“Man, that’s the question they all want to know: What happened to Butterbean?” asks retired professional boxer and mixed martial artist Eric Esch, a 5-foot-11, 400-pound bruiser who wore that moniker with pride throughout a 20-year career in combat sports. “It seems like every couple years, some reporter with Sports Illustrated shows up in Alabama and wants to write about where I’ve gone and what I’m doing now. It’s like they’re rediscovering a woolly mammoth or something. But the fact is, I’ve always talked to the press, and the fact that you’re still asking about me and I’m answering should tell you I haven’t gone anywhere.”
Physically speaking, where Esch has gone is back to his hometown of Jasper, Alabama, where he’s been retired from the fight business since 2013 and is now running a restaurant, Mr. Bean’s BBQ, where the desserts and hamburgers are lovingly crafted by the same two massive mitts that KO’d the likes of erstwhile Tyson opponent Peter McNeeley and WWE superstar Bart Gunn. My conversations with Esch, in fact, were frequently interrupted by his need to deal with the lunch and dinner crowds.
Obviously then, the Butterbean mythos was first forged in Jasper. It was there he left the manufacturing plant floor during the early 1990s and slimmed down to 400 pounds via grilled chicken and butterbeans — the weight necessary to compete in Art Dore’s Toughman Contests. He went on to win five world championships in Dore’s all-comers amateur boxing federation, at a time when MMA was still in its infancy and the tomato cans of Toughman could still capture the public imagination. The outlines of Esch’s rags-to-riches tale launched a thousand write-ups in Sports Illustrated, Inside Sports and The Sporting News. He was also on the cover of my favorite Sega Genesis boxing game, EA Sports’ Toughman Contest. “I’ve been featured in 15 video games,” he says. “That’s how it works for me. Before it’s over, I’ll probably end up in a few more.”
In all, for about a decade in the 1990s and early aughts, he cropped up seemingly everywhere — from Toughman to pro boxing to WWE to 2002’s Jackass: The Movie to K-1 kickboxing to Pride MMA. “The fact of the matter is I always kept taking bookings,” Esch says. “My size worked against me in one way, in that I was never ‘cut’ or ‘ripped’ enough to be considered a viable opponent for someone like Mike Tyson during his first comeback — my dream fight, truth be told — but it also ensured that I wasn’t going to be forgotten. Whether it was The Tonight Show, where I was a guest a bunch of times, or the WWE, where I worked a storyline against Marc Mero and then boxed Bart Gunn in a legit match at Wrestlemania, people would pick up the phone and call me. I had a memorable look and style, and I’d go anywhere for a good paycheck.”
In my mind, though, Esch would appear to vanish whenever it was reported that the great Butterbean lost a match, as he did to journeyman boxer Mitchell Rose in his 16th professional fight. After all, he was always billed as some kind of novelty fighter, protected by promoters like Bob Arum who limited him to four-round bouts and labeled him “the king of the four-rounders,” so I assumed each setback constituted the end of him. Still, during that initial run, he always returned to fight some name of note — though again, never Tyson, his white whale.
“I was certainly no worse than most of the guys Tyson fought during that particular comeback, including Peter McNeeley, who I knocked out with no problem a couple years later,” Esch says. “And my very good friend Buster Mathis Jr., who had amazing, Olympic-level boxing abilities but small hands that prevented him from hitting hard enough to break an egg, showed that you could give Tyson trouble by rushing him and making him fight you on the inside. I probably could’ve crowded Tyson too, since he wasn’t any taller than I was, and one of us would’ve knocked the other out. It wouldn’t have been a boring match like the fight I had in 2002 with [then-52-year-old] Larry Holmes, when Holmes just jabbed at me for 10 rounds and racked up points on the scorecard.”
When I ask Esch why he decided to transition into MMA instead of taking his cartoonish American Flag trunks and King Kong Bundy-esque body permanently to the world of pro wrestling, he laughs. “I’d done my WWE storyline with Marc Mero and got my payday for knocking out Bart Gunn, but during that time, I saw what pro wrestlers at the highest level went through,” he says. “I’d go on to do Hulk Hogan’s Celebrity Wrestling and some other wrestling appearances here and there, but wow, what a rough way to make a living. When you’re a wrestler, you’re always going to have to fall down and get hurt because you have to give your opponent some offense, make it look balanced and exciting. But if you can win or lose a legitimate match in 30 seconds, that’s a much easier way to make money, and you’re certainly not doing that five nights a week. For a man my size, that’s much more appealing, because I wanted to minimize wear and tear.”
As with the careers of many other super heavyweights, there was something of a “freak show” to Esch’s bouts, but he took it all in stride. “I never got knocked out with a single punch,” Esch says. “I won a bunch of fights by submission. I beat some legitimate guys, such as Cabbage Correira and James ‘Colossus’ Thompson, and if I’d started doing MMA earlier in my life — heck, I was almost 30 when I broke into boxing — and wasn’t taking so many bookings in order to max out my paychecks, I could’ve done even better. I’d trained with American Top Team, which is about as good as it gets when it comes to MMA training, and I learned the basics of submission grappling, but in the later part of my career, the issue was simply finding the time to train when I was fighting so often while also dealing with persistent pain in my hip.”
If you want a sense of Esch’s capacity, watch him battle the 400-pound Zuluzinho — who had been billed as a serious jiu-jitsu athlete and a legitimate challenger for the likes of Fedor Emelianenko and Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira. Zuluzinho catches Esch with a sloppy takedown, and as their combined 800 pounds hits the mat, Esch is able to reverse him and force him to submit to a very basic keylock.
“From the time I was a little kid, I was stronger and quicker than anyone else my size,” Esch says. “I was lucky to be able to find a way to keep utilizing that ability, because it was what kept me on the radar of Leno at The Tonight Show, or Johnny Knoxville when he needed somebody to box him in Jackass, or the people at the Discovery Channel who wanted to do a reality show with me and eventually decided to do Big Law: Deputy Butterbean. Even if it was only a single season or a one-shot deal, I’ve had tons of chances to do fun stuff. I’ve held championships in boxing and MMA and fought a bunch of Hall of Famers, fronted video games, been a part of blockbuster movies, had a prime-time TV show… I think that’s plenty, right?”
Most of all: “I enjoyed it all,” he continues. “Japan in particular was great, because the promoters always paid you right, even if I didn’t get my actual fight against Bob Sapp [Esch instead lost a sumo match against Sapp, an ex-NFL lineman] and you got robbed in some decisions against guys they were building up as monsters, like when I pounded on [7-foot-5] Giant Silva and still came up short. But stuff like not fighting Sapp and Tyson, that’s nothing — just like losing a fight to Pat Smith in [UFC founder Bob Meyrowitz’s] Yamma Pit Fighting because my leg went out on me on because I was throwing punches on that stupid, uneven ring they had.”
Would Esch’s career have been different if, instead of being a 400-pound, pasty-white brick wall, he’d been a tanned, taut-torsoed hunk, a la Tommy Morrison or Tito Ortiz? “Like I told you, I would’ve had some marquee money fights, because I would’ve been considered a possible world champion, a fighter who had the look to carry the belt as well as a fighter with that slugging style that excited fans,” he says. “But in terms of extending my career for as long as I could, to the point at which I was still getting decent paydays in places like Poland well into my 40s, I’m not sure it would’ve mattered. If nothing else, I always remained visible, always remained willing to talk to the press or to make an appearance, always easy to find.
“So no, Butterbean never went anywhere. You can come to Mr. Bean’s BBQ and see me cooking there every single day of the week.”