After a relatively quiet month of January for the sport of Boxing, the month of February began with a steady flow of Boxing action across both the professional Bareknuckled and traditional forms of the sport. The beginning of what is also Super Bowl weekend for the National Football League (NFL) here in the United States saw the return of the Bareknuckle Fighting Championship (BKFC), who began their 2021 schedule with an eleven bout card dubbed “KnuckleMania.”
While this card, which took place at the BP Funding Center in Lakeland, FL was notable for the professional Bareknuckle Boxing debut of former UFC star Page VanZant, who competed in the main event in a Featherweight bout against Britain Hart, the card featured no shortage of highlights, some of which will be covered and discussed in this portion of this column. While it would be difficult to give each individual bout the time it deserves in a full-length feature that will cross the bareknuckled and traditional realms of the sport, this observer will offer the reader his thoughts on some of what took place as well as where I feel things stand for Bareknuckle Boxing and the BKFC as a whole as the 2021 schedule has begun.
As is usually the case in bouts fought under the bareknuckled-format and has been seen throughout the two year history of the BKFC, most bouts were fought at a high pace from the opening bell and this in addition to the two minute round length made for some exciting combat. Of the eleven bouts on this the sixteenth card promoted by the BKFC, eight ended in knockouts, but it was the three fights that each went the scheduled five round distance that in my eyes stood out.
Perhaps the fight of the night depending on one’s perspective took place on the undercard that like the evening’s main event, was fought in the Women’s Featherweight division. A bout between two newcomers to Bareknuckle Boxing Taylor Starling and Charisa Sigala, who were each making their professional Bareknuckle debuts.
A fight that quickly became an all-out war from the outset, there was no feeling out process between the two fighters and it did not take long for blood to become a factor as Starling suffered what would become a severe cut over her left eye only seconds into the fight. Despite the cut, Starling was not discouraged and would score a knockdown of Sigala later in round one with a straight right hand to the head. Sigala would be dropped for a second time in round two with what appeared to be a jab followed by a right hand to the chin.
At this stage both because of the fierce pace in which the combat was being fought as well as the knockdowns and general damage fighters suffer in bouts fought under Bareknuckle rules, I wondered how long it would be before this fight would be stopped. Sigala however, would remain very “Game “ and willing to exchange, despite being knocked down twice. At the conclusion of four rounds, both fighters had sustained wounds over their eyes and even though due largely to the knockdowns in rounds one and two Starling had a significant lead on the official scorecards, the action did not let up until the final bell. Although it would be Starling that would get a hard-fought unanimous decision on this night, it was a bout that would be hard to follow and both fighters simply gave everything they had.
The co-main event of “KnuckleMania” was a bout for the BKFC Lightweight world championship between champion Johnny Bedford and Dat Nguyen. As some may recall, Nguyen has a record of 20-3, with 7 Knockouts in bouts fought under the traditional professional Boxing format and was viewed as a contender as a 130lb. Jr. Lightweight. After completing in his last bout under the traditional professional Boxing format in February 2017, Nguyen embarked on competing in the Bareknuckle form of the sport and entered his challenge of Bedford’s world championship unbeaten in two Bareknuckle bouts. Bedford meanwhile entered unbeaten in his own right with a record of 5-0, with 3 Knockouts.
One aspect of Bareknuckle Boxing as this observer has said in the past that differs significantly from its traditional counterpart is the element of fighting in the clinch. This was a fight that the element of clinch fighting immediately became a part of the combat as both fighters tried to get the upper hand on the inside. This was an encounter where even though the champion had an advantage of height, reach, and seemed to be the stronger of the two fighters particularly when they fought in the clinch on the inside, Nguyen seemed to have the quicker hands and this allowed him to both be the more active of the two as well as seeming to get the better of the exchanges.
A commonality between the traditional and Bareknuckle forms of the sport is when there is a fight where both fighters are able to have success in spots in several of the same rounds, it can create a conundrum for judges scoring a fight to determine who has the edge round by round. Although there were periods where Bedford was able to hurt Nguyen with his offense and show his strength advantage, Nguyen’s greater activity and ability to seemingly get the better of most of the exchanges with hooks and uppercuts while on the outside where theoretically one might think Bedford would have the advantage is what ultimately swayed the three official judges who scored the five round world championship bout unanimously in his favor giving Nguyen the victory and his first professional world championship.
The main event of BKFC “KnuckleMania” featured the highly anticipated debut of UFC veteran Paige VanZant facing Britain Hart in a five round Women’s Featherweight bout. While there is no doubt that since signing with the BKFC in 2020 that Paige VanZant’s Bareknuckle Boxing debut would be anticipated due largely to her success in her Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) career, her run in the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) and with that carry significant attention due also to her cross over appeal, success in a new sport is not always a given right away.
