Johnny Bedford usually points down to the center of the ring, daring his opponent to square off with him toe-to-toe. Not this time, though, not with a world title on the line and a 5-0 record to defend. On Feb. 5, Bedford was all business. The fighters threw a few headshots. When they landed, bare knuckles scraped skin, slicing it open and sending blood dripping down to the fighters' feet.
The way Bedford sees it, bare-knuckle boxing is a sport tailor-made for him. He stepped into the ring that Friday night in Tampa, Florida, undefeated in the Bare Knuckle Fighting Championship, hoping to become the best bare-knuckle boxer of all time. Bedford yelled to his opponent, former boxer Dat Nguyen, "Time to walk that talk!"
With a 2-0 record, Nguyen was also undefeated going into Friday's fight. During the weeks leading up to the event, Bedford and Nguyen each played their part in hyping the fight, taking turns hurling insults at one another.
Bedford, 38, is a skinny but braggadocios 135-pound fighter, often taunting his opponents between blows. As the two boxers left the fight, ringside doctors tended to their mangled fists and faces, stitching them up as needed.
To the fighting world, he's known as “Brutal” Johnny Bedford. The name suits him and his domineering style. It also suits the sport, considering bare-knuckle brawling is arguably the bloodiest legal combat sport in the U.S.
Since its first sanctioned bare-knuckle fight in 2018, Bedford has boasted that he will become the face of the company behind the sport, the Bare Knuckle Fighting Championship.
Former professional boxer David Feldman started the company in Philadelphia. He heard about bare-knuckle fighting from a former boxer named Bobby Gunn, who's a Canadian from a family of Irish Travellers, an ethnic group with a history of using bare-knuckle fights to settle internal disputes. Feldman said what Gunn told him about the fighting style inspired him to research it further.
What he grew to like about it was how pure it was, the fact that it was just two guys duking it out with each other having nothing else but their hands to protect themselves. So, in 2011, he threw together a bare-knuckle fight at Fort McDowell Casino in Arizona. The casino is on Native American land, so it did not need to be sanctioned by the state. As Feldman recalls it, the event sold out, and nearly a million people tried to pay to watch it online before their paywall crashed. This is when he realized bare-knuckle could drum up some serious interest from fight fans.
He spent the next seven years trying to persuade any state to sanction a bare-knuckle fight. Finally, he succeeded with Wyoming in 2018. The Bare Knuckle Fighting Championship has hosted 16 events since then and it has 81 fighters on its roster. Live fights can be ordered for about $40 to be streamed on FITE, an online streaming service focused on combat sports. Fans can also buy a yearly subscription with Bare Knuckle TV for $40 to see live events and past fights.
Bedford's fight against Nguyen was a five-round war sanctioned by the state of Florida. Neither fighter backed down or knocked the other off his feet. The fight went to the judges for a decision, and both fighters thought they had won. When the referee raised Nguyen's hand, declaring him the winner, Bedford looked shocked. He didn't stick around for the victory speech.
"I’m heartbroken, but I’m not here to make excuses," Bedford said at a post-fight news conference. "Dat got his hand raised tonight. It’s heartbreaking, but I’ll be back." The room applauded for the now 5-1 Bedford.
He lost, but he's had plenty of losses before and still managed to rise to the top. He now wants a rematch because he believes the 135-pound world title belongs to him.
Bedford’s story has come full circle in a way. After a win in a small fight promotion in Dallas called SWC about a decade ago, announcer Jeff Houston said, “What a brutal finish for ‘Brutal’ Johnny Bedford.” The name stuck, and the announcer now works for the Bare Knuckle Fighting Championship.
Unlike some fighters, Bedford had a good upbringing. “I’ve got amazing parents,” he said. They’re still his No. 1 supporters. Growing up, his whole life was about wrestling, and his parents took him all over the country to compete.
Besides a fight at 14 years old, Bedford said he stayed out of trouble growing up.
