He’d already been all over the globe, made a small fortune, and become a world-famous one-name wonder before the sport of mixed martial arts came calling. And he isn’t shy about admitting that he answered for one reason: money. But somewhere along the way, the man known by millions around the world as “Butterbean” gained a new respect for the sport that many in the boxing world view as the archenemy.
“MMA is such a diffi cult thing,” he says. “A lot of people who don’t watch don’t understand that’s it’s a mixture of sports: boxing, jiu-jitsu, wrestling, judo, karate, etc. And if you don’t know at least three or four of those disciplines, you’re in trouble. When I fought Genki [Sudo, in his fi rst MMA match], I realized that.”
Esch transitioned from boxing into kickboxing. Eventually, he was approached by the promoters of K-1 Premium Dynamite!, a 2003 New Year’s Eve show held in Japan that featured both kickboxing and mixed martial arts matches. Even though he’d never done any sort of groundwork or grappling, he didn’t hesitate to take the bout.
“At my size, when you’re offered a lot of money to fi ght a 180-pounder, you’ve gotta do it,” he says. Sudo, who actually competed in the 155-pound division — thus giving up over 200 pounds to his opponent — submitted Butterbean via heel hook in the second round. But a funny thing happened to the Alabama native on his way back to the United States. “Even though the weight difference was phenomenal, [Sudo] had the skills to be dangerous.
That, along with me being able to last into the second round, kind of hooked me on the sport,” he says.
Few athletes have combined the elements of contemporary American pop culture as completely as Eric Esch. He’s had his share of controversy, criticized as a novelty act and embroiled in allegations of match fi xing. He had a diffi cult childhood, losing his mother when he was just eight years old. He was the fat kid everyone picked on. He worked a blue-collar job. And on a dare, he ended up capturing the nation’s imagination in a contest he managed to catch at the height of its popularity.
The fi rst step to fame and fortune isn’t always a logical one. Some people write a book, or make a record, or these days, post videos of themselves on YouTube, like Kimbo Slice. Some people merely walk through the front door of their blue-collar job.
The world might never have heard of Butterbean if it hadn’t have been for his time at the Southern Energy Homes plant in Addison, Alabama. The then- 420-pound Esch worked a full-time job decking fl oors for manufactured homes. His colleagues dared him to enter a local Toughman contest, which required him to lose twenty pounds to meet the competition’s weight limit.
“My buddies at the plant paid the entry fee, and it wasn’t refundable, so I had to lose the weight,” he says. “The promoters said, ‘you can back out or you can miss making weight, but you ain’t getting your money back.’” Esch made weight. Just a few seconds into his fi rst match, the friends that staked his entry fee, unwittingly sending him on his fi rst step to fame, began chanting the key ingredient in his diet.
“Butter-bean! Butter-bean!” The rest of the crowd, thinking it was his nickname, followed suit. There was only one problem: Esch hated the butterbeans he’d forced himself to eat. “My friends knew they were pissing me off by bringing up the butterbeans, and that would only make me angry and make me take it out on my opponent,” he says. “And so I knocked him out, and became Butterbean in the process.”
Butterbean would go on to win the tournament, and within the course of just a few months, he would win the Toughman world title in a bout broadcast on Showtime pay-per-view. With a big right hand that became one of boxing’s biggest highlight producers, and an oversized personality to go along with his unique nickname and bluecollar persona, it wouldn’t take long for pro promoters to come knocking.
“I didn’t realize I was that good,” he recalls. “I just had a great time. Heck, I could knock people out and not go to jail.” He eventually signed with Bob Arum’s Top Rank promotion. And that was where the next happy coincidence of his career happened.
In his fi rst fi ght with Top Rank, like many young boxers at the beginning of their pro careers, he was scheduled for a short six-round fi ght, but because of television time restrictions, the swing bout was changed to a four-rounder. The fi ght ended in an early KO. The next time out, the same scenario unfolded, and Butterbean again ended the proceedings with a fi rst-round KO. It was then that Arum decided his talents were best used in short, explosive fi ghts. And Butterbean, “King of the Four-Rounders” was born.
“I was getting paid the same for doing less work, so I loved it,” he says with a laugh. “And it made for a better, more exciting fi ght for the fans, because when you don’t have to worry about going deep into a fi ght, you don’t have to worry about conserving energy. You can be really aggressive.”
