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bare knuckle boxing

The world’s first combat sport — bare knuckle boxing — is making a big comeback.

“You hear that?” David Feldman asks as he pulls the phone away from his mouth, making a gruesomely familiar sound like a baseball bat hitting a ribeye. “That’s the sound everyone listens for! I heard this, and I was like, holy shit, everyone is gonna love this!”

And with one bone-on-flesh thwack, a new combat sport was born. Or, more accurately, the oldest combat sport in the world was brought into the 21st Century.

Bare knuckle boxing is nothing new. It was how men had it out when we were hairy-knuckled cavemen and how most of us learned to take a punch in playground fights and bar brawls. Now, it’s getting a new face as the fastest-growing combat sport in America, with sanctioned leagues like Feldman’s Bare Knuckle Fighting Championship popping up around the country. It’s a brutal, bloody spectacle that brings fighting back to its primal roots. And nearly everyone who watches can’t look away.

“If you’re into real fights,” says Feldman, “real men and real women having it out, every fight is unpredictable and exciting. And it’s the most thrilling combat sport on planet Earth.”

 An Old World Sport with New Traditions

bare knuckle boxing, dada 5000

“None of us started it,” says bare knuckle boxing hall-of-famer Dada 5000 (pictured above), a hulk of a man who looks like he’d be just as at home on a defensive line as he is at his bare-knuckle gym across a fence from Miami International Airport. He has a fiery red mohawk and black fingernails and speaks with a bravado that matches his appearance. “It’s been around since Roman Colosseum days when they used to duke it out to the death. It’s an old-world sport, with new traditions.”

Dada, real name Dhafir Harris, got his start competing in and promoting backyard fights in the rough-and-ruthless Miami suburb of Perrine. The fights became such a sensation they were featured everywhere from Rolling Stone to ESPN Magazine and even spawned the 2015 documentary Dawg Fight.

Those backyard fights also gave rise to MMA fighter and boxer Kimbo Slice, one of Dada’s childhood friends. “We had 800, 900 people coming to these fights,” Dada says. “And I’m telling ‘em, ‘This could be a movement!’”

Getting The League Going

Though ultimately his backyard operation was shut down, Dada later teamed with former NASCAR Mexico team owner Mike Vazquez to form what’s now BYB Extreme. The fight league hosts about a dozen annual events across the world but maintains its base in South Florida.

Around the same time Dada was hosting backyard brawls in Miami, David Feldman hosted his first bare-knuckle event at an Arizona tribal casino in 2011. Over 5,500 people attended, and 750,000 people watched on pay-per-view. “I thought, ‘This is gonna be unbelievable, I’m gonna make a shit ton of money,’” he says. “So I went around from state (athletic) commission to state commission, and got 28 doors slammed in my face.”

It would be seven years until he finally found a state willing to sanction his Bare Knuckle Fighting Championship, and on June 2, 2018, the league held its first event in Wyoming. BKFC held two more events that year, five in 2019, 32 in 2023, and plans 68 events across nine countries and 28 states in 2024.

Boxing, but Bloodier

Bare-knuckle fights aren’t remarkably different from boxing or MMA. The rings are distinctive—BKFC uses a squared circle, BYB has a patented “Trigon”—and fights are five, two-minute rounds. Fighters are limited to punches, much like in boxing, but like MMA they can use a Muay Thai clinch to hold an opponent’s head down for maximum pummeling.

“I can grab you with one hand, and then hit you with my power hand. When I release you, you’re gonna have some damage,” Dada says, casually mentioning a fight where one man was lifted off his feet with an uppercut and broke an orbital bone in his face. “You’re not gonna be the same.”

In August 2023, the American Boxing Commission approved a set of nationwide bare-knuckle boxing rules, a major step in legitimizing the sport. States can still set their own rules, but the national standard gives the sport some structure.

The Biggest Difference?

bare knuckle boxing

The big difference, though, is that unlike boxing and MMA, in bare-knuckle boxing you’ll almost instantly draw blood. “When you’re fighting in bare knuckle, you draw blood faster,” says BYB Extreme fighter Isaiah Quinones. “You’re in a lot more pain, a lot faster.”

“I found out this was a different game the first time I got cracked, and my vision got taken,” says Christine Ferea, BKFC’s women’s featherweight champion. “Bare knuckle will cut you very quickly, a bare knuckle will take your vision.”
Because the fights aren’t scored like traditional boxing, you also see far more knockouts in bare-knuckle fights. BKFC has about half its fights end in knockouts. BYB Extreme is upwards of 90 percent, thanks mostly to its triangular ring that offers no escape from the violence.

