How BKFC Founder David Feldman Popularized Bare Knuckle Fighting

David Feldman, the founder of the Bare Knuckle Fighting Championship (BKFC), the fastest-growing combat sport in the world, is facing the fight of his life: therapy.

“I go once a week and within two minutes I’m crying like fuck,” he says. “I just keep uncovering everything.”

It’s a 72-degree day in March 2024, in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Cloudless skies. Sunbaked stores. Craggy mountain vistas. Feldman, 53, is sitting in the lobby of a hotel on the northern outskirts of town. Cauliflower-ear fighters, announcers in baggy suits, and ponytailed techs wander around him, prepping for tonight’s bare-knuckle event at an 11,000-seat arena. Feldman — trim, muscled, dark-haired handsome in a form-fitting suit — ignores them all. Just another stop on the endless BKFC traveling circus.

“We’re on the road 40 percent of the month,” he says, rubbing his eyes, his smartphone vibrating ding, ding, ding, but remaining unanswered unless it’s (a) his wife, Christina, or (b) his accountant. “But it’ll be worth it. In five years, this company will be worth billions.”

Bare-knuckle fighting is becoming the biggest fight-world sensation in decades, drawing comparisons to an early-stage Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC). In 2018, the company made $500,000 in revenue. Now, BKFC is valued at $411 million. “If Dave Feldman stays in it for the long haul, he could make a billion bucks,” says Art Davie, the founder of the UFC. “Now, audiences are used to more violence, so he needs to push the brutality of it.”

As told in Bare Knuckle: Bobby Gunn, 73-0 Undefeated. A Dad. A Dream. A Fight Like You’ve Never Seen by former Rolling Stone senior editor Stayton Bonner, Feldman and Bobby Gunn, the champion of bare knuckle, have waged an epic battle to make it mainstream — overcoming abusive childhoods to resurrect the sport and transform the lives of their families.

The rules of bare-knuckle boxing are simple. Two people stand toe-to-toe and pummel each other bloody. The science is surprising. Fighters don’t punch as hard as gloved combatants to keep from breaking their hands, resulting in softer blows to the skull and hence fewer concussions, according to studies. The background is historic. Once a popular pastime in the 1800s, the sport fell into a world of illegal underground mob matches for over 120 years. Now, after being introduced to bare knuckle by Gunn, an undefeated legend in the sport, Feldman began staging illegal underground bouts until finally hosting the first legal match in US history in 2018. That year, he put on three shows in backwater states. This year, his company, BKFC, is on track to stage 42 events in eight countries around the world. “It never stops,” Feldman says. “But I’m building something special.”

Feldman lives for overcoming odds. Born in Philadelphia to a boxing trainer who used to throw empty scotch bottles at him, Feldman has ascended from boxer to small-time MMA promoter to scion of a new combat sport. In 2016, he had cancer, $282 in his bank account, and was standing atop the Commodore Barry bridge in Philadelphia, about to leap to his death into the Delaware River. But he thought of his mother, a woman who survived despite being beaten so badly she was bound to a wheelchair, and decided to step back from the ledge and into the ring.

Now, Feldman’s world is one of constant motion. Yesterday, he was in Austin, Texas, meeting with investors. Next week, he’ll fly to the United Arab Emirates to meet with more investors, then Dublin, Ireland, to meet with UFC legend and Road House star Conor McGregor—his Forged Irish Stout is already a BKFC sponsor—then London for BKFC 60, and finally back stateside for his biggest card yet: Knucklemania in Los Angeles.

Despite the momentum, Feldman knows he still has a ways to go. Putting on coliseum events at this scale and pace requires a constant flow of cash. Unlike Dana White, who built the UFC with the backing of the billionaire Fertitta brothers, Feldman is going it alone, even refinancing his house at times to keep the sport alive.

Feldman grins. He’s known haters his whole life. He also knows it’s just a matter of time before BKFC attains global dominance and maybe, finally, he can retire with Christina, live on the coast, take a break from this nonstop hustle of worldbuilding. Because Feldman knows one thing his opponents don’t, the reason that he now attends therapy on a weekly basis, the reason he will never back down.

