Russell Crowe was ready for a fight scene… over our game of tennis, says Matt Hookings

Prizefighter: The Life of Jem Belcher trailer

Scoring several major movie stars to headline your independent film is quite the coup when you’re an unknown name in Hollywood but keeping them on board as your finances and luck run out is another matter entirely. Just ask Matt Hookings.

The writer, producer and lead actor of the forthcoming British historical boxing biopic, Prizefighter, was ecstatic to sign A-listers Russell Crowe and Ray Winstone last year after months of negotiations.

The 32-year-old filmmaker from South Wales has spent a decade trying to tell the story of James “Jem” Belcher who became the youngest English boxing champion in history at the age of 19 in 1800.

It has been a journey that has, at times, almost destroyed him because of the egos, uncertainty and financial turmoil involved.

At least five times, he was told it was “game over” for his film. “Everything was on the line – my life, money, career, credibility,” Matt says, lowering his voice. “My body and my mental state.”

So, when Gladiator star Crowe finally agreed to play Jem’s grandfather, the former Norfolk boxing champion Jack Slack, Matt thought his prayers had been answered.

It took three approaches, including a single £1,200 phone call to Crowe’s manager in Australia, convincing him the shoot could still happen after Covid-19 shut down international travel.

Then he nearly lost the star after a lastminute location switch to Malta put millions of pounds on the line.

Thankfully, the Oscar-winner came through. But the stress wasn’t over.

FIGHTING FIT: Filmmaker Matt Hookings wrote the film and stars as Jem Belcher (Image: Steve Reigate)

As they filmed pivotal scenes last November, Russell decided to shake up the hectic filming schedule.

“He said, ‘You look like you can play tennis,'” Matt remembers.

“He looked my body up and down and said, ‘Let’s play tennis tomorrow at 3pm. Bring a friend. I’ll w bring my girlfriend’.” In the midst of managing actors, crew, caterers, distributors and studio executives, Matt was suddenly scrambling to find a female friend who could face off against Russell’s American girlfriend Britney Theriot, 31.

But he couldn’t find any women who could play the game, only another guy.

Fine, said Russell. Yet, the Australian star’s famous temper surfaced as play started and he began losing. “He got angry,” says Matt. “I was just tapping it over the net, which made him run.” Did he let Russell win?

“I want to pretend I was being cool and let him win but no, we both won one [set]… but he was getting angry.”

He smiles at the memory. His mates were in stitches at the absurd situation. “I was finishing the film and hadn’t been paid and they were saying, ‘You’re broke as hell but you’re texting Russell Crowe about tennis? It’s insane’.”

Rewind the clock to 2012 and 22-year-old Matt would probably agree.When he set out to tell Jem Belcher’s rags-to-riches story, he never imagined one day his own tale of adversity would parallel that of his protagonist. Nor that by making Prizefighter, he would uncover a personal connection with Ray Winstone, who plays Jem’s trainer Bill Warr, more of which later.

So how did it all start? “I gravitated to the story, I was immediately hooked,” Matt says, speaking to me in The Ring, a central London pub and shrine to the famous former boxing club that once stood across the road.

“Jem was billed as the youngest champion at 19, was blind at 22 and dead by the time he was 30,” says Matt. “He went through so many ups and downs.”

Born into poverty in Bristol, the butcher’s son was an elegant fighter with a brilliant mind. “He was like a Muhammad Ali,” says Matt.

“He was way ahead of his time. He wrote a treatise on how boxing was about speed, movement and intelligence.”

The teenager’s meteoric rise was aided by his good looks and stylish dress. He won favour with aristocratic society in an era when pugilism was still primitive. “His fights were like events – he added theatre and brought in women and children,” says Matt.

“It wasn’t just men sitting there with jugs of beer. There was a celebrity about him but it was short-lived.”

Jem his sight in one eye in a freak accident before making an epic return in 1805 to try to regain his Champion of All England crown. The film’s climax sees him take on Henry ‘the Game Chicken’ Pearce, played by former boxer Ricky Chaplin.

Matt wanted authenticity for his fight scenes and watched 140 boxing films. “They are real hits,” he says.

“Ricky’s ribs were bruised and so were mine. We were exhausted, elbows were b*******. It was a war.”

Russell Crowe in Prizefighter

Oscar-winner Russell Crowe as Jack Slack in Prizefighter (Image: Signature Entertainment)

Matt was adamant he would play Jem despite opposition. If this sounds familiar, it is. Sylvester Stallone was a washed-up actor when he pitched his Rocky script to producers in the 1970s and had to bulldoze his way to the titular role.

