By Dennis Taylor
It’s dark and chilly in the underground, where authentic bare knuckle fighters have been bloodying each other’s noses for decades, even centuries. They’ve been fighting in barns, warehouses, box cars, auto body shops and parking garages — anywhere they might avoid law-enforcement. In 1881, bare knuckle legend John L. Sullivan fought John Flood, “The Bull’s Head Terror,” on a barge in the middle of the Hudson River.
But a small group of entrepreneurs — some with very little cartilage left in their noses — are lobbying today to bring the world’s oldest form of competition into the spotlight, to an arena and cable TV network near you, as a legally sanctioned 21st-century combat sport.
One of them is Bobby Gunn, a former world cruiserweight boxing champion who in recent years has become the heavyweight king of bare knuckle fighting (73-0, 73 KOs) — albeit with little recognition and even less money.
Gunn is the face of Bare Knuckle Fighting, a Philadelphia-based organization that has been pounding away at misconception, trying to convince lawmakers that their sport is not the barbarism it is portrayed to be.
“Bare knuckle boxing is like the forbidden fruit,” said Gunn. “Oh my god … it’s barbaric! Oh my god … it’s so terrible! But here’s the truth: Never in the history of bare knuckle boxing has there been a fighter reported to have died from a bare knuckle injury.”
The reason, according to Gunn, is that bare knuckle fighting is entirely skin-on-skin — no gloves, no hand wraps, — both of which provide more protection for the attacker than the attacked.
As a boxer, Gunn fought world champions James Toney, Glen Johnson, Tomasz Adamek and Enzo Maccarinelli — and came to the same verdict that medical professionals are concluding today: Gloves are designed to protect the hands, not the head.
“When you put wraps and gloves over your hands, you’re able to punch a lot harder,” he said. “When I’m in a bare knuckle fight, I’m only throwing maybe 40-50 percent of my power. I pick my shots. It’s more of a chess game, and it’s not nearly as dangerous.”
“Out of boxing, MMA, and bare knuckle, bare knuckle is the safest,” declared Randy Gordon, a former New York boxing commissioner and co-host of “At the Fights” on SiriusXM radio.
Gunn was one of the combatants in the first legal, modern-era bare knuckle fight ever held on American soil, a 2011 event on an Arizona Indian reservation (outside the jurisdiction of any boxing commission) that was broadcaston UStream. More than 50,000 pay-per-view buyers paid $10 a pop to watch it, crashing the server.
“So we all got screwed — nobody made a dime,” said promoter Dave Feldman, a former professional boxer and son of hall-of-fame boxing trainer Marty Feldman.
What Feldman learned, though, is that the audience is out there. He says he subsequently tapped UFC founder Dana White on the shoulder and asked to talk to him about taking bare knuckle boxing to the next level. White was dismissive.
“It’ll never happen. You’ll never get it sanctioned,” White told Feldman.
“That’s exactly what they told you,” Feldman retorted. “See you at the top.”
Granted, the resistance predicted by White has been around almost every corner. BKF president Feldman, Penn State-educated strategic planner/management consultant Edward Simpson (a bare knuckle fighter, himself), and special consultant Joe Mack have had a difficult time convincing legislators, attorneys general, and boxing commissioners that their sport is worthy of being legalized. That same, centuries-old stigma has been their greatest opponent.
But Gunn says major hurdles have been cleared in recent months. “We’ve finally received the green light in three states, although I can’t yet mention which ones,” he said.
And the news, he says, is lighting up the grapevines of mixed martial arts and professional boxing. Simpson says multiple “big-name stars” have been in contact with BKF, eager to make the transition to bare knuckle fighting.(Female UFC superstar Cris Cyborg is one who recently tweeted her interest). If established pros come, big-money investors and TV offers are likely to follow.
Gunn, who recently became the only living member of the Bare Knuckle Boxing Hall of Fame, accepts that this fighting days are all but over. He figures he probably has two or three fights left, which, he says, would only be against elite, name-brand competition.
“My goal, at this point, is to pave the road for all these fighters who are having a hard go in life,” said Gunn, who says underground fights still take place at clandestine venues from New York to Los Angeles. “I want them to have a legitimate, sanctioned sport, where they can make a good living and support their families.”