He’s already overcome a childhood that would’ve buried most people.

“My life is fucked, dude,” he says. “You just don’t understand.”

David Feldman, founder of the Bare Knuckle Fighting Championship.

Courtesy of David Feldman/BKFC

FELDMAN, A FORMER PRO WELTERWEIGHT boxer with a 4-1 record, has a reputation.

Early in his promotion career, when one of his pro boxers didn’t show, he would change into old middleweight trunks he lugged around in the trunk of his car, and step into the ring himself. In later years, he would do the same at underground bare-knuckle matches he organized, taking off his shirt and flooring fighters half his age when one of his guys backed out. “No other promoter steps in the ring like I do,” Feldman says. “I understand these fighters. I know what it feels like to get punched in the face. And they respect me for it.”

Born in 1970 as the youngest son of Marty Feldman, a hard-ass boxing trainer who came up under Frank “Blinky” Palermo, one of the top organized crime bosses in Philadelphia, Feldman was raised in a fight factory. At one point, after his mother had left Marty, he and his brother lived with ten boxers—all Black and all from impoverished inner-city neighborhoods—in the family’s three-bedroom house in Broomall, a white middle-class suburb on the western edge of Philadelphia. “Just about the only Blacks in Broomall were the ones in our house,” Feldman says. By day, his father ran a denim shop, Marty Feldman’s Jeans, selling pants and work boots. By night, starting at eight, he ran grueling training sessions. These were the days of Vietnam and Watergate and segregation, a time when changing race relations and social mores were inciting controversy, and a Jewish family living with a houseful of Black men in an all-white subdivision did not sit well. “We’d be running down West Chester Pike, people yelling ‘nigger lover,’” recalls Charles Williams, a former world heavyweight champion who trained under Marty. “That didn’t bother Marty. He’d punch you in a heartbeat or pull out his pistol and shoot you.”

If the neighbors didn’t like the fact that Marty oversaw a homegrown gym, didn’t like that he occasionally shot bullet holes in the ceiling to get his boxers’ attention, didn’t like that he housed young Black fighters on their manicured streets, they could go to hell. “The neighbors would call the cops,” Feldman says. “And my dad would be like ‘Yo, they’re fighters—get the fuck out of here.’”

Feldman smiles. He works out every morning. Twice a week, he sees a doctor for a pinched nerve in his left shoulder—an ailment caused by his years as a boxer, his head getting snapped back so often, it condensed the vertebrae in his back. He has two grown children and is married to Christina, a stunning younger hairdresser. Feldman is trying to find peace despite his years of battling demons. In the last years of his father’s life, Feldman visited Marty at the Broomall Rehabilitation Center, helping his eighty-three-year-old father fight the toughest opponent of his life: dementia. “I had a fucked-up thing with Dad,” Feldman says. “But he was a badass motherfucker—he never would have wanted to be in a place like that.”

Feldman, at heart, is a survivor. He has been a pro boxer, a bartender, a night-school student at Temple. He owned a nightclub at twenty-four, went broke at twenty-six, and, after telling his old man he needed money and getting only a five-dollar bill, paid his rent by selling custom suits for six months, making 150 cold calls a day until some doctor mouthed off to him and he quit. He then did what he always does—endure—by buying a mechanical bull, hauling it around to bars, and making $10,000 a week, back on top. “Chicks would get naked on the bull,” he says. “It was crazy. Look, I used to sell candy in high school. I’ll never not make money.”

But if Feldman is going to succeed in life, it is for one reason and one reason alone: he won’t let himself dishonor the memory of his mother, Dawn. “She is the strongest person I’ve ever met,” he says. “I always stayed close with her.” In his office, he keeps a painting she once made, a small, delicate watercolor of a blue rose. Dawn created it by gritting a brush between her teeth—a testament to her strength after surviving a horrible tragedy: the loss of use of her arms and legs. “With bare knuckle, I’ll be like ‘Fuck this, it’s too hard,’” he says. “Then I’ll look at that painting my mother made with a brush between her teeth and say, ‘Too hard? You’re a pussy.’ And I’ll go back and try harder.”

