It's a cool spring afternoon in central Alabama and Eric Esch is riding shotgun in a white SUV, the big car listing to starboard under the burden of his 450 pounds as it rolls down Highway 78. Esch, 46, has just finished a meal of spicy tuna rolls and miso soup at Sakura, his favorite local eatery and the only Japanese restaurant within 40 miles of his hometown of Jasper. Now the bald-headed giant with the watermelon-sized fists known as Butterbean is returning to the spot in the lush countryside where his huge body met an opportunity to match.
"I was 23 years old working in a mobile-home factory here in Jasper when my buddies dared me to fight in a Toughman competition," Esch says in his improbably mild voice. "They said they'd pay my entry fee. But I was too heavy. Weighed 420 pounds. So I had three weeks to lose 20 pounds. All I ate for those three weeks was chicken and butter beans. That diet had some, uh, gassy side effects. But it worked. I lost the weight and was ready to go, even though I'd never been in a fight in my life."
The SUV turns onto a dirt road, passing a sign that reads PRIVATE PROPERTY. KEEP OUT. "I better call the owner so he doesn't go shooting at us," Esch says, pulling out his cellphone. Past an open field with a few grazing horses, an abandoned chicken coop in the distance, Esch guides the driver to a weathered riding barn with A&A ARENA painted in red on the side. Alerted by the phone call Lowell Hadder rumbles up on a four-wheeler. He greets Esch with a hug before leading his visitors into the barn. "I built this place in 1985 for small rodeo events," says Hadder, whose rich drawl has to work its way past a well-worked plug of chewing tobacco. "One time I had the Chicago Knockers come in. They were a women's mud-wrestling team. It cost me $1,200 to get them here, but only 70 people showed up to watch. Wives just didn't want their husbands to come. But the best thing that ever happened was when Butterbean walked into this place."
On that day in 1990, word had traveled throughout Walker County that Esch—widely known as the biggest man in Jasper (pop. 14,308)—would be fighting in a three-round bout in the barn, where Hadder had already held several Toughman fights. The place quickly filled to its capacity of 1,600, and despite a ban on alcohol more than a few smuggled in a bottle or a flask. As Esch warmed up in a nearby horse stable, a fight broke out among a few whiskeyed-up fans. To halt the violence, Hadder flipped on the emergency overhead sprinklers. "No one wants to fight when they're wet," Hadder says. "That ended that."
Then Esch appeared, like some pale, 5'11" Bigfoot stepping from the forest. He shouldered his way through the sodden but still fired-up crowd and lifted himself through the ropes, thinking only, he recalls, that he "wanted to kill the guy." As soon as the bell rang he charged head down at his opponent, an approach he would adopt for the rest of his career. As Esch swung wildly, his work buddies began chanting, But-ter-bean! But-ter-bean! But-ter-bean! Soon the rest of the crowd joined in. Esch's friends knew that he had grown to despise butter beans, and so they mocked him with the nickname that within a few years would be known around the world.
Esch didn't win his first fight, but he discovered that he liked the bloody taste of combat and returned for a second bout in the barn three weeks later. The chants resumed and angered Esch, who hit his opponent so hard with a right hand that it sent him flying out of the ring "like he was on a rocket," says Hadder. Esch won that fight and that Toughman tournament. And so began the bizarre odyssey of Butterbean.
About three years after winning that first title—"I mainly kept fighting because I could beat people up and not go to jail, and that was pretty cool," he says—Esch, now training full time and competing under his nom de legume, was runner-up at the Toughman world championship in Atlantic City in a bout that was broadcast on Showtime pay-per-view. In 1994, with his Toughman record at a reported 67--4 (40 KOs), Esch, a married father of three, turned professional and signed with promoter Bob Arum's Top Rank Productions. "The Bean definitely didn't look like a fighter and his defense wasn't the greatest, but if he hit you, you would go down, sometimes for as long as five minutes," says Arum. "We had to manage him carefully. If he fought a guy with a lot of movement, he'd be in trouble. He needed to go against guys who would stand in there and fight.... The tradition is you start fighting four rounds, then six, then build to 10. But we didn't want to stretch the Bean. It wouldn't work. So we kept him at four rounds and people loved him."
