Bobby Gunn punched his bare fists downward into the table in front of him, rattling glasses and silverware while getting the room’s attention at a New York steakhouse.
Gunn wasn’t angry, he just was demonstrating one of his unique training methods ahead of his next fight.
“I’ll take my knuckles to a hardwood floor for 20 minutes maybe,” Gunn said. “Break all the calluses out, which for me they already are.”
It’s an unconventional training method, but Gunn’s next bout isn’t exactly conventional either. The 44-year-old pro boxer will be among the fighters taking part Saturday in the first sanctioned bare knuckle boxing event in the United States since 1889. Bare Knuckle Fighting Championship debuts at Cheyenne Ice and Events Center in Wyoming, the first and only state willing to sanction bare knuckle fighting at this point. The fight will air on pay-per-view and stream on FITE.TV for $29.99.
“We want to build a business and build a new combat sport,” CEO and founder David Feldman said. “We’re here to make a statement that we’re here to stay. This isn’t about doing just one show just to do a show.”
Along with Gunn, who’s made a living in the underground bare knuckle scene, BKFC’s first event features all professional boxers and MMA fighters, including former UFC strawweight Bec Rawlings and former UFC heavyweight champion Ricco Rodriguez.
Fighting out of Staten Island by way of New Jersey, Rodriguez says he hasn’t been in an organized bare knuckle fight before, but he believes his life has him prepared and that this form of combat will be relatable to fans who’ve seen themselves in similar situations.
“I’m from Paterson, New Jersey. I lived three blocks away from Eastside High, Joe Clark. It didn’t matter if you were white, black, Russian, Puerto Rican — everybody fought on the street,” Rodriguez said. “P.S. 24, I fought all the time, and if you didn’t fight or if you won or lost, that’s how you got respect on the street. At the end of the day, my bare knuckle days were in the streets. It was in a circle of people, nobody ever jumped in, nobody ever used a gun, nobody ever used a bat. You scrap, win or lose, you got up, shook each other’s hand and that’s it, that’s the truth.”
Bare knuckle boxing was the primary form of competition in the early days with the London Prize Ring Rules largely governing the sport. The Marquess of Queensberry Rules, which mandated gloves, eventually superseded the London rules in America with the legendary John L. Sullivan fighting the last bare knuckle world title bout in 1889.
BKFC will use a ruleset different than the London rules but designed to retain the purity of those fights of old. Boxers are not permitted any covering on the knuckles, but can tape their wrists and thumbs for stability. Bouts will take place in a circular boxing ring unique to the promotion and are scheduled for either five or seven two-minute rounds with nine rounds scheduled for championship fights. Each round begins with both fighters standing three feet apart at the ring’s center. Punches are the only offensive weapon permitted, but clinch fighting and holding the back of the opponent’s head is allowed with referees breaking the action if there is three seconds of inactivity.
“Everything that we did with this whole setup and production had to be a little different. We didn’t want anybody getting confused that this is boxing or mixed martial arts,” Feldman said. “That’s why we decided on the circle ring and that’s why we did different round settings. We just wanted to set ourselves apart in all the rulesets and the fighting platform and everything that has to do with this really.”
Gunn said it’s important to remember that this is an entirely different sport than boxing with its own strategy and skillset.
“Bare knuckle boxing you have to pick your spots more, there’s more body shots,” Gunn said. “You only have a three-inch gap in bare knuckle boxing from the eyebrows down to the nose. Down there you’ll bust your hand on their teeth, above the eyebrow you can shatter your hand on their forehead. So the fights are more scientifically efficient. You go to the body, you go for the jab in the right area.”
Although there hasn’t been a true world title in bare knuckle in over a century, Gunn claims the lineal heavyweight title and says the sport has thrived in the shadows for years.
“Bare knuckle boxing has always been in the underground for hundreds of years. I fought in the underground circuit and beat everybody from California to New York, all over America for 11 years,” Gunn said. “I can’t mention names, but I’ve seen top contenders in boxing come down and fight bare knuckle to get a few bucks extra for their family or something. “
The Canadian claims an unbeaten bare knuckle record of 73-0. He also has a pro boxing record of 21-7-1 (plus 1 no contest) with 18 knockouts, including fights against Roy Jones Jr. and James Toney.
Gunn said he always preferred the bare knuckle scene.
“It’s a different world, but it’s a world I always felt more comfortable in. It’s a world where there’s so many good athletes who fight bare knuckle,” Gunn said. “A lot of times a good bare knuckle fighter can’t be good at boxing. It’s a different business.”
At 44, Gunn knows he doesn’t have much time left in the sport, but he’s thrilled to be advancing the sport he loves.
“This is a platform for it to be legalized, sanctioned, not get in trouble, not having the police come in and raid the place. The places we fought in, man, were empty warehouses and back buildings, we had to do that we had to do,” Gunn said. “I’m paving the road to give those underground a platform to be above the ground.”