Opinion: Bare Knuckle Boxing is Laying MMA's Issues Bare

By Jordan Breen Apr 10, 2019

Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed below are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Sherdog.com, its affiliates and sponsors or its parent company, Evolve Media.

The ordering process for Ultimate Fighting Championship pay-per-views has changed: UFC 236 is only available on ESPN+ in the U.S.

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We are days away from the best featherweight in the world, Max Holloway, fighting the most deserving lightweight contender, Dustin Poirier, granted, for an Ultimate Fighting Championship interim title. That slight diss aside -- it’s just a piece of how the UFC does business now -- it’s immaterial to the point I want to make. UFC 236 takes place this weekend, and hell, it’s not like it’s not it’s our only title fight. We’ve got two interim title fights, since Israel Adesanya takes on Kelvin Gastelum for a specious middleweight title. Maybe that’s why MMA fans care so much about bare knuckle boxing.

The modern rise of bare knuckle boxing is simultaneously both surprising and to my point, understandable. I’ll give Bare Knuckle Fighting Championship President David Feldman credit, because he’s been incredibly shrewd in his scheduling of shows and his signing of talent. But, it’s a grimy resolve. He is a legacy child of Broomall, Pennsylvania, boxer Marty Feldman. His older brother is celebrity boxing promoter Damon Feldman, a noted woman hitter and publicly nicknamed “The King of the D-List.” But, sometimes being a clever fox goes with a bit of grease. Feldman has realized a gap in the modern MMA structure and he’s brilliantly exploited it. Everyone loves to trash a questionable business man, but frankly, he’s exposed a fundamental impasse in this sport’s system and as MMA folk, I think that is important to explore.

When Feldman launched this venture less than a year ago, people laughed, imagining it to be both brutish and something best left to the clandestine, even though we valorize bare knuckle boxers from 100 years ago. Maybe some would call it opportunistic or even sociopathic, but Feldman realized something was going on in the fight community: MMA fans were being disenfranchised by the biggest promotion in the world and at the end of the day, people just want to watch a good scrap. Look at BKFC 5’s headlining contest from Saturday night: would you have cared about a UFC undercard bout between Artem Lobov and Jason Knight? But, you put a different spin and gimmick on things, and it makes money and generates attention. BKFC’s first pay-per-view did allegedly 150,000 pay-per-view buys, essentially the disappointing floor ground for one of the greatest MMA fighters ever, Demetrious Johnson, under UFC employ. Why do you think that is?

Feldman’s strategy has been immaculate. He both realized the potential to sign pissed off UFC fighters and knew how to use social media, even though, ironically, his own Twitter account has three posts. Is bare knuckle boxing going to become a mainstream media sensation and overtake a $4.2 billion company like the UFC? No, not in the slightest. But he’s carved out such a clever niche by weaponizing the biggest MMA promotions against them. I used the phrase “opportunist” here, and that is exactly what this man is: he realized a fundamental screw-up in the system and is making dollars off of it.

Obviously, it’s not easy, either. The World Bare Knuckle Fighting Federation started promoting not long after BKFC and now, have essentially dissolved after the disaster surrounding its first event, which featured the undue promotion of former National Football League star Shawne Merriman, its alleged lack of payment to headliner Chris Leben and him subsequently suing them for $90,000. It is one thing to realize that a particular idea is profitable, it’s another to get it right. And, having watched combat sports for 25 years, I know a lot can go wrong in a hurry, but so far -- literally less than a year -- Feldman is hitting everything right.

That is what makes things tricky, though. It’s hard to tell if Feldman and BKFC’s success is based on specific ingenuity or of if it that as MMA fans, we’re too dumb to understand how the worm is turning. He has admitted from the formation of the company that he uses social media and online fan response to gauge where the company is going. Now, for a promoter, that’s smart. But where does he get the information from? Won’t deny in the slightest that he has had screwed up, stepping into the ring to inform a crowd that he would deduct half of fighter Rusty Crowder’s purse because he was obviously mismatched against Reggie Bennett. You want to be a hard-balling promoter, you phrase that differently. By all means, it was cringy and unbecoming. But, again, let me ask if it will stop you from watching the next BKFC event? I thought not.

But, that’s the thing that needs addressing. Again, ask yourself the fundamental question: “Why do you watch this sport?” And, granted, there is a unique irony involved that we all churned our stomachs when Lobov got to headline a UFC card and all joked about Knight being “Hick Diaz.” We are talking about a fighting promotion built on the backs of MMA veterans like Lobov, Knight, Leben, Chris Lytle, Bec Rawlings and Tony Lopez. Again, this is not by accident. Feldman seems astute enough to realize a dual mechanism that is driving business.

Your dad on the couch? Your idiot friends? Maybe they buy an actual pay-per-view. At the same time, what is maximizing exposure for this company is extremely online MMA fans who are savvy enough to steal the broadcast, all while tweeting about it and giving them as much grassroots exposure you could hope for.

It is two people fighting and that is what we are here for. The company that became the overseeing purveyors of that aspect went into a bizarre corporate mode and are now talking about going corporate, which frankly, would be better for all of the people that BKFC is profiting off of. But, it is a sign of the time: it is one intelligent hustler recognizing a chink in the armor for a promotion allegedly worth billions.

I think it’s important to note that I don’t think that MMA fans love this sport any less than in years gone by; it’s not a question of passion, but procedure. Part of the thrill of MMA in the past was obsessing over a couple of major fighters for months, wondering how they might play out. Now, no one has any expectation that these things will actually come to pass and there is zero accountability for the biggest promoters in the world. The Ultimate Fighting Championship wants to finagle a bunch of joke title fights? Bellator MMA wants to bury outstanding wrestlers on undercards while putting virtual jobbers on a main card? One Championship wants to give highly questionable viewership numbers while having a troubling weigh-in process and scrubbing all its media of the fact that the company ever allowed soccer kicks? It just washes over fans and disillusions them. Again, it’s not about passion. When this sport -- any promotion -- has something to offer, fight lovers are pumped. But what happens in the interim?

And this is what the BKFC product has succeeded on. In those weeks where the UFC and Bellator need to give their staffs a week off, when Rizin Fighting Federation isn’t for another few weeks, when One is just running a trash card in Myanmar, the passion is still there. So, this is what we get: a bunch of people who just want to watch some people punching one another in the face and paying for it on their couch, and the savviest of the MMA community publicizing it. Even though the vast majority of the MMA public watching a BKFC event are probably illegally streaming it, it doesn’t matter; it’s a feature, not a defect. A huge part of Feldman’s success is the MMA community to essentially just do publicity for his company, even if they’re rocking pirated streams, they’re still putting BKFC out there and in turn, legitimizing the idea that Bare Knuckle Fighting Championship isn’t some low rent fly-by-night endeavor, but maybe just another way to enjoy a good fight, in a convenient fashion, that doesn’t feel like a soul-rending chore to endure.

And really, I think that’s all anyone wants. Advertisement
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