The promoter of the biggest bareknuckle fighting contest in the world says the bloody sport is 'safer' than boxing
- Paulie Malignaggi, a former world champion boxer, takes on Artem Lobov, an ex UFC fighter, on Saturday, June 22 in Tampa, Florida.
- Malignaggi and Lobov are headlining a Bare Knuckle Fighting Championship 6 event, the latest installment on a new promotion and a revitalized sport that has taken the combat industry by storm.
- It seems like a normal combat sports fight, but Malignaggi and Lobov will duke it out with no gloves - which means it will be a bloody war, as bare knuckles cause countless cuts on the face.
- Business Insider spoke to both fighters and the event's promoter David Feldman to get a better understanding of why they do this.
- Warning: The words, photographs, and video in this story are not for the faint-hearted.
- Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.
If you like bloodbaths, read on.
If not, beware - this is not a story about the noble art of boxing, the bowing culture in jiu-jitsu, or the family-driven promos the WWE distributes.
This is about something unquestionably violent, unashamedly gory, and brutally wild - a combat sports firm responsible for an explosion in popularity for one of the oldest forms of fighting.
Here, teeth are punched out of opponents' mouths, athletes end up looking like they got "attacked by dogs," and men spit on other men then threaten to do the same to their mothers.
It's the sort of thing that makes timid people gasp at their computer screens, shut their laptops down, and wonder to themselves what can possibly possess a sane person to do this. Surely it should be illegal, they say, while rocking back and forth in the fetal position on the floor.
Well, it's not. It's legal, government-regulated, and it returns to your TV screen this weekend, promising a helluva show.
This is a story about bareknuckle debutant Paulie Malignaggi, a former world champion boxer known for being a durable slickster, and his opponent, the one-fight pro Artem Lobov, a tough and confident striker. They hate each other, and Conor McGregor is in the middle of it.
It's a grudge match, ladies and gents, and it's arguably the biggest fight its sport has produced for more than a century.
It all goes down in the Expo Hall at Florida State Fairgrounds, Tampa on Saturday, June 22.
But unlike boxing or MMA, the battlegrounds these fighters established their name, Malignaggi and Lobov will fight with no gloves - just their bare fists ready to open fresh wounds and all kinds of hell for the entertainment of 10,000 paying fans.
Yup, you guessed it.
This is a story about Bare Knuckle Fighting Championship, the bloodiest show in town.
Bare Knuckle Fighting Championship is the most visible platform of bareknuckle boxing. The company, which has only been operating for little more than a year, has held five events so far, but is already the talk of the combat sport community.
The rules are fairly simple. There are five, two-minute rounds, and you compete bare-fisted in a big, circular ring. It's almost a middle ground between boxing and MMA. Obviously, you can shove your fist into your opponent's face. But unlike gloved boxing, you can grab the opponent by the scruff of the neck, and engage in what is called "dirty boxing." What you can't do is kick, knee, or choke one another. That would be rude.
The set-up, sport, and event, is taboo even by combat sports' standards. "The rules are designed to maximally inflict damage," Luke Thomas, a popular MMA analyst on Sirius XM radio and MMA Fighting, said earlier in the year.
Conversations I've had with boxing coaches, fight reporters, and a mixed martial arts executive over recent years suggest bareknuckle gets push back from the combat sports industry. There's a curiosity over whether the business model can even be sustainable, and that shows like Feldman's do not belong on TV.
Feldman, though, has managed to get his sport government-regulated in the United States, is determined to change the perception that it's just mindless bloody violence, and his organization has already attracted fans en masse.
The bout this weekend could be the biggest bareknuckle event since its glory days in the 19th century, as Feldman has revitalized the industry by matchmaking two athletes many fight fans know and love or hate.
It could be because the UFC has gotten so big, it has alienated a hardcore subset of fight fans through what they see as a sanitization that comes with near mainstream popularity. Those fans now have a home at Bare Knuckle Fighting Championship, where wanton violence has sparked pushback from combat's own community. It's a gory sport, but that's the way its fans like it.
Feldman seemingly agrees.
