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CHEYENNE, Wyo. — Blood covered the face of D.J. Linderman, who was trading punches in a heavyweight bout that drew cheers from the crowd. Then a ringside physician emerged.

The man climbed into the ring at the end of the second round and inspected Linderman's pulverized face. The right eye looked swollen shut. The nose kept bleeding. Assorted cuts oozed blood.

When the bout ended moments later due to doctor's stoppage, Arnold Adams, the winning fighter, theatrically kissed his bare knuckles. Indeed, knuckles took star billing Saturday night at the Ice and Events Center during a 10-fight card that was billed as the first legal, sanctioned and state-regulated bare-knuckle boxing event in U.S. history.

"This is my baby, this is what got the job done," Adams said later, admiring the knuckles of his left hand, the source of a punishing jab. "Every time I threw it, it touched him and the whole crowd went 'ooooh.'"

That sound, and the sight of bare knuckles hitting faces, figures to be spreading fast. Wyoming is set to host up to five more bare-knuckle events this year, and a handful of other states have expressed interest in sanctioning shows like this one.

No more than 2,000 people could squeeze into the Cheyenne arena that sits across the street from the Stage Coach Motel and next door to the now-shuttered Hitching Post Inn. But the event was available on pay-per-view, and the fights generated buzz on social media thanks to the likes of the knuckle-kisser and his bare-knuckled buddies.

With their hands wrapped with tape and gauze but knuckles exposed, the fighters kept the ringside physicians and viewers alert. Seven of the 10 bouts were decided by a knockout or technical knockout, and only three of the fights went more than three rounds.

The bloody affair surely will stoke opposing sides in the moral fight over bare-knuckle boxing.

In 1889, The Marquess of Queensberry Rules that mandate the use of gloves in boxing came into effect in the USA. That also was the year of the last major bare-knuckle heavyweight world championship, won by the famed John L. Sullivan.

Traditional boxing became the law of the land and part of a culture that produced legendary fighters such as Muhammad Ali, Sugar Ray Robinson and Rocky Marciano. The bare-knuckle brawlers were for the past 129 years relegated to the shadows.

Until now.

Wyoming has became the first state to sanction bare-knuckle fights. Opponents of the state's decision — and those who believe that boxing without gloves is barbaric — might have contributed to threatening phone calls fight promoter David Feldman said he received. So Feldman said he decided to bring in a K-9 patrol dog at a cost of $1,500 a day.

"One guy said, 'I'm going to welcome you to Wyoming with a bullet in your head,'" said Feldman, president of Bare Knuckle Fighting Championships based in Pennsylvania. "Just a lot of junk that came our way.

"I know that most people are just talking, trying to scare me off, and I didn't want to take it seriously. But you never know what may happen."

It turned out the only people who looked to be in harm's way were on the fight card — 15 mixed martial arts fighters, four boxers and one kickboxer. That included two women, including a mother of two.

Bec Rawlings elicited loud and slightly lusty cheers as she brawled with Alma Garcia before winning on a second-round technical knockout.

The cheers grew even louder when a heavyweight bout between Joey Beltran and Tony Lopez turned into a blood bath. And Sam Shewmaker, another heavyweight, sent the audience into a frenzy with his only punch — an overhand right that dropped burly Eric Prindle just 18 seconds into the fight.

It was a glimpse into a sport looking to burst onto the mainstream and emerge from a shadowy operation.

Underground since 1889

Official boxing records show Bobby Gunn has fought 32 times, won a cruiserweight title and faced off against Roy Jones Jr. and James Toney before losing to those former heavyweight champions. But the records say nothing about what has made Gunn a driving force behind what happened in Cheyenne.

The bare-knuckle fights that all but disappeared from public view in the USA after 1889 simply moved underground, according to Gunn, who sported an unofficial record of 71-0 before the festivities moved into a legitimate venue Saturday.

Empty warehouses, auto body repair shops and basements have served as venues for organized bare-knuckle fights, Gunn said. Video found online shows Gunn knocking out Jay-Z bodyguard Ernest Jackson — at an undisclosed site, of course.

