What’s Old is New Again. Bare-knuckle Boxing Resurfaces in Wyoming

On July 3, 1889, Governor Robert Lowry of the sovereign state of Mississippi placed a $1000 bounty on the heads of pugilists John L. Sullivan and Jake Kilrain in a futile attempt to prevent them from engaging in a bare-knuckle prizefight on Mississippi soil. This past Saturday, June 2, there were 10 bare-knuckle fights in Cheyenne, Wyoming, and no one got arrested. The event had the blessing of the policy-makers.

Fifteen MMA fighters, four boxers, and one kickboxer gathered in Cheyenne at an ice rink — a place more accustomed to hosting children’s birthday parties — for the maiden voyage (assuming there will be more) of the Bare Knuckle Fighting Championship.

Each of the fights was scheduled for five two-minute rounds. The fighters were allowed to wrap their wrists and thumbs in gauze, but not their knuckles which had to be exposed. The ring was circular. The rules specified no kicking or grappling, but a fighter was allowed to hold an opponent by the back of his neck and pummel away with his free hand.

Only three of the 10 fights went the distance. Two ended inside the opening minute. Sam Shewmaker, a boxer, blasted out MMA fighter Eric Prindle with the first punch that he threw. The elapsed time: 18 seconds. Bobby Gunn needed two punches – both body shots – to dismiss Irineu Beato Costa Jr. This bout was over in 41 seconds.

The 44-year-old Gunn was the most well-known competitor, in fact the only competitor whose name would resonate with well-informed boxing fans.

A better self-promoter than a boxer, Gunn claims to have a 73-0 record in underground bare-knuckle fights and bills himself as America’s lineal bare-knuckle champion. As a conventional boxer, he’s 23-7-1 and has fought the likes of James Toney and Roy Jones, Jr. He had a few good moments against Toney who was 43 years old and carried 248 pounds, before he bowed out with a hand injury, but had no good moments against ancient Roy Jones Jr. who was on cruise control through the seven completed rounds.

Since the loss to Jones, Gunn embossed his BoxRec ledger with two more wins, both second round TKOs. These fights were held at a Harley-Davidson dealership in Huntington, West Virginia. The referee in both of those fights was Bill Clancy who was imported to Cheyenne for Saturday’s event.

Irineu Beato Costa Jr. is a Brazilian, as was Gunn’s last opponent. BoxRec shows Costa with a 19-7 mark, but 0-7 outside his native country with six of those defeats by stoppage. The awkward way that he folded his tent against Bobby Gunn bore witness that he is a very bad actor.

The Bare Knuckle Fighting Championship organization is the brainchild of Philadelphia-based promoter David Feldman who comes from a boxing family. His father, the late Marty Feldman, fought as a middleweight in the 1950s and early 1960s and then stayed in the game as a manager, trainer, cornerman, and gym operator. David’s older brother Damon Feldman also promoted some fights.

Feldman says that he spent $500,000 to produce Saturday’s show. That’s believable. He hired powerhouse Washington D.C. PR firm Swanson Communications to get the word out and held a pre-fight press luncheon at a New York steakhouse. The noted photojournalist Esther Lin, who usually works for Showtime, was flown in to capture the action.

Feldman hoped to recoup some of his investment from PPV receipts. The show, which wasn’t easy to find, was priced at $29.99. In the aftermath, he said that he couldn’t be more pleased by the way things turned out. “We’re getting a tremendous response all around the world,” he told USA Today writer Josh Peter. “It’s unbelievable.”

Feldman says he was turned down by 28 states during a seven-year odyssey before he found a willing helpmate in Bryan Pedersen. A wealth management consultant in Cheyenne, a former state legislator, and the chairman of the state’s Sports Combat Commission, Pedersen worked with Feldman to draft the rules for the June 2 show. There were two physicians at ringside and two ambulances waiting outside. The doctors halted two of the fights between rounds. Plenty of blood was shed, but the ambulances weren’t needed.

If one were going to handicap which state would be the first to legalize bare-knuckle boxing, Wyoming, America’s least populated state (there are more people in Milwaukee than in all of Wyoming) would be on the short list. Wyoming, which produces more metric tons of coal than Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Kentucky, and Illinois combined, experienced an economic downtown in late 2014 that still lingers, albeit there are signs of recovery. History informs us that folks become more tolerant of disreputable activities when times are tough if those activities can be taxed.

“I see (bare-knuckle boxing) as a giant economic possibility for diversity in our state,” says Sports Combat Commission chairman Pedersen, cutting to the chase.

Four of the fights on Saturday’s show were billed as quarterfinal fights in a heavyweight tournament. Feldman plans two more shows before the year is out, the second of which will crown the winner.

Sam Shewmaker, the conventional boxer who improved to 4-0 with his 18-second knockout, has to be the favorite to win the tourney based on Saturday’s results. That’s assuming that someone like Bob Arum doesn’t swoop in and steal him away.

A 33-year-old Caucasian stone mason from the flyspeck Missouri town of Gravois Mills, Shewmaker auditioned for the show after answering an ad on facebook. Reportedly a three-time Missouri Golden Gloves champion, he has a good back story and Arum loves a fighter with a good back story.

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