"We're more of an MMA target right now," he told Business Insider. "The 18-45 range is our majority audience, we get some younger and some older, but with the addition of Malignaggi we're getting into boxing fans as well."
It was, perhaps, a clear strategy to recruit Malignaggi, a guy with a grudge against McGregor and the Straight Blast Gym in Dublin, to fight Lobov, who is McGregor's friend and an SBG student. It not only adds intrigue to the encounter, but has captured the attention of the boxing public, as Malignaggi is an accomplished former pro.
Feldman says he's "paying Malignaggi very, very well" but called the deal "a marketing expense" as it has gotten the event into the boxing media. "With Lobov and the following he has, together with Conor McGregor tweeting about it … I don't think I could have asked for a better storm right now," he said.
So how does it work?
Feldman, a former pro boxer with a record of four wins against one loss, fought two underground bareknuckle fights in a warehouse environment in the 2010s. This, he tells us, was before it became legal, and something he did out of curiosity. He won both bouts, but despite his own experience he still marvels at the athletes who compete in his organization because "boxing is a different animal to bareknuckle."
In boxing, you have a 10 oz. glove that protects your fist and your wrist. But this is not the case in bareknuckle, so you have to pick your shots carefully. A shot to the top of the dome, for example, could break your hand. Your target, therefore, is the brow, eyes, temple, and nose.
You also have to be careful you don't punch somebody in the mouth, because you could rip your fist open on their teeth. A shot to the side of the jaw, or through the chin from below, is fine.
"It's about a 6 by 8 inch margin that you're really trying to hit in the front of the head, cheeks, [but] you have to avoid the forehead," Feldman said. "If someone's really good at understanding the science of bareknuckle, they just tip their head down a little bit every time they get hit." This is so the punch does more damage to that person's fist than it does to the one being hit.
"Boxing is called 'The Sweet Science' but I call bareknuckle 'The Sweetest Science' because you really have to be precise and pick your shots," Feldman said. "It's not what people think, like a bar-room brawl. It's anything but that. It's very, very skilled."
When you feel your knuckles land on someone's face … it's a very unique feeling. It is impossible to explain, you really have to feel it.
Lobov, who headlines the Bare Knuckle Fighting Championship 6 event in Tampa this weekend, told Business Insider that "bareknuckle is still boxing, but adds its own challenges." He said: "Clinch [close-range grappling] is allowed and can present a different set of problems. But in terms of training, it is still boxing.
"Bareknuckle is a bit of a mixture of MMA and boxing, you only fight with your hands of course, but then the clinch and no gloves makes it close to MMA."
Though Malignaggi can call upon a 44-fight experience as a boxer, Lobov is the one with more competitive bareknuckle experience, having beaten Jason Knight in one of the combat fights of the year in April.
Lobov, a former UFC guy, said bareknuckle feels "more raw, more real. When you feel your knuckles land on someone's face … it's a very unique feeling. It is impossible to explain, you really have to feel it.
"And even when you're taking shots. Again, when there are no gloves, the sound that gloves make is more of a thump, but when there's no gloves it's like a razor that just cuts you. The pain is sharp. It's good, I really enjoy it, I'm not going to lie! I like a brawl, a real fight, an exciting fight. And bareknuckle is the best sport for those types of fights."
Regardless of Lobov's bloodlust, Malignaggi is confident his skills as a boxer will transfer to Bare Knuckle Fighting Championship and that he has advantages over his opponent. "I think defensive timing, appreciation of distances, sense and reaction, certain instincts like counter punching … are all transferrable to bareknuckle.
"I think its more transferrable going from boxing to bareknuckle than MMA to bareknuckle," he said. "I have experience in boxing for 20 years and I've been in enough street fights."
Why would people do this?
"It's for the limelight," Malignaggi, who has a rivalry with Dublin's Straight Blast Gym, told Business Insider. "It's cool."
SBG are punks. Every single one of them. Namely Conor, who's the ringleader. But also the rest of the guys like Artem.
