Mike Vazquez believes everything that once was old eventually becomes new again. If he has it his way, bare knuckle boxing will soon fit that bill.
“Everything goes in cycles,” Vazquez said. “This is our cycle. Bare knuckle boxing has a bright future.”
Vazquez is the president of Back Yard Brawl Extreme, which will host its first sanctioned bare knuckle event, BYB Brawl 1: Brawl For It All, on Friday in Cheyenne, Wyoming, as well as on Pay-Per-View.
Bare knuckle boxing dates back to at least the Roman Empire and was heavily popular into the late 19th century before falling out of favor due to perceived brutality. The sport reemerged in this century in backyards, eventually turning viral sensations like Kimbo Slice and Dhafir ‘Dada 5000’ Harris into mainstream stars in the fighting world.
Vazquez linked up with Harris in 2014 following a career in NASCAR. BYB Extreme held its first non-sanctioned event in 2015 before taking a brief hiatus for Harris, BYB Extreme’s brand manager, to recover after flat-lining twice following a 2016 fight with Kimbo Slice, suffering cardiac arrest, renal failure and severe dehydration.
Friday night, however, is the promotion’s first real crack at mainstream legitimacy.
“This event is very important because first impressions last the longest,” Harris said. “The world’s anticipated what’s next for the sport, and this is the first impression of the next phase of its evolution.”
Friday’s event begins with two undercard fights livestreamed for free on fite.tv and Facebook Live at 9 p.m. EST before making the transition to pay-per-view. The weigh-in on Thursday was also livestreamed.
BYB Extreme fights are contested over five, three-minute rounds inside a triangle cage — the smallest space in combat sports — designed to keep fighters in close quarters while minimizing time spent in clinches. The modern bare knuckle subculture developed in the early 2000s in Florida, when hundreds, if not thousands of people gathered in backyards to watch the fights. Harris believes it gave him and other fighters a chance they never would have had otherwise.
“I look what we’ve done, and we’ve really prided ourselves on bringing the community together and giving individuals opportunities they weren’t getting elsewhere,” Harris said. “I focused on the good, and we did something special and revolutionized the sport.”
Now it’s creeping toward mainstream relevance. In addition to Wyoming, Mississippi has also legalized bare knuckle boxing and Vazquez mentioned the promotion is “working with several others.” BYB Extreme isn’t the first promotion in the space, either. The Bare Knuckle Fighting Championship has launched and garnered some steam, while another, the World Bare Knuckle Fighting Federation has run into money and legal trouble.
Perhaps the biggest piece of the puzzle that BYB Extreme will contend with is outside perception, between the unvarnished violence and long-standing illegality. For his part, Vazquez contends that bare knuckle is actually a safer alternative to boxing and MMA. Gloves are meant to protect the hands and, in turn, promote more frequent and more robust headshots over a longer period of time.
“The actual boxing glove does more damage than shorter bare knuckle fights,” Vazquez said. “It’s usually more superficial, more skin damage, not the concussive force of the gloves.”
Some outside research appears to bear that out, too, including a National Geographic study featured by Men’s Health and the United Kingdom’s Daily Star. Yet this is still bone striking bone with no buffer. More than that only so much can be done to create a genuinely safe environment in combat sports.
That tension only adds further risk to a startup venture, something Vazquez has tried to weather by paying 50 percent of fighters’ show money in advance as well as prepaying many of the contractors and hotels
Only time will tell if this truly is the start of a new cycle for bare knuckle boxing. For BYB Extreme, the first step toward finding out begins Friday night.