Blood sport: Bare-knuckle fighting emerges from shadows
DAVID FELDMAN SAT with his son in the empty bleachers of the 2,000-seat Cheyenne Ice and Events Center staring at the scene below. Within 24 hours, Feldman would help make history inside the circular boxing ring that had been built in the ice arena.
The prevailing thought running through Feldman's mind that June 2018 day wasn't one of relief that an event he'd been working toward for roughly seven years was about to happen. Soaking in the scene with his only son, Feldman thought to himself, Holy s---! How did this happen?
Feldman, president of the Bare Knuckle Fighting Championship, was preparing to stage the first state-sanctioned bare-knuckle fight in the United States. The journey to get to that moment had taken a relentless lobbying effort and had been filled with rejection at every turn. Feldman approached 28 state athletic commissions to get bare-knuckle boxing sanctioned, making the claim that the sport is no more dangerous than traditional boxing or MMA. State regulators, concerned the fights would be too bloody, the violence too extreme, rejected him all 28 times.
But state regulators in Wyoming had agreed to sanction the sport, giving Feldman his first chance to showcase a sport not staged publicly since the 1800s. The fight of the night, a blood-soaked-five-round match between MMA veterans Joey Beltran and Tony Lopez, ended with Beltran winning in a unanimous decision. But the biggest winner of the evening might have been Feldman. No fighter suffered a serious injury.
For a time that evening, Feldman says, bare-knuckle boxing was trending on Twitter. He says there was so much interest in the fights that the paywall for the livestream of his event crashed. Feldman felt he was onto something. "We're going to be millionaires so fast," he boasted to his son. "This is going to be unbelievable." The reality would be far more humbling.
THE FIRST THING you notice when watching a bare-knuckle bout is the cuts. When punches connect, the impact is striking: Bruises and welts form quickly, at times grotesquely large, leaving some combatants' faces badly disfigured.
And there's the plainly audible sound of knuckles hitting flesh and bone. It isn't anything like traditional boxing, in which the sound of air escaping the padded gloves makes a pffft, pffft upon impact. In bare-knuckle boxing, it's more like a slap muffled by a dull thud. Think Rocky Balboa hitting the side of beef in the meat locker.
But it's the cuts that form on fighters' faces and hands that draw the most attention. And the blood. There's a lot of blood.
Bare-knuckle fighting had never been legal in the U.S. Even in the 1800s when fighter John L. Sullivan reigned as the sport's champion. In July 1889, when Sullivan famously defeated Jake Kilrain in a 75-round match for the Bare Knuckle Boxing World Championship, Sullivan and Kilrain were arrested and later jailed in Mississippi, according to Scott Burt, a retired high school teacher and historian who serves as president of the Bare Knuckle Boxing Hall of Fame in Belfast, New York.
The fight between Sullivan and Kilrain lasted 2 hours and 16 minutes. Back then, rounds ended when fighters took a knee, leading to 30-second breaks between rounds. Not long after the epic Sullivan-Kilrain bout, and largely because spectators and promoters wanted shorter and more exciting boxing matches, fighters began to wear gloves, Burt says.
"The promoters looked around and said: 'What can we do to make this more interesting for the fans?' Well, the fans wanted more knockouts," Burt says. "Gloves were invented to protect the thrower's hands. It had nothing to do with the receiver's head." That transition to gloved boxing, remarkably so there could be more knockouts occurring more quickly, marked the end of the era of public bare-knuckle fighting in the United States, Burt says.
For much of the next 130-plus years, bare-knuckle boxing was driven underground, occurring largely in clandestine warehouses, garages and basements with small groups of spectators.
FELDMAN, 49, GREW up the son of a boxing trainer. His father, Marty Feldman, often had up to 10 fighters bunking in his three-bedroom rancher in Broomall, just outside of Philadelphia.
David Feldman says he survived a difficult childhood; he became independent out of necessity, shopping and cooking for himself by age 12.