But he entered a rough patch when he went off to Cleveland State University. He was removed from the wrestling team and eventually lost his scholarship. He would often get in trouble for starting bar fights, sometimes getting himself arrested. At the time, he was just a wrestler who knew how to throw his hands, but that didn’t stop him from participating in underground fights inside barns in his home state of Ohio. He would head to the barns and face off with anyone who thought they could take him. “I found out really quick, this fighting stuff, I really like it,” Bedford said.
His first six amateur fights took place in barns, and his career has had ups and downs ever since.
Bedford first participated in smaller promotions before making it into the UFC, the company that has dominated mixed martial arts since 1993. He always wondered why he fought. He had a family to provide for, and he didn’t make much money doing what he loved. His first professional fight in 2006 only paid out $200, and he lost by submission in the first round. He was fighting several times a month just to make ends meet. But it got better. He moved to North Texas after getting hired as an MMA instructor at a gym in the area. When that gym let him go in 2009, he decided to start his own called Fitness Fight Factory, where he trains to this day.
Not long after, he secured a 13–8–1 record and by 2010, he was invited to fight for Bellator, a company that sometimes acts as a stepping stone for mixed martial artists hoping to enter the UFC.
That same year, he suffered his first knockout loss against future UFC fighter Edwin Figueroa. He made a comeback after defeating World Extreme Cagefighting veteran Frank Gomez by submission in round one.
Making it into the UFC proved a grueling process. He went through the wringer auditioning for the 14th season of The Ultimate Fighter, a reality show on which mixed martial artists compete against each other for a six-figure contract with the UFC.
Bedford was among more than 3,000 martial arts practitioners who tried to make it on the show that season. Still, even when a fighter makes it on, they are a long way from their chance at becoming a champion. Through the tryouts, Bedford garnered the attention of UFC President Dana White and landed his shot on The Ultimate Fighter. The show would pay Bedford $500 a week for six weeks.
He was mostly successful on The Ultimate Fighter, losing only his final bout.
The MMA behemoth gave him a contract anyway, but it wasn’t the life-changing moment he thought it would be. “I’m not necessarily talking bad about the UFC, but I didn’t make the money I thought I would,” he said.
Bedford controlled the octagon in his UFC debut in December 2011 against another Ultimate Fighter cast member named Louis Gaudinot. In the third round, Bedford nailed his opponent with knee strikes and got the TKO.
Despite the victorious debut, injuries plagued Bedford’s time with the UFC. Several of his fights were canceled. He was still able to compete in a couple, winning one by knockout and losing the other by submission.
It was a rematch with fighter Rani Yahya that ended Bedford’s UFC career. The first fight was ruled a no-contest after the fighters accidentally banged heads. Yahya couldn't continue. Bedford argued that it should have been ruled a TKO in his favor. When Yahya beat Bedford by submission in the second round of the rematch, the UFC quickly dropped Bedford.
Being released from the UFC was a low point in his life, he said. He knew everything was going to be OK, but he didn’t know how to move forward as a competitor.
But he kept fighting. After leaving the UFC, he won four fights in a row in smaller promotions. Then he suffered a loss. “It was at that moment that I realized, ‘Wow, I’m now not on a four-fight win streak. I’m now on a one-fight losing streak. I don’t think the UFC is going to come calling any time soon.’ It was a hard pill to swallow.”
Then he lost again. These fights didn’t pay a lot, considering he’d often have to prepare for two months or longer. At one of his lowest points, he found the Bare Knuckle Fighting Championship. He said if it weren’t for this, his last fight, a loss, would have been in 2018.
He participated in the league’s first sanctioned fight in Wyoming, securing a win and a new beginning for his career. “I knew right away that this was something that I was going to be really, really good at,” he says. “This is just two guys meeting at the bike racks after school. I don’t lose these fights.” Bedford had been on a winning streak ever since.
