Bare-knuckle fighting, 21st century edition

Think “bare-knuckle fighting,” and you’re likely to think one of two things:

1. Sheer brutality.

2. Men with handsome mustaches standing upright or leaning backwards for 864 rounds as they occasionally try to hit each other.


(Yes, that’s the legendary John L. Sullivan,the first (or maybe the third) true heavyweight champion and certainly the last to win the title in a bare-knuckle bout.)

Bare-knuckle fighting briefly came back into existence in the wild and lawless days of early mixed martial arts. In Japan’s Pancrase promotion, fighters went without gloves but couldn’t punch each other in the face with closed fists. The UFC had no gloves aside from the one glove worn by boxer Art Jimmerson.

Why would Jimmerson wear one glove? He had a boxing career to consider, and gloves protect hands. (Why he omitted the other glove is a matter of some debate — maybe so the ref could see him tap out, maybe so he’d have one hand free to have some chance of fending off grappler Royce Gracie. It didn’t work.)

But remember that phrase: “Gloves protect hands.” Sure, they also limit cuts that form quite easily when raw knuckle meets face — watch Kimbo Slice’s backyard and boatyard scraps, and you’ll see a lot of unfortunate people with faces badly torn by Kimbo’s massive fists. But the main purpose of gloves is to keep hands from shattering on skulls.

So is bare-knuckle boxing set to make a comeback? Apparently, to some extent. And they’re going down the same route as the UFC in its early days — recruiting Ken Shamrock.

MMA fans are cringing at the idea of the long-declining, much-battered Shamrock taking another fight. He also was never really known as a puncher, winning most of his fights by submission.

What’s most interesting about this fight is that is brings more people into a mostly underground world. Shamrock’s opponent is James Quinn McDonagh, subject of the gritty documentary Knuckle. The critically acclaimed film followed Irish “traveler” families with disputes that have gone back generations, with bare-knuckle fights barely providing a moderately safe outlet for the hostilities.

Across the Irish Sea, bare-knuckle boxing is making a legitimate comeback. VICE looked into the subject and did a compelling mini-documentary.

That said, the credentials of “Machine Gun” seem a little murky. And while MMA attracts elite athletes, 50-year-old Shamrock will have to suffice for this old-school fight sport.