Lewis Carter 25 July 2023

#BeautifulViolence #Documentary #BareKnuckleBoxing #Poet #BKFC #JamesLilley #Miami #OnLocation #FineRollingMedia #MakingPowerfulConnections



From the creators of the viral bare-knuckle documentary, LEGACY, comes a new BKFC story with a fresh perspective on the sport. James ‘Lights Out’ Lilley is on his way to the top of the world of bare-knuckle boxing. He lets his fists do the talking in the ring. But, outside of it… he expresses himself very differently.

A published poet, Lilley is the founder of the Drunk Poets’ Society—a performance poetry group made up of, fighters and everyday working people in need of a place to express themselves when the ‘dark times’ get on top of them.

James founded the society after years of hiding his passion for poetry and storytelling. No longer content to live a double life, our story traces his journey in the ring and how his passion for poetry has influenced his rise to the top of the world of BKFC, and some of the complications that have arisen from his two passions colliding.

Side-eye and Signatures

James Lilley’s right-hand snaps back and forth in the lobby of the Wyndham Garden Hotel, Fort Lauderdale, Miami. I’ve been embedded stateside with the Lilley camp for little over twenty-four hours and there’s been hardly any talk of the upcoming fight. The biggest fight of Lilley’s life. In fact, the vibe so far has been more lads holiday than pre-fight tension.


Lilley shakes his wrist—releasing a jolt of cramp. His hand is moving again within a second. I shift the camera and push in on his knuckles. Between them, he holds a black marker. Most fighters would look out of place scribbling behind a desk. But as a published poet, Lilley looks at home signing the fight posters in front of him. In this moment, I realise I’ve stopped thinking of him as a fighter. It’s clear that Lilley is many things: a father, a husband, a published poet, ‘one of the boys’… but with his down-to-earth, easy-going persona, it’s easy to forget that this man is capable of intense violence.


I’m about to turn the camera off when a staticky wave of tension fills the room. Lilley glances up from the desk as his upcoming opponent for the BKFC Lightweight Championship, Luis ‘Baboon’ Palomino, exits the media lounge. I snap wide instinctively to capture the first in-person meeting between the two men scheduled to trade blows. There’s been no beef to speak of between these two in the build-up to the fight, but in the world of bare-knuckle, I’ve seen first-hand how quickly things can boil over.


Ever the gent, Lilley extends a hand towards Palomino. The Peruvian reigning champion accepts the handshake. The two men exchange a nod. The whole encounter is over in the space of a moment. Lilley returns to his signing. My camera is tight on his face. Through the monitor I see his eyes flick up towards the retreating Palomino. In that subtle glance, I finally see beneath ‘James Lilley the nice guy’, beneath ‘James Lilley the poet’. I see a promise of violence. I see… ‘James Lilley the fighter.’

Between Two Worlds

The brief exchange confirms my first impression of the Welsh fighter when I met him at the Fine Rolling office a month ago. I’d read a few of his poems in preparation for our first meeting, and, of course, watched a few of his fights online. It takes little time to understand that James Lilley is a man that walks between two worlds. Composing syllables and arranging stanzas by day, while breaking teeth and shedding blood by night. It’s this contradiction that drew us to Lilley as a potential subject for a documentary in the first place.


What scares me more? Fighting or standing in front of people reading my poems? Oh, the poetry is far more scary.” Lilley tells us during our first meeting. It’s a bizarre statement at first. But as a writer, I can sympathise with the numbing fear of putting your raw work out there for others to judge. Then again, I haven’t been punched in the face for a fair few years. For Lilley the distinction is clear. He’s a Swansea boy born and bred. Growing up, playing sports and scrapping was commonplace… sharing your feelings through art was not.


That being said, Lilley is no stereotypical street thug who dragged himself out of the gutter by using his fists. He did well in school. Really well, apparently.

That boy got straight A’s all through school! I love him to bits!” The father of his best man tells me over a few beers after the fight. His work ethic and intelligence landed him a top job as a software engineer. A job he often turns up to with bruises or a fat lip.

It was something I was ashamed of at first. I’d kind of hide it growing up.” Lilley hides nothing anymore. Everyone I speak to from his camp knows the question of poetry will come up. Most of them have been to one or more of his readings at The Drunk Poet’s Society—a group he founded for everyday people to share their words, talk about the struggles they may be going through, or just enjoy a few readings over a pint.

