Is the Future of Combat Sports Bloody Bare Knuckle Fighting?

A new player on the combat sports scene hopes to gain in popularity much like UFC. But can bare knuckle fighting ever break through to the mainstream?

Artem Lobov Bare Knuckle Fighting Championship 2019

Artem Lobov Bare Knuckle Fighting Championship 2019

Artem Lobov Bare Knuckle Fighting Championship 2019

If you picture a bare knuckle fight you probably picture something like Fight Club, the hit movie from 1999 starring Brad Pitt and Edward Norton. The underground fights were vicious and borderline savage. There was a ton of blood, black eyes, swollen faces, and missing teeth. For the faint of heart, the fight scenes were tough to watch, but they were undeniably captivating.    

If, on the other hand, you loved that movie and the beautifully shot scenes of brutality, get hyped knowing that the raw violence of a bare knuckle fight is probably coming to a TV near you. Of course, it’s already available on the world wide web in a much more regulated manner than Tyler Durden ever could have imagined.

Bare Knuckle Fighting Championship, the Philadelphia-based promotion that put on the first sanctioned bare knuckle fights in the U.S. since 1889 last year, is looking to capitalize on the rise in popularity of combat sports. It’s a fully professional outfit that most closely resembles boxing and features fighters from boxing and MMA disciplines squaring off in a non-traditional ring, most importantly, without any gloves or wraps around the knuckles.

The niche sport, even within the combat sports world, hopes that 2019 proves to be a breakout by securing a network TV deal and to be sanctioned in key states around the U.S. For now, headlining their latest promotion with a very familiar name to boxing fans is how BKFC is gaining attention.  

“You can see your heroes from mixed martial arts fight your heroes from boxing,” says former two-time world champion boxer Paulie Malinaggi. “It’s something new and people are always curious about something new that generate attention and generates action and I think this has done both.”

“It’s not a street fight. It’s not a bar fight. It’s a professional atmosphere. It’s professional athletes. There are rules and regulations.”

Malinaggi, the fast-talking fighter from Brooklyn who won titles at welterweight and junior welterweight during his boxing career, is the biggest reason yet why fans might even have the slightest hint that professional bare knuckle fighting is a thing. The current Showtime boxing analyst, who hasn’t fought professionally since 2017, is headlining BKFC 6 this weekend. For boxing fans, it was shocking to hear Malinaggi was coming out of retirement to fight in something many had no idea even existed. But the lure of the spotlight, a hefty bag of money, the propensity for less bodily harm, and a chance to pummel a bitter rival proved to be too good of an opportunity for Malinaggi to turn down.

He’ll face Artem Lobov, an MMA fighter and one of Conor McGregor’s disciples, Saturday night at the Florida State Fairgrounds Expo Hall in Tampa (9 p.m., PPV). There’s legit bad blood between Malinaggi and Lobov, who has already fought in BKFC, that stems from Malinaggi sparring with McGregor leading up to the MMA star’s fight with Floyd Mayweather in 2017. McGregor’s camp posted photos to social media that made it look like Malinaggi had been knocked down during a session when Malinaggi claimed that wasn’t the case.

So Malinaggi and Lobov will attempt to settle their differences in BKFC’s “Squared Circle.” And while the match will resemble traditional boxing—kicks, elbows, and grappling aren’t permitted and a fighter can’t be hit when he’s down—a BKFC match will be different.

“Some things are drastically different and some things aren’t,” says Malinaggi.

Fights last five rounds, two minutes each compared to boxing’s traditional three-minute rounds. Each round begins with the fighters toeing the line in the center of the ring. Most importantly, and distinctively, fighters cannot wrap their hands to within an inch of the knuckle. And because of that lack of protection, the strategy in a BKFC match is unique.

“One thing you notice is everybody becomes a puncher, and that’s kind of cool,” says Malinaggi. “When you’re using bare knuckles, even arm punches are going to hurt. The knuckle itself is still going to bruise because it’s bone-to-bone. Everything becomes a lot sharper and a lot harder.”

Paulie Malinaggi BKFC Training 2019

Basically, you have to pick your spots when you throw your unprotected fist. Without gloves, the hands can only stand so much punishment—and you feel every punch when it lands. But bare knuckle fighting also promotes better fundamentals—wearing gloves can give a fighter a false sense of security and injuries occur when they land punches without a closed fist, says Malinaggi. You also don’t have to punch at maximum strength to inflict damage without gloves. “With bare hands you’re still punching hard even if you’re not punching at 100 percent,” says Malinaggi.

