Julius Francis and Joe Egan are troublemakers. 

As soon as the topic of stepping into the ring came up with the man who put the pair of ex-boxers in his upcoming film “Prizefighter,” Matt Hookings was on the hot seat.

“I want to fight now,” said the star of the film, which chronicles the life of bareknuckle fighter from the early 1800s, Jem Belcher. “I’ve got such a bug for it.”

“Do it, do it,” said Egan.

“If you don’t do it, you’ll always regret it,” said Francis before Egan jumped in again, this time even referring to their interviewer’s brief (literally) visit to the ring in the 1997 New York Golden Gloves.

“It’s the greatest feeling in the world,” said Egan to Hookings. “You’ve done it on screen. Now do it for real, pal. Win, lose or draw, that walk to the ring…he only lasted 63 seconds in the Golden Gloves, but so what? The fact that he done it and climbed into the ring is the best feeling in the world. And nothing in life will faze you. If you could walk that walk to the boxing ring, there’s nothing in life will faze you.”

Given the preparation that went into making “Prizefighter,” as well as the grueling and realistic fight scenes, you have to imagine that should Hookings step into the ring, he’ll be just fine. Then there’s also his bloodline, as he is the son of former British heavyweight champion David Pearce. 

Dubbed “The Welsh Rocky,” Pearce never got the chance to realize his full potential, as he was banned from the sport by the BBBofC due to an irregularity on his brain scan that was later proved to be congenital. Despite his appeals, the ban stuck, and he was forced to relinquish the title he never lost in the ring. More than six years after his final bout against Lucien Rodriguez in 1984, Pearce fought an unsanctioned bout in the United States, lost it, then fought two more unsanctioned bouts in 1994, most notably stopping former heavyweight champion John Tate in three rounds. Tragically, Pearce would pass away in 2000 at the age of 41.

Needless to say, given his father’s experience in the sport, Hookings had no intention of carrying on in the family business.

“I never actually liked boxing growing up,” he said. “My dad basically passed away from it, so it wasn’t like, ‘Hey, let’s go and be a boxer.’ It was the kind of thing to avoid, actually.”

And he did, but while working on a film around ten years ago, a chance encounter changed the trajectory of his life and career.

“A guy in his 60s came up to me and said, ‘You look the spitting image of this boxer that I used to follow in the 1980s; his name is David Pearce.’ This guy was rubbing his eyes, and saying, ‘You can’t be him because he’s not alive.’”

Hookings shows me a pair of photos, and father and son look like twins. After being told that Hookings was Pearce’s son, the older gentleman went on to say how he just read a story on his dad and that there was a sidebar on bare knuckle boxing.

The actor got to reading, and after going through the story on dad, he discovered Jem Belcher.

“I got hooked straight away,” he said. “The youngest ever champion at 19, blind by the time he was 22 and dead by the time he’s 30. And I just became engrossed in that. I found myself doing two years of research, checking court records and reading books, anything I could get my hand on. And there wasn’t much about him.”

Whatever there was, Hookings found, but when he began writing what would become “Prizefighter,” he did it with no intention of playing the role of Belcher himself, until some fateful coincidences changed his mind.

“We are the same height and weight,” he said. “He died on the 30th of July, which is my birthday. His mum’s name was Mary, and my mum’s name is Mary. I said, this is getting too much. The fight he had with Henry Pearce, which is dubbed the forgotten Fight of the Century, Henry Pearce is from Bristol. I’m originally from Newport, which is like 20 minutes away from Bristol. And he fought Henry Pearce with the same spelling of the last name as my dad.”

He was really all-in now, but being dedicated and getting a film made are two different things. Yet as he began trying to get interest, he put the gloves on.

“I started training as a boxer,” Hookings said. “I was coming home with broken ribs, a broken nose. I was training with professional boxers, I was training with Lee Selby, and I became good at it. I trained for four years, so when the time was right to make the film, I was more than ready. I wanted to take a punch.”

He would take a few from Francis. 

“We wanted to make it as real as possible. And when Julius just touches you…”

Enough said. But I did ask if the former British champion pulled his punches.

“Julius did,” laughed Hookings. Others weren’t so lucky, with one stuntman leaving a fight scene with Francis with a cut over his eye and a broken finger.

“I was absolutely horrified in myself,” said Francis. “It was crazy.”

But like Hookings said, authenticity was key, and you don’t get more authentic than Francis and Egan, a former boxer best known for amateur fights with Lennox Lewis and Bruce Seldon, as well as sparring sessions with Mike Tyson that prompted “Iron Mike” to call the Irishman the moniker “The Toughest White Man on the Planet.”

Is that still the case, Joe?

“I’m not even the toughest white person in my house,” he laughs. “But what a compliment from a man like Mike Tyson.”

