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FF2011: James Quinn McDonagh Shows His 'Knuckle'

Bare knuckle bruiser talks fair fighting and boxing Tim League

By Richard Whittaker, 7:00AM, Mon. Sep. 26, 2011

'Knuckle' star James Quinn McDonagh (right) on director Ian Palmer:
'Knuckle' star James Quinn McDonagh (right) on director Ian Palmer: "We trusted that if this film was ever going to come out and to be done, he was going to do it the right way."
Photo by Richard Whittaker

Ever since Fantastic Fest announced that Tim League would facing James Quinn McDonagh in the boxing ring, there was a collective gulp. After all, the star of the brutal bare-knuckle boxing documentary Knuckle is famous for feuds that last years and fights that last hours.

The annual Fantastic Debates are a festival institution: A round of debate, and a round of boxing. This year, the topic for discussion and then pummeling: Who's Tougher – Texans or Irish.

Maybe League was feeling cocky after his (a-hem) draws against Uwe Bohl in 2009 and Michelle Rodriguez last year. But, come on, McDonagh knows what he is doing, so this time everyone expected less Thriller in Manilla, more 'Please Hammer, Don't Hurt 'Em.' Mercifully, McDonagh took mercy on the South Austin Slugger, who lives to run cinemas and kiss his baby girls another day.

As a man who has reached notoriety for bare-knuckle boxing, McDonagh is soft-spoken, polite, spent Saturday night being a hit at the Highball, and then subjected himself to the rigamarole of dealing with the press on a Sunday morning.

Last week, our own Marc Savlov talked to documentarian Ian Palmer about getting access to the sometimes secretive and guarded world of the Irish Travellers. Knuckle is actually his third documentary on their culture, and centers solely on the tradition of fair fighting, a regulated but illegal form of bareknuckle boxing intended to settle feuds between clans, or Names as they are known. Now McDonagh gives his side of the Knuckle story.

Austin Chronicle: Is Tim League the worst boxer you have ever faced?

James Quinn McDonagh: He should stick to his day job. No, Tim's a nice guy. I had great fun with him last night and we met up for a drink after it. It's a great invitation to come to the film festival, and it's the opportunity of a lifetime, and the trip of a lifetime, and I've really enjoyed Austin.

AC: Over the 12 years of filming, you and Ian must have formed a fairly close relationship.

JDM It's never happened in a traveling community before where an outsider was accepted in to video. We wouldn't initially accept anyone into our lives. We're a very close-knit family. We're a very close-knit community, and to accept someone in with a camera was a very big thing for us. I met him at my brother's wedding, and we built up a very fast friendship. I had a fight coming up after my brother's wedding, I was let down by our camera guy, we were told he was a camera guy, we asked him to do it and he said yes. From then on, Ian was at fight after fight, and he was interested in doing the videoing and doing the training. Getting the female side of it, getting the kids' side of it, and involving everyone. he built up a lot of trust with a lot of our people, and the Joyces and the Nevins. He got inside a lot of us, and we trusted that if this film was ever going to come out and to be done, he was going to do it the right way.

We wouldn't open up to anyone and everyone. If people sees that I've got a friend, when my family, my mother and father, brothers, sisters, sons, wife, seen that I spoke to Ian and trusted him and invited him to the fights, invited him to parties, wedding, do's, he videoed all that. I was his friend, he met the extended family, he became friends with them and he basically became family. Because we trusted him, that opened up a new door for him every time.

AC: Some sequences are filmed outside of Ireland, in England. Does it make any difference fighting overseas?

JDM: When Michael [McDonagh] fought Paul Joyce in the beginning, he fought him outside Dundalk in County Louth. Michael lost that fight. So if someone challenges you and you accept the challenge, you get the choice of ground and location. With Paul and Michael's second fight, Michael sent for the challenge, Paul accepted the challenge on the grounds that Michael comes and travels to him. It was alien territory for us, first time we'd fought out of the country. We had to do that, but we chose a referee that we were happy with. So when we had the right referee to your job, and the right video people to do the job, you've just got to worry about the guy in front of you, regardless if you're fighting in Dublin, Ireland or on the Moon.

AC: There is a long history to the fair fights, and the film covers 12 years of your time in it.

JDM: When I started fighting, after the initial first fight with Ditzy Nevins, I had to accept it, but after that the fights started coming in chain reactions to me. And I was accepting each fight hoping that each fight would be the last, and after this fight, win or lose, we'd shake hands and walk away. That was the agreement every time until I kept winning and kept winning. They put me on this pedestal, at the beginning, saying, 'We're gonna beat you.' They put me on it, talk all about me, and when I got a certain distance and they couldn't beat me, they just kept pushing more guys, hoping to push me off this, and it just didn't work our for them.

AC: Part of the film is this video challenges, sent to taunt you into a fight.

JDM: The messages.

AC: What role do those message videos play, and have they sped the feuds up?

JDM: A few years ago, before the technology came out, if a Traveler wanted to fight another Traveler, he would get a neutral person to go down and carry a message, and that person would be running back and forward. Nowadays, you just get on the phone, go, 'I hate you,' get on Facebook, get a little video going and send it out. It's so easy now, especially if someone send a video out and taunts you or asks you to fight. It's been distributed, it's for the whole of Ireland to see, and it's harder to refuse, because people will look at you as saying you're afraid to fight this guy. A few years ago, people wouldn't hear about a fight being sent, you'd say no, and that's be it. It'd be forgot about.

Fantastic Fest presents Knuckle, Monday, Sept. 26, 2.45pm. But first, let's catch the highlights of the nights pugilistic endeavors.: And yes, they do include Tim begging. Sensible man.


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