On Saturday, June 22, Bare Knuckle Fighting Championship (BKFC) will touch down in Tampa, Florida, for the grudge match of the year, as former IBF and WBA boxing titlist Paulie Malignaggi (36-8 Boxing, 0-0 BKFC) and UFC veteran Artem Lobov (14-15-1 MMA, 1-0 BKFC) throw down in the main event of BKFC 6.
The buildup to the pair’s headlining matchup has been as intense as any, with both men hurling heated insults – and in Malignaggi’s case, a mouthful of saliva – at one another.
Even David Feldman, the founder and president of BKFC, acknowledged that Malignaggi’s decision to spit on Lobov went too far.
“I think Paulie Malignaggi crossed the line by spitting on Artem,” Feldman told The Body Lock. “I think he completely disrespected him; it’s something that my promotion definitely does not condone, but at the same time, you know, we wish he didn’t do it, but we couldn’t have bought that kind of press that he got from that.
“Again, we don’t condone it, but I mean, in hindsight, I think that intrigued people to go, ‘I want to see Artem knock out Paulie Malignaggi.’ ‘I wanna see him do this, I wanna see him do that to Paulie Malignaggi.’ As selling a fight goes, I think it was great, but I do think it crossed the line. Stick to your insults,” said Feldman.
As Feldman said, the incident – abhorrent or not – raised the already sky-high stakes for the main event clash. The two have a strong dislike for one another dating back to the days of Lobov teammate Conor McGregor’s ambitious leap into boxing, where he faced all-time great Floyd Mayweather.
To prepare, McGregor enlisted the aid of Malignaggi, a respected former champion and commentator. Footage of the two’s sparring sessions, in which McGregor appears to drop Malignaggi, was released to the public, prompting an all-out feud over the validity of knockdown, the release of the video, and the withholding of the tape of the full session, between the fighters.
The bad blood between McGregor and Malignaggi spilled over to Lobov, as well, who signed with BKFC in March after requesting his release from the UFC. Lobov defeated fellow UFC veteran Jason Knight in a bloody, exciting brawl in his BKFC debut a month later.
After Lobov signed with BKFC, Malignaggi soon followed and talks about a potential fight soon abounded. To many, it was a surprise that an established, decorated boxer would cross over to the newly-legalized sport of bare-knuckle, but Feldman says the sales pitch for Malignaggi, Lobov, Knight, UFC legend Chris Leben, and others is too good to pass up.
“I would use this analogy, at times,” began Feldman. “I would say, ‘Who do you guys remember from the UFC? You guys remember Chuck Liddell, Tito Ortiz, Ken Shamrock, Royce Gracie’. Those are the names, am I right? Now, they [the BKFC fighters] get a chance to be a pioneer in this brand new combat sport.
“They get a chance to be at the beginning and have their legacy carried on as long as the sport goes, so, I think that was a big thing for them. Obviously, money plays a big role. They’re getting paid very, very well with us because we see where this [sport] can go, and we feel the fighters should get paid right,” added Feldman. “I think the notoriety and the media we’re getting, that was a plus for them, too. Like, ‘Look, I can really get my name out there now.'”
The theme of being pioneers and the uniqueness of bare-knuckle is a major selling point, but it’s also his reasoning behind the booking of Malignaggi and Lobov. When the matchup was rumored and subsequently announced, fans and pundits alike argued that a striking match between a world champion boxing and a .500 MMA fighter was, in no uncertain terms, a mismatch.
Even Malignaggi said so, telling MMAFighting, “I think of it like, thank god that this fan base in MMA is so f—king stupid that they actually have made this possible. A fight this easy is possible in a main event situation. That’s how I look at it. I look at it in a thankful way. From that perspective I say yeah, I can’t believe I’m here. I’ve been in the ring with top fighters, main events inside stadiums and the biggest arenas in the world. I’ve been announced as a world champion. Believe me, it all goes through my mind. And now, I’m fighting this guy, who I don’t think has ever fought a guy who’s been a world champion, let alone fight for a title. So I catch myself and say I can only be thankful. There’s no way realistically possible to have a fight this easy against a bum of this level unless there is a fan base this stupid.”
Feldman, when told of Malignaggi’s quote, disagreed.
“I don’t [agree],” said Feldman, “and I don’t for this reason: I think if it’s in boxing, it’s a natural mismatch. We all know that, right? But this is bare-knuckle; it’s different. It’s really, truly different. So, there’s two things: when [Malignaggi] gets hit with a bare knuckle – not even in the face, but when he gets hit in the arm with the bare knuckle – it’s different than getting hit with a glove.
“He can’t roll the punch off on his shoulder with the bare knuckle like he can with the glove, you know? It’s not gonna roll, it’s gonna hurt. I think he’s in for a little bit of a surprise what bare-knuckle really is. Again, I’m not picking the winner or loser. I think Paulie has tremendous boxing ability; one of the best purest boxers, really, ever, but at the same time, I mean, he’s fighting a real tough guy who’s in your face. He’s gonna grab the back of his neck, he’s gonna clinch with him, and he’s gonna try and bang with him.”
To that end, Feldman offered some words of caution to Malignaggi.
“If Paulie’s walking in there thinking it’s a cakewalk, he could be very surprised. If he thinks he can win, I mean, he should. He should be confident. But if he thinks he’s walking all over Artem Lobov, I think he’s gonna make a big mistake.”
Some have speculated that Malignaggi’s decision to face Lobov is part of an elaborate scheme to bring McGregor to the table for a boxing match. With McGregor having already crossed over to boxing once, the public, on-going drama between the two, and their history in sparring, it’s not outside the realm of possibility that a victory over McGregor’s teammate, Lobov, could be the catalyst for a McGregor vs. Malignaggi fight.
Feldman, however, says that if that’s the case, it doesn’t look like it will take place in BKFC.
“I mean, we’re not talking to McGregor’s camp at all about that. He’s signed with the UFC, so we can’t really interfere with him, what he’s doing here. If Malignaggi wins this fight and we’re tied to him still; if McGregor becomes something that everybody wants to see and the UFC would like to talk, I mean, of course, I mean, we would do that in a second, any way we could.
“Do I think it’s gonna happen in bare-knuckle? Probably not. I mean, you never know. You don’t know anything that’s gonna happen with Conor McGregor, right? I mean, it’d be the best thing that ever happened to this company and everyone involved,” Feldman said with a laugh.
At any rate, Saturday’s brawl between Lobov and Malignaggi is all of the things Bare Knuckle Fighting Championship aspires to be: captivating, brutal, exciting and, frankly, just the right amount of spectacle. BKFC 6 is likely to be the promotion’s biggest event to date, and the main event is the main reason why.
Michael Fiedel is The Body Lock's deputy editor, a staff writer for FloCombat, and a Russell-Rice scholarship recipient at Vanderbilt University.