Spirit of Alabama: Walker County Boxer Reminisces on His Career

Spirit Of Alabama

In the 25 years or so that I’ve done Spirit of Alabama reports, I’ve interviewed many nice people. But none any nicer than Eric Esch. You may not recognize that name, but many may remember him by his nickname.

Esch is a big man. Years ago when he worked at a manufactured home company his buddies talked him into entering a tough man boxing competition. It changed his life. But first he had to lose some weight to qualify, and somehow he picked up the name Butterbean.

“So, the story goes that I ate butterbeans to get down to weight,” Esch said. “You have to have a good story, you know to make it sellable. So, I lost the weight, which is kind of true. I was on a butterbean diet, but beans will give you gas really bad, and that’s not a good story.”

But Esch’s professional fighting career is definitely a good story. It wasn’t always easy. He said he was picked on for being overweight, and he still doesn’t understand why people can be so mean. But in the ring he had success.

It seemed everyone rooted for the big man from Walker County who didn’t just beat people in the ring. He destroyed them.

“Here’s this big musclebound guy going kill me and I end up knocking him out,” Esch said. “You know it’s just human nature to root for somebody who’s not expected to win.”

Butterbean’s career brought him celebrity status, first in Alabama but soon across the U.S. and even around the world.

“I went through a whirlwind, because most fighters they fight every four to eight months,” Esch said. “I was fighting up to three times in one month and not just close fights, I’d fight California then fight in China then I’d go to Japan.”

All that fighting and travel was taxing physically and mentally, Esch said. But it was exciting too.

“You know you’re a celebrity when someone says ‘Hey, you want to meet Michael Jordan?’ and you go ‘Yeah, it’d be great.’ So, you walk up to him and he stands up and says ‘Hey Butterbean, how you doing?’ And I go, ‘Wow that’s awesome.’ ”

Butterbean won championships in boxing and mixed martial arts. I wondered how such a nice, kind-hearted person could be so intense and brutal in the ring.

“It’s kind of like playing football, it’s a sport,” Esch said. “That’s what a lot of people don’t get, when you see these two fighters wanting to argue and fight, most time that’s all a staged thing and I think it’s ridiculous.  I would never fight somebody I didn’t really like, if I didn’t like ’em I didn’t want to fight ’em.”

But there was one night, one fight where Butterbean’s worst fear seemed to come true. He fought an up-and-coming boxer named Bart Gunn. Gunn had hired a boxing coach, he was confident and did a lot of trash talking. But he prepared for a boxing match when he should have prepared for a street fight, Esch said.

“After I caught him the first time and knocked him down, (the referee) probably should have stopped it, but (the referee is) a tough guy. You know you break your neck and come back and win a world title, you’re tough guy, you think everybody’s gonna be tough. So when he got him back up it was over for him. It was bad. His head actually turned around backwards, it spun completely around backwards.”

Butterbean was thrilled to win, but anxiety soon set in.

“I thought I’d killed him or paralyzed him cause he went down like a sack of potatoes,” Esch said. “I mean he went down hard.”

Gunn was OK, but he likely still dreams about that right hand from Butterbean.

A bad hip and age caught up with him like it does with everyone, but Esch said he knew when it was time to retire. He fought World Champion Larry Holmes and went a full 10 rounds with him, but Holmes got the decision.

Today, life is good for Butterbean.

“Other than a bad hip, everything’s great,” he said. “I get to spend a lot of time with grandkids, I’ve got three of them that live right next to me. Two live right beside me and the other one lives right behind me. It’s wonderful.”

He may have a bad hip and he said he’d like to get his weight down a bit, but he has a big heart and believes he’s a blessed man.

“You know I’ve been fortunate, that’s about all I can say,” Esch said. “I’ve been real fortunate in life and still married and going strong.”

Besides playing with his grandchildren, Esch has a fun new hobby making writing pens and razors out of everything from pine cones to crocodile teeth or (legal) ivory.

You can check out his creations on his Facebook page right here.

WVUA 23 is always looking for stories to tell in our Spirit of Alabama segments. If you have an idea, please email it to spiritofalabama@wvua23.com.

Categories: Community, Spirit of Alabama