I arrive early, when the Florida State Fairgrounds Expo Center has just opened its doors to the media. Outside, just beyond a closed gate, hundreds of fans stand simmering in the heat of the waning evening. We have all come for the same reason, and we all share the same question: the Bare Knuckle Fighting Championships are in town—what the heck is bare knuckle fighting?
It is, apparently, the newest kid on the combat sports block.
What does it promise us? Punching without the polish of GLORY. Violence without the horizontal hugging of mixed martial arts. Pure brutality at its best, just ugly brutality at its worst. And because the main event will pit a somewhat elite ex-pro boxer in Paulie Malignaggi against a former UFC fighter in Artem Lobov (best bud of Conor McGregor), there is intrigue. So much intrigue.
Earlier in the day, in the building next door, a body-mind-spirit expo drew over a thousand attendees—New Age types who’d sooner stare at crystals than watch a man punch another in the face. And when the state fair was in full swing last year, this very arena housed a high school cheerleading competition. But tonight it will host to something else, something much darker. Something both loathsome and alluring.
It’s 6:30pm, and once security has their marching orders, the doors are unlocked.
The cast of characters is similar to any you’d see at a sub-UFC level MMA show. There’s the promoter in fitted button-down shirt, his watchful eyes roving even as he shakes hands with whichever luminary stands before him. There are the fighters, wandering about with earbuds in, easing into the “zone” as they roam freely like uncaged animals. There are the fans, legions of Florida locals sipping their beers as they bob to Snoop Dogg and whatever interminable country song the DJ plays. There’s the press, rows of them, everyone unsure of what to expect from this ancient-yet-fledgling sport (I think half expect a riot to break out—this is bare-knuckle boxing after all).
At 7:55, the announcer takes to the ring, and with his silver sequined jacket glittering with the light of a thousand suns, he beckons for all to rise for the national anthem. It’s time.
The first set of fighters to make their way to the circular ring are Chris Boffil from nearby Lakeland and Jared Hayes from nearby Clearwater. For those who don’t know Florida, that’s like pitting meth against Oxycontin. They battle in the clinch for the first round, but when Meth scores a knockdown in the second, the crowd jumps to their feet cheering like it’s a McGregor fight. But despite Meth’s early success, he’s gassed in the third, and all Oxy needs to do is knock him down twice for the ref to wave it off. The crowd goes bonkers, and they’ll for sure be partying in the streets of Lakeland tonight (spoiler alert: they party in the streets every night).
The next pair enter the ring, one of them dancing to Spanish music that has the audience singing along, and it’s clear with every subsequent punching exchange and corresponding cheers that this crowd is really into this whole bare-knuckle thing. Really into it.
That’s it for the prelim bouts, with the announcer promising the rest of the eight for the pay-per-view broadcast. There’s a lull, with everyone lining up at the doors to the restrooms, or at the stand selling beer, while the commentating team stands before the cameras and yaps away for those watching on pay-per-view.
What’s driving the crowd to react to every landed punch and every frenetic exchange? Are these boxing fans appreciative of action? Are they fatigued MMA fans happy for something different? Or is it something intrinsic about the raw violence of men scrapping like they’re in the Dairy Queen parking lot and they both want the same girl?
I don’t know, but I know the place erupts in a chorus of “Oooooh!” when UFC vet Jim Alers face-plants Elvin Brito with an uppercut knockout. Things slow a bit when MMA old schooler Joe Riggs takes on Walber Barros, with the inevitable Ric Flair “Woooo!” echoing throughout the arena. But those fade back to screams of appreciation when Riggs is dropped, and when Riggs comes back and turns his opponent’s eye into an empanada.
UFC and Bellator vet Joey Beltran scores a KO over an older, bigger opponent of dubious background. TUF vet Julian Lane—he of the infamous “Let me bang, bro!”—chips away at a dude from Chicago. The energy of the crowd wanes, only to spike when one combatant connects and steals life from the other.
Beside me on press row, a gaggle of journos begin their own cheers. On someone’s laptop is the UFC broadcast on ESPN+, and the Korean Zombie has just won.
Back to the BKFC, and some sort of championship belt is on the line when UFC vet Johnny Bedford and Reggie Barnett take to the ring. I know this because of the Hooters Girls prancing about and shiny gold on the black strap. This raises the stakes enough to captivate all those watching, and that captivation turns to glee when Bedford quickly drops Barnett, and drops him again, and drops him again. Bedford takes the belt amidst cheers.
It wasn’t too long ago that TUF pioneer Chris Leben was retired, a spent fighter on the very tail end of career. But BKFC has been his second life, a chance to earn while—ideally—losing minimal brain cells. He and perennial minor league MMAer Dakota Cochrane do the dance for the co-main event, turning each other’s faces into hamburger meat while each successive round makes them lumber more and more like the Walking Dead.
Few expected this Leben fight to go the distance, and the crowd is antsy, hungry for something they’re clearly not getting. But the main event is upon us, and when Lobov and Malignaggi make their respective walks to the ring (Lobov to cheers, Malignaggi to boos), the hope for blood is palpable.
There is blood, on the boxer’s face after Lobov lands a few flush ones, and there’s blood on the UFC vet’s face after Malignaggi peppers him with endless jabs. But the stumbles and knockdowns and—sadly—knockouts are few and far between or simply not forthcoming at all. The crowd is on their feet throughout, and they cheer when the decision is rendered and Lobov’s hand is raised. Is the violence loathsome enough, though?
It’s all over but for the aftermath. As the crowd filters out in to the night, the fighters lick their wounds in back.
Malignaggi wanders about, flanked by entourage, commission and medical personnel. One friend of Lobov climbs onto the EMTs’ gurney as a joke, and people gather around to snap photos. Riggs talks about future match-ups, while coaches gather up their focus mitts and gym bags.
There will be more editions of the Bare Knuckle Fighting Championships, more even in Florida (November, at Universal Studios in Orlando). Why? Because no matter what expectations were left met or unmet, there was still violence. And all of us are complicit with our glorious hunger for it.
I head home.