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Bare Knuckle FC 2 had its moments, but still has a long way to go

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

The highlight of the second Bare Knuckle Fighting Championship was when Drew Lipton — an MMA veteran of 32 fights — found himself clearing the cobwebs upon eating the broadside of Chris Lytle’s knuckle. He got back up and shared a laugh while the doctor checked the cut over his left eye, before declaring himself ready to try again. It was gallant, but ultimately futile. Lipton went back out there just to get hacked down a second time, and then a third. Lipton was no match for Lytle, who — in his 44th year on Earth — looked to have discovered the sport he’d been longing for his whole life.

The lowlight of the night came when Charles Bennett — America’s favorite “Felony” — realized the BKFC’s greatest fear by apparently breaking his right hand early on. The pain was excruciating enough that Bennett took a knee for an eight-count while he shook the shards into less painful arrangements (or so we were left to imagine). From that moment on he could only throw his left hand, a handicap that his opponent Michael McDonald was only too happy to stand in against. In the fourth round, his left hand seemed to suffer the same fate as the right. Bennett took a knee again, and this time — after the bout was called off — screamed out in pain.

All the other fights on the BKFC’s second event of the summer were in the realm of your typical UFC fight; some technical battles that went the distance, a couple of jaw-dropping moments where people stood in the wheelhouse and chin-checked each other, a couple of fights that looked flammable on paper that ended up being duds. Sam Shewmaker’s split-decision victory over the tentative Maurice Jackson promised to be a game of power-bomb roulette — “first come, first serve,” as Bobby Gunn described it — but instead played out in perpetual anticipation. Shewmaker, who flattered ex-Bellator fighter Eric Prindle in June in mere seconds, advanced to the heavyweight finals nonetheless.

What to make of the bare-knuckle product, now that the sample size has played out over two nights in Cheyenne and Biloxi? The verdict is still out. BKFC 2, which declared itself purposely (if prematurely) the “New Era,” still had the sheen of a novelty that made the first an unexpected success. There was a thrill of cutting edge newness, especially when guys like Kendall Grove — a grappler with a striking fetish — made his way to the squared circle. When heavyweights like Joey Beltran and Arnold Adams stepped in, it felt certain to end badly for someone. It turned out to be Beltran, yet it was somewhat anticlimactic. The doctor called it off early in the fourth due to cuts near Beltran’s eyes.

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

The broadcast crew of Sean Wheelock and Antonio Tarver — with cameos by BKFC president David Feldman and modern day bare knuckle legend Gunn — gave the event an air of legitimacy, and did it a good turn by subduing any overwrought enthusiasm. Everyone left it to Feldman to be the optimistic ringleader, and he did his level best. He said that there would be two more BKFC events this year, and then at least eight more spread across different states in 2019. The crux: Bare Knuckle is here to stay.

Yet with the second event, the novelty also gave way to at least an ounce of scrutiny. With the refined idea of bare knuckle linking itself to an ancient 19th century taboo, the element of danger was ever-present, but for what? For cranial damage? No, not so much that as the idea of knuckles cracking on those skulls, and being shattered into pieces. The first fight card featured only one broken thumb — that of Alma Garcia, who found out in Wyoming that Bec Rawlings has a very hard head. We’ll have to wait to find out who did what to their hands in this one, but with the majority of the bouts going give rounds a spectator’s own knuckles are bound to turn purple from the very idea of that much impact.

The potential for hand damage is the great hurdle that BKFC will be saddled with overcoming. Watching Bennett writhe in pain after injuring his right hand made you remember the limitations in play; if the target didn’t drop from the exchange in which the hand was compromised, you knew the striker was in deep shit. In MMA a fighter with an injured hand can grapple, a natural default in a game of attrition. In bare knuckle, you’re down to a single option — your other hand. Bennett was holding both hands in-pointing to his body at the end of his bout, like a lobster being lowered to boil.

Still, Tarver was smart to point out — continuously — that the strategy is to pick your shots selectively when dealing with the naked knuckle, even when the tape wrap goes up to within and inch of that knuckle to stabilize. Hitting the back of the head in a wild exchange is like hitting a brick wall during a tantrum. It’s dumb. These things are just now coming to light. Gunn pointed out that bare-knuckle competitors need to learn to throw at less than 50 percent power, and turn offense slightly defensive. When the premise of self-preservation enters a bare-knuckle cage, the idea of John Sullivan outlasting John Kilrain in 75 rounds in 1889 doesn’t ooze its taboos so much as start explaining itself.

In the end, the second BKFC was still a pretty good card. Some of the competitors — like Rawlings and Lytle — are a natural fit for stripped down version of what they’re best known for. Was it the “New Era” of combat sports that it declared itself to be? Time will tell, of course, but I’ve to say — that sounds mighty optimistic.

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