LONG before I saw Eric Esch fight in real life, I knew him only as ‘Butterbean’, considered him a genuine heavyweight contender capable of beating the likes of Larry Holmes and Lennox Lewis, and would often select him, just for the fun of it, whenever the time came to play one of my brothers on Knockout Kings, an early noughties computer game.
In that realm, on that game, there was no limit to the things Butterbean could do. When in the mood, he could load and land fight-ending haymakers with the speed it took others to throw a jab. He could go 10 and 12 rounds and not take so much as a deep breath. He could defeat world heavyweight champions with a single shot. Basically, in my hands, he looked the part, half his gut covered by stars and stripes shorts, and played the part too.
“I played it a little bit back then,” Butterbean told Boxing News. “Without a doubt it was an honour (to be included on it). It was a huge game.
“But the game before that was called Toughman Contest and I was actually the main player on that one. I was on the cover. That was before I even turned pro (in boxing). How many fighters do you know that have a video game before they even turn pro?”
In time I would learn Butterbean wasn’t quite the heavyweight contender his spot on Knockout Kings suggested, much less some fighting machine destined to one day make his way to a gold belt. Instead, when finally watching Eric Esch in action I realised his appeal was significantly narrower than I had first assumed and that his ‘King of the Four-Rounders’ reputation lent itself wonderfully to button-bashing computer games but was less serviceable when it came to winning fights – actual fights – against top heavyweights.
One thing that did remain, however, was the American’s relatability. He was a hefty guy in real life, even bigger than he appeared on a computer game, and had, I later discovered, only decided to enter the world of fighting because a gaggle of work colleagues dared him to enter a Toughman competition to prove, well, his toughness. To do so Esch had to drop 20 pounds – he was initially too heavy to enter – yet accepted the challenge and got to work on losing the weight and then winning the competition.
“I was just an average guy who would sit at home and watch the football game on TV eating hot dogs and popcorn and drinking beers with my friends,” he said. “But then I entered the Toughman contest and thought, Hey, this isn’t so bad. I think I can do this.
“A thousand dollars, when you’re making two hundred dollars a week as a mobile home manufacturer, came in handy back then.
“I lost the weight eating butterbeans and chicken. After that the name – Butterbean – just stuck. I still eat them occasionally. Funnily enough, the biggest company back then was Libby’s and my wife’s name is Libby.”
Much like a computer game, Butterbean entered the tournament and was forced to battle his way through several players in short, quick fights, essentially watered-down versions of what you might find at a boxing event.
“All the tough guys, or the ones who thought they were tough, would get together and put gloves on and go three one-minute rounds to see who the toughest man was in that town,” he explained. “You would fight once the first night and then four to five times the second night.
“Fighters came to fight. With one-minute rounds, you had to fight hard and quick. If you didn’t, you wouldn’t have a chance. It wasn’t a case of thinking, Right, I’m going to win on points. It was more a case of, Right, I’m going to knock you out and move on to the next fight. Or at least that was my mentality anyhow.
“I have good memories of that time.”
Thanks to his name, his look and his story, Butterbean soon became one of the more recognisable and iconic figures on the Toughman circuit. Opportunities, because of this, followed, including a prime spot on the Toughman Contest video game, and it wasn’t long before talk turned to him trading Toughman fights in Arkansas for professional boxing matches. Deemed a smart move, it would allow Esch the chance to branch out and maximise the power of his brand in a sport built on larger-than-life characters and knockout punchers.
“I just wanted to make as much money as I could,” he admitted. “Most of the fighters think they’re tough guys and have something to prove, but I really didn’t. I just wanted to make as much money as I could and still be able to walk and talk and be able to communicate with people after the fight game.
“I looked at it only ever as a business. I believe that’s what a lot of fighters need to do nowadays instead of thinking they’re the toughest guy out there and trying to prove it. They need to look at it as a business venture, because that’s what it is.
“I wanted it to be exciting for everybody, including myself. I wanted to have a lot of fun doing it. If you’re not having fun at your job, there’s no sense in doing it.”
Butterbean turned pro in 1994 and won all of his first 15 fights, 10 inside schedule. He would weigh between 300 and 330 pounds and would make the weight count. The punches were heavy. The knockouts they produced even heavier.
“It’s like a rush,” he said when describing a knockout win. “I never did drugs, but it would be similar to somebody being on a high from a drug. It’s an overwhelming feeling when you hit someone solidly and they go down and you know it’s over. It’s just a great feeling.”
One of the few Butterbean-related misconceptions is that he was little more than a face-first brawler with flab-fuelled power but not a sliver of technique or intelligence. This can be easily disproved, though, with a fleeting look at his highlight reel, which includes some cleverly orchestrated power shots, the odd cute counterpunch, and the kind of head movement nowadays lacking in so-called legitimate heavyweight contenders.
That said, there were limitations to Butterbean’s capabilities, just as there were limitations to his ambitions. “I had to work out hard because of my size,” he said. “A lot of people didn’t think I trained because of how I looked but I did. I trained very hard. Taking a four-hundred-pound man and making him go four rounds, or 10 rounds against (Larry) Holmes, is a remarkable feat.”
