Arnold Adams, a 32-year-old MMA heavyweight, pounded ex-UFC fighter D.J. Linderman’s face into a bloody mess in front of 2,000 rowdy fans at a hockey rink that usually hosts birthday parties and skating lessons in Wyoming’s capital. Tens of thousands more tuned in for the pay-per-view event, which featured 10 bouts, including four heavyweight fights in a tournament format.
Fans were lined up outside the Cheyenne Ice and Events Center more than an hour before the first major bare-knuckle event in the U.S. since 1889. Forrest Peters, from Cheyenne, was among those in attendance. He came to cheer Estevan Payan – who served in the same Army unit as Peters – and to witness history.
”With the bare-knuckle fighting and everything, having them bring it back for the first time in over 100 years, you knew it’s pretty exciting to see,” Peters said, ”and especially having it here in Cheyenne, kinda out here where the West is still a little wild.”
Payan, of Tempe, Arizona, didn’t disappoint, flooring Omar Avelar at 1:57 of the opening round of a 145-pound match.
The quickest knockout occurred when Sam Shewmaker used one punch, an overhand right, to send Eric Prindle to the canvas 18 seconds into their heavyweight bout.
”It felt like hitting a home run,” said Shewmaker, a fourth-generation stone mason from the tiny central Missouri town of Gravois Mills. ”I didn’t think I would be able to catch him that early, but luckily I did.”
Shewmaker has been an amateur boxer for years, and when he heard about the Wyoming event, he tried out and earned a chance to compete.
”I never dreamed that it would be legal to be able to do this,” he said. ”I’ve been in plenty of illegal bare-knuckle fights. I mean growing up where I did, in the area I did, it’s kinda rough, but people are gentlemen about it, too. You can fight, you get up, you’re done, you shake hands and you go get a beer.”
Bec Rawlings, a 29-year-old from Brisbane, Australia, won the only bout of the night featuring women, stopping Alma Garcia with a TKO in the second round.
Rawlings noticed little difference from fighting with gloves.
”It felt the same to get punched as in an MMA fight, which is what my background is,” she said. ”The difference was my knuckles more – when I punched her, I felt it a little bit more. Other than that, it was really nice just to let go and showcase my boxing skill and not worry about a takedown or a kick.
”It felt like the rawest form of combat sports to just go out there and throw your hands and let loose.”
Tony Lopez lost the most entertaining fight of the night, a five-rounder against fellow Californian Joey Beltran. The crowd was on its feet and roaring as the two heavyweights traded punches and slugged it out to the end, with both men bruised, cut up and bloodied.
”The knuckles was nothing,” the 44-year-old Lopez said. ”… I’ve always wanted to fight with no gloves. Got a chance to do it here.”
Beltran and Shewmaker joined Ricco Rodriguez and Maurice Jackson in the semifinals of the heavyweight division tournament, which will be held in September, also in Cheyenne.
Heralded underground bare-knuckle heavyweight Bobby Gunn also fought, knocking out Irineu Beato Costa Jr. in 41 seconds.
Cheyenne resident Bryan Pedersen, an MMA fighter and former state lawmaker, successfully sponsored a bill in 2012 to create a state board of mixed martial arts – the first state to do so. While MMA was thriving, bare-knuckle competition wasn’t even considered when the law was passed. However, Wyoming jumped at the chance to host Bare Knuckle Fight Championships action after 28 other states passed.
The International Boxing Hall of Fame said the last significant bare-knuckle bout was July 8, 1889, when John L. Sullivan went 75 rounds to beat Jake Kilrain. Even that event was illegal and had to be staged under the cover of secrecy as most states had outlawed the non-gloved version of boxing.
Fighting was forced underground until 2011, when the Yavapai Nation sanctioned a match that Gunn won over Richard Stewart at the tribe’s reservation in Arizona. The bout drew more than a million viewers, and the promoter of that event and the Wyoming one, David Feldman, realized there was a hungry market for bare-knuckle fights within the combat sports fanbase. It took him another seven years to find a state willing to sanction the next event.
Wyoming became the first state to sanction and regulate the activity sport its commission reviewed research that indicated bare-knuckle boxing would be safer than other combat sports, especially when it comes to concussions, Pedersen said, adding that the commission, which he chairs, spent about a year developing the new rules governing the sport. He also viewed Saturday’s competition, and future bouts, as a way to generate economic diversity and promote the Cowboy State and its strong sense of Western independence.