A comment from a fan drew the attention of Bare Knuckle Fighting Championship President David Feldman following the promotion’s inaugural event on June 2 in Cheyenne, Wyoming.
“This one guy said that ‘Bare Knuckle FC cured my ED,’” Feldman told Sherdog.com, “and I was like, ‘Holy crap.’”
Erectile dysfunction treatment aside, Bare Knuckle Fighting Championship 1 was a surprising hit, as it rose to as high as No. 2 for trending topics on Twitter. In the fight game, success rarely comes by accident, and this was a decade in the making for Feldman. The combat sports business runs in the Philadelphia native’s blood. His father was a boxer turned trainer, while Feldman and his brother were fighters, as well. They took up fight promotion when their boxing days were over. Feldman has since promoted 300 combat sports events, and BKFC 1 was not his first foray into gloveless bouts.
While promoting fights for legendary bareknuckle pugilist Bobby Gunn many years ago, Feldman became interested in the old-world sport. Once indoctrinated in its history and after doing some research of his own, Feldman realized it was something he wanted to take to a publicly promoted forum. However, even Gunn was skeptical.
“I went to Bobby one day and said, ‘I’m going to do one of these fights,’” Feldman said, “and he said, ‘Come on pal, you’ve got no shot.’”
His friend’s lack of faith did not deter him. In August 2011, Feldman put on an event at Fort McDowell Casino in Arizona. It was headlined by a bareknuckle fight, with MMA bouts on the undercard.
“We did over 5,000 people in attendance,” he said. “That’s why I’m here today and the reason why we did [the first event]. We did 1.2 million people on the Internet stream [of that show].”
The interest caught Feldman and his staff off-guard, as the underprepared group’s paywall service crashed during the broadcast. As a result, they did not make any revenue from the streams. Despite the revenue loss, Feldman saw plenty of positives in the unfortunate digital failure.
“I knew right then, ‘Man, 1.2 million people in 42 minutes were interested in buying this event,’” he said. “That gave us the drive to keep this going.”
The success Bare Knuckle Fighting Championship 1 enjoyed was built on years of experience and some fortunate changes to Wyoming’s state laws. However, Feldman could not have gotten here without plenty of help. His organization staffs only five full-time employees. However, that number ballooned to 28 the night of the first event, most of them from the Philadelphia and Scranton/Wilkes-Barre area of Pennsylvania. Feldman praised their dedication.
“This team took the journey with me,” he said.
Feldman claims the promotion has drawn the eyes of investors.
“I’m talking to a really large private equity firm right now that wants to fund this thing and hopefully make it the Next Big Thing,” he said.
Beyond the audience at the arena, Feldman did not rely on digital streams alone. He set his sights on pay-per-view and found that making deals with major providers was not a problem.
“We didn’t get as much pushback as I thought we were going to get,” Feldman said, “[though] we did get a lot from some international live TV.”
Major providers like Direct TV and Dish Network carried the event, and the international broadcasters who chose not to broadcast the show have since contacted Feldman and now want to re-air the finished product. They are also open to carrying the next event live. BKFC had the staff, money and broadcast mediums necessary to succeed, along with skilled matchmaking. Many of the bouts on the 10-fight card were booked by Feldman himself. It was a difficult part of the process.
“The whole world was watching,” Feldman said. “Everyone was watching us under a microscope wanting us to fail, and we had to make the right matchups.”
The hard work appears to have payed off, as aforementioned Twitter trends showed global interest and many in the arena seemed entertained by the old-school bloodsport. According to Feldman, none of the fighters who competed needed hospital visits afterwards. He claims the only notable injuries were a broken thumb, a broken nose and a possible broken hand. Whether BKFC can maintain a low injury rate for future events remains to be seen.
While official pay-per-view numbers will not be available until next month, Feldman has received positive words on early estimates. FITE TV, one of the services that streamed the show, indicated that early indicators are strong.
“From the FITE TV side, we’ve heard that we did some pretty historic numbers,” Feldman said. “[It was] one of the most-watched events that they have had.”
Feldman, however, based success on other factors.
“It was that we wake up on Sunday morning and that the fans said, ‘We want more,’” he said.
Because of Bare Knuckle Fighting Championship 1, Feldman has gained traction with local residents, state politicians and officials with the Wyoming Combative Sports Commission. He believes they will support future events.
“Not many people knew that Wyoming had a combative sports commission,” Feldman said. “Now, Wyoming’s Combative Sports Commission is known worldwide, so they were very thankful.”
With one event in the books, roster growth and development have become the major initiatives for Feldman and his staff. They have received 500 new applications since the inaugural event aired, and in the days that followed, they signed 75 fighters to contracts and would like to add another 125 in the coming weeks. The goal, Feldman revealed, is to have as many as 20 fighters in each weight class. He admits he is looking for more than just skill in prospective competitors.
“The fighting is the main part of it,” Feldman said, “but you have to have some kind of character and personality nowadays to go along with it.”
Feldman plans to stage four events in 2018 before promoting eight more in 2019, using a mix of major pay-per-views and smaller theater shows. He expects more states -- Feldman hinted that the next shoe to drop would be in the Southeast -- to legalize the sport. The idea that a Philadelphia-based promoter would launch his bareknuckle product from Wyoming of all places adds some spice to the story.
“[Media outlets say] 1889, but this is the first state-regulated bareknuckle fighting event ever,” Feldman said. “I envisioned this in my head for 10 years, but I really didn’t believe that it was going to happen like this. I couldn’t have scripted it any better.”