Five years after his last legal match, Bobby Gunn is stepping back into the ring.
On June 11, Gunn, the world champion of bare-knuckle boxing, and 15 other fighters will compete in a sanctioned eight-bout bare-knuckle event at the Miccosukee Resort & Gaming casino in greater Miami. Gunn will be defending his 71-0 record in the title match against an as-yet-undecided opponent, alongside an undercard of U.S. and international fighters looking to make their names in the rising sport. During a time of change in the fight-world industry – just last month, New York legalized MMA after nearly 20 years of outlawing the sport – bare knuckle is finally poised to go mainstream.
"It's been a hard old road," Gunn says, "but bare-knuckle boxing is back."
Gunn and Bare Knuckle Fighting, the league putting on the event, are reviving one of America's earliest sports. Essentially stand-up boxing without gloves, bare knuckle was hugely popular in the 1800s until it was replaced by modern boxing in 1892, when the U.S. adopted the Marquess of Queensberry rules, requiring athletes to wear gloves. But bare knuckle continued to thrive in the illegal underground, with pro boxers, MMA fighters and hardened street brawlers competing in places like empty warehouses and mobster McMansions for as much as $50,000 a night. In 2011, Bare Knuckle Fighting staged the first sanctioned match in the U.S. since 1889, with Gunn defeating Richard Stewart on an Indian reservation in Arizona. (While outside the bounds of state and federal law, the Yavapai Nation – like the Miccosukee Nation – still has the power to host sanctioned matches). Gunn and his team expected around 50,000 to live-stream the online pay-per-view event. Instead, more than a million tuned in.
"This is the purest form of hand-to-hand combat," says David Feldman, the president of Bare Knuckle Fighting. "We're staging it first in America and then the world – we're coming out of hiding."
Since 2011, Gunn and his team have been working to overcome bare knuckle's outlaw reputation – and science is now backing them up. To avoid breaking their hands on the hard bone atop the head, bare-knuckle fighters punch with less force than gloved boxers, resulting in fewer concussions. A decade-long study at the University of Alberta recently found that MMA fighters are more likely to get injured and boxers are more likely to suffer serious head trauma. Bare-knuckle fighters hit each other with less force than contestants do in either gloved sport. "Out of boxing, MMA, and bare knuckle, bare knuckle is the safest," Randy Gordon, a former New York athletic commissioner and co-host of At the Fights on SiriusXM, told Men's Journal in March.
Just as MMA overcame its outlaw reputation – in the Nineties, John McCain called it "human cockfighting" – Gunn and his crew are working to make bare knuckle a legitimate fight sport. "The chief obstacle I have confronted, and I understand it, is that politicians are against the violence of it," says George Kokkalenios, the lawyer for Bare Knuckle Fighting. "But it isn't as violent as you think. This is going to be the next MMA." The league has created rules, gotten independent sanctioning and medical oversight for fights, hired a referee and even trademarked a hexagonal ring. Fighters including pro boxers and MMA fighters like Shannon Ritch, Nelson Lopez and Mike Liberto will compete in two-minute rounds, with bouts lasting up to nine rounds. Tickets for the event will start at $50 and the event will also be available for pay-per-view streaming. "We want to get regulated," Feldman says. "We're not hiding or flying under the radar. We're asking state athletic commissions and politicians to please tell us how to run our sport from a legal aspect."
Following the fight in June, Feldman is planning to host more events later in the year. "Guys like me will buy every single pay-per-view," Gordon says. "There's room for boxing, MMA and bare knuckle – they're entirely different sports."
And if Gunn gets his way, he'll be fighting Kimbo Slice in a supermatch by year's end. "The ball is in Kimbo's court," Gunn says. "I've been knocking on his door to fight for 10 years. In my heart of hearts, I believe it's going to happen – and that bare-knuckle superfight will put our sport on the map."