The King of the Four-Rounders, as Esch became known, was scorned by boxing purists as a novelty act even as his popularity with casual fans grew. He had the gentle, friendly manner of a very large neighbor happy to lift your car if you didn't have a jack to fix a flat, and in his Stars and Stripes trunks he was a fighter with whom bar brawlers everywhere could identify. The Bean had no use for strategy; he simply came out to punch a hole through your face, even if that meant he had to take more than a few shots on the chin in the process.
The approach made for cartoonishly violent entertainment—once Butterbean knocked out an opponent and the referee who was trying to stop the bout—and helped make him far better known than most world champions. He was a frequent guest on The Tonight Show (in one memorable, if somewhat appalling, skit, lumbering onto stage as the New Year's baby wearing only an oversized white diaper) and had a cameo in the 2002 movie Jackass. The film's writer-producer and star, gonzo daredevil Johnny Knoxville, had written a bit in which he was to be knocked out by "the most powerful puncher in the world." After Mike Tyson declined to participate, Butterbean gladly accepted. With both men outfitted in trunks and gloves, Bean proceeded to batter Knoxville into unconsciousness in a shabby Los Angeles--area department store in front of a handful of horrified shoppers. "The worst concussion of my career," recalls Knoxville. "But, hey, it was solid footage, and afterward he was the same lovable Butterbean."
Even as his popularity soared, though, the barbs from boxing insiders ate at Esch. "I always felt like I had to prove that I was a legitimate fighter," he says. A few months before Jackass was released, Butterbean got his chance, with a fight against former heavyweight champion Larry Holmes in Norfolk, Va.
Admittedly, Holmes, at 52, was far past his prime, but it was still a huge step up for Butterbean. Had he won, he believes, his next fight would have been against Tyson. The Bean had his moments in Norfolk, even wobbling Holmes in the 10th round with a left hook, prompting the referee to issue an eight-count, but Holmes was awarded a unanimous decision. Outside of a six-round win early in his career, it was the only time that Butterbean went more than four rounds, and it revealed his limitations as a fighter. Despite a belly that hung over his trunks, Holmes used his longer reach and left jab to control the action. This was a doubled-edged moment for Butterbean: He was finally a 10-round fighter, but the bout showed his real place in boxing.
After losing to Holmes (whom he still thinks he could have beaten had he gone all out from the start), Butterbean gave himself over to a traveling circus of boxing, kickboxing and MMA matches in stadiums from Australia to China to Japan to New Town, N.D. (pop. 2,040). More than one million fans saw him fight in person. By the end of his career in 2012, he had a pro boxing record of 77-9-4 (58 KOs), a kickboxing mark of 3--4 (two KOs) and an MMA record of 14-10-1 (six KOs).
To the Bean, though, those records weren't the numbers that mattered. "Fighting, to me, was never really about how good you are, but how many people wanted to see you," he says. "And a lot of people wanted to see me."
Butterbean is limping through the small woodworking shop he built next to his 8,000-square-foot house in the rolling hills outside Jasper. He injured his right hip in one of his final pro fights and will eventually require a replacement. "I threw a punch, the guy backed up, I missed him, and immediately I felt a pop that went down my leg," he says. "That was really the last serious punch of my career." Now he lives beside a small pond with Libby, his wife of 28 years, and a handful of sheep, some ducks and a macaw. Their three children—Brandon, 27; Caleb, 23; Grace, 19—reside nearby, and there's nothing Butterbean loves more these days than scooping up his three grandchildren in his huge mitts.
Other than the hip and his weight, Butterbean is in good shape. There are no signs of the brain damage seen in so many fighters. "I was never concerned about him getting hurt, just because he could take a punch like no one else I've ever seen," Libby says. "He got cuts and broke his nose many times, but never had a serious injury until his hip."
