How did the unknown son of a former British heavyweight champion convince Russell Crowe and Ray Winstone to appear in a film about a long forgotten bare-knuckle boxer who died over 200 years ago? And why did it take 10 years to reach our screens? Luke G. Williams meets the remarkable Matt Hookings.
MATT HOOKINGS is – in his own words – “completely fried”. The 32-year-old from Newport, south Wales is sitting in a rental car in Malta, talking via Zoom, and although his natural ebullience shines through, it’s undercut by evident exhaustion.
We’re joined online by Julius Francis, the former British heavyweight champion who appears in the cast of Hookings’ film Prizefighter, released via Amazon Prime this month. Although directed by Daniel Graham, Prizefighter is very much Hookings’ baby; he’s the producer and writer and also plays the lead role of Jem Belcher, the bare-knuckle boxer who reigned as champion of England from 1800 until 1805.
Hookings’ existence has centred around the project for 10 years. Rejected by the British Film Institute “about ten times” as he scoured the film world for finance, Hookings kept pushing when many would have thrown in the towel. At one point, when no sales agents would touch a movie about a long forgotten bare-knuckle boxer, Hookings went straight to distributors himself and secured millions of pounds of pre-sales deals.
Everything in Hookings’ career has been achieved from a standing start. “I didn’t have any contacts in the industry,” he says. “I had to build my network from scratch. But that meant I had nothing to lose. And that made me want it more.”
Suddenly, Hookings’ phone battery dies and he disappears from Zoom. While I wait in vain for a reconnection, Julius Francis tells me: “I’ve never met anyone as dedicated as Matt. I’ve often told him to slow down, but still he works almost 24 hours a day. In the fight game you have to be all in and Matt is all in.”
It’s May 20, 2000, and Matt Hookings’ life is about to change forever.
He is 11 years old and his father – the former boxer and British heavyweight champion David “Bomber” Pearce – has just died at the premature age of 41. A crowd of 2,500 gathers for the funeral in Pearce’s hometown of Newport, where his iconic status is today memorialised with a statue on the riverside.
Pearce’s death was – most likely – linked to the health issues that forced his retirement from boxing in 1984, when the British Boxing Board of Control rescinded his licence due to abnormalities in a brain scan. Pearce had just lost a ferocious battle on points to European champion Lucien Rodriguez – who had extended the great Larry Holmes the 12-round distance a year earlier.
Pearce would spend years contesting the decision to revoke his licence, and later ill-advisedly participated in a series of unsanctioned contests, one of them against former WBA belt-holder, John Tate. The last few years of his life were spent in a fugue of ill health and epilepsy.
Despite the pain of losing his father so young, Hookings recalls him affectionately. “Predominantly he was very fun to be around,” he recalled. “He could be quite silly. Growing up in Newport I was Matthew Pearce but later I took my mum’s surname. If people see me around Newport they call me ‘Pearcey’ – in that world I’m still Matthew Pearce.
“I was fortunate in a way that I was young when my mum and dad split up and when he died. My brother was a lot closer to it all. My mum was careful to protect me so I wouldn’t be traumatised. My stepdad Richard Cain was also a great support and instilled in me a real work ethic.”
Drama was the young Hookings’ passion, not boxing. “I had no interest in boxing,” Hookings confessed. “After all, it was boxing that killed my dad.” Although there was no tradition of further education in his resolutely working-class family, Hookings fought his way to the University of Winchester and then the film industry, initially as a background artist and then as a stunt performer for two years on Hollywood productions, eventually building the confidence and contacts to set up his own company – Camelot Films – in order to make his own movies.
In 2012, fate brought Hookings back into contact with boxing when he was randomly approached by a stranger who declared he was “the spitting image” of “former boxer David Pearce”. After Hookings revealed that Pearce was his father, the stranger directed him towards a magazine article about his dad.
On the same page as the feature on David “Bomber” Pearce was a picture and article about Jem Belcher.
Around the turn of the 19th century James “Jem” Belcher was one of the most famous men in Britain. A prodigious talent, “The Napoleon of the Ring” was just 19 years, eight months and seven days old when he defeated Andrew Gamble on December 22, 1800, to become Champion of All England. Pierce Egan – the leading boxing writer of the day – assessed Belcher as “a perfect phenomenon in the gymnastic art – a mere boy, scarcely 20 years of age, putting all the celebrated heroes of the Old School at defiance”.
In June 1803 though – with Belcher at the peak of his powers – tragedy struck. Soon after the fifth defence of his crown he was playing ‘rackets’ at an indoor tennis court when he “received so violent a blow from a ball” that – according to one source – “it literally beat one of his eyes out of the socket”.
The injury forced Belcher into reluctant retirement, but the lure of pugilism proved too great. Desperately handicapped with only one eye, he fought three more times, demonstrating heart-wrenching bravery in each bout, but losing them all.
Rather like David Pearce, Belcher was lost without boxing. He lapsed into depression and alcoholism, dying, aged just 30, on July 30, 1811.
For a century, Belcher’s fame endured. In 1902, for example, P.G. Wodehouse declared that he was “the best instance of genius” in the history of the sport. By the late 20th and early 21st century, however, memories of the golden era of bare-knuckle boxing had faded from the collective consciousness. Men like Belcher, whose exploits once occupied national attention to an extent that boxers today could only dream of, were now little more than a historical footnote.
From the moment Hookings first read about Belcher, he was convinced that his dazzling but tragic career was potential cinematic dynamite. “He was way ahead of his time. He was smart and scientific and used his jab, speed, agility and technique rather than brute strength. There were also so many strange connections between Jem and myself – he died on my birthday, my mother and his mother were both called Mary, his great rival was called Henry Pearce, which was my dad’s surname. These connections all helped form a feeling that his story was one I had to tell.”
