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BKFC boxer Greg Bono competes during BKFC’s Knuckle Mania event.

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Opinion: BKFC death should be a wake-up call for combat sports, not just bare-knuckle boxing

Justin Thornton’s recent passing, following a loss at BKFC 20, has caused a wave of backlash against bare knuckle fighting, most of which ignores the realities at work.

Bare-knuckle boxer Greg Bono competes during BKFC’s Knuckle Mania event.
| Photo by Alex Menendez/Getty Images

There seems little doubt coming out of Bare Knuckle FC 20 that Justin Thornton’s death was very likely a preventable tragedy, and that steps need to be taken to make sure these kinds of tragedies are as rare as humanly possible. However, the idea that one of those steps should be a ban on bare knuckle boxing once again seems like it would be a potential move in the wrong direction.

We’re currently just a little over a month removed from the latest death inside the world of traditional, gloved, boxing: 18-year-old Jeanette Zacarias Zapata, who passed away following injuries suffered in an August 28th fight—just the 6th of her short career. Comparatively, the red flags that should have surrounded Thornton’s fight against an 11-1 MMA fighter (and 3-0 bare knuckle boxer) were much clearer. Still, both fights highlight similar issues, namely a lack of forceful regulatory oversight.

In the case of Zapata, stories sprang up, after the fact, of a medical diagnosis that should have ended her boxing career, but which she kept hidden in order to continue fighting. In the case of Thornton, a single boxing bout (which he lost by KO) in 2017 and an MMA record that included 11 KO losses and five first round stoppages in his last five fights, could have given the promotion and commission plenty of pause when it came to booking him in more pro bouts. He didn’t deceive anyone into thinking he would be a competitive opponent in the cage, BKFC booked him knowing full well of his past struggles.

And that, I think, really gets to the crux of bare knuckle boxing’s current problem. Not just BKFC (although they deserve their fair share of accountability here), but as a newly regulated sport, the talent pool is so thin on the ground that it seems any promotion looking to enter into it will find themselves drawing from all levels of competitors just to fill out cards.

Even in a sport as recently established as MMA, there’s a whole multi-tiered ecosystem that filters what kinds of fighters will be targeted for which kinds of events. There are purely amateur promotions, ultra low-level regional shows, mid-level cards, bigger AAA-level companies, and then your rare few truly top tier organizations. There may be no shortage of mismatches among any of those points, but just the fact that there’s always a softer step back that prospective fighters can take helps mitigate risks. The UFC isn’t booking any 2-14 journeymen onto its cards, because smaller promotions give those fighters places to compete, while also sorting out the better, more capable athletes that can fight at a higher level.

For boxing, there’s a decades long, and well understood art to booking fights and managing fighters. Someone like Reggie Strickland may have lost 276 of the 363 boxing matches he took, but only 24 of those were by KO or TKO. That’s still a lot, don’t get me wrong, but it says something very specific that he was only KO’d once over the last six years and 101 fights of his career. The expectations of a ‘professional opponent’ in boxing are someone that will go out and lose a fight, while providing good in ring experience, not someone who will go out and get put away in a hurry.

To that end, bare-knuckle boxing feels much more like MMA. A place where losers tend to get shellacked rather than providing meaningful tests and experience. And when a promotion like BKFC has to draw talent from all levels just to fill out fight cards and keep the promotion rolling forward, violent mismatches are going to occur.

A poster for BKFC’s October 9th event.
A poster for BKFC’s October 9th event.

Of the 24 fighters scheduled to compete at BKFC Montana, only 7 have any bare-knuckle boxing or regular boxing experience at all. Most of the card is made up of career MMA fighters looking to stay active, try something new, or revive their combat sports careers at a point where they can no longer compete at a meaningful level in a sport that requires so much wrestling and grappling. Melvin Guillard has just two wins in his last 17 bouts (stretching back to 2014) in either MMA or boxing, but he’ll be competing in the main event, against former UFC and Strikeforce fighter Joe ‘Diesel’ Riggs. Neither man is in any position to become a competitive professional boxer, but they are going to step in the ring and make a go of hurting one another as badly as possible, because they’re two of the most notable talents bare-knuckle boxing has right now.

That kind of fight booking is a recipe for disaster.

Were this to be an MMA card, the chances for severe, life-altering injury wouldn’t necessarily be diminished. 4oz gloves haven’t been proven to provide any cushion to the brain when it’s rattling around inside the skull. Even if they did, the ability to throw a shin, elbow, or knee into someone’s face, full force, somewhat beggars the whole argument. But, what MMA does have are escape routes. MMA provides much more leeway for fighters to avoid damage than boxing does. Not just with wrestling and grappling, but a more forgiving sense of distance and retreat. The presence of other options keeps fights out of the phone booth, where takedowns are easier but the potential to eat huge punches unexpectedly is also much higher.

UFC Fight Night: Santos v Walker Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

A fight like Thiago Santos vs. Johnny Walker is exactly the sort of back foot, cautious bout that MMA delivers in a way that boxing largely doesn’t. Boxers that stop throwing punches and merely defend are in danger of having the fight waved off. Boxers that stay heavy on the retreat are in danger of getting backed into a corner and trapped (BK’s circle ring obviously makes that a bit less of a concern). It’s simply much more difficult to have a boxing match where someone doesn’t get punched a whole heck of a lot of times. It’s one of the principal reasons that MMA talents like Tyron Woodley struggle so hard to cross over.

To that end, booking boxing cards like it’s MMA puts a whole lot of people in position to take damage that they haven’t been well prepared for. The fact that most of these fighters come from MMA only means that they probably have some half-decent mechanics when it comes to throwing punches, and very very few when it comes to defending them.

The Association of Boxing Commissions president Mike Mazzulli recently made a point of saying he wanted to see more oversight on bare-knuckle fighting, pointing specifically to enhanced medical checks. And while he might not be calling for a ban on the sport overall, it still feels like a misidentified call to action.

To the best of my knowledge, gloves weren’t introduced to the sport to protect against brain damage. Hell, there are even pretty reasonable arguments out there that they increase it, since the biggest job they do is to protect fighters’ hands from getting broken, so that they can throw punches harder (personally, I’d also be all for making the argument that bare-knuckle boxing shouldn’t include wrist wraps). The other job they have is the more ornamental one of stopping facial cuts, something that made boxing a more palatable sport for casual viewers who might have been turned off by an abundance of blood and gore.

Pushing for better screening is a good idea across all combat sports. But it won’t stop the basic fundamental problem of putting a whole lot of middlingly trained fighters into a ring with the expectation that they should all be working hard as hell to knock each other out in wild brawls. And it’s an especially brutal standard to set when, unlike boxing, there’s not even a big money payday awaiting the major success stories at the end of it all. If for no other reason than reputation alone, bare-knuckle boxing will probably never create meaningful stars. It’s prize fighting without the prizes.

Those, however, are structural issues with combat sports promotion. And on the flip side, legalizing bare knuckle fighting seems like a great opportunity to put real serious study to the actual effects that gloves have in the ring. To put consistent science and stats to their impact on fighter health and safety. It may be, as a pure function of damage, that gloves really do make brain trauma worse. If so, that’s worth knowing. And that won’t be achieved by sending the sport back to the scrap yard.

In the meantime, promotions like BKFC are going to have to re-learn the lessons that boxing taught so many people decades and decades ago: that pugilism is a very dangerous thing and that there’s an art to it and a reason to the ways in which fights and fighters are managed and booked. It’s a lesson boxing itself still has to learn periodically, to this day. And sadly, it’s always delivered on the most tragic of terms.

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