Modern Bare-Knuckle Boxing

As a general fan of the combat sports, I will occasionally run into information about the modern, bare-knuckle boxing scene. As a writer and historian with a particular interest in the bare-knuckle era, people sometimes deliberately draw my attention to it. I’ll admit to having a curiosity over it. But it’s not the same interest I have in something like the NCAA wrestling tournament or a championship boxing match of MMA fight.

Modern bare-knuckle fighting, such as it is, bears no real connection to the sport of Jem Belcher, Tom Sayers or John L. Sullivan. Rather, the current heavyweight champion of the world, Tyson Fury, is an heir to Jack Broughton, in the same way that Queen Elisabeth II is an heir to the great Saxon King Alfred. There is not exactly a neat line of unbroken succession connecting them. But there is a logical historical link that can be followed back from the present day across the centuries.

The desire to believe in some sort of shadowy, underground world of top-secret, elite prizefighters who ply their trade in gloveless competition, just like in the old days, is largely romantic hokum. To be certain, there are underground, bare-knuckle prizefights. The men who compete in them are most certainly tough, by whatever definition most civilized peple would accept.

But for the most part, they just aren’t cut from the same cloth as legitimate professional fighters. Time and again, this has been proven, whenever an “underground” bare-knuckle hero has faced a true pro.

Kimbo Slice became a viral sensation a decade ago when youtube videos of his backyard streetfights attracted a huge audience. Slice certainly looked the part of a dangerous man — heavily muscled and sporting an impressive beard. In due time, he was signed to a contract with would-be UFC comeptitor Elite FC. He won a very dubious stoppage over trial horse James Thompson and was then knocked out by a jab from Seth Petruzelli, a C-level light heavyweight.

Slice is a guy with some athletic ability and he has devoted some time to training. I do view him as a credible professional fighter. But he also provides a classic example of the huge difference between knocking suckers out in backyards or abandoned parking lots and competing against true professional fighters.

A classic case of a so-called bare-knuckle champion facing a faded, second-tier contender happened in 1994, when Bert Cooper fought Joe Savage, a big, menacing looking Brit with a bunch of tattoos. Savage was promoted as the “Bare-knuckle Champion of the World,” and according to all reports, had genuinely won a large number of underground fights.

Cooper was a one-time contender, far past his prime. Just a week prior to fighting Savage, he’d been knocked out by Larry Donald. In the early 1990s, Cooper had turned in some very memorable performances in defeat. In 1991, he badly rocked Evander Holyfield while challenging for the title, before getting knocked out in Round 7. The following year, he knocked down WBO champion Michael Moorer, before getting stopped in Round 5 of a slugfest.

But by the time he faced Savage, Cooper had lost six of his previous 11 fights. To even get cleared to fight Savage a week after being stopped by Donald took some very dodgy wrangling with the Athletic Commission. After fighting Savage, he would end his career on a 6–11 skid.

But he demolished Savage in just over half a round.

Savage was clearly a tough customer. But there’s a world of difference between a tough guy going around fighting other tough guys as part of some shadowy undergound circuit and legitimate professional fighters.

This difference was on vivid display earlier this year, courtesy of Bellator, the No. 2 MMA organization in the United States, after the UFC. In order to cash in on the empty hype of misinformation, they actually featued Kimbo Slice in a main event against one of his former rivals from his underground days, a big, rough-looking dude who goes by the name of DADA 5000.

The bout between the two was among the most embarrassing moments ever presented in a professional ring or cage. The two men exhausted themselves in the fight’s opening minute and stumbled around the cage, throwing sloppy blows until Dada 5000 collapsed from kidney failure in Round 3. He suffered cardiac arrest on his way to the hospital, had to be resuscitated, and spent a week in intentisive care.

The current recognized bare-knuckle champion of the world, as far as anybody can truly be the “recognized champion” of an unregulated, unsanctioned fighting, is Bobby Gunn, who claims a bare-knuckle record of 72–0.

Gunn is a truly interesting character. He was raised in poverty in Nova Scotia, a member of the isolated Traveller community, who are famously linked to the underground bare-knuckle scene. Current heavyweight champion Tyson Fury is a Traveller, and the descendent of many “Gypsy Champions.”

According to a profile published last month on Men’s Journal, Gunn was already serving as a training camp sparring partner to world-class fighters when he was a teenager. This was a brutal apprenticeship, but one guaranteed to turn anybody who survives it into a truly skilled fighter.

As a legitimate, professional boxer, Gunn had a very respectable career. He was 21–6–1 with 18 KOs. He fought Tomasz Adamek for the IBF cruiserweight belt in 2009. He also had fights with James Toney and Glen Johnson.

Bobby Gunn: Tough Guy, Talented Fighter but no Tom Cribb

Gunn was featured a few years ago on an episode of 60 Minutes Sports. The camera crew was allowed into a secret location to film one of Gunn’s fights. The “fans” had paid a hundred bucks a head to watch the action, but from the size of the crowd, it was obvious that the real money behind the fight came from betting. Now spectatorship in most sports is driven in part by wagering. But bare-knuckle fighting, as shown on 60 Minutes, wouldn’t even exist without illegal betting.

On the “undercard” for this event, heavyweight journeyman Danny Batchelder fought, as well. Still active as a pro fighter, Batchelder sports a 35–11–1 record. He’s faced opponents like Toney, Kubrat Pulev, Lamon Brewster and Alexander Dmitrenko.

Batchelder beat up a very big, very fat guy, mostly by pounding away at his body. Gunn fought a big, rugged looking guy who was supposedly 31–6 in unsanctioned fights. Gunn toyed with him, hitting him in the body with a couple of good shots, then faking to the body and clocking him upstairs with single lead hook that ended the fight.

If Gunn and Batchelder were baseball players, they be guys who spent a bunch of seasons in the major leagues. Gunn would be a guy who made it into the starting line up for a couple of years, maybe put up a slash line of .270/.310/.405 in his best season. Batchelder would be a platoon/utility guy who managed to get 300 at bats a year a few seasons, by filling in where he’s needed.

Major leaguers like that going to play for the weekend in a men’s recreation league, populated by guys who were pretty good in high school, ten years ago, is basically the same thing as Gunn and Batchelder fighting local tough guys.

So ultimately, I’m left feeling that modern bare-knuckle fighting is basically the fist-fighting version of a three-card monty game on a street corner, just naive suckers being separated from their money, betting on something that was designed from the start to be a losing proposition.