Marty trained fighters in his West Philly gym in the evenings, where Feldman and his brother, Damon, grew up around the ring. Both brothers eventually became professional boxers (Feldman went 4-1 in his pro career), but Damon is best known in the Philadelphia area for staging headline-grabbing celebrity boxing matches. Danny Bonaduce of "The Partridge Family" and former Olympic figure skater Tonya Harding are among those who have strapped on the gloves for Damon's events.
David Feldman owned and operated two bars in the Philadelphia suburbs in the late 1990s and early 2000s. By 2006, he was back in the fighting business, promoting boxing and mixed martial arts at casinos and smaller venues around the country.
The idea to stage state-sanctioned bare-knuckle fights came to Feldman in 2010 when he met a Canadian cruiserweight boxer named Bobby Gunn, who calls himself the Celtic Warrior. Gunn was fighting in a boxing match Feldman was promoting at Fort McDowell casino near Scottsdale, Arizona, when the two first met in person. In a 2014 interview with ESPN, Gunn described himself as the son of Irish Travelers for whom fighting bare knuckle is a way of life, often used as a means to settle family disputes.
Gunn had become something of an internet sensation by the time Feldman met him, knocking out a string of opponents in underground bare-knuckle fights posted online. He boasted an impressive -- if unverifiable -- 71-0 record in bare-knuckle matches held in dingy basements and dimly lit warehouses. Intrigued by Gunn's backstory, Feldman approached him.
"I said, 'I'm going to try one of these bare-knuckle fights. I think the people are going to love it,'" Feldman says. "And, he's like, 'You'll never get it done, pal. They're not going to allow it.'"
But Feldman found willing partners in the Fort McDowell casino in Arizona, a venue operated by the Yavapai Nation, a tribe with previous run-ins with the federal government over gambling on its property. Because the casino sat on a Native American reservation, bare-knuckle boxing didn't need to be sanctioned by the state for Feldman to stage an event.
The office of U.S. Sen. John McCain called the casino in the summer of 2011 in an attempt to prevent Feldman's first bare-knuckle fight. McCain in 1996 had referred to mixed martial arts as "human cockfighting." Tribal leaders once again held their ground.
In August 2011, more than 122 years after Sullivan and Kilrain squared off in Mississippi, Feldman staged the first bare-knuckle fight on public display in the United States since July 1889. Feldman says 5,000 people watched in person as Gunn knocked out Richie Stewart in the third round. A YouTube clip of the fight has received more than 600,000 views.
By then, Feldman had tried unsuccessfully to get the sport sanctioned by state athletic commissions. In an effort to increase interest, he says, he staged about a dozen underground bare-knuckle fights, using Gunn and a collection of lesser-known fighters.
In 2014, Feldman agreed to allow ESPN to attend one of those underground fights on the second floor of a warehouse in a state where bare-knuckle fighting remains unsanctioned to this day. A black rubber mat, perhaps 12 feet square, sat atop a concrete floor surrounded by stark white-painted concrete block walls. A referee used masking tape to mark the mat where fighters would "toe the line" at the start of each fight. The referee and the fighters all wore street clothes to blend in with the crowd if the police showed up. Perhaps two dozen people attended the fights.
"We had to be really protective because I was promoting professional boxing, or professional mixed martial arts at the time, and we didn't want to get our license pulled, so we had to be very secretive about everything that we did," Feldman says about that period in his life.
It was around this time that Feldman had an encounter with today's most recognizable executive in combat sports: UFC President Dana White. Feldman says he hopped a guardrail during a UFC event in Atlantic City and tapped White on the shoulder.
"I said, 'Hey, Dana, I'm Dave Feldman. I just did that bare-knuckle fight in Arizona. I'd love to talk to you about trying to grow this into something,'" Feldman says.
Feldman says White responded dismissively: "You'll never get that done. You'll never get sanctioned," Feldman remembers him saying, to which Feldman replied, his voice rising: "Isn't that what they said to you?"
Feldman chuckles today about his brash comments. "I'll see you at the top," he recalls telling White as the two men parted company. White declined to comment on bare-knuckle boxing for this story.