After extensive research, Hookings crafted a screenplay based on Belcher’s life. Naively, he assumed securing financing would be straightforward. “I thought when I told people the idea they would be hooked,” he laughed. “But they weren’t. Sales agents had no comparable titles because no boxing film had ever been set this early in history. I thought that was a good reason to make the film, but people would counter by saying it was a good reason not to make it! I soon realised no one was going to say: ‘let’s make this kid’s dream come true.’”
Changing tack, Hookings made a short film about Belcher’s life having scraped together a £20,000 budget and secured former boxers Julius Francis and “Big” Joe Egan among his cast. “It was a proof of concept piece,” Hookings explained. “I was really pleased with it, we had a plush screening at Warner Brothers. I thought someone would emerge and say: ‘here’s the money, go make the film.’ But no.”
Eventually, Hookings realised the only way to get Prizefighter off the ground was if he had a star or two attached. Through a friend – stuntman Steve Dent – he managed to get his screenplay to Ray Winstone and Russell Crowe, who had both worked with Dent in the past.
Winstone – a former amateur boxer with Repton Amateur Boxing Club – loved the script and signed to play boxer Bill Warr, who fought Belcher and later trained him. While negotiations with Crowe’s management continued, Hookings was heartened by promised financial support from arts organisation Creative Wales and was in the process of planning to make the film in his homeland when – at the last minute – the organisation withdrew their support.
“That was a low point,” he recalled. “My money was on the line and so was other financiers’ cash. We were in so deep. I spoke to a woman from Creative Wales on the phone and was crying and desperate. I was begging them to help me. I owed so much money and if the film fell apart I was f**ked and my credibility would have been shredded. I felt like I didn’t want to live. They still turned down the project, for no real reason other than a timing issue”
The breakthrough came not long after when Crowe finally signed, helping secure a large distribution deal with Amazon. “Russell Crowe’s team had said no to me three times,” Hookings recalls. “But I just keep pushing. One of my assistant producers said, ‘forget Russell Crowe and look for someone else.’ I said, ‘no, he’s gonna do it. Trust me.’”
Due to the lack of support from Creative Wales, Prizefighter was shot in Lithuania, filming beginning at the end of July 2020. Challenges remained, however, principally because Crowe was unable to travel to the shoot. Thus, by March 2021, the film was complete, but still missing its biggest name’s scenes. Crowe was stuck in New South Wales, Australia, where he had retreated during lockdown to spend time looking after his parents, including his father, who subsequently passed away.
“Russell’s section was the last section,” Hookings explained. “He was the most important part of the film commercially because my pre-sales and the deal with Amazon all depended on him. Finally we alighted on the idea of filming his scenes in Malta. I had connections there and I thought: ‘if Russell was going to go to one place in the world it’s Malta.’ He made Gladiator there – his trophy project.
“His team said no at first. But in the end I convinced him to come. It was only when he arrived that I realised two things: one, how much it meant to the people of Malta to have Russell Crowe back, and two, that Prizefighter was actually going to get finished.”
Crowe plays Jem Belcher’s grandfather Jack Slack in Prizefighter. Slack was a pugilistic legend in his own right, dethroning Jack Broughton as Champion of England in a savage spectacle in 1750.
Although the real-life Slack died before Belcher was born, in Prizefighter dramatic licence is used to employ him in a similar way to how the great Oliver Reed was utilised in Gladiator – as a grizzled veteran who lends the narrative heart, gravitas and pathos.
“Jack Slack played a crucial part in leading the way to the sport of boxing that we know today,” Crowe told [i]Boxing News[i]. “He came from a line of fighters who all made their stamp on the art of fighting. These aspects along with his textured personal life led the way for my approach in bringing him to the screen and back to life.”
Crowe saw [i]Prizefighter[i] as a chance to return to reconnect to his roots in risk-taking independent cinema. “I always remember how I came through the business myself,” he said. “All the films I did initially were low budget, small independent films with obsessed young filmmakers, so I know that world and I know that feeling. The challenge of what Matt Hookings has achieved and faced down here can’t be overstated.”
Hookings fondly recalled working with Crowe. “I had a really nice conversation with Russell in his trailer on his first day. The man just has so much life experience. I think he’s been through a lot in his life too, in terms of fighting for his art and what he believes in. Maybe he saw in me – this unknown kid – someone obsessive, driven and passionate, like he was when he began his career.”
Hookings is on stage in front of a packed crowd in Newcastle. Somehow, thanks to his limitless capacity for seizing opportunities where none seemed to exist, he has ended up as a support act for several shows of Tyson Fury’s ‘official after party tour of the UK’.
After being interviewed about Prizefighter, and showing off the trailer, Hookings joshes around with Fury off-stage. Clips of the meeting spread around Instagram, adding to the increasing hype surrounding Prizefighter within the boxing community and beyond.
Ten years after a kid from Newport set out on a crazy journey to bring the story of Jem Belcher to the screen, the culmination of his dream is now just a week or so away.
Later, away from the stage, away from the crowds, away from the madness of trying to work out how and where to fly Russell Crowe so his film can be completed, Hookings admits: “It still hasn’t sunk in really. People keep asking me: ‘how did you manage to get this film made?’ To be honest, I don’t know. Every single challenge you could come across, I came across. The film could, should and did crash so many times. But somehow I pushed through and never gave up.”
Suddenly, Hookings’ exhaustion seems to have evaporated and the kid from Newport is back. The kid with a dream that he just wouldn’t allow to die.