Within a few bouts, he would become one of the most famous fi ghters in the world. Soon, his highlights were appearing on sports programs around the country, and after a fi ght in which he accidentally knocked the referee out cold, he became a regular guest on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. In April 1997, on the undercard of an Oscar De La Hoya/Pernell Whitaker match, he knocked out Ed White to become the IBA Super Heavyweight champion. He would go on to fi ght 88 pro matches, most famously going the distance in a decision loss to ex-heavyweight champ and Boxing Hall of Famer Larry Holmes in July 2002.
While some criticized him as a novelty act, and an investigation into Top Rank alleged that the organization might have paid his opponents to throw matches (a contention that was never proved), Butterbean makes no apologies for his boxing career.
“I was in damn good company in that investigation,” he says. “They had George Foreman’s name on it, and other big-name fi ghters, too. In my opinion, Top Rank never rigged fi ghts. But did they overmatch fi ghts? Yes. Many times. They do it in MMA and every sport.”
In the meantime, he’d gained a new level of pop culture fame when he infamously knocked out Johnny Knoxville in a skit called Department Store Boxing for Jackass: The Movie. “I had a great time doing that,” he says with a laugh. “You know, when I signed, I thought it was a real, scripted, movie. I knew nothing about Jackass and what they did. So when I got there, they said, ‘We really want you to knock him out.’ I said, ‘You mean this isn’t staged?’”
But KO’ing an untrained prankster was just a momentary diversion. While making personal appearances at combat sports events over the years, he’d struck up a friendship with Mark Coleman, who was the fi rst UFC heavyweight champion and fi rst PRIDE Grand Prix tournament winner. Eventually, he mentioned to Coleman that he’d seen K-1 and he might be interested in trying it one day.
Within a few days, promoters had his phone ringing off the hook. In June 2003, he made his K-1 debut with a knockout win over Yusuke Fujimoto. They next wanted to match him with four-time K-1 Grand Prix champion Ernesto Hoost, a man most consider to be among the greatest kickboxers ever. A friend advised him not to take the bout. “In hindsight, that decision was very correct,” he says with a laugh.
After a few more rounds in the kickboxing ring, Esch was offered the Sudo fi ght, and accepted. Butterbean lost, but knew he’d
be back for more. Since then, he’s traveled to Florida to train with the renowned Ricardo Liborio and American Top Team, as well as to Ohio to train with MMA fi ghter Tony Sylvester.
His offi cial record is 11-4, and he holds wins over UFC vet Wes “Cabbage” Correira and PRIDE veterans James “The Colossus” Thompson and Zuluzinho. The popular Sherdog website ranks him as the No. 5 super heavyweight in the world.
“MMA is a hard sport,” he says. “I have a lot of respect for the game. It kind of pisses me off when you have guys like Floyd Mayweather saying it’s not as tough as people think, or it’s bar fi ghting. But American fans have come a long way in learning the sport. They’re smarter than that.”
He adds that one of the best aspects of MMA is that if an athlete fi ghts his hardest and loses, he still gains the fans’ respect. In boxing, so many fi ghters are afraid to lose that they’re more interested in cautiously winning rounds than fi nishing fi ghts. Mixed martial artists know the dangers of ringside scoring, so they’re constantly looking to fi nish.
“MMA fans realize these guys are trying to fi nish, so if you get caught with a punch or a submission, there’s no shame in it,” he says. “So many boxers want to jab and run. MMA fi ghters bring it. If you’re afraid to get hit, don’t get your ass in the ring.”
The 41-year-old does not know how much longer he’ll continue to fi ght. His dream opponent in boxing is Mike Tyson. In the MMA world, he’d love to take on Kimbo, Bob Sapp, or Tank Abbott. But he always stays busy. He recently began a new promotion company, tentatively called Butterbean, Inc., which will host a card February 23 in Biloxi, Mississippi. He also owns a restaurant in his current hometown, Jasper, Alabama, called Mr. Bean’s BBQ. And he has two sons Brandon, 22, and Caleb, 19, that are making dad proud.
Caleb, a senior linebacker at Jasper’s Curry High, had 189 tackles this season and is drawing some recruiting interest. Brandon, meanwhile, just turned pro in MMA.
On a December 1 card at Jasper’s A&A Arena, the three likely became the fi rst father and sons to compete on the same MMA card. Butterbean won his fi ght in 2:46 with a guillotine submission, while Caleb won in two minutes. Brandon needed just thirteen seconds. Both sons won by knockout. Clearly, they are chips off the old block.
Butterbean’s career is a series of fortunate events. He started out as “the fat kid everyone picked on,” and in some ways, nothing has changed much. He still has critics, probably always will. But these days, the fat kid hits back. He hits back hard.