For Feldman, the seminal event of his life happened not in the boxing world, but near a cemetery on a deserted highway in the dead of night. In 1974, Dawn had left Marty and began dating another local man. One night, according to Feldman and his older brother, Damon, and backed in part by a 1981 newspaper account, Dawn got into an argument with her new boyfriend at a club. On the way home, he stopped alongside a graveyard and began hitting her, eventually beating her head against a tombstone and running her over with the car. He then put her back in the passenger’s seat and, while driving down the highway, pushed her out the door. The fall broke her neck, leaving her a quadriplegic. “She had a black-and-blue footprint across her chest,” the newspaper story states. “She faded in and out of consciousness for almost a month.”

Ultimately, Dawn wound up in a coma. The man went into hiding. Marty served his wife divorce papers while she was recuperating in the hospital. “My brother and I went through adversity like most people never see,” says Damon Feldman. “When our mom got injured and became a quadriplegic in a wheelchair, we weren’t able to bond with her that well. It was devastating.” As a child, of course, Feldman didn’t know any of the details of Dawn’s attack. At age four, all he knew was that his mother had suddenly disappeared. “It was tough, man,” he says. “I don’t remember that happening as much as I remember not being with her. A long time would go by and I wouldn’t see her.”

Feldman and his son before one of his fights.

Courtesy of David Feldman

For a period, Feldman and his brother lived with friends of the family until returning to live with their father. Marty treated them with the tough love of a trainer. While Feldman would ultimately reconcile with his father, he says their relationship during his youth was difficult. Aside from training him to fight, Marty rarely showed Feldman love, instead flinging pots and pans at him while drinking half-gallon bottles of scotch at the kitchen table. “There was this corner of the kitchen that was my corner,” Feldman recalls. “I’d stand there and get fucking hit with pots and pans and plates and everything. He beat the fuck out of me with shit every day.”

Pushed away by his father, Feldman began visiting his mother in her assisted-living homes. He admired her bravery, how she had briefly contemplated suicide after the accident until deciding to live her life anew, returning to school, taking up painting, trying out for the Special Olympics, even getting three poems published in a local book — all without the use of her limbs. “I loved Mom,” Feldman says. “I always stayed close with her because I had a really bad relationship with my dad. She just did everything. It was unbelievable.”

Feldman drew on his mother’s strength, watching her persevere as he helped her through her ailments—the kidney infections, the colostomy bags, her inability to eat sometimes due to the medication. Her disability became a fact of life, a tragic car accident that had left her paralyzed. Then, when Feldman turned fourteen, his mother finally told him the truth about what had happened by the cemetery that night, why she had nearly died—and his life changed forever. “I was like, ‘Okay, I gotta do something,” he says. “I saw all the ailments my mom went through. It was such a fucked-up way to live. I was going to try to find him.”

All Feldman had to go on was the man’s name. For the next twenty-two years, he searched for clues, asking around town, chasing down leads, trying to find his mother’s abuser but never turning up a trace. Then, one night in 2006, after his own boxing career had fizzled and he was running a dive bar, a beautiful woman walked in and asked for a drink. “She was so attractive, I just started talking with her,” he says, grinning. “All I knew was her first name, Chrissie.” The two flirted for months, Chrissie becoming a regular, until one night he asked her last name—and his heart froze. “It was the attacker’s last name,” he says. “I asked if she knew him and she said, ‘Yeah, he’s my uncle. He lives around the corner.’” Feldman pauses. “He was only fifteen minutes from here.”

Walking to the man’s door, Feldman didn’t have a firm plan—just a gun, a pair of pliers, and a lifetime of pain and anger. “I didn’t know what I was gonna do,” he recalls. “But I had a vision.” His mother, Dawn, had finally passed away just weeks before, and he thought of her as he knocked on the door. After a minute, it opened. An old man looked at him. “I said, ‘I’m David Feldman,’” Feldman recalls. “And he looked like he saw a fucking ghost.” Feldman leans forward. “‘You know my mom, right? I know what happened. I know that you never got in trouble for what you did.’ And he was like ‘Uhhh, uhhh.’ And right then I knew for sure it was him. I grabbed him, put him on the fucking ground, and just started choking his neck.”

