Bare-knuckle champ Bobby Gunn: ‘You gotta kill me to beat me’

“She’s beautiful, oh, she’s beautiful! Mabel’s beautiful. She’s a baby, oh, she’s a puppy!”

The way bare-knuckle boxing legend Bobby Gunn dotes on my 7-month-old French Bulldog/Boston Terrier mix makes me regret we’re not in the same room; I have a feeling they’d get along great. But even through the screen of my laptop, his genuine affection is clear.

I showed Gunn Mabel after finding out he has a French Bulldog of his own, a 12-year-old named Max who accompanies him everywhere. Gunn is just as enthusiastic when offering up this tidbit about Mabel’s terrier side: “Man, them dogs were bred for hunting rats, you know.”

It’s as if he can’t resist recognizing a fellow fighter beneath the cuteness. According to writer Stayton Bonner, whose book “Bare Knuckle: Bobby Gunn, 73-0 Undefeated. A Dad. A Dream. A Fight Like You’ve Never Seen” came out Tuesday, Gunn’s gentle side is never far from the surface, even in the most forbidding environments.

“When I first met Bobby, I went to see him train at Ike and Randy’s gym in Patterson, New Jersey,” recalls Bonner. “This was not an Equinox. You had to go through like a chain-link fence, past a couple of pit bulls. It was an old auto body shop. But he would bring this little dog with him, set him up with his little bowl, his food.

“And I would talk to the other fighters there, who told me Bobby would tell [a fighter], ‘When the ref’s not looking, here’s how to really take a man down.’ Give him all these little tips. But then he would set him down afterwards and ask him if he’d accepted Jesus into his heart.”

This is apparent during the 40 minutes I talk with Gunn, who speaks quickly and has a thick Irish accent (he’s an Irish Traveller who grew up in Canada). He addresses me as “sir” and makes frequent reference to God. More than once he chokes up as he marvels at how far he’s come.

Raised in crushing poverty by his volatile father, who taught him to fight. The same father who had him squaring off against grown men in motel parking lots for money by the time he was eleven. Today’s he settled down, retired from fighting, with a loving wife and a beautiful daughter, and dedicated to giving them the kind of life he never had.

And now, with the help of former Rolling Stone editor Bonner, he’s telling his life story, just as the underground sport he dominated makes its way to mainstream legitimacy — and potentially huge revenues.

Blackstone

Gunn fought in the first legally sanctioned bare-knuckle match in 2018. Since then, the sport has grown into a $411 billion business.

As we speak, Philadelphia-based Bare Knuckle Fighting Championship, which bills itself as “the first promotion allowed to hold a legal, sanctioned, and regulated bare knuckle event in the United States since 1889,” is gearing up for its latest pay-per-view brawl, Knucklemania IV, which happens this Saturday in Los Angeles. Gunn will serve as one of the commentators.

While Gunn’s bare-knuckle career has seen him fighting in front of Russian mafiosi as well as biker gangs, he maintains it was more pleasant than his stint in mainstream pro boxing.

“The underground world, sir, was better than the boxing world. The boxing world was way more corrupted. Corruption, oh, believe me, I had to fight referees and judges. It was enemies against you. The underground world was way more fair. A fair shake. That’s the truth.”

And although the spectacle of men pummeling each other with their bare fists does have an undeniable shock value appeal, Gunn points out that it’s actually safer than boxing. For one thing, matches seldom go the distance; early knockouts are common.

Also, when you wear a boxing glove, “you’ve got a weapon on your hand,” says Gunn. “You punch hard as you can because your hand’s protected. … I don’t hit as hard in bare knuckle, sir. I only hit 30%, 40% shots, way more lighter shots. I’ll go with the body harder, because I don’t want to break my hand.”

Not that he hasn’t sustained some damage along the way. Gunn takes his hand and pushes his nose against his face; he turns so he’s showing his profile. It’s completely flat. “Do you think I care about a little cut in my nose?” he laughs.

Gunn seems to be approaching this phase of his life with the same calm determination that brought him his 73-0 record. “I fear no man, but I respect every man,” Gunn tells me. “When I go to fight, there’s a light switch that goes right off. When that happens, you gotta kill me to beat me. That’s all I am.”

Click here for an excerpt of “Bare Knuckle” courtesy of Blackstone Publishing.

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