But as Feldman started appealing to more state athletic commissions, it seemed as if White's prediction would be right. Andy Foster, executive officer of the California State Athletic Commission and a retired MMA fighter, calls bare-knuckle boxing "a de-evolution of a sport that's already evolved" and says it's beyond what he's comfortable supporting. "I don't think it's a good look for combat sports," he told ESPN. Foster wouldn't even agree to meet with Feldman to discuss sanctioning the sport.
Neither would Mike Mazzulli, who's in charge of regulating athletic events at Connecticut's Mohegan Sun, also a casino located on a Native American reservation. He dismisses bare-knuckle boxing as a "fringe sport" too gruesome to be publicly accepted. A past president of the Association of Boxing Commissions and Combative Sports, the closest thing the U.S. has to a national governing body, Mazzulli helped write the rules of engagement for mixed martial arts fighters.
When the UFC was striving for legitimacy and approval from state regulators in the early 2000s, Mohegan Sun was one of the few venues in the country to allow those bouts. But when Feldman was passing through Connecticut and requested a sit-down meeting, Mazzulli told him "keep driving." Pennsylvania, Virginia, South Carolina, Nevada -- they all said no.
"We just kept knocking on doors and having them slammed in our faces," Feldman says, adding, "I went into it knowing I was going to be turned down but not knowing I would continually get turned down."
By November 2016, Feldman had reached his breaking point. His marriage of 10 years was ending. He was broke, having poured every available dollar into his boxing and MMA promotion. On top of all of that, he was diagnosed in 2015 with B-cell lymphoma, and, Feldman says, the cancer had metastasized into his bones.
"I'm sick. I wasn't making any money. I'm being shot down left and right for bare-knuckle boxing, this dream I have. I'm like, 'What the f---?' I was so depressed," Feldman says.
One night he took a drive down Interstate 95 south from Philadelphia and steered down the exit for the Commodore Barry Bridge with the thought in mind that he'd jump into the icy Delaware River below. Something inside him made him pull the car to the shoulder of the road. What are you doing? he asked himself. Looking into his phone, he recorded a video of himself and made a personal vow: "I'll never be in this position again."
Feldman's cancer went into remission almost two years ago, just as his business prospects turned in arguably the least regulated state in the country for combat sports.
Wyoming's boxing commission folded in the 1990s, leaving Wyoming as the first state in the country with only an MMA commission, according to Bryan Pedersen, commissioner of the state's Board of Mixed Martial Arts. Feldman, targeting Wyoming as a place to get the sport sanctioned, pointed out to Pedersen that underground bare-knuckle fights were already being staged in the state and approached Pedersen in 2018 with his proposal of sanctioning a bout. The very question struck Pedersen as an oddity.
"It's rare that an industry is looking for regulation," Pedersen says. "We have Wyoming fighters doing this in Wyoming venues. Why are we not offering regulatory oversight?" he wondered.
When Wyoming decided to host the first state-sanctioned bare-knuckle boxing matches in June 2018, it proved to be a turning point. Over the next several months, Mississippi, New Hampshire, Florida and Kansas followed suit. Bare-knuckle boxing was also recently approved in a sixth state, Alabama.
IT'S AUGUST 2019, and Feldman is backstage in Biloxi's Mississippi Coast Coliseum, imploring his fighters to give the fans in attendance that night, plus thousands more watching via the livestream, the show they're expecting. Perhaps a dozen of the 16 fighters on the card that night are clustered around, leaning in to hear Feldman as the music blares in the arena.
"We want you guys to fight your asses off and give these fans everything they are supposed to get. And if you fight great, you're coming back again. If you don't fight good, you'll never fight bare knuckle again," Feldman warns the fighters, who nod obediently. He's not shy about telling his fighters what he expects for a sport he says was designed for action.