"One time I fought and literally one wall separated me from a grocery store," Gunn told USA TODAY. "And here's people in line buying cereal and meat, oblivious to the world what's going on behind that wall next door.

"It happens all the time throughout America. It's been here before I was born, it'll be here when I'm dead and gone. But I'm hoping that the sanctioned, legalized sport will take these young fighters and give them a platform to get paid professionally and not have to hide in the shadows anymore."

Gunn disputed the notion that the sport is barbaric.

"These are not barroom brawls," Gunn said. "These are not street fights. A bare-knuckle boxing fight, that's arranged (as) two men coming to compete for money or it could be for pride or reputation."

Years ago, Gunn shared all of this with Feldman, 47, the son of a legendary boxing trainer. Intoxicated by the possibilities, Feldman took on what he soon considered the fight of his life — to bring bare-knuckled boxing into the mainstream, and to potential pay-per-view customers.

While Feldman can talk at length about the charms and technicalities of bare-knuckled boxing, he also says, "This is for the guys that really want to fight, the guys that have fight in their system and in their blood. It's all about the fight."

On Aug. 5, 2011, Feldman took a big step when he held a bare-knuckle match on an Indian reservation in Arizona and Gunn defeated Richard Stewart and was recognized as the reigning bare-knuckle champ. The victory was short-lived.

The paywall for the pay-per-view crashed. Feldman's efforts to find a state to sanction an event hit a dead end. That, Feldman said, is when he decided to start promoting underground bare-knuckle fights.

Two states threatened to revoke his promoter's license after accusing him of promoting illegal bare-knuckle events, according to Feldman. While the legality of the events remains in question, Feldman said he promoted more than 20 of them and at some bouts saw tens of thousands of dollars wagered.

"We had to do it because if we didn't promote underground, nobody was talking about it," he said. "I didn't want to take risks, but if you didn't take the risks and get it out there, who was interested?"

The talks finally got serious this year.

State decided to regulate sport

Bryan Pedersen is chairman of the Wyoming Combat Sports Commission, and it's a good bet he'll talk about basketball if someone suggests his state is crazy to sanction bare-knuckle fights.

He'll point out that Wyoming already regulates kickboxing and mixed martial arts, where elbows, knees and shin kicks to the head are legal. In bare-knuckle boxing, boxers can use only their hands.

"Go out in your backyard and hit a basketball as far as you can, and then kick one and you find out which one is harder," Pedersen said. "In bare knuckle, none of those blunt-force trauma blows are possible because it's all hand striking.

"And you think about how hard you hit when you've got pads on your hands, punch your wall with a 3-ounce gloves on and then punch it with your bare hand and I'll bet you punch it harder with the glove because you're not going to hurt yourself. So what you end up with what we've been looking at is you have less traumatic punches."

By way of the basketball exercise, Pedersen said bare-knuckle fighting might look bloody but it's safer than mixed martial arts or kickboxing. A football metaphor might be just as apt now.

State after state punted on the opportunity to become the first to regulate before Wyoming, well, knuckled up. Feldman said 28 states rejected his requests to sanction the bare-knuckle events as a unique situation evolved in this state.

An MMA enthusiast and state legislator from 2004 to 2012, Pedersen used his legislative power to create what he said was the first MMA-only state sports commission in the nation. But in recent years, he and others started noticing advertisements for up to 10 bare-knuckle events a year in Wyoming.

He took a call from someone who wanted him to shut down a bare-knuckle event. But Pedersen knew he had no such authority.

In Wyoming, there are no laws prohibiting bare-knuckle fights.

"It just existed in the gray forever," Pedersen said. "So in order to protect the promoters, the participants and the fans, we just said, 'Well, we'll start regulating.'"

So Pedersen set it motion a year-long process — promulgating rules, getting the governor's signature, getting the Legislature and on March 15 Wyoming was ready to help make bare-knuckle history.

On April 10, Feldman announced his Bare Knuckle Fighting Championships would hold its event in Wyoming on June 2. He arrived at the arena that day a few hours before the fight to help with oversight.

"The name bare knuckle is what gives it that edge, right?" he said. "The reality is it's safer than anything else we're already regulating."

The public is about to have a chance to see for itself.

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June 4, 2018


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