The first Bare Knuckle Fighting Championship took place in early June, and it wasn’t exactly the downfall of civilization that some people feared it would be. It was actually pretty entertaining for a combat sport coming back from a century-long banishment. The fans that turned out were lively. The fighters were smiling before and after their bouts. The president and catalyst, David Feldman, was on cloud nine as he soaked in his resurrected taboo.
In fact, the most-used adjective in Cheyenne that night was “historic” — everyone on hand was sharing in a piece of fight game history. Perhaps the most pleasant surprise, though, was that the 150,000 people or so who sprung for the pay-per-view came away impressed with what they watched. That part — the enthusiastic response — was what prompted this Saturday night’s second ever BKFC show in Biloxi, Mississippi.
“A lot of people said, how do you measure success [for that first show],” Feldman told MMA Fighting this week. “We said, it’s not in the pay-per-view buys, it’s not in the revenue — it’s what’s the people’s reaction after the first fight. I couldn’t have paid to get people to give us a better reaction. It’s been unbelievable.”
The first fight card was like a throwback to one of the earlier UFCs, if for no other reason there was a fun, dangerous vibe to it — a kind of underground meeting of curious fight aficionados. It played out perhaps better than anyone could have expected. Joey Beltran beat Tony Lopez was like a five-round bar brawl between bikers. Plenty of the fights were quick, violent affairs, which played precisely to expectation. Sam Shewmaker knocked out former Bellator heavyweight Eric Prindle in spectacular fashion, and Estevan Payan beat the brakes off of Omar Avelar.
Of the 10 total bouts, seven were finishes. And of the 20 overall combatants who took off the gloves, only one of them suffered any damage to the hand. That was Alma Garcia, who lost a back-and-forth war with Bec Rawlings. She broke a thumb.
“One broken hand and one broken nose, 20 men and women fighting with bare knuckles…think about that,” Feldman says. “It’s amazing.”
Feldman calls the BKFC his “baby.” He is the president, the steward, and the Kool-Aid Man who busted down walls to get bare knuckle through. He said he pitched his baby to 28 different states before he got a positive response from Wyoming. Mississippi liked the idea, but didn’t want to go first. After seeing the initial event, the state welcomed the BKFC with open arms, full of southern hospitality.
“A lot more states are receptive to it now that they’ve witnessed it,” Feldman says. “We couldn’t show them product before, and now we can. That opened the doors that much more.”
One big first show was all Feldman needed. Now his new league has lured UFC veteran Kendall Grove to the bare-knuckle sphere, as well as Chris “Lights Out” Lytle, who would seem tailor made for the naked-knuckle trade. They will both make their debuts in Biloxi. Also returning is Rawlings, whom the BKFC has dubbed the “Queen of Bare Knuckle” after her vicious showing in Cheyenne.
“Honestly, I’ve promoted over 300 fights, boxing and MMA, and I still get excited…but when Bec and Alma had that exchange, I jumped out of my chair,” Feldman says. “I was like, this is unbelievable. I was talking to my matchmaker, the guy that helps me out, and he said, ‘in the first round of that Tony Lopez-Joey Beltran fight you were banging on the tables, saying you better fight, and then by the second and third round you were standing up clapping.’”
Asked what would constitute a “success” after exceeding expectations on the first show, Feldman said perhaps a slight bump in the pay-per-view numbers, but ultimately just to make more progress. To have the kinds of fights that get people buzzing the morning after. He said that the psychology of his new “old” sport has to do with not only the kinds of fighters he is bringing in, but the Tyler Durden feel of reaching the next extreme.
It all adds up to a breath of fresh air.
“I think it was almost a kind of forbidden fruit, and people couldn’t see it — and now they’ve really seen it, and they just want more,” he says. “I like to think of it like, we’re not the competition here, we’re just an alternative. We’re something different from anything else, but still similar enough to be a combat sport. But we’re something that’s a little more extreme and everybody wants that. What’s the next edge? What’s on the thing on next edge? People want the next extreme thing. We had the Olympics forever and ever, and we have the X Games now because people wanted something a little different.”
“This is something a little different. This gives fans something a little more extreme, a little different than what they’re used to, and look — everybody is always looking for something new. So this is something that’s been around forever, but with a new twist. We’re bringing it to fans. They told us in early June that they loved it, so we’re bringing them some more now.”
It has also inspired copycats. Already there is a second bare knuckle fight league starting up — the World Bare Knuckle Fighting Federation — which has a date circled for Nov. 9 in Casper, Wyoming. Among the names who are slated to appear on the card are former UFC fighters Chris Leben and Phil Baroni, as well as former NFL All Pro Shawne Merriman, who has never fought professionally.
Feldman sees the competition starting to emerge out of the woodwork, and he sees it — somewhat proudly — as an extension of his own stick-to-itiveness to open the gates.
“If you’re going to do something good and you’re going to make a statement, there’s going to be competitors,” he says. “It’s flattering. It’s flattering when people want to do this. I just hope that they do it right. They made some decent signings, but they’ve made some questionable signings as well.
“We pride ourselves on saying we only allow experienced professional combat sport athletes to fight. We will not allow a guy — even if he has a good amateur career, he has to be a professional, licensed fighter with experience. So to put a football player or a hockey player or whoever it may be without any fighting experience, I think it’s a little bit dangerous. Our organization’s not going to do that kind of stuff.”
Feldman says that ultimately he can take solace in the idea that it was him who dragged bare knuckle fighting out of the 19th century, brushed it off, and gave it a new coat of paint. He’s planning to do eight to 10 BKFC shows in 2019, hitting a number of new states. He said that after the first fight card, his phone was blowing up with boxers and MMA fighters “who are tired of rolling around on the ground.”
Especially from the islands.
“It’s funny all the Hawaiians were reaching out to me now because Grove signed that want to fight,” he says. “They’re like, this is what we did here on the island, we fought bare knuckle, we want to be involved.”
A lot of people do. Bare knuckle fighting is back, and Feldman wants to watch his baby grow up into something imposing in combat sports.
“We came out first, we came out good, we had a great show, and we’re going to lead the charge,” he says. “We got Lytle, we got the “Hillbilly Hammer’ Shewmaker versus Maurice Jackson, and that’s a war right there. And we got the ‘Felony’ Charles Bennett fighting. Who doesn’t want to see Charles Bennett in a bare-knuckle fight?
“We’re setting the pace for a new era in combat sports, and that’s why this one is entitled ‘New Era.’ It’s because we really think after the first one — which was entitled ‘The Beginning’ — this one really is. It’s the New Era. We are another category in combat sports now, which is so humbling to us. All the work, and now people are mentioning us in the same breath as combat sports.”