The world’s foremost bare-knuckle boxing promotion, Bare Knuckle Fighting Championship (BKFC), is set to return amid the COVID-19 pandemic with BKFC 11 in Oxford, Mississippi, and the promotion will have a live audience in attendance.
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Ahead of the July 24 event, which is headlined by a lightweight title fight between UFC veteran and BKFC standout Isaac Vallie-Flagg (16-7-1 MMA, 3-0 BKFC) and former World Series of Fighting (WSOF) title challenger Luis Palomino (26-17 MMA, 1-0 BKFC), BKFC President David Feldman joined the Fight Business Podcast to discuss running his promotion amid a global pandemic.
“We used this time to really reinvent ourselves as a business,” Feldman told The Body Lock. “We’re ready to roll and ready to compete with the upper echelon of combat sports right now.”
Feldman, who launched BKFC in 2018, explained the effect the coronavirus had on the promotion’s planned events and the obstacles presented by the disease’s spread and subsequent safety restrictions.
“It’s been very, very difficult. When this thing all started, we had a show on March 14, and on March 13, we got shut down by the City of Wichita and then Kansas, and then we tried to take a couple of months off. We tried to do a show in Florida in May, and that got canceled.
“And then we did June again in Florida, and that got canceled. So, here we are July 24 in Oxford, Mississippi, and it looks like there aren’t any signs of being shut down, so I think we’re going to put on a tremendous show.”
Notably, BKFC will be one of the first live sporting events to feature a live audience since the onset of the pandemic. Feldman was quick to point out that while he expects backlash for the decision, he believes his promotion is going above and beyond the state’s safety measures.
“We are actually going to be, I think, the first, or if not, one of the first live sporting events in the country that is going to have some fans in attendance, so it’s going to be a special night for us,” said Feldman.
“I’m sure we’ll have some backlash, you know, you can’t do anything right anymore, there’s always going to be some kind of backlash,” he added.
“We have a great relationship with the Mississippi State Athletic Commission. We asked them what parts of Mississippi were good, where COVID wasn’t hitting that hard, and they said Northern Mississippi was your best bet… we started talking [with the City of Oxford, MS] and they allowed us to do 25 percent attendance, [but] we’re only going to do it at 15 percent attendance. It’s a big place, so we’re still going to have 600-750 people in attendance to give it that bit of noise, cheering, and a bit of ambiance that the fights so desperately need at this time.”
Of his communications with the state commission and other government entities, Feldman added, “There are mandates that are handed down by the different governmental agencies and we abiding them and more. We are doing everything we can possibly do to keep this thing as a really safe and fun environment and it’s going to be. At the end of the day, we would love to have four thousand people in there, but we know that this time doesn’t call for that, so we won’t do that at this time. That being said, we went above and beyond and did everything we can possibly do.
“Oxford is open. You can basically do whatever you want with a mask on. They have limited some certain things to limited capacity, but they gave us 25 percent and we went down to 15 percent. We weren’t trying to push the envelope at all. So, we did everything that we could do, and we are going to continue to do everything that we can do leading up to and during this show to ensure every fan, fighter, and staff member’s safety.”
Feldman revealed that in addition to reduced capacity, the event would also feature COVID-19 waivers for fans, BKFC-provided face masks, temperature checks, and a socially-distanced seating system.
“We’re seating people in groups of four. We sold tickets in a group of four, and they are separated by more than ten feet on either side, so we are more than meeting the social distancing requirement. Everybody has to sign a waiver and everybody will get a temperature check, and everybody is required to wear a mask. We’re actually supplying masks to everyone in attendance – Bare Knuckle TV app masks that we had specially made – so everyone in attendance is going to get one of those to wear.
“If they don’t want to wear a mask, they won’t be allowed in the building. And if they have a temperature that is higher than the norm, I believe the most we are allowed to have is 98.8 [degrees Fahrenheit], but if it is higher than 98, really, point six or in that area, we aren’t going to let them in.”
Even with the increased measures, Feldman said having a crowd for the event was important for the promotion.
“We want the crowd. It’s great to have a crowd. But at the same time, we’re not taking any risks at all for any of the fans in attendance or especially the fighters and the staff, we’re not putting anyone at risk — no more than you are anywhere else. We’re not putting anybody at any more of a risk than anywhere else in the community, so we’re taking great pride that we are taking every precaution necessary to ensure that every fan, fighter, and staff is completely safe — as safe as possible.”
