, and he’s really good at bare-knuckle.

“It is different to gloves and knuckles are a bit of a game changer. One punch and it’s all over.”

He described Williams as keen, driven and a hard worker, and said exercise was a good way for his students to “exorcise” their mental struggles.

He said Williams typically trained two or three times a week but did up to six days a week of training for a title which included sparring in a variety of disciplines and running every day when possible.

He believed Williams could make a career from his fighting.

“It depends on yourself really and how much hard work you put into it, like with anything we do in the gym or outside it,” he said.

“I believe if he puts in the hard work he can do anything he wants.”

‘Difference between a gloved hand and a non-gloved hand’

Craig McDougall, head coach and founder of Hastings Giants Boxing Academy, said bare-knuckle fighting was not a sport he was involved in and he did not know any locals involved.

But he said the popularity of “gladiatorial” combat sports like UFC had risen in the last decade and were likely contributing to interest in it.

He believes bare-knuckle is dangerous.

“There is a difference between a gloved hand and a non-gloved hand,” McDougall said.

“Outside of the risk of breaking your own bones in your hand, in terms of injury, the damage is, I’d imagine, shocking, and probably aligns with assault, where people are either knocked out because of the pinpoint impact and it is much harder to defend.

“Plus there is the risk of hitting your head when you land.”

He said boxing gloves have become larger over the years, creating a bigger surface area, and foam technology. Their density has also changed dramatically to improve safety.

“The lack of knockdowns in the amateur game now is partly due to the quality of the foam technology in the gloves.”

What are the rules of bare-knuckle fighting?

Russell Tangiwai says the rules of a bare-knuckle combat boxing match differ from typical boxing.

He says the major point of difference is that fighters can hold on in a clinch.

A clinch is a boxing technique. A boxer leans on their opponent while wrapping their arms and holding on to create a pause by preventing them from punching freely.

“In normal boxing, the referee will come in and break it up,” Tangiwai said.

“In bare-knuckle, you can clinch and strike in the clinch. You can do spinning attacks and stuff like that with your bare-knuckles.”

“You can grab hold of their neck and start punching them and stuff like that, whereas in boxing it is illegal. So there are a few modified rules you can do in bare-knuckle that you can’t do in boxing.”

He said hitting below the belt was still off-limits, the same as most combat sports, and kicking was not allowed.

Fights are typically made up of three two-minute rounds, although title fights are five two-minute rounds.

Tangiwai said most fights ended with a knockout rather than by decision due to the nature of bare-knuckle fights.

In Bare Knuckle Fighting Championship (BKFC) rules, the United States-sanctioned bare-knuckle circuit, fighters are permitted to wrap and tape the wrist, thumb, and mid-hand.

No gauze or tape can be within 1 inch (2.5cm) of the knuckles.

Only punches are allowed, no kicks, elbows, knees, or grappling.

Fighters cannot hit a downed opponent and knocked-down fighters have 10 seconds to return to their feet before the fight is stopped.

James Pocock joined Hawke’s Bay Today in 2021 and writes breaking news and features, with a focus on the environment, local government and post-cyclone issues in the region. He has a keen interest in finding the bigger picture in research and making it more accessible to audiences. He lives in Napier.

- NZ Herald