In Britain Hart, VanZant faced a fighter with slightly more experience having competed in three previous Bareknuckle bouts as well as having an edge in overall Boxing experience having a record of 4-4-3, with 1 Knockout in traditional professional Boxing. While Hart entered the bout with VanZant with a 1-2 Bareknuckle record, what she also had was a three inch height advantage over the 5’4 VanZant and also a slight reach advantage.
It was these attributes as well as her edge in experience that allowed Hart to dictate the combat from the opening bell. The primary difference in this fight in my eyes was Hart’s ability to get the better of the action on the outside, but also surprisingly get the better of the action inside the clinch. Sometimes in Boxing regardless of form in which bouts take place, it can be as simple as one fighter being able to outwork the other and that is essentially what happened in this fight. Although VanZant was able to rally in the fifth and final round, it was not enough to sway the opinion of the three judges who scored the fight unanimously in favor of Hart.
While some may say that starting her Bareknuckle career with a loss should discourage Paige VanZant, this observer does not feel that way. It goes without saying that not every career in combat sports will begin with a victory and it will be interesting to see what adjustments VanZant can make before her next bout. One thought that consistently came to mind as I watched this fight was perhaps one reason why VanZant was outworked in addition to being at an experience disadvantage going in is as an MMA fighter, she is used to fighting in most cases three five minute rounds where theoretically, a fighter has more time to implement a tactical approach rather than having to be more aggressive. Of course bouts in Bareknuckle Boxing as well as all forms of Women’s Boxing are fought with two minute rounds. Due simply to the round length, if a fighter does not consistently let their hands go, it is very difficult to win fights,
It may simply be a matter of VanZant taking the time to adapt to the differences in fighting only two minutes per round as opposed to five minutes as well as making other tactical adjustments that will benefit her going forward. The important thing to keep in mind is this will take some time and it may not be wise to rush back in the ring quickly. VanZant may not have gotten the victory in this fight, but she has nothing to be ashamed of and there is no substitute for experience and it will be this experience that will only help her evolve in time.
As for the BKFC and Bareknuckle Boxing as a whole, the sport continues to grow by leaps and bounds far beyond what could have been envisioned a decade ago when variations of modernized/organized Bareknuckle Boxing began to re-emerge here in the United States and the United Kingdom. As more Bareknuckle Boxing promotions emerge and the sport is able to increase exposure, the sport as a whole will continue to grow. If this leads to further opportunities for boxers as well as other athletes throughout all of combat sports, it should be viewed as a step forward.
One fighter on the traditional side of professional Boxing that was looking to take another step forward in his comeback was former longtime Jr. Middleweight contender Austin Trout. Trout, who held interim/regular champion status in the World Boxing Association’s (WBA) Jr. Middleweight ratings between 2011 and 2013 as the WBA’s top contender in the division, returned to the ring for the first time in over a year to face veteran Juan Garcia in Chihuahua, MX.
The bout, which was Trout’s first since a second round knockout over Rosbel Montoya in February of last year, took place in a venue that like many over the last year was closed to the public due to the ongoing global COVID-19 epidemic. In Juan Garcia, Trout faced a veteran of thirty professional bouts, who had twenty-one wins, but a fighter who had been stopped in four of his seven losses. While Garcia, who also had two draws in his career going into this fight, had gone 2-2 in his last four bouts, he did suffer a first round knockout loss to unbeaten Welterweight Jessie Wilcox in his last bout in June 2018.
Although this had all the appearance of a fight intended to get the ring rust off for Trout, who entered the bout with a record of 32-5-1, with 18 Knockouts, the question that usually accompanies a fight like this particularly in the midst of the ongoing global COVID-19 crisis is what effect will fighting under such conditions have on fighters. A question that is all the more relevant when one considers that due to the ongoing circumstances of COVID-19, plans including, but not limited to when bouts will take place can change day to day.
Trout showed no visible signs of ring rust as for ten rounds he used his elusive style, lateral movement, and superior skillset to out box the “Game “ Garcia to earn a convincing ten round unanimous decision victory. Even though Trout was in complete control of this bout from the outset, it appeared at times particularly late in the ten round bout that he might have been able to get a stoppage if he had stepped up his pace a little more. A win is still a win however, and one could make an argument that going ten rounds did the thirty-five year old Trout more benefit than scoring a quick knockout would have simply because it allowed him to get some rounds in after a year of inactivity due to the circumstances of COVID-19.
While those circumstances are seemingly no closer to being resolved in February 2021 as it was when the COVID-19 virus began impacting the world globally in late 2019 into 2020, we can all only hope that as the Boxing schedule across both the traditional and Bareknuckle realms seems to be filling up in the days, weeks, and hopefully months to come that there will not be as many starts and stops as there were in 2020. Unfortunately, no one can say for certain that there won’t be a halt to activity as there was for a period of time during 2020, but in the meantime it is crucial for fighters like Austin Trout and the Bareknuckle boxers that were discussed in this column as well as boxers throughout the entire sport to try to be as active as they can while they can.
“And That’s The Boxing Truth.”
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