Check out YouTube videos of previous BKFC fights and some might cringe at how brutal and savage a fight can be even if the BKFC isn’t throwing a bunch of average Joes into the ring for shits and giggles. “We’re not getting backyard guys here,” says BKFC president David Feldman. The company only features fighters “who have previously competed professionally in boxing, MMA, kickboxing, and/or Muay Thai.”

Fights frequently feature a lot of blood—much more than your typical MMA or boxing match. But that’s because the cuts from a bare fist meeting the face are much more superficial, and often numerous, than the damage a leather glove inflicts, says Feldman. Cuts to the face in boxing, he says, tend to be “longer, deeper, and wider.”

“When you’re using bare knuckles, even arm punches are going to hurt.”

Feldman, a former professional boxer himself, also likes to tout how much safer BKFC is compared to boxing or MMA. While he admits it can look worse, he believes bare knuckle fighting produces much less wear and tear on a fighter whether in training or in an actual fight. There are also, he states, less hand injuries in bare knuckle fighting. According to Feldman, in the 120 fights BKFC has put on since its first event last June, only three fighters have suffered a broken hand. You simply can’t hit as hard with an unprotected hand compared to those sporting an 8 oz. boxing glove or MMA glove. And because you can’t hit as hard with an unprotected fist, Feldman says fighters suffer less head trauma in his sport. He proudly reports that a fighter has never been transferred to the hospital after a match with a concussion or other head trauma issues, something that happens occasionally in boxing and MMA.

“Would you rather a fighter have a cut on his face or an injury to his brain?” says Feldman.

Every bout has to be sanctioned by an athletic commission and convincing the major ones—New York, New Jersey, California, Nevada—to sanction their fights has been a struggle since they’ve only held events in places like Wyoming, Mississippi, and Cancun, Mexico. Florida will represent the biggest market yet where they’ve staged a fight and Feldman expects commissions in larger, more lucrative markets to okay future promotions later this year. While the optics might make bare knuckle fighting look barbaric compared to boxing or MMA, a major part of Feldman’s job is to flip the script on skeptics.

“We’re educating people what bare knuckle fighting really is,” says Feldman. “It’s not a street fight. It’s not a bar fight. It’s a professional atmosphere. It’s professional athletes. There are rules and regulations.”

Chase Sherman Sam Shewmaker Bare Knuckle Fighting Championship 2019

Malinaggi, who has become one of the more out-spoken analysts in boxing, isn’t worried about messing up his mug before his next TV gig.

“I’ve seen guys get their face tanked up and honestly they’re not on my level,” he says. “I looked at some of the solid boxers, fighters that have done rounds, and not really looking worse for wear and I kind of compare my skills to that.”

Whether he’s one-and-done with BKFC or returns for another fight, Malinaggi doesn’t know right now. At 38, if he comes out of his match against Lobov in good shape and if the money is too good to pass up a second time, he’ll fight again. He also likes the fact he’s getting in on the ground floor of something that’s potentially on the verge of blowing up.

“It’s cool I can say I was a part of this when it started because I think this is going to be very big,” Malinaggi says.

Feldman says there’s interest from three major networks on a TV deal and Hollywood producers have approached the company about a reality show. While he feels the company is in growth mode, as opposed to survival mode, he likens BKFC’s plight toward mainstream acceptance and legitimacy to that of UFC. The MMA entity struggled for acceptance and attention for years—New York State, for instance, sanctioned its first MMA fight in 2016—but now has a multi-billion dollar deal with ESPN to televise its cards.

“It’s definitely an uphill battle, but it’s not a steep uphill battle,” says Feldman. “How long did [UFC] take to evolve? But at this time we don’t need every state to open. We need four or five states with one major state to be open and that’s everything for us.”

For now, BKFC expects Saturday’s card to be its biggest and will likely follow a similar formula going forward—headline a card a familiar name. Feldman says he’s been talking to and has been approached by recognizable fighters from both boxing and MMA, interested in potentially signing with his promotion. That's the easiest way to take the sport from underground curiosity into something that people will be talking about.

Latest in Sports