• Andrew Starc

Is Bare Knuckle FC the future of fighting?

It was 129 years in the making.

When Bare Knuckle Fighting Championship held its maiden event in 2018, it was the first sanctioned bare-knuckle boxing event held in the US since 1889.

Back then, bare-knuckle boxers wore leg-hugging pants, sported finely-coiffed facial hair, and fought on grass.

How the times have changed.

In the BKFC, it seems almost obligatory for fighters to have at least one terrible, all-over tattoo. And they duke it out in what the franchise calls a 'Squared Circle' (it's actually just a circle), alongside ads for such vaunted institutions as Hooters.

But the first thing you'll notice while watching BKFC is the blood.

Fighters typically weep alarming amounts from deep, bare-knuckle induced cuts. Post-fight, they look like they've been pulled from a train wreck.

To some, BKFC may appear particularly brutal — and it is. Even fans conditioned to the disfigured faces and blood-stained canvases of the UFC may wince at the gruesome spectacle on display.

But in spite of this, or likely because of it, BKFC's popularity has soared. The franchise has held six events per year since 2018, attracting to its roster marquee names like Artem Lobov, Paige Van Zant, and Pauli Malignaggi — fighters who've come to the end of the road in the UFC or boxing.

Mainstream outlets like Forbes claim BKFC is 'changing the fight game,' touting it as the next giant of combat sports.

Even Shaquille O'Neal, a reported future investor in BKFC, has labelled it 'the future of fighting.'

So, is Shaq right? Or is BKFC just a grotesque sideshow, incapable of mass appeal beyond the most blood-lusting fight fans?

Let's look at how BKFC got started, the man behind the promotion, and why it's such a polarizing addition to the combat sports world.

BKFC's origins: Resurrecting a forgotten sport

In 2011, former amateur boxer David Feldman decided to test the waters.

He'd heard about the long-forgotten — and outlawed — sport of bare-knuckle boxing from a fighter he was promoting, and wanted to see if there was an appetite for it.

"I promoted a fighter named Bobby Gunn, who as a Gypsy would tell me how they would do bare-knuckle fights in Scotland and England to solve family disputes. I started researching it and got really intrigued," Feldman told Forbes in 2019.

So Feldman staged a bare-knuckle boxing bout at a Native American casino (and thereby bypassing athletic commission sanction), streaming it online via pay-per-view.

The results blew him away.

"We sold it out and had almost one million people attempt to purchase the event, but the paywall crashed," Feldman told Forbes.

Feldman's claim of 'almost a million' buys which would place the bout in the top 50 PPV's of all time is almost certainly fight promoter puffery. But he undoubtedly uncovered an appetite for bare-knuckle boxing.

Over the next seven years, Feldman lobbied 28 state-athletic commissions to sanction a bare-knuckle boxing event. All said no.

Then in 2018, Wyoming agreed. Shortly thereafter, Mississippi followed suit.

In June of that year, BKFC held its first event BKFC 1: The Beginning — in Cheyenne, Wyoming. A month later, BKFC 2: A New Era, in Biloxi, Mississippi.

Since then, the franchise has hosted an event every two or so months (except for a brief COVID hiatus).

David Feldman: the man behind BKFC

As President and the face of BKFC, Feldman cuts an underwhelming figure.

On the mic, he's not a natural. He has none of the showmanship of a Vince McMahon or the bluster and bravado of a Dana White. He looks and sounds like a used car salesman who lost passion for his job a decade ago.

"The end game is I want to make a lot of money, right, but who doesn’t?” Feldman told the Jewish Exponent in 2019.

Like most fight promoters, Feldman's statements concerning the current or future success of BKFC have to be taken with a grain of salt. In particular, his tendency to grossly overestimate BKFC's PPV buys.

Leading up to perhaps the biggest card in the franchise's history, BKFC 6: Malignaggi vs Lobov, Feldman predicted 200,000 PPV buys. It ended up generating just 18,000.

And like any good fight promoter, the BKFC President has courted controversy with crass, tone-deaf statements.

Most notably at BKFC 6, where he entered the ring after a lacklustre fight between Rusty Crowder and Reggie Barnett. In front of thousands in the arena and watching live on PPV, Feldman announced he was docking the pay of the winner, whom he deemed to have provided insufficient 'action.'

