Last week Amazon Prime Video released the new epic boxing movie “Prizefighter: The Life of Jem Belcher”. The titular character was a real-life bare-knuckle fighter who held the title “Champion of All England” from 1800 to 1805.
Welsh actor Matt Hookings recently revealed to Express.co.uk how the film was a labour of love, how its production created unexpected connections with Hollywood A-listers Ray Winstone and Russell Crowe, and how it acts as a homage to his late father, David “Bomber” Pearce – otherwise known as “Newport’s Rocky”.
Let’s take a step back, though.
Over ten years ago Matt was approached by a stranger who told him that he looked just like an “old boxer from the 1980s” – his father. The pair discussed an article that had come out about Matt’s boxing legend father, before noticing another feature on boxing. This subsequent article told the story of Jem Belcher, one of the UK’s earliest bare-knuckle boxing champions from the 1800s.
Intrigued, Matt began looking into Jem’s life. And before long, he started to notice some similarities between the two of them.
“I was so drawn to him,” Matt confessed, even now through a Zoom screen, visibly in awe of the real-life sporting champion. “I thought it was crazy.”
He explained how there were three freaky details about Jem’s life that were almost identical to his own. He said: “[Jem] died on my birthday; his mum’s name is Mary – my mum’s name is Mary, and his last fight was against someone named Henry Pearce.” Pearce, as in the same surname as Matt’s father, David “Bomber” Pearce. “There’s probably some lineage tied through there somewhere,” he mused, before adding that he and Jem also shared similar height, weight, and body shapes.
The major difference between them, of course, was that Matt did not decide to become a professional fighter. “Because of my dad’s passing,” he explained. “Essentially through elements of boxing – I didn’t grow up going: ‘I want to be a boxer!'”
Instead, Matt turned to acting. Over the past 20 years, he has appeared in countless Hollywood blockbusters and built a prolific career.
But he couldn’t get Jem out of his head. And telling the story of a boxer through his own vocation was something Matt felt he could do to honour his own father’s legacy – especially when he found so many profound connections between him and this centuries-old warrior. Before he knew it, he was down the “rabbit hole” of researching Jem’s incredible life and career in the 19th century for a script.
Matt said: “I watched 160 boxing films from 1920 onwards and became a bit obsessed with this guy’s story … it really gave me this kick to tell Jem’s story.”
Over the following ten years, Matt wrote “around 300 drafts” of the script, wanting to “make it the best piece of work, so anyone who picked it up would just say yes to [making] it”.
But once the script was written, Matt’s real struggles began.
He had trouble finding the right people to finance and produce the movie. Especially when he also, ideally, wanted to play the titular hero as well (similar to how Sylvester Stallone pitched Rocky with himself in mind back in the ’70s). He went to countless production companies, endless meetings and schmoozing before he secured the money and logistical assistance he needed. But his issues didn’t stop there.
“I realised not many people really cared [about the movie],” he confessed, glumly. “Even if they put money into the film, they only cared about their piece or their bit of the puzzle.”
Eventually, Matt took complete control of Prizefighter’s production – everywhere except on paper. He recalled: “It got to a point where … I’m not crying wolf, but I did a lot of things on my own. And I wish the studio – or even Amazon, to a degree – came on board and said: ‘Bl***y hell, we know what you’re up against, we’ll give you some help.'”
But help didn’t come. So Matt threw himself into his work and fought to create the best piece of art he could. And while he is proud of the end result, the mounting pressures Matt put on himself affected him. “I had anxiety and panic attacks,” he said. “And all these kinds of things because I was acting for 12-14 hours a day, and I was solving problems and dealing with stuff and then going home. I remember counting between five and seven things a day that happened outside of acting that I had to solve.”
Unexpectedly, he found support in the Hollywood A-listers that he was acting opposite – Ray Winstone and Russell Crowe.
And, still, his father’s memory was ever-present.
“The first conversation I had with Ray he said: ‘All right kid? I knew your dad,'” Matt beamed.
Ten days later he learned that Ray was in the operating room with Matt’s father when he had a brain scan years before his death. “He must have known him pretty well,” he trailed off.
Crowe, equally, became a longstanding supporter of Matt, even after filming ended (“We play tennis together!”).
The support from these two Hollywood heavyweights – as well as his own sheer determination and resilience – gave him the added push to continue on with Prizefighter. But did the unexpected struggles of making Prizefighter leave a bad taste in Matt’s mouth? “It has made me reluctant to make another film, to be honest! It was such a traumatic experience. It almost killed me – and I’m a strong-minded individual who was trained as a boxer.”
Still, it may have all been worth it to run a few miles in his father’s shoes – in a manner of speaking.
Prizefighter: The Life of Jem Belcher is streaming on Amazon Prime Video now.