Tyson is a common link between Egan and Francis, with Francis getting stopped by the former heavyweight champion in 2000. And when the two get talking, it’s best to sit back and listen.

“Tyson knocked me down five times,” said Francis. “I wasn’t able to get past the second round. But he was a prolific puncher, you know yourself.”

“I say that if Mike Tyson missed you with a punch, you’d get pneumonia from the draft,” countered Egan. “People didn’t give him credit for the speed that he had and the movement that he had and the skill that he had.”

Just like people don’t give credit to fighters like Egan and Francis for what they brought to the sport. No, it wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows, but each had a love for the game that remains to this day, and they’re rightfully proud of their accomplishments.

“When I became a professional fighter, that was my goal, to become British champion,” said Francis. “And I actually won the British title over in Belfast. I was obviously the out-of-town fighter, but the crowd, regardless of where you came from, they appreciated a good fight. After I won the British title, if I never fought again after that day, I achieved my goal. But, on the same hand, I looked at the Lonsdale belt and I said, ‘I don’t ever want to let this go.’ Winning the Lonsdale belt outright and having that as part of my legacy in the sport of boxing, I’m more than appreciative. It’s there forever as far as I’m concerned.”

“I wasn’t skillful,” said Egan of his boxing journey. “I was just tough because I had years of bullying. All my life boxing, I only ever had one tooth knocked out, but I got two teeth knocked out by the bullies. So I had a hard upbringing because we came to England from Ireland when I was a child, and I got bullied because I was Irish. And then I picked up the English accent and when I went to Dublin, I got bullied there because I had the English accent.

“But I love the sport,” he continues. “To me, I was very privileged to be in the sport because to me, it’s the greatest sport in the world. You travel the world, and they might not be kicking a soccer ball, they might not be bouncing a basketball, but there will be a kid punching a bag. And boxers are modern-day gladiators. Years ago, they went into the gladiatorial arena with a spear and a sword; now we enter with gloves on. To me, they’re the finest athletes in the world, the finest people in the world. And if you listen to the stories, most of them have the same humble beginnings. We’re fighters trying to make a better life in the sport that we love.”

“I had a hard upbringing and tough,” added Francis. “And most come up the same way.”

The conversation moved to the greatness of Larry Holmes and, of course, the recent incident that went viral when Francis was forced to subdue a rowdy patron while he was doing security work. Cleared of any wrongdoing, Francis is a bit sheepish when the topic comes up, but Egan isn’t as shy when talking about his mate’s one-punch knockout, saying that it was perfect publicity for the release of “Prizefighter.”

“Since you’ve done the film, it’s time to throw that right hand,” he laughs. “It might not have happened if it wasn’t for that film ‘Prizefighter.’”

“Don’t mention that,” said Francis, who, at 57, still packs a punch.

“The last things that fighters lose is their punch and the knowledge,” he said. “We have this knowledge we’ve acquired over all these years and the last thing to go is that knowledge, and you will always carry a bit of experience. And yes, we have these younger guys that come through, but with these older fighters, older fighters always know one slick, sly trick that they can pull out.”

“I was laughing,” said Egan, who was just getting started. “They could have been counting ‘1…2…3…4.’ That guy, they might as well have been counting, ‘Monday…Tuesday…Wednesday.’”

Laughter all around before Egan delivers the knockout blow.

“You done him a favor. When he woke up, his clothes were back in fashion.”

Now no one can even talk as the laughs flow. It’s obvious that there’s a bond among the three, so when both were approached about the film, they were in. Hookings made a short film in 2016, “The Birth of Boxing,” to try to get attention on the project, but it wasn’t until 2021 that filming for “Prizefighter” finally commenced. And Egan and Francis were right there with him.

“The loyalty that these two men gave me,” said Hookings. “I did a short film where I was completely unknown in 2016, and the film didn’t get made until 2021, so we waited a while, but to have them come back in…”

“If a man doesn’t have his word, he’s got nothing,” said Egan. “Matt said to me, ‘Joe, you’re gonna be in the feature.’ And roll the clock on and I’m in the feature. And the same with Julius. I’m very, very privileged to be in it, it’s a fantastic story of a sport that we love.”

“Being a fighter myself and knowing where that history comes from, it makes it even more touching,” adds Francis. “I’m privileged to be involved in the movie.”

So are a few big names, including Russell Crowe and Ray Winstone, but this is truly Matt Hookings’ baby, and he can’t wait for the world to see it.

“There’s so many real moments in this film,” he said. 

Next stop, the ring. 

“We’ve got to keep Matt motivated,” said Egan. “Matt, you’re gonna walk that walk soon, pal.”

Prizefighter airs on Amazon Prime in the U.S. and U.K., beginning on July 22

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