Bedford’s business partner Rafael Casias is also his coach. They met in 2007 and now own and operate two MMA gyms named Fitness Fight Factory in North Texas. As far as Casias is concerned, Bedford is practically family. They briefly stopped working together while Bedford was in the UFC, but they reconnected about four years ago.
When Bedford told Casias he wanted to try his hand at bare-knuckle boxing, Casias thought, “‘This is right up Johnny’s ally.’”
Casias didn't hesitate. “It’s a fight and Johnny grew up fighting,” he said. “I was not worried at all.”
Since then, Bedford has been through some tough battles in the ring.
Casias believes some of Bedford’s toughest fights were against Reggie Barnett Jr. and Matt Murphy. He felt Bedford didn’t look his best in either fight.
“The thing about Johnny is that he showed what true champions are about,” Casias said. “Those two fights, he didn’t look his best, but he was still able to pull out the victories. That’s one thing you’re gonna get from Johnny because if he’s having a bad day technique-wise, you still have to be tougher than him, and it’s very hard to pull that off.” When Bedford beat Barnett, Jr., he became a world champion, also landing himself the Police Gazette Lightweight Bare Knuckle title, one of the most prestigious in the history of the sport.
Bedford is sometimes his own worst enemy, Casias said, letting his mistakes in the ring get to him. “When Johnny’s having fun, he’s able to control the tempo and the distance of the fight,” Casias said. "When that’s happening, the other guy doesn’t stand a chance."
To Bedford, what makes bare-knuckle boxing different is that fighters have to pick their shots.
Gloves, or mufflers, as people once called them, were originally introduced in the 1700s, according to a 1961 article in Sports Illustrated. Jack Broughton, often referred to as the “Father of Prize Fighting,” drew up the first code of rules for boxing, including gloves in the interest of appealing to noblemen and gentlemen viewers.
It wasn't until 1892, however, that protective gear began to become the norm. In September that year, John L. Sullivan and Jim Corbett faced off for the heavyweight boxing championship. Sullivan was a bare-knuckle boxing legend who had defended his title for a decade. Corbett had fought all his matches in gloves. When they gloved up and squared off, Corbett won by knockout, and a new era of boxing was born.
The new era put bare-knuckle boxing’s 173-year history on pause. And in a world more aware than ever of the long-term effects of head trauma, pressing play on bare-knuckle may seem counterintuitive.
But Bedford and other proponents of the sport argue that it’s safer than other competitive martial arts.
These days, gloves are used primarily to protect the hands, not the head, Oklahoma City ringside doctor Larry Lovelace told the Observer in 2018. “Fight-bite,” in particular, is the main concern for doctors like himself.
“Fight-bite” is a laceration or cut on the hand resulting from a punch landing on an opponent's teeth. Though the cut itself is not generally severe, bacteria from the mouth can get trapped in the joint space and infect the wound, according to the Mount Sinai Emergency Medicine Division of Emergency Ultrasound.
“It’s dangerous enough to where you can actually lose your hand,” Lovelace said. “It’s just a really nasty infection.”
This would really only happen if a fighter's mouthpiece falls out. Even then, as long as it doesn't stop the action, the referee will give the fighter a chance to retrieve the mouthpiece.
Jason Thalken, author of Fight Like a Physicist: The Incredible Science Behind Martial Arts, said the choice between gloved and gloveless fighting used to be clear, according to combatsportslaw.com, a website following legal developments in combat sports. It used to be, “wear padded gloves to prevent injury,” but that was before people had a firm understanding of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, a brain ailment caused by repeated head trauma best known among retired NFL players.
“Today, we need to think a little harder,” he said. “A cut, a broken hand or an eye injury might stop a fight or even end a fighter’s career, but a brain injury can take away a fighter’s ability to function as a human being, both in and out of the ring.”
Thalken said that boxing and MMA gloves may reduce the risk of injuries like cuts, bruises and broken bones, but they also increase the frequency and intensity of momentum transferred to the brain.
