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Can bare-knuckle boxing go mainstream?

LONDON — Scott “Pretty Boy” Midgley remembers when bare-knuckle boxing was bare-knuckle boxing — or at least what people expect bare-knuckle boxing to be. “It was underground, seedy and dangerous,” Midgley said. “Fighters fought for peanuts, and gangsters were everywhere. That world still exists. But it’s turned into this.”

“This” is a show last month at Indigo, a theatre within southeast London’s cavernous O2 entertainment centre. On July 1, Midgley strutted its stage, splintering bones and accumulating bruises on a card promoted by BKB, which is to bare-knuckle boxing what UFC is to mixed martial arts. A couple of weeks later, funk legend Chaka Khan played the same venue. Let’s hope they hosed the blood away.

Bare-knuckle boxing in a plush theatre might seem incongruous, but the organizers’ dream is a show at Wembley Stadium. By fiddling with the dials — for example, knuckles are actually bandaged, not bare — they hope to make bare-knuckle boxing a legitimate sport. But if it’s no longer underground, seedy and dangerous, what is its point of difference? In a crowded combat sports market, will its spirit be suffocated and extinguished?

While bare-knuckle boxing faded into antiquity in the United States after the introduction of gloves in the 1880s, it continued to thrive in dark nooks of the UK. It wasn’t something you’d take your kids to see, but many of its practitioners — men who preferred, to borrow a Johnny Cash lyric, “kicking and a’ gouging in the mud and the blood and the beer” to the Queensberry Rules — became underworld legends.

Midgley, however, is looking forward rather than backward. “This” is more his scene than a barn in the back of beyond.

“My first fight,” he said, “I drove five hours from Bradford to Wales, down this long dirt track and eventually came across about 100 blokes standing around a tiny ring made from hay bales. One of my mates said to me, ‘What the hell are we doing here? Shall we go home?’ I said, ‘I came for a fight, so I’m going to have a fight.’

“My opponent hadn’t turned up, so I jumped between the hay bales and started calling everyone out: ‘If any man here can go one round with me, you get £500!’ Some drunk idiot jumped out, stripped down to his jeans and got slapped around. I think it lasted 24 seconds. That was only three years ago.”

That event in Wales was the first organised by BKB owner Joe Brown, who thought he could weed out the gambling and villainy overrunning the scene and transform bare-knuckle boxing into a thriving, mainstream sport.

“It had a little bit of a fan base, but mostly it was car-park scraps, and that first show in Wales was rough and ready,” said Brown, an accountant by trade. “After his fight, Scott Midgley went mad at me. But I said to him, ‘I promise you this won’t happen again. I’m taking this to another level. Stand by me, and I’ll make you big in this sport.'”

IN A LARGE, tent-like structure behind the Indigo, fighters mingled freely, cigarettes were doled out, and manly banter flowed. Most of the 26 men on the show were solid units, planed and chiselled. Only a few looked like they hadn’t seen a gym in years.

Top of the bill was Jimmy “The Celtic Warrior” Sweeney, world middleweight champion. Sweeney was a top amateur boxer before he fell out of love with the game. He walked away and got fat, only returning to the gym after his girlfriend — inadvertently setting him on the path to bare-knuckle glory — told him he wasn’t as sexy as he used to be.

“I’m a Traveller,” Sweeney said. “I’ve been around bare-knuckle boxing since I was a child, and it comes natural to me, but I wouldn’t have done bare-knuckle boxing if it was in some gangster’s back garden with 30 people watching. That’s not for me.

“I would have made a good pro [in gloved boxing], but I’ve got three kids, and I’m making better money doing this, between £5,000 and £10,000 [approximately $6,500-$13,000] a fight, and fighting maybe 10 times a year. But it’s not just about the money — it’s about the buzz. We’ve gone back to where it started in the 1800s. It’s pure, raw sport.”

For all involved, bare-knuckle boxing is an antidote to what they see as the sterile, artificial world of the gloved game. But the owners and organisers of BKB, which bills itself as the world’s only licensed bare-knuckle boxing company, make bolder claims, including that their brand of prize-fighting is safer than other combat sports.

“In mixed martial arts, you can do flying knees and elbows,” said Jim Freeman, Brown’s partner, who was also present on that fateful day in Wales. “And in gloved boxing, a fighter’s brain might be rattling around inside his skull for 12 rounds. But nobody has ever been seriously injured on one of our shows.”

Medical opinion is split over whether gloves are safer than bare — or bandaged — knuckles, and the debate will remain unsettled until bare-knuckle boxing can provide a large enough sample for scientists to research. But would you rather be punched once or twice by bare knuckles and knocked out quickly or punched hundreds of times by gloved knuckles for 36 minutes? Granted, it isn’t much of a choice.