Feldman lets out a breath. “And then I stopped and said, ‘Look. I’m not gonna do this to you.’ I had a gun on me but I’m glad I didn’t do that, either. Instead, I took out the pliers, took his Achilles heel, and I fucking squeezed it and squeezed it and squeezed it until it popped. And then I just left.

‘Now you can’t walk, motherfucker.’”

AROUND THE TIME OF his mother’s death, Feldman began working as a fight promoter. Tired of running a nightclub and sports bar in Philly, he was trying to launch a new career staging pro boxing and MMA events but was having little luck. Then he had an idea. An old family friend, Len Hayko, had moved to Scottsdale, Arizona, to open a line of tanning salons. On a whim, Feldman asked him to set up an interview with the local casino at the Yavapai Nation. To his shock, they said yes. A few days later, Feldman and Hayko— both wearing black pants and black T-shirts with the name of their would-be company, “Bad Boy Promotions,” stenciled across the chest—entered the Fort McDowell casino management office. They were ushered into a private room and seated across a conference table from two young Yavapai women. 

Feldman and Bobby Gunn

Courtesy of Stayton Bonner

One of them, Ernestine Boyd, was the assistant marketing director for the casino. According to Hayko, she glanced up, looked them over, and asked one simple question: “What the fuck do you guys want?” Feldman, jet-lagged and sweating in the desert heat, decided to try humor. “I said, ‘My mother’s full-blood Choctaw Indian. Are our tribes cool?’ And it was dead fucking silence. I thought, ‘Oh shit.’ They were not happy.” (A representative at the Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation said Boyd had worked at the casino but was no longer employed there. I asked for her contact information but was never given it. Feldman says his mother was, in fact, part Choctaw.)

Defeated, Feldman and Hayko were getting up to leave when something unexpected happened. “They started laughing,” Hayko recalls. “I mean, picture us. Here’s two Philly guys walking in wearing matching outfits and saying they want to put on a fight. So Dave and I started laughing too. And then Ernestine said, word for word, ‘I hate fucking boxing. All you boxing promoters are scumbags.’ And I said, ‘Well, here’s the good news. I’m not a boxing promoter and neither is Dave. He’s a fighter. We’re just sorta trying to build a business out here. And she started laughing again. ‘Ah,’ she said. ‘That’s good.’”

Feldman and Hayko were in. They launched Bad Boy Promotions, staging a wild medley of boxing, MMA, and amateur “toughman” competitions at the casino. Hayko was the local contact and helped with financing while Feldman oversaw the logistics, flying in for events. From the beginning, trying to differentiate themselves from other promoters, they were willing to try anything—a tactic that quickly brought notoriety. Their “tough man” competitions were open-call brawls. Anyone off the street was allowed to sign on, don gloves, and duke it out. “Applicants are poorly screened, and the officiating isn’t consistent,” stated a local boxing newsletter in 2012. “The other concern is safety. Bad Boy boxing fans can get very rowdy after a few big gulps of beers.”

But Feldman deemed any press good press, doubling down on radio promotions and outlandish stunts. And Hayko says Boyd’s mother was vice president of the tribe, ensuring they could stage their shows without a problem. Somewhere along the line, everyone became friends, Hayko even once flying Boyd and some other tribal members out for two weeks to vacation at his beach house in Sea Isle, New Jersey. In fact, according to Hayko, it was Fort McDowell’s idea to stage one of his and Feldman’s most notorious events, a match billing itself as “Extreme Midget Wrestling,” at the casino. On the night of the event, amid local protests, Feldman himself stepped into the ring when the appointed referee never arrived. “Dave was like, ‘Fuck it, I’ll do it,’” Hayko recalls. “He put on the ref shirt, and goddamn if he didn’t pull it off.” At one point, as part of the show, Feldman had to pretend to get clotheslined by a wrestler. “Dave fell down, smashed his arms on the mat, and it sounded like the whole ring was going to fall apart,” Hayko says. “He pretended like he got knocked out cold. God, it was great. That’s one thing about Dave—he’s a worker.”

