28 States Said ‘No’ to Bare-Knuckle Boxing. But 1 Said ‘Yes’
America’s first legal bare-knuckle boxing event since 1889 took place in June. Human cockfighting or the future of combat?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because America’s first legal bare-knuckle boxing event is going down tomorrow.
This story first ran before a June 2 bare-knuckle boxing event in Cheyenne, Wyoming. A second, 14-fight event is now scheduled for August 25 in Biloxi, Mississippi. It will air nationwide on pay-per-view.
When Philadelphia-based fight promoter David Feldman met Bobby Gunn in 2008, Feldman knew he needed to get the hulking Canadian underground fighting champion onto one of his boxing cards. The pair made it happen, with Gunn battling the then-WBA welterweight boxing champion to a draw at Arizona’s Fort McDowell Casino. Gunn, who won three more bouts before losing his belt in mid-2009, has fought some of the biggest names in boxing, including James Toney, Enzo Maccarinelli and Roy Jones Jr. But what drew in Feldman was Gunn’s heritage and his passion for the world’s oldest combat sport: bare-knuckle boxing.
“I’m a Gypsy,” explains Gunn. “I’m a Traveller from Ontario — outside Niagara Falls. Bare-knuckle fighting is like a religion to my people. We settle disputes in the field, having a fight.”
Gunn finished his boxing career with a record of 23-7-1, but the bare-knuckle circuit is a different animal. Reportedly 73-0 in the underground league, Gunn estimates that his undefeated record is closer to triple digits. On Saturday night in Cheyenne, Wyoming, he goes in search of his 74th victory as part of a history-making card.
Bare Knuckle FC will host the first legally sanctioned bare-knuckle card in America since 1889.
Twenty-eight states denied Feldman before he managed to persuade the Wyoming Combative Sports Commission to sanction a bare-knuckle event. Two states wanted no part of the action. “Twenty-six [other states] just didn’t want to be first,” says Feldman. “After a successful debut, hopefully they’ll be lining up.”
A smooth first event may help convince critics to take a second look at the sport, but much work remains. While this event will be the first legally sanctioned American bare-knuckle card in 129 years, it’s technically the first legalized event of its kind — ever.
Back in the 1880s the sanctioning organization for bare-knuckle boxing — dominated by mythical characters like John L. Sullivan, aka the Boston Strong Boy — was National Police Gazette magazine. Sullivan won the last major bare-knuckle event in 1889, and most fighters abandoned the punishing, ancient mode of combat, opting instead to follow Queensberry rules, or gloved boxing.
Bare Knuckle FC bills itself as a modern blast from the past that Dr. Emmett Brown could appreciate. Complete with a uniquely designed combat stage, the Squared Circle, and a pay-per-view broadcast in 4K resolution — a combat sports first, according to Feldman — the promotion is focused on maintaining the underground allure that draws millions of viewers to YouTube videos of Gunn while also building a relatable, safe sport that Feldman feels can one day rival Dana White’s $4 billion mixed martial arts behemoth, the Ultimate Fighting Championship.
I’d hesitate before deeming bare-knuckle fighting safe, but fewer ferocious blows to the head is a positive.
Dr. Mark Kemenosh, lead chiropractor, Glen Oaks Health and Spine Center
“We want a piece of that market,” says Feldman, noting that some potential consumers still struggle to grasp the various fight disciplines that comprise MMA. “Our tagline is ‘take your gloves off and fight like a man.’ Who doesn’t know what a fistfight is?”
Let’s rewind. Did you notice the word “safe”? Bare knuckle is the safest form of striking combat, according to Gunn and Feldman. With gloved boxing, fighters no longer have to fight with gnarled, bloody knuckles and claws for hands. And gloves allow fighters to punch harder, and more often, increasing the risk of traumatic brain injury.
In a 2010 study “Boxing — Acute Complications and Late Sequelae: From Concussion to Dementia,” Munich-based Dr. Hans Forstl reported that there have been an average of 10 boxing deaths per year since 1900. Eighty percent were due to head and neck injuries suffered in the ring. From 1740 to 1889, 266 deaths were documented. A number of factors — the strength of fighters, frequency of head blows and number of participants — contribute to this spike, but there’s no denying that fewer deaths occurred during bare knuckle’s run of dominance. “Never in my life have I heard of anyone dying in bare knuckle,” says Gunn, equating boxing to checkers and bare knuckle to chess. “There are more body shots than anything. You have to pick your spots.”
“It stands to reason that fewer blows to the head would make for a safer sport,” says Dr. Mark Kemenosh, lead chiropractor at Glen Oaks Health and Spine Center in New Jersey. For acute brain injuries, padding doesn’t much matter. “Violent force is what jars the brain,” says Kemenosh. “I’d hesitate before deeming bare-knuckle fighting safe, but fewer ferocious blows to the head is a positive.”
“Don’t be fooled, though: Bare Knuckle FC is pugilism in its purest from. And the inaugural event is shaping up to be a rowdy affair. In addition to Gunn, former UFC heavyweight champion Ricco Rodriguez and Bellator heavyweight tournament winner Eric Prindle are on the card. So is Australian mixed martial artist Bec Rawlings, a UFC veteran who will be the first woman to take part in a sanctioned bare knuckle event.”
Old or new, safe or not, Bare Knuckle FC is coming to a screen near you. Will it stick? The sport’s poster boy believes that a more professional presentation will serve its tradition well. “Hopefully, we’re paving the road for a lot of great fighters to be legitimized,” says Gunn. “Bare knuckle was here long before me, and it’ll be here long after I’m gone.”
Correction: The original version of this story listed boxer Paul Spadafora on the BKFC card. His fight has been cancelled.