He felt slighted that he was recruited by McGregor to help him prepare for his 2017 crossover boxing rules contest against the unbeaten American fighter Floyd Mayweather, only to leave camp after a few days.
Malignaggi said he left the camp because he felt "exploited" when the McGregor team released sparring footage that showed the Irishman appearing to floor Malignaggi.
He also broke a golden rule of boxing by revealing McGregor's biggest weakness, and confronted McGregor in Las Vegas to call him a "b----," a "p----," and told him to remember to "bring his balls" just days before he lost to Mayweather.
Since then, he has been on a crusade to level the scoreline, and seemingly anyone from the Dublin gym will do. "I don't like Lobov or SBG," Malignaggi said. "Any time I get a chance to throw a beating to somebody I don't like and not get in trouble for it is something positive in my life."
"SBG are punks," he added said. "Every single one of them. Namely Conor, who's the ringleader. But also the rest of the guys like Artem. When faced with adversity, they're always punking out."
As for Lobov, he's doing it because, in the words of one of his trainers, John Kavanagh, he's the sort of guy who, if he was born hundreds of years ago, would be holding up the "severed head" of one of his enemies "in a field somewhere" having volunteered himself for a swordfight. Lobov is just "a mad samurai," according to Kavanagh.
What does bareknuckle look like?
It looks like a bloody mess, to be honest.
The reason why it has suddenly gone from a sideshow event to something that has transcended the combat sports landscape is because of Lobov's slobberknocker with Knight earlier this year.
The fight was wild - both fighters exchanged knockdowns in the opening round alone, and at one point Lobov even punched a tooth out of Knight's mouth. The fight was later dubbed a "classic" and a "fight of the year" candidate.
Watch it here, if you dare:
"We got more post press than I really ever imagined," Feldman told Business Insider. "It went viral, trending two or three in the world."
Feldman, who had the best seat in the house as the event's promoter, said he was even getting tapped on the shoulder by excitable colleagues who were telling him it was the fight that would push the organization into the consciousness of an extraordinary amount of fans - a turning point for the company.
A turning point for the UFC, meanwhile, was when Forrest Griffin and Stephan Bonnar fought for the first time in 2005 - a fight heralded as the fight of the year because of its brutal excitement.
Lobov vs. Knight was Bare Knuckle Fighting Championship's version of Bonnar vs. Griffin. It was one of the best fights Feldman had ever seen live.
"You really couldn't ask for much more in that fight," he said. "It was back and forth the entire time and you really didn't want it to end. It was a great fight, great for the Bare Knuckle Fighting Championship, great for the sport of bareknuckle.
"Though they were throwing punches and tough as heck, there was a lot of skill behind it. A lot of durability, heart. It showed the public there's a lot of professionalism to the sport, and showed the public where it can go."
Lobov was just happy he got the win, telling us he woke up the next morning "sore, of course."
Here's what the fighters looked like after their fight:
"I'm sure as you could see because of the way I looked, that it was sore. But the win makes it all better," he said. When you win, you don't really care how badly you're hurt, how the fight was, it's all worth your while, and feels good."
People outside of Bare Knuckle Fighting Championship may find the footage of the fight itself, together with the post-fight photographs, concerning. But Feldman says the health and safety measures he puts in place are on a par with the UFC, with Bellator, and the elite boxing shows in the United States.
"We're changing the perception of what bareknuckle is and gaining a lot of fans. It is a tougher sport, more blood, but it's a safer sport … you're not getting the head rattling or concussive damage. We've had more than 100 fights so far and zero concussive damage, but we've definitely had a lot of cuts and a total of three broken hands."
Wait … is it really safer than boxing?
Dr. John M. Neidecker, a sports concussion expert and the vice president for the Association of Ringside Physicians, told Business Insider it is actually hard to tell.
"There is not enough information to say whether or not this is truly a safer combat sport than traditional boxing or MMA for that matter," he said. "There's arguments that make sense from both sides of the aisle. So whenever there's conflicting views, you need to look at the research, and look at the science behind it, but the fact is that there is none."