For years, Feldman would continue to stage fights at the Fort McDowell Casino, the matches becoming more and more outrageous as his career grew. But even he would not be prepared for the blowback from his most daring stunt yet, which he would attempt soon after meeting Bobby Gunn, a pro boxer who was also the king of illegal bare-knuckle boxing. “One day, Dave said, ‘What do you think about doing a bare-knuckle fight?’” Hayko recalls. “I was like, ‘I don’t know . . .’”

But Feldman was adamant. “They were the kind of tribe we needed,” he says. “The kind to say, ‘Fuck you, we’re doing what we want.’”

ON A SWELTERING HUNDRED-DEGREE night in August 2011, Bobby Gunn took on Richard Stewart at the Yavapai Nation reservation in the first sanctioned bare-knuckle boxing match since 1889—a historic event that remained under siege until the final moment. Having caught wind of the outlaw match, the Association of Boxing Commissions, the Arizona Attorney General’s Office, and, according to Gunn’s camp, even Arizona Senator John McCain—an avid traditionalist boxing fan who once called MMA “human cockfighting”—all tried to shut it down.

Bobby Gunn, the 73-0 champion of bare-knuckle boxing.

Courtesy of Stayton Bonner

“The casino had flooded the airwaves with TV commercials,” recalls Hayko. “‘Bare-knuckle boxing coming to Fort McDowell!’ Well, as soon as that went out, the boxing commission started calling, saying it was a non-sanctioned event. And the tribe’s response was, ‘We can do what we want. This is our land. Fort McDowell casino is sanctioning it.’” Hayko pauses. “And, I mean, that’s the law—it’s a sovereign nation.”

Unable to gain traction, state authorities apparently decided to try a final desperate tact. In the hours before the fight, George Kokkalenios, a lawyer who sometimes worked for Gunn, said he was lying on his bed in the casino hotel room when the phone rang. It was McCain. “John McCain, God bless him, he’s a war hero or whatever, but he called the hotel room, trying to shut it down,” Kokkalenios recalled. “He said, ‘Give me someone higher up.’ I said, ‘I don’t think there is anyone higher up!’”

Even Gunn says he briefly spoke with him. “I was on the phone with him for two seconds,” Gunn recalls. “He said, ‘What I think you’re doing is horrendous.’ So I said, ‘Not to be disrespectful, but I don’t really have time for this.’ And I hung up.” (McCain’s representatives did not respond to requests for comment.)

Pressure to stop the match was mounting. Gunn and Feldman, however, were not backing down—and neither were the Yavapai. “That reservation would have went to war,” Hayko says. “The state was never shutting that down.” Having essentially told the government to go to hell, Gunn and the tribal elders finally made their way to the fight venue, a makeshift arena in a baking-hot parking lot—where, incredibly, over five thousand people had gathered to watch the event.

Neither the Yavapai nor anyone else had ever witnessed an event like this. Even ESPN was touting the match as “reviving a bygone, bare-knuckle era.” Available for $10 as an online pay-per-view, the event had been billed as a blood-soaked illegal brawl, its two referees there to ensure, according to one commentator, “the blood doesn’t get too out of control.”

 Yet despite the hype, the fight was a mild affair. Feldman, shocked to get approval from the tribe and worried they might change their minds, had rushed to put the whole thing together in just weeks. Sponsored by a nearby beer-and-wings hangout called McDuffy’s Sports Grill, the show had cheesy lighting, bad music, and a ringside staff made up largely of Feldman’s friends and family. Wearing a red polo shirt and black pants, Feldman himself announced the fight from the center of the ring. Shannon Ritch, a local bare-knuckle fighter, donned a headset and did the pay-per-view commentary alongside Feldman’s nineteen-year-old son, Dave Jr., a college freshman. “The person we had couldn’t make it, so I stepped in,” Dave Jr. says. “I was announcing local high school football games at the time.”