To overcome widespread scepticism — for example, Freeman and Brown had to attend 13 meetings with councillors, the police and an MP before a show at Coventry’s SkyDome Arena earlier this year was given the go-ahead — BKB has set out to make its shows demonstrably safer than the gloved cards sanctioned by the British Boxing Board of Control (BBBofC), the governing body of licensed gloved boxing in the UK.

At the O2, there were two ambulances, two doctors and a trauma medic on site. There was also a scanner designed to provide early detection of potentially fatal bleeding in the brain. At all BKB shows, a doctor must check the fighters between every round and is entitled to call a fight off, whereas on BBBofC shows, the referee holds sway.

BBBofC general secretary Robert Smith said he strongly disagrees with the suggestion that bare-knuckle boxing is a safer alternative and wishes it would disappear.

“I wrote to the Indigo to say the [BKB] show had nothing to do with us,” Smith said. “Gloved boxing can be a dangerous sport, but we know how hard we work to make sure it’s as safe as possible.

“We’ve looked into making brain scanners compulsory at our shows, and a lot of people don’t see the benefit. If somebody’s injured, they should go straight to hospital anyway. How precise is the equipment, and what are the qualifications of the people using it? We have no intention of bringing them in.”

As well as safer, BKB claims to be fairer than its gloved counterparts.

“In gloved boxing, you know you’ve won a fight, but they’ll award the decision to the home fighter because he’s a prospect or a ticket-seller,” said Stuart Maddox, who went 5-0-1 in his six pro gloved contests before switching to bare-knuckle boxing.

“In BKB, everything’s 50-50. There’s never anyone complaining about dodgy decisions. That’s one of the reasons you’re getting a lot of gloved boxers coming over. I wouldn’t say there’s more money in it, but we’re looked after and treated as equals. And I’ve got a good few mates interested in joining me, boxers who aren’t getting the fights or the breaks in the gloved game.”

It isn’t only gloved boxers and Brits drawn to BKB. There were two Americans, one Croatian and an Italian, from various fighting backgrounds, on the O2 bill.

American Melvin Guillard, brought over to fight Sweeney in the main event, had a decent career in UFC. Luca Bergers is an Italian kickboxer who also plays calcio storico fiorentino, a brutal combination of football and street fighting.

Josh Burns, a mixed martial artist and former amateur boxer from Michigan, was drawn by the purity of bare-knuckle boxing that he believes other combat sports can’t match.

“I wanted to be one of the first Americans to come over here and mix it up with the Brits at their own game,” Burns said. “BKB is breaking new ground, and I want to be able to say that I was there at the beginning, part of something that became big.”

Burns is built like a bison and covered from head to toe in tattoos. He also is impossibly polite, a trait that seems common among the fighters. They were brought up tough, but bare-knuckle boxing might have chipped off some edges.

Ricky Nelder, a painter and decorator from Birmingham, says he was “a bit of a nightmare” as a kid. But he finds comfort in bashing heads with bare fists. “There’s just something more real about it than boxing with gloves, about as real as it can get without going to jail,” he said. “When I’m in the ring, it feels like my opponent is out to kill me. That’s perfect for me. It’s savage, but in a safe way.”

Freeman concedes that there are those who believe BKB’s version of bare-knuckle boxing is a poor imitation of the “real thing.” There have also been death threats from gangsters, upset at the sport’s transformation into a legitimate enterprise, which translates into less money for them.

But Freeman and Brown have ploughed on regardless, creating an environment in which hard-fighting men can make a few quid without being exploited. The quality is improving as a result — there were no drunks in jeans duking it out at Indigo.

“I get about six calls a week from street brawlers,” Brown said. “One guy said, ‘Joe, I want to fight on one of your shows.’ I said, ‘Send me some footage and a contact for your gym.’ He said, ‘I don’t know how to box, but I’m a good pub fighter.’ He gave me the landlord’s number to call. I didn’t bother.”

But one or two outliers have snuck in. Peter Radford was once offered a place at the New York Conservatory for Dramatic Arts, but the Brit had to turn it down because of a lack of funds. Now he acts in short films, music videos and street theatre. He was playing Robin Hood’s pal Little John at a Nottingham hotel when the BKB boys rolled into town, and he wanted a piece of the action.

“The nearest I’d come to bare-knuckle boxing, or any kind of boxing, was playing Bendigo, a famous 19th-century fighter from Nottingham,” said Radford, who looks like Conan the Barbarian but sounds like a bank clerk.

“But any combat sport is about performance and showmanship, and I’d had a couple of street fights. There are things in life that make you feel truly alive, allow you to express and challenge yourself physically and mentally. As soon as that bell rings, there’s a feeling in my heart that this is it, there’s no turning back now. You’ve got to live with an element of danger, haven’t you?”

