Promoter David Feldman Reflects on Bare-Knuckle Fighting Ahead of Championship

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David Feldman, a bare knuckle fighting promoter, stands in front of ring
David Feldman (Photo by Kenny Ludwig)

The late Sen. John McCain was known for many things — his service and subsequent imprisonment in Vietnam, his long career as a legislator, his presidential campaigns and so on.

What he is most remembered for in the world of mixed martial arts, especially to fans of the major promotion companies that grow in popularity each year, is a comment he made in 1996. Mixed martial arts, he said, was akin to “human cockfighting,” an oft-repeated refrain that was part of his (and others’) effort to regulate the sport out of existence. McCain eventually recanted — the sport had “cleaned up,” he said — but the phrase remained.

One wonders what he would make of David Feldman’s venture.

David Feldman, part of the alternately notorious and legendary Feldman fighting clan in the Philadelphia area, is the founder and president of the Bare Knuckle Fighting Championship. Bare-knuckle fighting has long been an underground hit, but until last March, when Wyoming got into the game, no state or federal body had legally sanctioned it.

Now, with Bare Knuckle 6 approaching on June 22, featuring brand-name fighters like Artem Lobov and Paulie Malignaggi, Feldman is ready for everything to take another step forward. And then another.

“It’s the climb for me,” Feldman said. “It’s not really getting there; it’s the climb.”

Feldman is the son of Marty Feldman, a widely respected boxing trainer and member of the Philadelphia Jewish Sports Hall of Fame. The elder Feldman was a middleweight boxer who went on to train popular Philadelphia fighters, including “Prince” Charles Williams, who held the IBF light-heavyweight belt from 1987 to 1993.

His brother, Damon Feldman, is as colorful a character as they come in boxing, known best for his celebrity stunt fights: Rodney King vs. a police officer, and fights featuring everyone from Danny Bonaduce to Jose Canseco and Tonya Harding (Damon also pleaded guilty to assaulting his girlfriend last year, just one of several legal entanglements).

Growing up with his father and brother, Feldman said, plus the coterie of boxers who were in and out of the house, he “had no choice” but to get involved with fighting in some way.

He graduated from Marple-Newtown High School, and attended Delaware County Community College and Temple University both in the midst of his professional fighting career.

Feldman had been in the gym since he was young, watching his father train world-class fighters, but he didn’t have his first professional fight until he was 23. One of his father’s fighters had dropped out at the last minute, and he volunteered to step in; wish granted, he knocked out his opponent in 90 seconds, he said.

It was an auspicious beginning to a career that ended after just five fights (4-1). His son, David Jr., had just been born after the fifth, and the dynamic between him and his father had deteriorated. He always believed that his brother was the favorite, and after “some things” happened in the gym, he was finished.

“I was just done,” Feldman said. “I said, ‘Look, I don’t want this anymore.’” His last fight was in 2003.

So what does a fighter, one who saw the seediest side of the business his whole life and found himself disgusted by it, do when he’s done fighting?

Get into promoting fights, of course.

That’s been the bulk of his life since then. He didn’t expect to like promoting, and he still doesn’t like promoting qua promoting. So what does he like about it? “The challenge.”

“Now, of course, the end game is I want to make a lot of money, right, but who doesn’t?” he said.

But he’s always loved fighting, from the inherent narratives to the way it can change people’s lives to the “science of boxing,” as he put it. And any chance to bring more of that into the world is one he wants to take.

Which brings us to bare-knuckle fighting.

Feldman first learned about bare-knuckle fighting when he was promoting fights in Arizona, and met a fighter named Bobby Gunn. Gunn is a Canadian from an Irish Traveller family, an itinerant people within Ireland who have a long history of bare-knuckle fighting. When Gunn described the fighting style to Feldman, he was fascinated.

“I started researching it, and I was like, ‘Wow, this stuff is really cool, man,’” he said. “You can’t get any more pure than two guys hitting each other with bare knuckles. You just can’t do that.”

That was in 2011.

It took seven years for Feldman to convince one state, Wyoming, to legally sanction and apply regulations to a bare-knuckle fight and, on June 2, 2018, Bare Knuckle Fighting Championship 1: The Beginning featured 12 fights.

The event on June 22, which is available on pay-per-view, will feature 10 fights, though with bigger names than in the past. Feldman is excited by the possibilities — Lobov has an MMA background, while Malignaggi is a boxer — but he’s just as excited to further cement bare knuckle’s place in American combat sport.

He knows the brutality of the sport isn’t for everyone, but that’s just fine with him.

“Every time I get a nasty email, or a Facebook message, people saying, ‘This isn’t going to last, it’s a gimmick,’ this and that, it just drives me more and more to make it something more legitimate,” he said. “I couldn’t be happier.”

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