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Knuckle Up

Saturday night’s premiere Bare Knuckle Fighting Championship card in Wyoming—America’s first in over a century—produced the kind of nostalgia that makes you wonder about your ancestors

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If there was an air of exhilaration to the first sanctioned bare-knuckle boxing event in the U.S. since Grover Cleveland was in office—which took place this weekend in Wyoming and aired on pay-per-view—it was because mixed martial arts long ago outlived its original shock value. To compete with MMA these days, a new promotion is smart to make sure the amps go to 11, and that’s exactly what the Bare Knuckle Fighting Championships did on Saturday night when it tossed its hat in the modernized prize ring … or, as BKFC called it, in an overly literal evolution of pro wrestling terminology, the “squared circle.” You knew it was a novelty steeped with optimism the minute the promotional buzzwords became “forbidden fruit” and “totally legal.”

If one thing hasn’t changed since John L. Sullivan’s day, it’s that fighting still fetishizes its own taboos.

And the inaugural BKFC event was all aboveground, as the broadcast crew of former boxing champion Antonio Tarver and Sean Wheelock eagerly pointed out. A little over 2,000 people turned up at the Ice and Events Center in Cheyenne on Saturday to legally watch an assortment of boxers, kickboxers, MMA practitioners, and other drift-abouts throw back to the Wild West by doing away with the gloves and … coming out swinging. The first sanctioned bare-knuckle boxing contest in the era of sanctioning came on Saturday when heavyweights Arnold Adams and D.J. Linderman “toed the line”—to use BKFC parlance—and kicked off an eight-man heavyweight tournament that will conclude in December. It wasn’t so much two postured fellows with long mustaches, stockinged feet and britches as it was an old kludge with a farmer’s tan (Linderman) and a big dude with the smirk (and build) of an action movie heavy (Adams).

And nor was this 21st-century version of the bare-knuckle contest allowed to drag on for six hours, as James Kelly’s famous encounter with Jonathan Smith did back in 1855. Instead it was five two-minute rounds, in contrast to MMA’s standard three five-minute rounds in non-championship fights. This version of bare-knuckle fighting pulled heavily from boxing’s traditionalism and roots, yet catered to MMA’s outermost extremities.

For instance, clinching was legal with one arm, but not two, to help facilitate dirty boxing from inside the clinch. As in regular boxing, two-arm clinches were separated immediately. Whether the half Thai plum—the pulling of one’s head down with one hand while smashing the face with the other—was allowed or not, nobody really knew for sure—at least not the commentators. Bec Rawlings got by with it while smashing up Alma Garcia in the only women’s bout on the card, so apparently it was legal enough.

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In the Adams-Linderman fight, the cutman came in the middle of the second round and tended to the leaks that had sprung on Linderman’s face. Right off the bat it was clear that (a) a knuckle will open up fissures on a fighter’s face far quicker than any gloved hand might, and (b) not many fights were destined to reach the later rounds. Linderman was streaked with blood and sporting a mouse under his eye after coming into contact with Adams’s exposed ham hock again and again for four straight minutes, and it was enough to make even a hardened MMA spectator (like me) wince a bit. Linderman conceded after the second round.

What the hell was it like to pay $30 for the privilege of seeing people crack knuckles off other people’s skulls in a civilized society? It was oddly less “gentlemanly” than the promotion wanted you to believe because there were more tattoos in a single bout than perhaps the great British champion Jem Mace ever laid eyes on in his entire life. Most of the 20 combatants were wearing wrestling shoes. The wrists were taped, and some of the thumbs to help prevent small bone fractures, but all knuckles were left exposed an inch below the tape line. There was a vibe of watching something underground find its way to the light, yet with a certain entrepreneurial curiosity—could bare-knuckle boxing, banished to Chuck Palahniuk’s wild imagination, actually become a thing 130 years after the Marquess of Queensberry mandated the pillowing of hands?

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It also felt a little bit like the first UFC in 1993, which took place just down Interstate 25 at the old McNichols Sports Arena in Denver. That night an assembly of eight men—trained in different disciplines—fought in a tournament to win $50,000 and to determine which style trumped all others. With the exception of the boxer Art Jimmerson, who wore a single boxing glove into the Octagon, all the other participants were gloveless—including the ultimate winner that night, the skinny Brazilian jiu-jitsu practitioner Royce Gracie. If there was an early promotional feel for skirting the lines of decency, it all went into the ominous vibe. The same thing was in play with BKFC.