Bedford agrees, explaining that the gloves are made for the puncher, not the punched. He's scared of what damage he can inflict on another fighter when he has padded gloves on.
In bare-knuckle boxing, Bedford said, “You just don’t get hit as hard because you’re afraid to break your hands. If you’re in a gunfight, you can’t break your gun.” He even won once after an opponent hurt their hand and couldn't continue.
“You’re going to get busted up," he said. "You’re going to get stitches. But those stitches won’t affect how I talk to my grandkids.”
Though it’s grown in popularity, particularly over the course of the pandemic, the sport still attracts critics.
“People still say it’s barbaric," David Feldman, president of the Bare Knuckle Fighting Championship. "They say it’s basically a street fight that shouldn’t be sanctioned and that it’s going to get the fighters killed.”
This charge echoes criticism from the early days of the UFC, but Feldman suspects that the more people realize what they are doing is no more dangerous than boxing or MMA, the more support they will get. Feldman wouldn’t say unequivocally that bare-knuckle boxing is safer, only that it’s no more dangerous than the other two combat sports.
They got lucky during the pandemic, Feldman said. “I feel bad for anyone who’s been affected negatively, as we were in the beginning,” he said. “But we found a way to navigate around everything, and actually our company grew 300% in 2020.”
The Bare Knuckle Fighting Championship was the first combat sports promotion to host fans in the U.S. during the pandemic. With people stuck at home and starved for entertainment, the company also produced more content on social media and launched its own app, Bare Knuckle TV, where fans can watch the fights.
The growth set the stage for their biggest event yet, the Feb. 5 KnuckleMania fight between Bedford and Nguyen. That event also debuted former UFC strawweight fighter Paige VanZant against former boxer Britain Hart.
VanZant was one of the most recognizable fighters on the UFC’s roster before she left. She had the choice between fighting MMA for Bellator, a more established promotion, and the Bare Knuckle Fighting Championship. She decided on a multi-million dollar, four-bout contract fighting bare-knuckle.
Feldman said they treat their fighters well, a fact he expects will attract more fighters to sign with his company as the sport grows.
The promotion has received some backlash regarding rhetoric against their athletes. In one such case, Feldman took the microphone after a fight and claimed the company was slashing one of the fighter's pay in half because they weren't entertaining enough.
The Bare Knuckle Fighting Championship later released a statement insisting no one’s pay was cut. It read, in part, “That statement did exactly what it was supposed [to do] and lit a fire under every single fighter's ass from that point on.”
According to ESPN, fighters on the low-end of the promotion's pay scale make about $2,500 for each fight. This is comparable to what fighters in smaller MMA promotions make. Some fighters have reported making tens of thousands of dollars per bout. One, former UFC fighter Artem Lobov, told ESPN his first three-fight deal with the Bare Knuckle Fighting Championship was "in the six figures."
Since the first event in 2018, more states have sanctioned the bare-knuckle bouts. Feldman said government officials have even been reaching out to the league to bring the sport to their states. “As long as it’s safe and it’s going to create revenue for the states, they’re welcoming it,” he said.
When the Observer reached out to the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation, a spokesperson said: “Bare-knuckle boxing is not legal in Texas and there are no plans that I am aware of at this time to take the necessary steps to legalize it, including drafting and implementing rules.”
Feldman said he’s in talks with Texas officials and has hopes of bringing a bare-knuckle fight to the Lonestar State in the near future. They’re aiming for late spring or early summer.
Wherever the company goes, Bedford will follow. After one of the biggest fights in the history of the promotion, both Nguyen and Feldman said they'd be down to make the rematch happen. Bedford wants to win a rematch against Nguyen, and then he hopes to focus on his legacy. He wants to hold two world champion belts in two different weight classes. He plans to one day move up to the 145-pound weight division.
“World champion? I’ve checked that off,” Bedford says. “It’s the most proud I’ve ever been. But now it’s about setting records. I’m going to be the greatest bare-knuckle boxer of all time."