Dr. Neidecker said that it is a continually evolving hot topic in combat sport. "It's an individualized diagnosis. Depending on what part of the brain is injured, cognitive ability, vision problems, emotional problems, there's so many things at play. You can have a concussion that affects one or all of these things."
He went on: "To make a statement that something is safer in a sport that hasn't even really been researched I think is not the right thing to do here, there's a lot more that needs to come out."
Dr. Neidecker said that a fighter's cut face doesn't always show whether internal damage has actually been done or not. "Some things look worse, and there's cases where things don't look bad but there is something serious going on," he said.
"This is such a new sport, as more fights occur, we'll see where the true data lies. This promotion, looking at the fights that have happened … it seems that the lacerations are happening at a much higher rate than gloved boxing. There might be a rate of more hand injuries, but that needs to be looked at objectively.
"One thing I think the Association of Ringside Physicians has to accept is that [bareknuckle fighting] is happening and won't be going away anytime soon, so we need to do a very good job in collecting the data to see if it is a safer sport, unsafer sport, or if there's no more significant risk when compared to other combat sports.
"One thing that helps studies is more exposure, more opportunity, and it looks like we're going to get that."
So, who wins: Malignaggi or Lobov?
"We have one of the best all-around pure boxers in Paulie Malignaggi fighting Artem Lobov, a rough tough guy from the UFC," Feldman told us, adding that he's curious how "world class boxers can fare."
Feldman then said Lobov is "a smart guy, a tough guy," and will force Malignaggi into a fight he's never really ever been in.
"This fight is so interesting. Paulie is going to have to fight. People might say that Paulie's a great boxer and not a great puncher, but he can take an insurmountable amount of punishment, and he doesn't really get knocked out. He's a tough dude.
"I really don't know what to expect," he said. "This is bareknuckle. It all changes. I suspect, as a two-time world champion, he'll fare well but it's the fans are going to win with this one."
Everybody understands pain. Everybody understands broken jaws. And everybody understands knocked out teeth. And I'm going to do my explaining on Saturday night.
One thing is for sure - both fighters will be swinging with bad intentions. They appear to genuinely dislike each other, which often makes for a dramatic build-up and compelling TV.
"This guy has crossed many lines a long time ago," Lobov told us. "He is not one of the guys who comprehends what they are doing. There are people like that in this world where there is no talking to them. But you know what everybody understands? Everybody understands pain. Everybody understands broken jaws. And everybody understands knocked out teeth. And I'm going to do my explaining on Saturday night."
Malignaggi, though, doubts Lobov will be able to hurt him.
"Lobov is someone who thinks he's tough but he can't fight," he said. "We'll find out how tough he is, and how long he can last."
"We're looking forward to this fight as this takes us over the top of where we need to be," he said. "I can't say for sure whether Conor will be there or not, but I'll be surprised if he wasn't there."
When I asked Malignaggi whether he's concerned there could be ringside shenanigans, he simply said: "I'm a New Yorker."
He added: "I couldn't care less who's there. I have enough guys there myself not to worry about those guys, and I'll deal with Artem myself."
As for Lobov, he's expecting to wake up the next day, probably sore once again, but happy.
"I will just be happy that I finally shut this motherf----- up, happy that I broke his jaw, and happy he is unable to talk. A bit of silence will be refreshing after all the f------ s--- that he has been talking.
"And that's it. I'll go back home and start training for the next fight."
Lobov is a very active fighter. He will likely have another bareknuckle bout lined up before the end of the year, but he told us he might crossover into yet another sport:"Perhaps you'll see me in the boxing world before the end of the year."
Knowing how the crazy world of combat sports works, it wouldn't be a surprise to see him rematch Malignaggi - albeit this time with gloves.
What an animal!- Conor McGregor (@TheNotoriousMMA) April 8, 2019
Proud of you @RusHammerMMA! Amazing fight
Paulie's nice and quiet all of a sudden and that's not like him haha
We want a new contract for the @RusHammerMMA for this next bout!
It has been earned and now deserved!
What a great showing @Jasonthekid23.
Big respect! https://t.co/dQKWIKCRd0