Of the 10 bouts on its inaugural card, seven of them didn’t make it the distance. The main event—featuring former UFC heavyweight champion Ricco Rodriguez against Lewis Rumsey—surprisingly did. It ended up being one of the less entertaining fights on the card because neither could land clean enough to part the other of his wits. In most of the other bouts, somebody was getting clobbered.

The highlight of the night came when a Tank Abbott–esque looking man named Sam Shewmaker threw a single punch to knock out the former Bellator fighter Eric Prindle. He delivered the punch like a pitcher delivering a fastball, the motion was almost exactly the same, and the massive Prindle collapsed where he stood. If bare-knuckle fighting is looking for a cult hero to help push things along, it should look no further than Shewmaker, who advanced to the heavyweight semifinals. He’s a cult figure in waiting.

The same might be said of the 44-year-old Bobby Gunn—a former IBA cruiserweight boxing champion and undefeated, undisputed lineal bare-knuckle heavyweight demigod—who operated as an ambassador for the bare-knuckle brand through the lead-up to fight week. He knocked Irineu Beato Costa Jr. out with a body shot early in the bout. The fight wasn’t great, but it served to make Gunn—who was 71-0 in unverifiable bare-knuckle encounters on “docks, gravel roads, and in empty buildings”—stand out as a kind of icon in this revival bloodsport. “Everybody will be talking about this for hundreds of years,” he said after his victory. There was something innocent about this rough-and-tumble man.

A couple of the other bouts were what BKFC founder David Feldman had in mind when he said the night would be “epic” off the top. Rawlings engaged in a back-and-forth slugfest that at times took on the complexion of a prison fight. In the end it was the UFC castoff Rawlings, after slamming what seemed to be hundreds of fists into Garcia’s maw, who got her hand raised. She showed off her bruised and battered knuckles afterward, and on Tuesday the medical report came back that she would be suspended from action with a possible fracture. This, of course, is one of the main reasons for wearing gloves in fisticuffs in the first place—to protect the hands, not so much the skull.

The fight of the night occurred when the 44-year-old Tony Lopez—who looks like one of the giants on Game of Thrones—engaged in a seismic bar brawl with longtime MMA veteran Joey Beltran. Somehow this fight went the full five rounds, and when Lopez brushed back his bloody bangs it was as if his hematomas had hematomas. Beltran won the fight, but both guys came out in poor condition. Very few of the fighters came out their bouts the way they went in.

At its best, the bare-knuckle component was hedonistic, novel, and almost gleeful of its own lunacy. The ring announcer, Jeff Houston, looking like Brian Bosworth might in the year 2234, came on the mic at one point to inform the gathered that the Bare Knuckle Fighting Championships was the third-most trending topic on social media. You wouldn’t have heard an announcement like that back when Sullivan took out Jake Kilrain in 75 rounds in 1889, that’s for sure.

Overall, the novelty of bringing back bare-knuckle boxing from the 19th century didn’t exactly come off as archaic—not with the UFC having desensitized its masses—nor did it feel fresh or romantic. It felt excessive at times, and the question of “why?” hung in the air. Yet the players themselves seemed to enjoy the fights immensely. In fact, perhaps in connection to the great-great-great granddads of yore who bemoaned the glove as some kind of sign of America’s softening, most seemed giddy to finally air their unbridled fists out for the world to see.

As for BKFC, nothing about the setup recalled John L. Sullivan except for the premise. Then again, it didn’t end up being a snuff film, either, and that had to be a relief. Nobody knew for sure what would happen once the gloves came off, including the promoters. The only thing they knew going in is that there would be a market. The UFC’s play for the mainstream has left the door open for the next extreme, and this qualifies as the next extreme—dredging back up a form of boxing practiced 130 years ago, and selling it as a kind of reclaimed taboo.

Is it a novelty or a revival? Right now the answers seem to be “yes” and “maybe.” The next event is slated for September, and so long as there’s an appetite for blood and forbidden fruit, nothing is off limits in the fight game.