Fighters are allowed to tape their wrists and palms to prevent broken bones, but the tape must stop an inch short of the knuckles, leaving them bare. Bouts begin when the referee shouts, "Fighters toe the line," the cue for fighters to place their feet on one of the two 4-foot lines in the center of the ring. The lines are 3 feet apart, and fighters are close enough to punch their opponents from the moment the referee yells, "Knuckle up," the signal that starts each fight. It's been compared to starting a fight inside a phone booth.
There are no corners for fighters to use to evade contact, thanks to the circular ring, what the BKFC likes to call its "squared circle."
Otherwise, a bare-knuckle fight looks a lot like a traditional boxing match, except that clinch fighting -- when a fighter grabs the back of an opponent's head and punches him or her in the face, a commonality in MMA -- is allowed. But unlike in MMA, "ground-and-pound" -- when fighters pull each other to the mat and grapple -- is not permitted.
This is Feldman's seventh sanctioned Bare Knuckle Fighting Championship event. Gone are the anonymous warehouses and basements; in their place, a theatrically lit ring, 3,000 fans and a sleek video production.
The Biloxi event largely delivered the result Feldman hoped for. The crowd -- mostly male and a mix of MMA and boxing fans -- was on its feet and cheering when the only women's fight on the card that night, a featherweight championship bout between bare-knuckle newcomer Helen Peralta and MMA veteran Christine Ferea turned into a slugfest, leaving both fighters' faces disfigured. Feldman sat ringside for the entire evening, holding a stack of envelopes with pay and bonuses for the fighters.
Critics of bare-knuckle boxing have questioned whether the rules Feldman says promote action also put fighters at risk -- encouraging headshots and stripping fighters of their traditional defense mechanisms, such as the ability to begin a fight in a corner position from which they can more safely stalk an opponent. They also question whether Feldman is simply selling a more extreme form of violence.
Jon Lewis, who chairs the Mississippi Athletic Commission, says that, based on the bouts held in his state thus far, roughly half of bare-knuckle fighters get cuts requiring stitches. That's more than twice the toll for MMA fighters and boxers on a typical card, Lewis says.
Feldman claims his sport, despite the facial lacerations and bruising, is actually safer for fighters' brains than traditional boxing or MMA.
Lewis, whose state has hosted five bare-knuckle fights, says, "We're not seeing traumatic head blows. We're just not."
"For the most part, a cut isn't a big deal," says Dr. Don Muzzi, president of the Association of Ringside Physicians, the largest association of fight doctors, with 220 members worldwide. "I'm going to sew that back together, and in 45 days that cut is going to reach 90% of the strength of the original tissue," Muzzi adds.
Muzzi was one of the fight doctors who worked the BKFC's October event in Tampa, Florida. He's a neuro-anesthesiologist by training and has attended more than 2,700 fights over the past 10 years as a ringside physician.
"It's the brain injuries that are more significant and more of a threat to these athletes, and that's what we should be focusing on," Muzzi says.
Because bare-knuckle fights are shorter, Muzzi says it's "a reasonable hypothesis to think that you would have less brain injury [in bare-knuckle boxing]." He added that bare-knuckle boxing is far too young of a sport to make sweeping statements about its relative safety for fighters, that there's not enough data to make evidence-based conclusions.
Dr. Peter Warinner, a sports neurologist, a ringside physician and chairman of the medical advisory board that unanimously recommended the Massachusetts State Athletic Commission sanction bare-knuckle boxing last year, says bare-knuckle boxers will likely have more hand fractures and eye injuries. He also says that, in traditional boxing, "You're probably going to have more chronic brain trauma from repetitive concussive and subconcussive blows to the head and brain."
In MMA, knees, elbows and kicks to the head and face are routine. "We all watch football games and see a guy who can kick a football 60 yards without a problem," Muzzi says. "Do you think anyone could punch one that far? Likely not. Kicks to the head can have a significant effect in terms of acute brain injuries."
The health risks associated with traditional gloved boxing are well-documented. Fighters have suffered from the neurodegenerative disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE. Last year alone, there were four professional boxing deaths worldwide, the most recent occurring in October when super welterweight Patrick Day, 27, died after suffering head trauma during a title fight in Chicago.