I saw him talking to this woman at the bar after his last fight in New Orleans,” his manager (another James) tells me soon after I touch down in Miami. “She was talking to him for ages. I said, ‘Lilley, what were you talking about?’, ‘Oh, she just wanted to ask me about my favourite poem.’ I turned to him and said: ‘You’ve just won the biggest fight of your life and you’re talking about poetry?’. But, hey, that’s Lilley!” He smiles before launching into his trademark machine gun laugh. A sound that soon becomes to soundtrack to this trip.


But he’s right. That is Lilley. The common man with the lethal touch. Soon after our first meeting, he calls to tell us the title fight is on. He’s travelling to Miami ASAP to prepare. Not only that. His bout had been selected as the main event fight. We started looking at flights of our own later that night.

“F**k, it’s Hot, innit?”

I touch down in Miami International two days after the Lilley camp. When I finally catch up to him at the hotel, he’s coming out of what I can only describe as a Lilley-shaped hot water bottle designed to make him sweat as much as possible—something I’ve not had trouble achieving myself trudging from the airport with all the camera gear. It’s all part of his weight-cutting regime designed to ensure he’s in the correct category specified by the BKFC authorities. If he misses his required weight… he’s back on a flight to Townhill leaving a sold-out event without a title fight.


Lilley is not himself when he comes out of the heat bag. He looks gaunt and drained of his usual spark. Although, “He does have abs for the first time in his life.” Coach James sniggers. After a quick shower, I film him hitting the scales for the official, private weigh-in. It’s not a particularly dramatic scene. He knows he’s on weight. When the BKFC rep registers his weight and confirms the fight can go ahead, his spark is well and truly back. In fact, he looks like he can go the full five rounds on the spot. I wonder if Palomino knows what’s coming for him. I hope not.

The Shard of Ice

My hope for a Lilley victory only grows over the course of the next few days. As filmmakers, we’re often reminded that we need to keep a cool layer of detachment from our subject. To remain somewhat objective in the heat of the moment. To capture the ‘truth’. To have a shard of ice in your heart when it comes to dealing with the people you’re filming. I find I’m struggling with this more than ever on this project. I’ve spent multiple hours with this man by now. A man who has a similar background to me. Who was brought up less than thirty minutes from where I was. Who has a similar passion to me in his writing. I want him to win. But, more importantly, I don’t want him to get hurt. Lilley would hate this train of thought. His pet peeve of the trip so far has been well-wishers back home texting him, ‘how are you feeling?’ messages.

It’s just another day in the office,” he reminds me when I ask him how his family feel about him being over here in the lion’s den. “I could get hurt crossing the street, at the end of the day.” I’d chalk this up to bravado from any other fighter, but after watching Lilley prep for the fight, it feels genuine. Either that, or my shard of ice is melting in the Miami heat.


As soon as I’ve had this thought I’m presented with the only moment on the trip in which Lilly’s steely determination falters. He’s had his first meal after weight cutting and his body is rejecting the food and the ridiculous amount of fluid his nutritionist has prescribed. This close to the fight, the tension is also ramping. I have a decision to make: Push further for dramatic results or leave him be. A slither of cold returns to my chest as I ask for more. I know he won’t refuse—he’s too nice of a guy. We press on. It doesn’t feel right.

Smile. It’s Free Therapy

The ceremonial weigh-in approaches. Lilley has rallied from his nausea in time for the face-off with Palomino in front of a generous crowd and the gathered press, at the prestigious Harley Davidson Dealership a few miles from his hotel. After being so close to the Lilley Camp, it’s the first taste of the circus that is a BKFC event that I get. As the main event match, Lilley is up last. I watch fighter after fighter take to the scales and stage. Each doing their own version of a pre-fight psych-out. It’s theatre. It’s showmanship. It’s all very… un-Lilley-like. As I scramble to get the best angle, I have no idea what version of Lilley will step out to face Palomino. Lilly’s Texas-based Canadian manager, Remington ‘Remi’ Steele (no not that Remington Steele) looks like he’s pondering a similar question and he bites his nails in a Swansea City top waiting for Lilley to emerge.


Most fighters are US or even Miami-based. So, it’s strange to hear the overhyped voice of the announcer bellow the words, “And now, all the way from Swansea, Wales… James ‘Lights Out’ Lilllleey!”