But Matt had good reasons to play Jem. Like him, he was born into a boxing family.

His late father was the former British heavyweight champion, David “Bomber” Pearce, a Welshman dubbed as “Newport’s Rocky”.

The ex-steelworker was retired from the sport in 1984, aged 24, on medical grounds after a brain scan showed irregularities.

He appealed the decision and fought unsanctioned bouts but later developed epilepsy and died of SADS (Sudden Adult Death Syndrome) when he was 41.

Matt was just 12. “He gave his life to the sport, he had that passion and drive in him,” he says. His parents separated when he was young and he knew his father only fleetingly growing up. “I’ve learned more about my dad with this film than before,” he says.

Matt’s mother remarried when he was seven and he and his brother, Bernard, four years his senior, moved into his stepfather’s home in Newport.

His father lived behind his maternal grandmother’s house and he would sneak over to see him. “He definitely forgot stuff the last times I saw him,” Matt says. “There was definitely a change, which surely could have only been caused by boxing.”

It is because Matt is the “spitting image” of his dad that the drama graduate discovered Jem’s story in 2012.

Matt Hookings in Prizefighter

Matt Hookings in Prizefighter (Image: Signature Entertainment)

He had become one of a “core group” of acting stuntmen working on Hollywood films Wrath Of The Titans, Snow White And The Huntsman and Maleficent when one day someone mistook him for his dad after reading an article on David.

Matt took a look and next to it was a small write-up on bare-knuckle fighter Jem. His interest piqued, he fell down a “wormhole” of research and found strange similarities.

“He died on July 30th, which is my birthday. Our height and body build were similar – I’m 6ft 2in, Jem was 6ft 1in – and his mother was called Mary like mine.” Convinced the role was meant for him, he started boxing training.

That was back in 2015. But talent and graft mean nothing in Hollywood if your story lacks a big name, even if your dad was a world-class boxer. It was years before Matt convinced anyone of his film’s merit.

Sales agents were baffled why he wanted to make a boxing film set in the 1800s. “I told them it’s original, it’s never been done,” says Matt. “There isn’t one boxing film that explores the birth of the sport.”

He pursued executives at Cannes, turning up at their hotels and meetings. He approached the nowdisgraced movie mogul Harvey Weinstein as he walked the festival in 2016, begging him to read his script.

“‘Yeah, whatever’,” recalls Matt. “He was an a*******.” His script ultimately went through more than 300 revisions. Ridley Scott’s son Luke Scott almost came aboard.

But the turning point was in late 2020 as a second lockdown loomed.

Matt convinced a well-connected friend, veteran British stunt coordinator Steve Dent, to send his latest draft to Ray Winstone and Russell Crowe’s manager.

To his amazement, Ray came on board quickly and they spoke over video in January 2021. It prompted a revelation from h E E db hi lf f the East End-born actor, himself a former amateur boxer.

“He knew my dad and used to watch him fight in the 1980s,” says Matt, who was delighted. Then several days into shooting, Winstone revealed to Matt and his brother just how close the pair had been. “He wasn’t going to tell me but felt confident we were getting along well,” says Matt.

“He said, ‘I thought I should let you know that I was in the room with your dad when he got the brain scan with the doctor’.”

The brothers were stunned. Matt knew people loved his dad but not like this.

“Ray was serious and meaningful the way he said it. You could tell it was something he remembered as well and it touched him. My brother was in awe… I was in shock.”

Still, it was a strange moment to be blindsided by such huge news. “It touched me deeply because no one had ever been able to say that they’d been that close to him.”

But there were other stresses.

Ray Winstone in Prizefighter

Ray Winstone in Prizefighter (Image: Signature Entertainment)

The film’s production in Wales was moved to Lithuania last summer after the Welsh government’s film agency couldn’t push through funding in time.

Matt was devastated, given that a statue of his father stands in Newport. His sanity was ultimately saved by the physical exhaustion of boxing every day.

Sadly, the same cannot be said for Jem, who died an alcoholic in failing health at the age of just 30, which is, thankfully, where parallels with Matt’s life end.

After a difficult few years, Matt is excited to finally share his film with the world. And even though he’s been to hell and back, he’s already enthused about his next project.

“It’s about a Chicago police officer who is working with the Mafia and is linked to the murder of JFK,” Matt says.

Once again he’s ready for battle and it makes complete sense. He’s a fighter, obviously.

Prizefighter: The Life Of Jem Belcher streams on Prime Video from July 22

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