Butterbean fought Holmes in 2002, some 10 years after Holmes had lost a WBA, WBC and IBF heavyweight title fight against Evander Holyfield. The ‘Easton Assassin’ was 52 years of age at the time but still the best and most decorated technician Butterbean had fought in his 10-year pro career. It told on the night, too, as Holmes, in his very last fight, outboxed Butterbean and strolled off with a decision verdict at the bout’s conclusion.
For Butterbean, that night at the Scope Arena in Norfolk marked the first and last time he would go beyond four rounds and, tellingly, left him feeling more frustrated than tired.
“When I fought Larry Holmes, he didn’t want to fight,” Butterbean recalled. “He just wanted to jab and run. I should have known that was going to happen because that’s what he was famous for.
“Him running was frustrating. I never really watched videos of other fighters, but Holmes I watched and in pretty much every fight for three or four rounds he would exchange with his opponent. With me, though, he would never exchange. He’d never just get in there and slug it out.
“He hit me with a real straight right in the second or third round, probably the best punch he had, and I looked at him with a smile and said: ‘Is that the best you’ve got?’ I think I scared him. I think that’s when he decided he didn’t want to get in there and bang with me. He knew he couldn’t hurt me.”
Though a naturally laidback, softly spoken character, Butterbean comes alive when the topic of Holmes and their 10-rounder is raised. In addition to it being the fight he is asked about more than any other – a department store set-to with Jackass star Johnny Knoxville aside – there is a suspicion he feels Holmes’ scalp was the one he wanted to authenticate a hard-fought pro career. Call it the one that got away.
“I showed him no respect because he didn’t come out like a champion,” Butterbean added. “He didn’t come out to win properly. He just came out to beat me on points. My view is that he should have wanted to come out and knock my head off. Finish it so there is no doubt that you won. Don’t just leave it to the judges like that.
“I regret that Holmes didn’t want to stand there and bang. I wish I had taken a different strategy and gone at him harder. But in boxing you can’t ever tell until it’s over with.”
Butterbean’s own respect wouldn’t come as a byproduct of titles won or standout victories. Rather, it arrived because of the numbers and the longevity and the degree to which he entertained. As well as 91 pro boxing matches, and countless fights in Toughman, Butterbean, 77-10-4 (58) as a boxer, would also go on to prove his toughness and knockout power in both mixed martial arts (28 fights) and kickboxing (seven), cementing his reputation as quite the fan favourite.
“I was doing them all at the same time,” he said. “I would have an MMA match somewhere and then a boxing match two weeks later. I actually once fought three fights in one month – one in Hawaii, one in Los Angeles and one in China. One was kickboxing, one was MMA and one was boxing. It’s kind of crazy.
“In MMA the guys came to fight. It was more to my advantage. They wanted to fight my kind of fight. They wanted to go out there and bang and they were in deep trouble whenever they did that with me.”
Whether he was using fists or feet or was flat on his back attempting to escape the holds of seasoned grapplers, Butterbean remained a popular figure. He was, depending on your tastes, both a promoter’s dream and a fight fan’s dream. His look was arresting and his power, if able to make it count, nothing short of debilitating.
He was aware of this, too, just as he was aware of his limitations, and would showcase his personality and haymakers in short fights, becoming known more for highlight reel knockouts than Fight of the Year contenders.
Promoters, of course, were more than happy to facilitate the approach.
“Back when I was fighting there were a few fighters, like myself, who, win or lose, people just wanted to watch fight. Arturo Gatti was another one. Micky Ward as well,” he said. “Whether they won or lost, it didn’t matter. People still came out to see them fight. They were exciting.
“A lot of fighters don’t want to be known as entertainers but in the big picture that’s exactly what they are. They are there to entertain the people who bought a ticket. Those guys didn’t go for the sport. You don’t see a lot of people support amateur boxing matches because they are boring. It’s not exciting to watch. It’s like watching grass grow.”
These days Eric Esch, now 53, spends the time he once dedicated to eating, training, fighting and travelling with his family or in his wood shop working. He admits he has lost track of the sport which defined him and that he is no longer interested in seeing boxers avoid fighting – properly fighting – in the name of self-preservation and the relative safety of a decision victory. With boxing, as with life, he prefers to remember how things used to be.
“I was the underdog. The guy who couldn’t do it. The fat kid who was never supposed to do anything in life. And I proved them wrong,” Butterbean said. “That’s why a lot of my fans said, ‘Hey, if this guy can do it, I can do it.’
“In America they say you can do anything you want. You can become President if you want. Well, I never had any ambition to become President – in fact, I don’t like politics whatsoever – but it’s true that you can do anything you want to do if you put your mind to it. That’s not just in America, either. That applies to most places in the world.
“Kids nowadays have it made compared to us. It’s almost sad to see how easy they have got it and how they seem content to just stay in and play video games and communicate on their phones.
“When I was a kid, we went outside and played with rocks. We would skim rocks across the water and play in the mud. We had fun with life.
“The most exciting video game we had when I was a kid was Pong. It was two little sticks and a little ball, and it went beep, beep, beep. That was it. That was as exciting as it got. No wonder we all wanted to run to the woods and play with the snakes and frogs.”
As a kid, Eric Esch passed the time playing Pong, while years later I, and other kids my age, did the same with Knockout Kings and a heavyweight slugger called Butterbean. It was simple. It was straightforward. It was occasionally dumb. Yet, much like the man’s actual career, never was it boring.