Bare-knuckle boxing world champion Bobby Gunn did not expect the $100,000 bet.
On June 11, he will defend his title against Shannon "The Cannon" Ritch – a journeyman legend in MMA – at the Miccosukee Reservation in Miami. The fight is only the second sanctioned bare-knuckle event in the United States since 1889, and Gunn has been working for years to raise the sport from the illegal underground to mainstream legitimacy. But after world heavyweight boxing champion Tyson Fury recently stated he would pay £100,000 to anyone in the U.K. who could beat Gunn, Ritch decided to make his own public wager, betting $100,000 in a winner-take-all, man-to-man side bet against Gunn (the money will be in addition to the title belt and purse already on the line.)
While betting on oneself in combat sports is generally legal and Gunn has long made his living in the underground bare-knuckle circuit – in which fighters routinely wager $10,000 on themselves in bouts – he had wanted next month's title fight to be more professional and untainted by gambling. But a man can't back down, so he has matched Ritch's bet…and now has everything on the line.
"He's pissed me off," Gunn says. "That was an act of disrespect. We didn't need to bring side bets into a pro match like this – and $100,000 ain't chump change. Before, I was just going to beat him. But now, he's brought out the beast. I'm the fucking bastard he's going to wish he'd never seen."
In the wake of Fury's proclamation and UFC commentator Joe Rogan coming out in support of bare-knuckle MMA, the Miami event's fight card is growing daily, attracting a mix of veterans and up-and-coming rookies, all looking to make their name in the rising sport.
"I ask everyone, 'Who do you remember the most in MMA?'" says David Feldman, the president of Bare Knuckle Fighting. "It's always the same answer: 'The guys who were there at the beginning.' These fighters want to be on the ground floor of something new."
In addition to Ritch – a six-time MMA champion – the event will feature Bellator MMA pro fighters Josh Burns, Rudy Morales and Eric Prindle. Heavyweight pro boxer Danny Batchelder, who has fought for years in the underground, will defend his American bare-knuckle title belt against an as-yet-unnamed opponent. And fighters like pro heavyweight boxer Erik Leander, bare-knuckle rising star Henry Stewart and boxer Nelson Lopez Jr. are all hoping to make their mark in the only bare-knuckle match endorsed by Scott Burt, president of the Bare Knuckle Boxing Hall of Fame.
Yet out of all the fighters, Ritch is unique in that he actually was on the ground floor of MMA. A former Blackwater security contractor in the Iraq War, the 45-year-old Ritch fought in the sport's early underground days, competing for cash in warehouses and barrooms across the Southwest, from L.A. to Houston to Mexico.
"Back in '93, it was called 'No Holds Barred,'" Ritch says. "They'd have the chicken fights, the dog fights and then we'd come out. There's blood and chicken feathers and crap all over the dirt floor and I'd be fighting some cowboy boxer wearing jeans and boots with no shirt. At the end of the night I'd have like $500."
At different points, Ritch and Gunn even crossed paths in the underground. "We were in the same circuit," Ritch says. "I've seen Bobby fight in L.A., and one time we both won knockouts on the same night at a fight in Albuquerque." While Ritch has an online record of 55-80, he says a good bulk of his fights predate the Internet. "Sherdog is missing all my fights from '91 to '98. There are only three guys in the world with 100 wins: me, Dan Severn and Travis Fulton. As long as my peers know, I don't need to tell the whole world."
Like Gunn, who is 42, Ritch is nearing the end of his career – and sees bare knuckle as a final chance to claim a belt. "I want to take his world title," he says. "Buster Douglas shocked the world when he beat Tyson. Now it's my turn to do the same."
For Ritch, the $100,000 bet is all part of his strategy. Yes, he initially decided to do it after Fury and other social media pundits began stating he didn't have a chance against Gunn. But he also sees it as a chance to get inside his opponent's head. "I want the best Bobby Gunn there is. And if I wasn't before, I'm in his head now. Every day he's thinking, 'Shit man, I've got to beat this guy.' I'm bringing the pressure – and that can get to a man."
Not surprisingly, Gunn disagrees with that assessment.
"Pressure don't bother me," he says. "I'm actually glad he's done it because now I'm going to hurt him really bad. Sometimes my heart hasn't been in knocking guys out. Now I don't feel that way. I'm going to tear Shannon's head off. This guy's going to get a good beating."