IN THE TENT, the fighters queued for a massage and to have their hands bandaged, another concession that has irked the purists. It means BKB isn’t bare-knuckle boxing in the strictest sense, but it is that little bit safer than it would otherwise be (the bandages are primarily to protect a boxer’s hands, not his opponent’s face). The scene could be called cosy — think a Sunday league football changing room rather than the gladiators’ barracks beneath the Colosseum.

Before the first fight, a fan named Gary, who’d bagged a front row seat, was a few beers in but still able to explain the appeal of the sport. “It’s just more real than boxing with gloves on,” he said. “Gloved boxing has become too sterile. And what I really like about bare-knuckle boxing is the blend of proper boxers and old-school hard men. I guarantee you tonight’s show will be more entertaining than the show down the hall.”

The “show down the hall” was staged by Matchroom, the biggest promotional outfit in British gloved boxing and home to heavyweight world champion Anthony Joshua.

Matchroom shows at the O2 Arena have attracted capacity crowds of 20,000, though this night it was closer to a quarter full. Matchroom boss Eddie Hearn had to be less than delighted that there were about 1,000 potential punters watching boxing barely 50 yards away.

But even the biggest promoters have dud nights. Indeed, the BKB show in Coventry, despite attracting a similar number of fans as the Indigo card, lacked a certain sizzle. Although fights came thick and fast, most were called off at the first sign of danger, meaning that they didn’t have time to marinade, like the best gloved contests. After 10 fights, the between-round ring-card girls had been called into action just twice.

The upshot was a rather subdued atmosphere at the SkyDome, suggesting that BKB’s long-term problem might not be that it’s too violent but that it’s not violent enough.

The Indigo show, BKB’s sixth promotion, was different. Most of the 13-fight card was a triumph of sensible matchmaking, with a blend of knockouts, decisions and stylistic variety — and lots of blood.

But it is the sound of the punches that sticks in the memory. While gloved punches land with a dull thud, bandaged bone on bone delivers a crisp click. Presumably, it’s the sound of joints being bent and popped and shifted.

Nelder, the painter, disposed of Jay Ferguson to retain the British super middleweight title before a gory world cruiserweight championship fight between Croatia’s Marko Martinjak and Shaun Cheesa ended when a left hook from the former broke the latter’s jaw in the fourth round (title fights take place over five two-minute rounds). When Midgley was stopped by Welshman Sean George in another ferocious contest, you could almost smell the hay and the cow dung.

There was even a whiff of skulduggery to get the romantics purring when light-heavyweight Kris Trezise was found to be wearing a ring during his contest against Wales’ Christian “Fat Boy” Evans. Trezise was disqualified, and an irate fan threw a pint of beer over Evans (although, it should be noted, the crowd was no better or worse behaved than a crowd at an average gloved show).

It wasn’t always quality fare, but it was entertaining enough to empty the bar and get the crowd on their feet and screaming.

Maddox and Radford, the actor, ground out a draw before Sweeney was carried to the ring on a throne with a crown on his head and draped in an Irish tricolour.

Sweeney has retained plenty of skills from his days in the gloved ranks, but it soon became evident that Guillard hadn’t travelled from America purely for the payday. However, after being felled in the first, Sweeney gathered himself and was awarded a unanimous decision. It wasn’t the bare-knuckle boxing Sweeney knew as a kid, but it’s still his manor.

Savagery is in the eye of the beholder. Seeing someone laid out with a bandaged fist is a short, sharp shock, but seeing two gloved men trade blows for 36 minutes — or an opponent being punched on the floor, as in MMA — could be considered more unsettling.

The next show, which the organisers hope will be broadcast live on television, is in September at the 11,000-capacity Liverpool Echo Arena.

But it is therefore worth asking: If BKB is a brand like UFC, as well-regulated as BBBofC boxing — and perhaps even safer — then what, and who, is it for?

Even a couple of the fighters had their misgivings, suggesting that well-schooled boxers might be bad for business and that the sport might have become too sanitised. When Freeman and Brown stripped away the seediness and the danger, did they also strip away bare-knuckle boxing’s soul?

Brown has no such qualms — just aspirations. “America is on our hit list. We’ve been in talks with the athletic commission in Chicago, and they are very keen for us to come and do a night of BKB v. UFC, with bare-knuckle rules. We’re also looking over a few offers from broadcasters in the UK. The O2 show really moved us up the food chain, and I honestly believe BKB will be in Las Vegas within five years.”

When the O2 show ended, just past midnight, fans surely were glad that they weren’t in the middle of nowhere in Wales, having just seen someone left for dead in a barn. But for all the blood spilled, a question nags: Did they feel dirty enough?

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