 An Irresistible Brand of Relatable Violence

The sport has a virulent, animal appeal that’s led to its meteoric growth over the past few years. Feldman says much of this is because bare knuckle fighting is relatable. “Every man, woman, or child has either punched someone in the face, been punched in the face, or seen someone get punched in the face,” he says. “So every single person on the planet can relate to it.”

BKFC featherweight champ Kai Stewart believes bare knuckle appeals to America’s not-so-underlying bloodlust. “It’s just violence from start to finish,” Stewart says. “The two-minute rounds? You get in there, and you just have to make it brutal. Americans love brutality, and the brutality has to be it. There’s no other explanation.”

Because the sport is relatively new, it also hasn’t been bogged down in the bureaucracy that some say is killing boxing and seeping its way into MMA. “It hasn’t been riddled with politics yet,” says Dada. “It’s real, and it’s raw, and I really feel like it’s a breath of fresh air in combat sports.”

 Meet the Men and Women of Bare Knuckle Boxing

So who are these people volunteering to get torn to hamburger for a few thousand bucks? Their backgrounds are as different as the styles they fight.

Quinones, a tall, shredded fighter who looks like he could just as easily model underwear as run a prison gang, got into bare-knuckle boxing as a way to escape homelessness. “I was fighting in the streets and decided to get paid for it,” he chuckles. “As someone like me who never had gloves in the street, I’m used to the bare knuckles, man. It’s great.”

Before fighting, he broke coconuts with his bare hands for tourists on Hollywood Beach, earning the coconut as payment from the boardwalk salesman. He also works security at a South Florida strip club and dances as a male stripper on the side.

“Your adrenaline and senses kick in a lot more when you’re fighting bare knuckle,” says Quinones. “Once you get tagged with a bare knuckle, maybe it has to do with our ancestors, but your body just naturally reacts. We’re warriors, and thankfully I’ve been learning how to control that animal.”

It Takes All Kinds

In Montana, Kai Stewart’s story could not be more dissimilar. The former high school wrestler was looking for his next thrill and took a few MMA fights before finding the world of bare knuckle. Stewart is a natural promoter, who was originally recruited to help drive ticket sales and quickly climbed the ranks of BKFC.

“I had never been in a street fight, never fought with bare knuckles,” says the eloquent, charismatic featherweight champ. “I took that one fight and knew I was mentally built for it. And I love it; it puts a smile on my face.”

In Las Vegas, Muay Thai fighter Christine Ferea was originally skeptical when Feldman approached her about fighting bare knuckles. “I thought it was fake, like some kind of underground thing,” she says. She quickly learned the sport was completely legitimate and found her Muay Thai background prepared her perfectly for the powerful intensity of bare knuckle boxing.

“Muay Thai is brutal, there’s no stops. If you back up, you’re losing points because they’re dominating you,” she says. “So I was taught to go forward, and bang, and be tough enough to take the damage. And this sport is all about enduring. Whoever can endure the most pain will be victorious.”

 Bare Knuckle is Badass, but is it also Safer?

Enduring that pain obviously comes with risk, but maybe not as much risk as you think. Both Vazquez and Feldman tout statistics showing bare knuckle boxing results in significantly fewer instances of brain damage and major concussions than boxing or MMA. “Look, you’re never safe when your objective is to knock the other person out,” Feldman says. “But we’re no more dangerous than any other combat sport on the planet.”

This may sound like outlandish promoter talk, but there’s some sense behind it. Part of why bare-knuckle boxers don’t have as much head trauma is because fighters take far fewer punches. “In boxing, fights go 10, 12 rounds, and now they’re fighting for points. So they’re throwing jabs, 600 punches thrown, 300 to the head,” Dada says. “Bare knuckle is short, and you have maybe 40 punches thrown, 20 to the head.”

It just looks more destructive because superficial injuries like cuts, broken bones, and missing teeth are pretty much a given. “You’re guaranteed to break a bone, 99.9 percent,” says Quinones. “My last fight, I had four fractured ribs, and my wrist fractured. And I won in the second round by knockout.”

Look For Bare Knuckle Boxing Near You

While it may not be for all fighters, from a spectator’s point of view bare-knuckle boxing offers a new twist to combat sport fans. And it may be coming to an arena near you sooner than you expect.

Feldman says that while nothing is finalized, he’s working on sanctioning in “some major states,” (it’s currently only legal in 20), and BYB Extreme recently held fights in London and Dubai. And even if you can’t catch it live, bare-knuckle boxing is available through the BKFC App. For a monthly fee, all past fights are available and offers at least one live show per month, often more than that. 

“Just watch it—I guarantee if you like combat sports you’re gonna love it,” says Feldman. “It’s fun, it’s exciting, it’s fast-paced, and it’s not as brutal as you might think.”

Cowboy Cerrone
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