“This was an argument I had in the UFC all the time,” WEC and UFC legend Leonard Garcia began. “We’d be in the back, they’d be wrapping my hands, and I would say, ‘Why do we have to wear gloves?'”
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It’s the same question David Feldman, the founder and owner of Bare Knuckle Fighting Championships (BKFC), asked before establishing his pioneering promotion.
Like Feldman was, Garcia says he was gawked at.
“Everybody thought I was nuts,” Garcia told The Body Lock. “Everbody would always say, “Why do you want to fight without gloves so bad?’ I said, you know, I feel like that’s the way it should be. I always said, if a [bare-knuckle] sport ever comes along where they don’t do any takedowns, and they don’t do any kicking, and it’s all just punching, and it comes to the States and it’s legal, I’m gonna try it.
“I have to.”
So, when BKFC called Garcia, one might think signing was a forgone conclusion. But, a case of mistaken identity nearly cost the two their partnership.
“When BKFC reached out to me, I had just watched a bare-knuckle event [World Bare Knuckle Fighting Federation 1] that the guys didn’t get paid in. I had just saw that, and [BKFC] reached out to me, and I was like, ‘Yeah, no. I don’t think so. You guys aren’t gonna pay me.’ He was like, ‘No! Wait a minute, wait a minute. That’s not us. My name is David Feldman,'” recalled Garcia.
“Me and Dave had a really good conversation, man, and we started talking. He sent me some clips from some of his shows. Course, I did a little bit of research on him; I reached out to some people that he said he knew, and he ended up being exactly who he said he was, so it really worked out.”
While the sporting passion is still there for Garcia, he says it’s a good thing he has a full-time job. According to Garcia, things aren’t good enough to quit working and maintain his standard of living.
“We’re in a comfortable situation in life now. Of course, I had retired and [am] working a regular 9 to 5, feeling good; going to work every day and coming home every day – living a good life. [Fighting] comes back up, and it raised a lot of curiosity. It took some negotiating skills with my wife, but I was able to get it done,” laughed Garcia.
“Fortunately, I do have a job – a 9 to 5 that works with me and allows me to do these types of things, but if I was just doing bare-knuckle alone, it would be unsustainable. I feel like I wouldn’t be able to live the lifestyle that we’re living, but I do feel that [the sport’s] grown.
“I feel like [mine] was a good contract coming out of the gate. I think Dave takes care of the guys, and I don’t think anyone feels cheated. At the end of the day, I think the fact that Dave is always willing to negotiate things makes it so much easier on the fighter… I think he cares about not only the growth of the sport, but also the growth of the fighters.
“I really feel like [BKFC’s] got a great future. I’m excited to be a pioneer. I’ll look back one day, I’m sure, and I’ll be like, ‘Why in the world did I fight for that much money when I could’ve fought for this?’ But, I’ve done that in MMA career, as well, so it’s just one of those things. It’s a learning process. We’re the pioneers for the sport right now,” said Garcia with a laugh.
With his finances – somewhat satisfactorily – sorted, Garcia can fully focus on the sporting aspect of the fight game. Transitioning from MMA, he says, was an interesting challenge.
“A lot of MMA guys are coming over and doing the bare-knuckle. I, of course, brought all boxers into my training camp with the mixture of MMA guys with “Cowboy” [Donald Cerrone], Isaac Vallie-Flagg and all of those guys. It’s hands-based, so it’s boxing-based,” said Garcia.
Despite only recently becoming legalized in the United States, bare-knuckle boxing is a sport that dates back hundreds of years. To improve his skillset, Garcia looked back at the fisticuff brawlers of old.
“I’ve learned a lot about footwork, angles, and I’ve done some studying of the old-time stances; the way that they hold their hands, why they held their hands like that… the reason that some of the bare-knuckle guys lasted so long was because they would always look to hit the softer parts of the body [and] not the hardest parts.
“I’m calling it prizefighting, man, like the old days. To me, the preparation for it is so easy. You go out there – well, all the roadwork and stuff isn’t easy – but you spar just like you do for boxing, you create different movements, different angles as you would in MMA. A lot of the guys that are coming over to this are explosive so you’ve got to be real careful with that. Because it’s not exactly like… Boxing, you do have that extra 3-4 inches of defense with that glove on, and in bare-knuckle, you don’t have that.
“There is no ‘You’re gonna push the jab away from your face because you have a glove on.’ There is none of that. If you push a punch away from your face, it’s gonna get through.”
On Saturday, August 10, Leonard Garcia will make his second walk under the BKFC banner following a successful debut in February. Originally slated to face UFC veteran Jason Knight, Garcia will now face ex-Cage Warriors featherweight champion Jim Alers.
To Garcia, the change in opponents has led him to tweak some of the aspects of his gameplan, but he ultimately believes his tough camp has primed him for success.
“Camp has been really, really good. It started hard and fast, and man, it’s been a long but good camp. I’m excited; I feel really good. Had the opponent change right in the middle, changed up a little bit of the gameplan, and I think we executed really well. I’m excited to show everybody the things that I’ve been working on.
“I had never heard of Jim, then, of course, when they told me they had an alternative they gave me his name. I looked him up. I think he brings very different problems than Jason Knight does. Jason Knight, we were getting somebody that’s gonna come after me really, really aggressively and wasn’t gonna take any backward steps. I kind of see similarities in Jim’s style and his, as far as the pushing forward and the brawling type of technique, but at the end of the day, it’s a bare-knuckle fight [and that’s] what I’m getting ready for.”
With a win over Alers at BKFC 7, Garcia says there’s one name on his mind: Artem Lobov.
The UFC veteran has taken bare-knuckle boxing by storm, defeating Knight in an all-out war in their respective BKFC debuts, then shocking the world by defeating former boxing champion Paulie Malignaggi in a bonafide grudge match.
“You can’t look past a Jim Alers, or at one time a Jason Knight, but Artem Lobov. He came out and did what he said he was gonna do. He beat Paulie, he knocked down the two-time world champion, and I really think we’re on a collision course headed towards each other.”
A fight between Lobov and Leonard Garcia is likely the most high-profile bout BKFC could book at the moment, but Garcia thinks the excitement factor would be off the charts for the fight itself, too.
“What better fight? You’ve got two guys who, neither one of us knows how to take a backward step. If you watch any of our old fights, I don’t think you’ll find a backward step [from] either one of us. I’m really excited about this [Alers] fight in general, but I’m really excited to see where it ends up right afterward. Once I get past this, and God-willing everything turns out the right way, Artem Lobov is definitely the beacon on my radar.”
Should the Lobov fight materialize, Garcia says he’s open to the idea of a ‘team vs. team’ dynamic, with he and Lobov squaring off alongside a match between Garcia’s friend and teammate, Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone and Lobov’s teammate, former two-weight UFC champion Conor McGregor.
“I would have no problem with that. What better way to play it out? Artem and Conor are like brothers, me and “Cowboy” are brothers, and why not, man? Why not? I wish they could both come to bare-knuckle and do it all there, but even if it was an MMA fight and a bare-knuckle fight, why not? Let’s make it exactly what it should’ve been,” said Garcia.
“Like I said, I’m not looking past anybody right now. My main focus is Jim Alers. He’s exactly what I’m thinking about, he’s what I see every day, he’s who I’m studying now. But once I get past this one, then we’ll start talking about this tag-team matchup, maybe,” Garcia concluded with a laugh.
Michael Fiedel is The Body Lock's deputy editor, a staff writer for FloCombat, and a Russell-Rice scholarship recipient at Vanderbilt University.