Feldman provided ESPN with injury reports from BKFC's first eight fight cards. Of the 160 times a fighter competed in a bout in those events, Feldman says no one suffered severe head trauma, although two fights were missing from the reports. Seven fighters were listed as having hand injuries -- everything from hand contusions to possible hand fractures and broken thumbs -- and 48 were recorded as having facial injuries that required medical attention.
The presence of bare-knuckle boxing -- as with the emergence of MMA over two decades ago -- also presents a moral question, Muzzi says.
"I kind of wonder where we are as a society," Muzzi said after reflecting on the crowd reaction to a bloody bare-knuckle fight he worked in Tampa. "It was curious for me to watch how enthusiastic the crowd was."
When the main event that August night in Biloxi fizzled -- a bout between former UFC fighter Jim Alers, then 32, and Leonard Garcia, 40 -- it fed into the biggest knock critics levy against BKFC: that Feldman is using fighters who have no business being in the ring.
Garcia had lost seven of his last 10 MMA fights before coming out of retirement after a four-year layoff to fight bare-knuckle. He looked like an aging fighter in the ring in Biloxi, taking a punch in the opening seconds that left his eye so swollen that he couldn't see out of it. The fight was stopped just 1:38 into the first round, with Alers logging a TKO.
More recently, the BKFC promoted the signing of 40-year-old Antonio "Bigfoot" Silva. A onetime UFC fighter and heavyweight contender in MMA, Silva had lost seven of his last eight fights, including six of them by knockout or technical knockout. He appeared old and slow and was knocked out in the second round of the BKFC's main event in October in Tampa.
"Until [Feldman] stops recycling some of these fighters that shouldn't be fighting any longer -- it's a dangerous precedent," says Mohegan Sun's Mazzulli, adding "We have to protect the fighters from themselves."
"I don't feel like I'm being exploited at all," Garcia says. "If I look like I'm not moving correctly, or everybody on the outside can look in and tell me, 'Hey, you don't look good,' then I'm not going to do it."
Feldman says he has no choice but to tap veterans of MMA and boxing because there's not an existing pool of up-and-coming bare-knuckle fighters.
The hopes and fears surrounding bare-knuckle boxing were captured in one brief moment in the Biloxi event. When Kaleb Harris' bare fist, a right cross, landed on Johnavan Vistante's jaw, Vistante's body went limp instantly. His arms dropped to the sides of his 6-foot-1 frame as he toppled onto the canvas. It took less than two seconds for him to do a face plant, with his face bouncing slightly upon impact, before coming to rest next to BKFC's logo, a garish oversized yellow fist in the center of the circular ring.
A chorus of "Oooos" filled the arena and gave way to a rising tide of cheers and fist pumps that punctuated the most thrilling moment of the night. The look of concern on Feldman's face told a different story. He sprang from his ringside seat, climbed the apron of the ring and gripped the ropes, staring down at the scene before him.
As Vistante lay there unconscious, the cutman holding an ice pack on the back of his neck and the ringside physician kneeling beside his outstretched body, Feldman says, first and foremost, he was concerned about the 29-year-old super middleweight from Hawaii, whom he'd handpicked from tryouts. There was a secondary concern. The last thing he needed was a tragedy in the ring as he struggled to gain acceptance for his fledgling sport.
The crowd fell mostly silent. Then Vistante came to his senses and, slowly, was able to sit on a stool and eventually rise to his feet. Vistante was cleared of any serious brain injury after being examined by the medical staff. With a cut above his left eye stitched in a back room by the reconstructive surgeon in attendance, Vistante appeared lucid when asked about the fight.
"I had this one chance, and I blew it," Vistante said, acknowledging that his first bare-knuckle fight may very well be his last.