As for whether the general public shares the same sentiments, Feldman says ticket demand has been strong despite a lack of local promotion and the ongoing pandemic.
“We didn’t promote [BKFC 11] at all locally, we just had a couple of local guys that wanted to sell some tickets. It sold out very, very fast. That wasn’t our intent. Our intent was to just find a place where we could do this with no fans and televise it, but now we are lucky enough to get some fans in attendance, so that’s great,” said Feldman.
“[As far as] demand, I think it’s a 4,000-seat arena, and we could have sold out in a week. It was a high demand. When they heard fans were allowed, they just hit us up like crazy. You can get tickets on our website, but we refunded a lot of people because we didn’t want those people to really have tickets. It’s a small crowd, it’s more for the ambiance of the whole situation, and it’s going to be great to give these people that were locked in their house for this long – in quarantine and not being able to do anything – give them something to do again in a very safe environment.”
Feldman explained that those participating in the event have and will be tested for COVID-19.
“Everybody was required to get a coronavirus test before they made their way out here. And then between 7:00 and 8:00 tomorrow morning, all the fighters are going to be tested again and all our staff members are going to be tested again that day. And then we’re all going to be in a hotel. They gave us two floors that are specifically for our fighters and staff and they’re all going to be quarantining in that hotel before it’s time to head on over for fight time. We’ve done everything we can do and possibly do to keep this thing tight and I think we’re going to have a very successful event.
“Most of the guys have been more than ready and willing to jump in and fight on the drop of a dime. Some guys said ‘no, I’m not ready, my gym is closed and I’m not able to train,’ and I get that, it’s a difficult time. But most guys were thrown an opportunity and they jumped all over it.”
The former professional boxer acknowledged that positive tests for fighters, cornermen, and staff were possible – even likely – but explained that having backup fighters available on standby was a difficult prospect.
“It’s hard to get fighters on backup, like, just to be training. It can be very costly to give them a purse for not fighting, but we did have some guys in mind. We did lose a couple of fighters and tomorrow morning, you know, I’d be lying if I said I don’t anticipate losing another fighter or two because these positive tests are popping up. We’ll see what happens tomorrow morning.”
One of the “guys in mind” Feldman mentioned, Isaac Vallie-Flagg, is a prime example. Vallie-Flagg stepped in for fellow BKFC staple Jim Alers, who was pulled from his bout despite testing negative for COVID-19 after one of his team tested positive for the virus.
The BKFC 11 event also marks the official launch of BKFC’s eponymous app, Bare Knuckle TV. The event will be available free to app users, as well as on BKFC’s Facebook and YouTube accounts.
“It’s the Bare Knuckle Fighting Championship Facebook page, Bare Knuckle Fighting Championship YouTube page, and Bare Knuckle TV App. I encourage everybody to go to the app store and download the Bare Knuckle TV App — it’s free. There’s a ton of great content on there, all our library is on there, all the different shoulder programming and interviews with the fighters on the first ten events, and all of the upcoming stories coming into this event.”
However, Feldman also revealed that the promotion is in the final stages of a television deal.
“We do have a TV deal right now. I got emailed it today. We do have a TV deal and we’re going to announce that TV deal hopefully on Friday’s show, just as long as we can get all the I’s dotted and the T’s crossed. But we do have a deal right now that we’re so thankful for at this time, two years into this thing and we have a TV deal… We have a TV deal and, hopefully, that thing gets inked on Friday so we can announce that to the fans then.”
For Feldman, being able to provide his staff and fighters with an opportunity to work during a time of historic financial turmoil is a significant goal.
“The one thing that I’m happiest about is being able to get people back to work right now. I know that a lot of my friends and some of my family members have been hit hard by this pandemic financially, and they haven’t been able to make any money. So, for us as an organization, being able to put these people back to work right now and help the staff and fighters and give them a chance to essentially eat a little bit, it was a great thing for us to be able to do. And that was one of the things that we really wanted to put forward, was to get out there, do another event and stay relevant, and get everybody back to work.
“This is the most difficult undertaking of any show that I’ve promoted in my life. Hopefully, we reach that reward and have one hell of a night on Friday night with some great fights,” concluded Feldman.
Michael Fiedel is The Body Lock's deputy editor, a staff writer for FloCombat, and a Russell-Rice scholarship recipient at Vanderbilt University.