It’s easy to state that the Bare Knuckle Fighting Championship began at BKFC 1 in Cheyenne, Wyoming, 2018. While that might not be a lie, it’s only part of the story.
That tale leaves out the work fighters and staff put into BKFC before its official inception. It also fails to provide a full view of what’s been done in nearly five year, as we approach Knucklemania 2.
BKFC president David Feldman’s combat sports experience goes back decades, and a natural turn to promotion led to casting a series of open bare knuckle tryouts in 2017. The risky move paid off almost immediately, as fighters looking for a home were enticed by the new opportunity and rose to the challenge.
“I've promoted plenty of boxing shows and plenty of MMA shows in which I could make a fight and say this guy is going to win with 99% certainty,” Feldman told BoxingScene’s Corey Erdman in 2020. “In bare-knuckle I can't do that.”
The first open tryout, in Philadelphia on July 15, 2017, drew out “Hilbilly Hammer” Sam Shewmaker, who quickly became a BKFC staple and has since fought on eight cards.
Ensuring a measure of acceptance for bare knuckle wasn’t simple. It was the persistence of BKFC brass that combined with the efforts of fighters who proved to be relentless and unbelievably tough that did the convincing. More than a century in the making, BKFC 1 provided a link to a combat sports past thought to be forgotten.
That night in Cheyenne, future BKFC champions like Arnold Adams, Joey Beltran and Johnny Bedford all fought—and won.
Another fighter on the card, Bec Rawlings, headlined BKFC 2 two months later against Britain Hart, and both would be instrumental in fanning the flames of burgeoning intrigue in women’s bare knuckle. The women’s divisions in BKFC remain popular, and deservedly so, as they’ve repeatedly stolen the show.
The recognition of champions within the organization also proved crucial. When Arnold Adams defeated Sam Shewmaker to claim the inaugural BKFC heavyweight championship at BKFC 3, a new lineage was created. The lower weight classes have gotten their own attention in recent years, with a new welterweight champion recently teased forth.
At BKFC 5 in April of 2019, Artem Lobov and Jason Knight engaged in an exquisitely brutal five-round bout that helped raise awareness for bare knuckle as an elevated combat sport. And indeed on the same card, Christine Ferea scored a victory over Britain Hart in their first fight. Their paths, having diverged since then, meet again at Knucklemania 2.
In one year of operation, BKFC had already made a significant dent with only a handful of shows, fight cards traveling from Wyoming to Mississippi and to Mexico.
Paul Malignaggi’s inclusion on BKFC 6 established BKFC as a promotion friendly to combatants from various disciplines. BKFC 8, though headlined by former UFC heavyweight stars Gabriel Gonzaga and Antonio Silva, nevertheless took advantage of boxing appeal by featuring popular contender Dat Nguyen. And when BKFC 9 revisited Lobov-Knight in the main event to close out 2019, the rematch made it incredibly clear through an emphasis on fight series, rivalries and recurring characters that bare knuckle planned on sticking around.
Fight venues in Florida and Mississippi BKFC strongholds during a pandemic that blindsided combat sports and shut many businesses down entirely. Innovation and quick thinking allowed the BKFC to close strong in 2020, and even develop a new fight series, “Toe the Line,” with matchmaker Nate Shook.
In October of 2020, Heavyweight champion Joey Beltran made the first ever successful defense of the title at BKFC 13 against Marcel Stamps. Seemingly just another of Beltran’s few-dozen combat sports encounters, the title defense ensured the championship could become an example of bare knuckle’s staying power, rather than a trinket to rotate among fighters.
The hits only picked up pace from there. A week later at Toe the Line 2, Bobo O’Bannon cemented his fan favorite status by defeating mixed martial arts veteran Mike Kyle. The following month, at BKFC 14, Uly Diaz went viral when he took only three seconds to stop Donelei Benedetto, scoring the fastest knockout in BKFC history and one of the fastest knockouts in combat sports history. Then O’Bannon and Shewmaker paired up at BKFC 15 for the final show of 2020 and titles and lineage temporarily took a backseat to what fans wanted.
Knucklemania, and the rest of 2021, changed so much.
The 12-fight card in Lakeland, Florida in February of 2021 introduced swaths of combat sports fans to bare knuckle. The veritable festival of mayhem delivered on its promise to feature a new all-star cast in bare knuckle. In the main event, Britain Hart’s thrilling defeat of former UFC star Paige VanZant thrust women’s bare knuckle, and the sport itself, into the spotlight. The stacked card also laid the tracks for a busy year.
Nine shows in 2020 increased to 16 in 2021, with forays into Montana, Alabama and New York as more states accepted bare knuckle combat’s inevitable break toward the mainstream. BKFC even took the shows to Thailand, adding Muay Thai and Lethwei practitioners to the list of fighters willing to shed gloves entirely. In order, new BKFC middleweight, cruiserweight, bantamweight, heavyweight and light heavyweight champions were crowned in 2021—one of many signs BKFC was not only busy during the year, but productive.
New potential stars have emerged with every leap forward. With the headway made in 2021 came promising fighters like Francesco Ricchi and Joshua Álvarez, aka Famez. Meanwhile veterans Luis Palomino, Britain Hart, Martin Brown and Julian Lane got their licks in. All return on Knucklemania 2.
While not mandatory, perhaps knowing BKFC’s history allows for easier enjoyment of its ongoing contribution to the bare knuckle world. Knucklemania 2 is the expression of and testament to BKFC’s commitment to the fans for almost five years. It’s where the road leads, certainly, but not where it ends.
Follow Patrick Connor on Twitter: @PatrickMConnor
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