Bare Knuckle Fighting Championship, the fastest-growing combat sport in the world.

Nick Vespe/BKFC

Even the fight itself, billed as a dangerous outlaw showdown, was a disappointment. Toeing a tricky line, Feldman was trying to provide an extreme event while also making sure no one got seriously hurt, which could have caused a public backlash and killed his sport outright. So, to be safe, he limited the rounds to ninety seconds each, giving the fighters a minute break in between, and hired two referees to oversee the match simultaneously.

From the start, Gunn, an underground fighter long accustomed to no rules or time limits, was off. Wearing black trunks emblazoned with a Star of David and the words “Give God the Glory,” he circled the ring, waiting, watching. Stewart, visibly out of shape, feinted and weaved but punched little. “I’d never been on that side of the Mississippi,” he recalls. “It was like an oven.” The slow action drew boos from the crowd, who quickly diagnosed the whole affair as a sanitized version of what everyone had really come to see—a bare-knuckle street fight. “It’s not the big bloodbath everybody thought it was going to be,” Ritch lamented from the commentator’s booth.

For the first two rounds, Gunn trudged through, seemingly out of his comfort zone, until the bell for the third round rung—and he suddenly came alive. Having at last taken the measure of his opponent, Gunn, now in rhythm, exploded, flooring Stewart with a combo to the body and a tap on the chin. Fully laid out, Stewart tried to stand, fell, and then rose again, wobbling, a nasty cut beginning to bleed under his left eye. Without hesitation, Gunn strode to his staggering opponent, almost gently pushed his hands from his face as if he were brushing back a lock of hair, and unleashed a devastating haymaker directly to the cut eye, flooring Stewart as Feldman waved his arms, calling the match.

“And this fight is over!” Feldman Jr. screamed as a remix of Black Sabbath’s “Ironman” blared from the overhead speakers. “Bobby Gunn, an overhand right! History in the making, ladies and gentlemen!”

Gunn and Feldman had expected only fifty thousand to live-stream the online event, bringing in about $500,000. Instead, Feldman says more than a million tried to watch, crashing the fight’s payment system and, with it, any chance for a long-awaited payday. “We made very little,” he says. In addition, the global backlash was immediate. On August 11, less than a week after the fight, the Fort McDowell casino wrote the Association of Boxing Commissions a letter stating, “There will not be any more Bare Knuckle Boxing events provided by FelKO Promotions.” Ernestine Boyd, Feldman’s top contact at the Yavapai Nation, and other casino management officials were soon out of jobs. Tim Lueckenhoff, then head of the Association of Boxing Commissions, condemned bare knuckle as “abhorrent, barbaric, egregious, in contravention of a multitude of federal, state, and tribal boxing laws and regulations, and, perhaps, criminal.”

Still, the live-stream demand was all the evidence Feldman needed that bare-knuckle fighting was ready for the mainstream. Within hours, Gunn’s Facebook page was overwhelmed with views, his Twitter followers soon exploding to over forty thousand people. He and Feldman had done something truly historic. They had revived a long-dead American sport, making national headlines without getting arrested—all while gaining the notice of other combat sports.

Soon after the fight in Arizona, Feldman says he was in Las Vegas when he happened to run into Dana White, the president of the UFC. “Nice fight,” Feldman recalls the UFC president telling him. “‘But you’ll never get the sport off the ground.’”

Feldman grins. “I just smiled because I knew it had hit a nerve,” he says. “I responded, ‘Isn’t that the same thing they told you?’” (White’s representatives declined to comment.)

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From Bare Knuckle: Bobby Gunn, 73–0 Undefeated. A Dad. A Dream. A Fight like You’ve Never Seen. by Stayton Bonner. Used with the permission of the publisher, Blackstone Publishing. Copyright ©2024 by Stayton Bonner. Available for purchase here.