INTERVIEW: Jim Freeman on the unstoppable growth of bare-knuckle boxing
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Alongside Joe Brown, Jim Freeman is the face of BKB, the only licensed company promoting bare-knuckle boxing. The sport has gone from being an illicit back-alley pursuit associated with criminals, to filling massive stadiums and attracting top quality fighters.
Jim spoke to The National Student about how BKB has changed the sport for the better and why it will keep growing…
Above: Jim referees a BKB bout. Credit: Tee Reskah Photography.
“We’ve broke the mould and the conception of bare-knuckle being an underground, seedy gangster thing… and made it into a proper sport really. We’re recognised now, we’ve got a documentary coming out on Netflix, we’ve got broadcasters like HBO contacting us and wanting to be involved.”
Jim tells me about the changes going on in BKB and it seems he can sense that there is a big growth period ahead for the sport. Last year BKB was putting on shows in wedding venues for crowds of 400, now they’ve sold out massive arenas and, as Jim tells me, “we’ve got Wembley booked for next year… the growth is huge”.
In Jim’s eyes BKB is encountering so much success because it’s an antidote to the issues in some other combat sports.
On many boxing cards a lot of the fights simply aren’t competitive. Big promoters like Eddie Hearn and Frank Warren frequently pit their best prospects against hapless journeymen who step into the ring to get paid, not to win. The growing value of an undefeated record leaves promoters artificially manufacturing bit unbeaten runs and leaves a bad taste in the mouths of fight fans.
Jim tells me that, conversely, on a BKB show “of 12 fights, in at least 8 minimum, you can’t pick a winner!” Jim was keen to outline how competitive BKB make their shows and he tells “you can’t really be a journeyman in BKB because one punch changes everything”. The elimination of predictable ‘journeyman vs prospect’ bouts has gone down a storm with bare-knuckle boxing’s growing fan-base.
The next BKB fight night takes place on Saturday the 9th of September, at Liverpool’s Echo Arena. The world’s pound for pound best fighter, Jimmy Sweeney, will be re-matching ex-UFC and Bellator fighter Melvin Guillard for the World Middleweight Title.
Sweeney has “beat everyone in and around his weight” Jim assures me, he also notable defeated former WBO Middleweight World Champion, Andy Lee, in the gloved amateur ranks. His re-match with Guillard is definitely one to watch though as their previous encounter was tough, exciting and close-fought.
Above: Jimmy Sweeney and Melvin Guillard embrace after a bare-knuckle war.
Jim gives me his summary of their first face-off: “It was a good fight. Melvin dropped Jimmy and then Jimmy out-boxed him and the scorecards had it right but it was still very close... the public loved it”.
The quality of each BKB card is growing just as fast as the support from fans. Jim tells me the quality of the fighters getting involved is sky-rocketing, with many ex UFC fighters on the books and a few former professional gloved boxers.
“The only way is up for us. We’re attracting people… It’s getting to the stage now, whereas before it was guys who wanted to try out the limelight you know, ‘I’m the hardest man in my town so I’m gonna come and have a go’. Now I get professional athletes message me on pretty much a daily basis.”
However he concedes that growth does bring about “growing pains” for the sport as ‘old-school’ bare-knuckle fighters are gradually forced to the peripheries by disciplined professional athletes. You can no longer survive in BKB by being a ‘hard man’ alone, you have to train hard and be a real athlete too in the modern bare-knuckle game.
Developing discipline and professionalism goes beyond the ring and the gym too, as Jim tells me…
“We’ve had people before posting on social media ‘I’ve got a new tattoo’ or ‘I’m going out drinking every weekend’. People don’t want to see that. They want to see you making sacrifices. They want to see you training. They want to see you doing the stuff that they aspire to do but can’t do or don’t have the inkling to do. It’s not just the BKB brand, it’s the individual brands that have to grow.”
It’s clear that BKB is evolving thanks to Jim, Joe, BKB and a host of talented fighters. Combat sports are in growth across the board, but with bare-knuckle boxing set to storm Wembley next year, who knows how big it could get?
Jim’s certain that it can go even further, in parting he tells me, “I see it being the next big combat sport. 20 years ago MMA was probably where we are today… I see bare-knuckle as the next big evolution of combat sport.”