Hurt hands are nothing new to Devin Gibson. It comes with the territory for a bare-knuckle fighter.
"Fourth and fifth round, it's just really tough to want to punch the head," said the 28-year-old from Sarnia, Ont., known as The Canadian Assassin.
Gibson (2-0-0) takes on American Albert Inclan (0-1-0) on Friday at BKFC 35 in Myrtle Beach, S.C. While the five-foot-six Gibson normally competes at the flyweight non-title weight of 126 pounds -- cutting down from around 145 pounds -- the fight will be contested at a catchweight of 130 pounds after Inclan failed to make weight.
Gibson and welterweight Jake Young of London, Ont., are currently the only Canadians among the some 220 fighters under contract to the Bare Knuckle Fighting Championship, which boasts 11 weight classes (nine for men and two for women).
Gibson says there is only a handful of other bare-knuckle fighters in Canada, citing Young, Jonny (El Toro) Tello, Jade (Evil Smile) Masson-Wong and Donny Wonch — with fighting abroad the only current option.
BKFC has attracted fighters from other combat sports including UFC veterans Mike (Platinum) Perry, Ben Rothwell, John (The Magician) Dodson, Greg (Prince of War) Hardy and Alan (The Talent) Belcher, as well as Muay Thai stars Sombat (Buakaw) Banchamek and Suphachai (Saenchai) Saepong.
Luis (Baboon) Palomino currently tops the BKFC pound-for-pound rankings. The 42-year-old Peruvian-American, who has a 26-17-0 record as a mixed martial arts fighter, holds the BKFC lightweight and welterweight titles with an 8-0-0 bare-knuckle record.
Fights are contested in a ring with five two-minute rounds, shorter than boxing and MMA whose rounds last three and five minutes, respectively.
But even with shorter rounds, the sport takes its toll.
"That's why I go down to the body so much," Gibson said.
It worked last time out against American Kody (The Black Rose) Murray at BKFC New York 2 in March 2022 in Salamanca, N.Y.
The Canadian showed superior speed and power, flooring Murray in the third round before stopping him in the fourth with a flurry of body punches, prompting the referee to step in at 1:22 of the round.
Gibson, who has escaped breaking his hands in BKFC action to date, has focused on "knuckle conditioning," forgoing gloves when he does punching bag or pad work.
"We're hoping that translates into allowing me to freely box how I want to box the entire fight."
Cuts are also par for the course in bare-knuckle fighting.
Of the 13 fights on the BKFC's last U.S. card — BKFC 34 held Dec. 3 in Hollywood, Fla. — only two went the distance with seven knockouts. Two other bouts were stopped due to eye issues with a knee injury and cut halting two others.
A study presented at the 2020 Association of Ringside Physicians annual conference suggested while bare-knuckle fighters suffered more facial cuts, their concussion rate was lower than that in gloved boxing and MMA. Surprisingly the data also revealed that the hand fracture rate was lower in bare-knuckle bouts than in boxing or MMA.
The study was conducted by association president Don Muzzi, a former chief of neuroanesthesia at the Mayo Clinic.
But American heavyweight Justin Thornton died after a 19-second knockout at BKFC 20 on Aug. 20, 2021, in Biloxi, Miss. Thornton fell heavily to the canvas, face first, and was taken out of the ring on a stretcher.
A month later, his partner said in a social media post that the 38-year-old fighter was paralyzed, on a ventilator and fighting infection from a spinal cord injury. Thornton died some six weeks after the knockout.
His death prompted the Association of Boxing Commission’s medical committee to issue a statement expressing concern that bare-knuckle competitors, usually older and at the tail end of their career after competing in other combat sports, may be at "higher risks for acute and chronic injuries."
BKFC says only "established professionals" in boxing, MMA, kickboxing or Muay Thai are allowed to compete, with referees and judges also required to have "extensive professional combat sports experience."
All fights are held under "the auspices and control of an athletic commission."
Fighters are permitted to wrap and tape the wrist, thumb, and mid-hand, but no gauze or tape can be within one inch (2.5 centimetres) of the knuckles.
Punches are the only strike allowed. In a clinch, a fighter can "punch his way out with the open hand" but the referee steps in if there is a three-second lull in action while clinching.
"BKFC is truly the sport of the future, which fully respects its remarkable past," says the promotion.
Gibson says he has worked on head movement and changing the angle and power of his punches in bare-knuckle bouts.
But aside from the toll on his hands, he says: "Getting hit by bare knuckle, it doesn't feel as bad as I think most people would think."
Still Gibson, who had some 45 amateur boxing bouts, says fighting smart is the way to go in bare knuckle.
"I'm a family guy. I've got a four-year-old son (Sage) so I've got to make sure I come home every night without brain damage. Footwork and head movement is the best way to do that."
Gibson would like to fight more often but says, with the sport not part of the Canadian landscape, he is not seen as a box-office draw yet.
BKFC was founded in 2018 by former boxer David Feldman, who sold a majority stake last February to Triller, an American video-sharing social networking service.
BKFC 1 was held June 2, 2018, in Wyoming's Cheyenne Ice and Events Center.
At the time, the chairman of the Wyoming Combat Sports Commission noted that bare-knuckle fighters only use only their fists, while MMA fighters and kickboxers can strike an opponent in the head with their elbows, knees, shins and feet.
"That’s something where we can just look at and say, ‘This (bare-knuckle boxing) is going to be a safer sport than the two that we already regulate,'’' Bryan Pedersen told USA Today.
BKFC marked its 50th card last year with England, Mexico and Thailand joining the U.S. is hosting events. Cards are shown on the BKFC app, with a subscription costing US$7.99 a month or US$49 a year for new subscribers (the price rose this week, with existing subscribers still paying US$4.99 monthly). Preliminary fights are also usually streamed on the promotion's YouTube channel.
Cards sanctioned by local commissions have been held in Alabama, Colorado, Florida, Kansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, New York and Wyoming.
The first three months of the year will see shows in South Carolina, New Mexico, Louisiana and Virginia.
Gibson started boxing at 11 and became an Ontario amateur champion, competing nationally with some 50 fights under his belt.
He got into bare-knuckle fighting by accident, after returning to combat sports following several years away. It was a journey coming back, given his weight had increased to 170-plus pounds.
Gibson was set to make his pro boxing debut in Alabama in early 2021 only to find the fight was off after making weight. A bare-knuckle card was slated for a week later and, after meeting some people involved in the sport, Gibson took part in a BKFC tryout in New York state where he met his future manager, Kevin Smith.
"If that fight wouldn't have fallen through, I probably would have been gloved-boxing right now," said Gibson. "It kind of just fell into place."
When not training or fighting, Gibson works as a security guard. While his employer allowed him to take time off before his last two fights, he decided to work through this camp. So he has been pulling shifts overnight then "kind of just waking up and time-managing everything as well as I can."
He trains mostly at Bluewater Boxing Club in Sarnia but also uses Bushido Boxing Gym and Get Enhanced in London and Redemption Muay Thai in Bowmanville.
Gibson, who has also had a handful of amateur MMA fights, is a walking canvas with a slew of tattoos.
His first tattoo, which covers his back, came after a disputed loss at the Canadian amateur boxing championships.
"I didn't realize how big it was until I showed up and saw the stencil," he said.
The tattoo showcases his name, the Maple Leaf, a pair of boxing gloves and the words: "If failure didn't hurt so bad, success wouldn't feel so good."
He also has portraits of his son, sister, mother and grandmother inked on him. His mother died in August 2021, four months before his grandmother.
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This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 26, 2023.
Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press