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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.