"Rusty Crowder wanted to run, therefore he's giving half his purse to Reggie Barnett," Feldman announced to a cheering Biloxi crowd.
"Make some noise Biloxi. This is how we do it at Bare Knuckle. You fight or you don't get paid."

Asking the crowd to 'make some noise' after announcing an off-the-cuff, most likely illegal docking of an employee's pay might get the award for peak fight promoter sleaziness.

After receiving wide-spread backlash for the incident, Feldman assured the media that he didn't dock Crowder's pay. He also expressed regret for the way in which he went about taking such measures, but not for doing so.

“I probably shouldn’t have made that statement in the ring. I should have handled it in the dressing room, behind the scenes,” Feldman told MMA Junkie.
“I think we got here to where we are today because of statements like that."
"These fighters are getting paid very well. Most of them are getting paid more than they can make anywhere else."
“So with that being said, I demand action. I demand action not for me, I demand action for the fans."

How do BKFC fights work, and what are the rules?

BKFC prides itself on being what it calls 'the purest form of hand-to-hand combat.'

Fighters are allowed to wrap their hands, but not within one inch of the knuckle.

Fights take place in the 'Squared Circle', which the promotion bills epically as 'the most innovative fighting platform of our time.' In reality, it's just a circular ring, uplifted on a platform.

The ads typically plastered on and around the Squared Circle are a window into BKFC’s target demographic.

These include those for family-friendly restaurant Hooters. Online betting and high-octane energy drinks. And notably, ads for Mary Janes House of Glass, which according to its website, is a self-styled purveyor of 'quality smokewear' (i.e. bongs.)

Despite the modern-day trappings of the Squared Circle, its design pays homage to the esteemed history of bare-knuckle boxing.

In its centre are two scratch lines, three feet apart, based on the Broughton Rules which governed the sport in the 19th century. Before the fights starts, combatants must 'toe the line.'

With fighters positioned so close, they essentially start fighting in a phone booth. While the ring's lack of corners help prevent them from evading contact, and therefore transgressing Feldman's number one rule — bringing the action.

The rules of a BKFC fight are essentially the same as boxing, except for two big differences. Fighters can grab the back of their opponents head and punch them in the face. And they can 'dirty box' within an open clinch.

Fights are scored with boxing's 10-point must system.

If you can suffer an obnoxiously American, overly dramatic voiceover, the below video explains it all.

Is BKFC the future of fighting?

BKFC is polarizing fight fans.

Some love the bloody disfigurement and fading ex-UFC talent the promotion offers. Others hate it for these same reasons.

"This sport is absolutely not for everybody to compete in or watch. But for the group that it is for, I think we deliver exactly what their appetite calls for," Feldman told Associated Press in 2018.

While the talent might be sub-par, BKFC undoubtedly delivers entertainment, like other up-and-coming fight promotions like Streetbeefs.

Maybe its a by-product of Feldman's publicly-stated imperative for fighters to deliver action. The raw, stripped-down nature of bare-knuckle fighting. Or that BKFC's roster of fighters, primarily made up of journeymen and women, just love to bang.

Whatever it is, it's a recipe that delivers eye-widening knockouts like this:

And grotesquely warped faces like these:

The franchise is treading a similar path to that of the early UFC, holding events in those southern American states where citizens — and their elected representatives — hold a more liberal attitude to what could, without hyperbole, be deemed bloodsport.

So far only Wyoming, Mississippi, Kansas, and Florida have legally signed on to the bare-knuckle fighting craze. Whether the sport will ever earn sanction in the rest of the country, like the UFC did after years of relentless lobbying, remains to be seen.

But perhaps the bigger question is if BKFC can ever capture an audience beyond the fringe of 'just bleed' fight fans.

It's hard to imagine middle American audiences, conditioned to watching touch-downs and three-pointers, ever warming to the gnarled, bloody faces on show at BKFC.

But Feldman is optimistic.

“Eighteen months to two years from now, we’re going to be a major major player in combat sports,” he told MMA Fighting in late 2020.
"If this gets to where we’re planning to be, it’s going to be a monster."

Given Feldman's history of overhyping his promotion, it'll probably take a few more years.

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