After coming out of his return to MMA in May victorious, Phil Baroni wanted to keep the ball rolling in MMA — but then he got a bare-knuckle boxing offer he couldn’t resist.
Baroni, an MMA pioneer who’s fought for the likes of the UFC, Pride FC, Strikeforce, Dream, and EliteXC, meets fellow UFC veteran Chris Leben in the co-main event of WBKFF 1 on Friday night for the light heavyweight title. The fight marks Baroni’s bare-knuckle boxing debut.
Baroni initially turned down a couple of other bare-knuckle offers, including one from English promotion BKB, in hopes of a quick turnaround in MMA after winning his return fight by knockout — his first fight since 2014. But he shifted his focus once WBKFF came calling, as the Leben fight “sparked my interest,” he said.
“It’s a fight people definitely want to see,” Baroni told Bloody Elbow. “If it took place in the UFC, most likely we would’ve ended up trading punches, anyway. I think it’s a big fight for me. To be able to take him out, bare knuckle, would be a big accomplishment.”
Another reason Baroni took the fight is he’ll be getting a flat purse, he said, not a show money and win bonus deal like in most large MMA promotions. Baroni said he’s “real happy” with the amount of money he’ll be making at WBKFF 1.
He also loves the actual matchup. Leben was on Baroni’s radar “a long, long time ago,” he said, and he even once talked to UFC president Dana White about making the fight happen. Baroni said he’s more excited for this fight than any fight he’s had “since maybe I was in Pride.”
“He’s a big-name fighter,” Baroni said of Leben. “He’s a good fighter.”
Baroni said in preparation of WBKFF 1, he basically trained for a regular boxing match — perhaps with a couple exceptions.
“I know how to train for a boxing fight. I’ve boxed before,” Baroni said. “People told me I should punch sh-t on the wall and all kinds of dumb sh-t — I’m just going with what I got. My hands are good. I’m hitting pads with no wraps on just to see how it feels.”
Baroni added that he had more fun training for the Leben fight than any other fight he’s had in a long time, because he didn’t have to train wrestling or grappling. Instead, he hit mitts, sparred once in a while, and ran when he felt like it.
Baroni said he’s talked to some fighters who have competed in a bare-knuckle fight before, including former Bellator middleweight Kendall Grove, to get some tips regarding the actual fight.
“They basically said you gotta throw straight punches,” Baroni said. “It’s not so bad when you’re throwing straight punches. When you throw hooks and sh-t, that’s when you run into problems. I’m pretty good at straight punches. And the body shots are supposedly good. We’ll see.”
One in-cage difference Baroni expects to see due to the lack of gloves is more facial damage than in a regular boxing or MMA bout.
“The baby gloves don’t save you. But they really save your face,” Baroni said. “People are really gonna cut and bleed in bare knuckle. A lot of cuts are gonna open up, a lot of older fighters’ scar tissue are gonna do a lot of bleeding.”
“A little blood never hurts nobody,” Baroni said.
“What can you do — when a fight starts, it’s gonna be a fight. I’m not gonna feel nothing when the bell rings.”
Baroni predicted a first-round knockout of Leben.
“It’s gonna be a wild exchange,” he said. “I really can’t see the fight getting out of the first round — and if it does, it won’t go for much longer in the second.
“I think I’m a lot better boxer. I think I’m faster, I think I hit harder, I think I’m more skilled. But he’s tough. I think it’s a good fight for me.”
WBKFF 1 takes place at Casper Events Center in Casper, Wyoming. In the main event, former UFC champion Johny Hendricks meets short-notice replacement Dakota Cochrane.