Also, unlike so many other fighters, he has held on to his ring earnings. "I made millions, but it's not how much you made, it's how much you end up with," Butterbean says. "So many in the fight game end up broke, but not me. We're comfortable."
In his woodshop Butterbean has built a black-walnut bench and an old-fashioned washstand; his current passion is crafting turkey calls, which he sends to Facebook friends around the country free of charge. Butterbean also enjoys heading into the nearby woods to gather muscadine grapes, which he mashes to make his own port. Alone in the pines, alone bottling his wine, the Bean can let go of his past—along with those once loud voices that claimed he was never a real boxer.
"I like the solitude of woodworking and winemaking because it's gotten to the point where I almost get panic attacks now when I'm out in public," he says as he stands outside next to his pond and feeds bread to bass and catfish. "I was in the spotlight for so long that people think they know me, like the way they think they know actors at the end of the movie, but they have no idea who I really am."
His fans—and he is still a cult hero in Alabama—saw Butterbean in 2011 on 10 episodes of Big Law: Deputy Butterbean, a reality show that aired on the Discovery network. Working as a reserve deputy sheriff in Walker County, the Bean busted drug dealers with names like Rat and searched for survivors in the aftermath of a tornado. The reality show was a way for Butterbean to keep the circus going, but midway through filming Big Law he developed a phobia of being in large groups of people. The man who punched his way to fame in front of crowds in 80,000-seat arenas and on the silver screen suddenly felt uncomfortable around strangers. With sagging ratings, the show was canceled after one season, which was something of a relief to the star. "I was always looking over my shoulder," he says. "I still can't explain why and don't know why."
As he speaks, Butterbean is on the deck of his house, still tossing bread to the fish. "I loved my career," he says. "I got to go to the Louvre, sit courtside at Madison Square Garden with Spike Lee and meet people like Kelsey Grammer, Cindy Crawford and Bruce Willis. That's all a long way from a mobile-home factory in Jasper."
It's a perfectly still early evening. The sun is beginning to fall and a contented smile sweeps across Butterbean's face as he stands in the quiet. To Eric Esch, this is the good life. Why fight it?
"Fighting, to me, was never really about how good you are," says Butterbean, "but about how many people wanted to see you. And a lot of people wanted to see me."
Five Completely Trivial Things We Learned About Butterbean
Butterbean once agreed to wrestle an eight-foot, 1,200-pound grizzly bear in, fittingly, Big Bear, Calif. He visited the bear before the event to pacify him with Twinkies, but at the last moment PETA protested the match and it was canceled. Says Bean, "What some people will do for 10 grand, huh?"
Late in his career, Butterbean owned and operated a restaurant in Jasper, Ala., called Mr. Bean's Bar-B-Que.
After Butterbean KO'd Johnny Knoxville in the boutique store in Los Angeles for a scene in Jackass, the police were called. "But we had an escape plan and never got caught," Bean says.
An offensive lineman at Curry High in Jasper, Butterbean says he quit playing football in the 11th grade "to focus my attention on girls."
Butterbean wore size-48 boxing trunks. "The only ones Everlast made bigger were for Louie Anderson," says Bean, referring to the rotund comedian, "and I only say that because Louie is a friend."
Photograph by ROBERT SEALE FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
DON'T LOOK BACK Esch, whose nickname stemmed from the staple of a crash diet, started out fighting in a barn but went on to headline pay-per-view matches around the world.
Photograph by ROBERT SEALE FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
MASS APPEAL The Bean (above, against Patrick Graham in 1999) wowed fans with his huge physique and brutal power, earning enough along the way to stand on his own in retirement.
V.J. LOVERO/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (FIGHT)
[See caption above]
Photograph by ROBERT SEALE FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
TWO-FISTED The man who never carried an opponent (finishing his career with more than 100 KOs across all disciplines) now likes nothing better than to tote around his grandkids.
NEIL LEIFER/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (FIGHT)
[See caption above]