Lilley stalks to the scales with all the confidence of a fighter on home turf. As I track with him, I hear a wave of Welsh voices behind me. There’s only a handful of Welsh supporters out here—but in the large showroom, they’re all I can hear. After his weigh-in, I watch Lilley stare at the title belt modelled by one of the scantily clad ring girls. It’s probably not what my eyes would be on in that situation, but there’s only one thing on James’ mind. That belt is coming back to Wales.


It’s Palomino’s turn to hit the scales. The home crowd cheer as he enters, but after the raw authentic, underdog cries of the Welsh supporters, it feels a little forced.

I think he’s going to try and intimidate me.” Lilley had told me hours earlier when I asked him how he thinks this moment will go down. True to form, as the two fighters face off in the middle of the stage, Palomino glares at the Welshman. Lilley doesn’t blink. The president of BKFC attempts to usher them away from the stand-off. Nobody moves. Then Lilley does something I hadn’t expected. He grins at the Peruvian with violent delight. The room feels the shift in tone. Lilley has delivered a clear message: This may be your home. But I belong here too.

All on Red

The next day I head to the fight venue ahead of the team to get some establishing shots of the extravagant Hard Rock Hotel & Casino. The glass-covered building is shaped like a guitar. I have to trek over five minutes away from the hotel to fit the monolith in frame. I’m fighting jet lag delayed by the adrenalin of the trip at this point, and staring at a venue that looks like it belongs on the Vegas Strip reminds me just how far we’ve come from home.


I follow Lilley around the Casino floor in the build-up to the fight. He’s as amazed as I am at the enormity of the place. What’s even more surreal is seeing posters of his face dotted around the casino floor. As I mentioned, Lilley is a software engineer. Most of his time is spent programming gambling machines on the Bridgend Industrial Estate. The machines here are much bigger. Everything here is bigger. Including the weight of expectation he’s carrying on his shoulders.


After a team meal, I step away from the guys for a while to allow Lilley some chill-out time without a camera in his face. I grab an extortionately priced Miller Light and walk the casino floor once more. Alone. Gambling’s never been one of my many vices, so it’s a little sickening to see so many people part with so much of their money so quickly. I finish my beer and stare at the blackjack tables. As the wheel spins I once again wonder about the ramifications of the outcome of the fight. Palomino is the clear favourite—plus he has home advantage. As the wheel slows and the white ball lands on red, I imagine what it will be like to watch Lilley draped in the Welsh dragon walking out to a hostile crowd. The image fills me with pride. Fuck home advantage. I’m betting on red too.

Beautiful Violence

I don’t want to talk about much more of the build-up to the fight and the fight itself here—as I know the documentary will tell that story for me. I said in the opening of this blog that Lilley is more than just a fighter. In the same spirit, this documentary will be about far more than just fighting. There are many roads this documentary could take. Much like the urge to both create and destroy that lies at the heart of who James Lilley is as a man, in order to take the road we believe in, we much destroy all other avenues.


As I prepare to travel back home post-fight, that process has already begun in our heads. We hope you’ll join us in watching the result when it’s released. The title of our film, Beautiful Violence, is, of course, another contradiction. Which is fast becoming the main theme of the film. As I wrap up my time in Miami, another theme has become clear… authenticity. Over the many hours I’ve spent with the Lilley camp in the US, I never once witnessed any of them compromise who they are and where they’ve come from in the face of a daunting new city, that perhaps, they would never have stepped foot in if not for Lilley’s fighting talent. Even moments before the fight in the dressing room, the team are talking shit and bantering in true Welsh fashion as if they’re in their local boozer. And why shouldn’t they? They have as much right to be here as anybody—including Palomino.


There’s nothing left to do but punch face.” Lilley tells me as I prepare to leave the team to set up ringside. This may be true, but the legacy of their time in Miami won’t be defined by a single fight—no matter the outcome. They’ve already succeeded in bringing a bit of Welsh authenticity to a country and a sport that often celebrates style over substance. And, I have no doubt they will succeed in bringing a little of that Miami magic back home with them for their fans and you the viewers to bask in.


Stay tuned to the Fine Rolling Media social media channels for news of the release date for Beautiful Violence.

They want blood and you oblige,

Dancing to a beat,

Bare fist cracks like a whip,

Crooked teeth split lip swollen knuckles,

Beautiful violence an art form,

Where to destroy is to create […]

Bleed for This by James Lilley