UNLIKE SOME OF Feldman's earlier fights, which garnered attention from the combat sports and mainstream media, there was no media presence to speak of at the Biloxi event ESPN attended in August. The weigh-in was attended mostly by fighters' family members and their entourages. On fight night, media row sat empty. Feldman decided to stream the fight for free after one of his headliners, former UFC fighter Jason Knight, dropped out with a training injury -- a business decision that Feldman says cost his company $250,000.
Feldman says BKFC -- with sponsors that have included Hooters, an online sportsbook and a CBD-oil company -- turned a profit during its sixth event, a June 2019 fight card in Tampa, operating in the black for the first time after a year of staging state-sanctioned fights. The company has six full-time employees but employs as many as 80 people to stage events, said Feldman's son, David, who is BKFC's director of operations.
While Feldman was open and engaging when discussing his personal life and the details of how the sport evolved from the underground to the state-sanctioned events he stages today, he declined to identify his investors, whom he'd referenced on a few occasions in separate interviews.
"I'm not going to disclose who my investors are. They don't want to be disclosed," Feldman said.
According to records from the Pennsylvania Secretary of State's Office, Bareknuckle Fighting LLC, the BKFC's parent company, was organized by Steven McLaughlin, who lists a company address in a strip mall in Wayne, Pennsylvania. In April 1996, McLaughlin was one of six men charged with criminal conspiracy and bookmaking in the Delaware County Court of Common Pleas. He was convicted in 1998 and received a year of probation and community service.
"He's a bookkeeper. Not a bookmaker, a bookkeeper," Feldman says of McLaughlin's role with his company, adding, "Look, a lot of people have pasts ... If that's what his record says, that's what his record says, but, emphatically, he's not an owner of the company."
Among McLaughlin's five co-defendants in the 1998 case was a man named James Battista, who's known as the bet broker or "mover" at the center of the gambling scandal involving disgraced NBA referee Tim Donaghy. In July 2008, Battista was sentenced to 15 months in federal prison for making bets, sometimes in excess of $1 million and largely with other people's money, on NBA games based on Donaghy's inside tips.
McLaughlin, who now lives in Las Vegas, did not respond to a request for comment.
A civil lawsuit filed Feb. 20 in federal court in Pennsylvania on behalf of a man named Edward Stewart claims Feldman fraudulently cut Stewart out of a deal to own 40% of the BKFC after Stewart invested in excess of $250,000. Stewart claims that he and Feldman "memorialized" their ownership agreement in writing but says he does not have a copy of that agreement. Feldman, who according to the lawsuit paid Stewart $26,500, says he's aware of the lawsuit, adding, "It's without merit."
According to several fighters, Feldman pays them fairly in the competitive combat sports marketplace. Former UFC fighter Artem Lobov told ESPN he made "in the six figures" for this three-fight deal with the BKFC. "It's more than 95% of what UFC fighters get," he added. Jason Knight, although reluctant to provide the precise amount he made in his first bare-knuckle fight, against Lobov, said the amount was in the "tens of thousands," and was more than he made in any of his nine fights with the UFC.
On the low end, BKFC fighters make $2,500 per fight, which is comparable to -- and in many cases greater than -- what they would make competing in smaller MMA promotions.
Feldman's 11th state-sanctioned event, scheduled for March 14, will be his first in Kansas and precedes a bout he plans to stage in Alabama. He's no longer alone. Valor Bare Knuckle, owned by UFC Hall of Famer Ken Shamrock, staged its first event in September at a Native American casino in North Dakota and is among a number of Feldman's competitors.
Feldman insists bare-knuckle boxing is positioned to become the next big thing in combat sports. But critics say the lack of a broadcast deal and the inability to get sanctioned in some of the U.S.'s biggest states make comparisons to the UFC, which last year struck a $1.5 billion agreement with ESPN, a stretch.
"I think that we are going through some of the same obstacles that the UFC went through in getting sanctioned," Feldman says, adding, "we have a very big uphill battle in front of us. But it's nothing new to us."
John Barr is a reporter in ESPN's Investigative Unit. Investigative Unit producer Andrew Lockett and researcher John Mastroberardino contributed to this report.