Sam Shewmaker looks stunned. It’s not the flurry of blows the boxer took in the second round of his match; it’s the fact that the fight is already over. He walks toward his corner, jawing at his trainer, arms outstretched in confusion.
“The Hillbilly Hammer” is 6 feet 3 inches tall, with a wide stance, heavy feet and a thundering right jab. He hails from tiny Gravois Mills, Missouri, on the shores of the Lake of the Ozarks and wears a bushy red beard and lots of ink. His trunks have stars and stripes. His ring entrance song is “A Country Boy Can Survive” by Hank Williams Jr. Shewmaker’s Twitter bio proclaims that he “love me some Jesus.”
Shewmaker’s opponent on this August Sunday is the fleet-footed Kenzie Morrison, son of former champ Tommy Morrison, who casual fans might remember from his role in Rocky V. Morrison wears black trunks and keeps his head low, hands high and feet moving.
Morrison knocks Shewmaker down once in the first round. As the second round begins, a dazed yet determined Shewmaker goes on the attack, attempting to use his raw power to knock out his smaller opponent. Midway through the round, Morrison waltzes Shewmaker around to the ropes, dodges a few jabs and lands a huge haymaker to the side of Shewmaker’s skull, causing the Hammer to drop onto all fours. Shewmaker gets up, but Morrison smells blood. Twenty seconds later, Shewmaker misses with a big uppercut and a desperation hook then gets whapped twice in the face before being felled by a compact left hook.
Shewmaker beats the 10 count, but his brother calls off the fight. Kansas boxing commissioner Adam Roorbach hops up onto the ropes and waves his arms to get the referee’s attention. Shewmaker angrily rumbles over to his corner. The crowd at Memorial Hall in Kansas City, Kansas, isn’t satisfied, chanting “Hammer” and raining boos down on Morrison.
The Hammer’s undefeated run as a pro boxer is done. But he remains an elite contender in another arena — a sport that was illegal for a century until just a few years ago. Shewmaker’s best prospects as a fighter are in the brutal sport of bare-knuckle boxing, where two fighters with lightly wrapped hands beat each other bloody in a literal squared circle. Shewmaker is currently ranked No. 4 in the nation, and he’ll likely get another title bout in the near future.
There’s a good chance that fight will happen in Kansas City, Kansas. The state of Kansas’ boxing commission just voted to legalize and regulate bare-knuckle fights, effective October 25. Several promoters have their eye on the century-old Memorial Hall in KCK as the site of a future pay-per-view for the fast-growing sport of bare-knuckle boxing.
“It’s not safe, but no fighting is safe, and it’s not any less safe than what we already allow,” says Roorbach, the commissioner.
The history of American bare-knuckle boxing as an organized sport dates back to the late 1800s, when fights were organized by a bawdy men’s lifestyle magazine called National Police Gazette. At the time, all prizefighting, gloved or not, was technically illegal, but the magazine’s powerful publisher, Richard K. Fox, organized fights and handed out championship belts. For a dozen years, the magazine would only award belts for bare knuckle bouts, which Fox preferred. Eventually, pressure built for boxing to become a legitimate sport — but with gloves. The push for gloves was led by Fox’s top draw and fierce personal enemy, boxer John L. Sullivan, who liked to protect his hands and thought gloves prevented cheating.
Fox penned florid editorials about the virtues of bare-knuckle fighting but eventually conceded defeat and watched his preferred version of the sport disappear. The last champions of the bare-knuckle sport — legends like Sullivan and “Nonpareil” Jack Dempsey — became the first gloved champs.
The last publicized bare-knuckle bout was July 8, 1889, when Sullivan defeated Jake Kilrain in a 75-round fight in Richburg, Mississippi. The fight took place in 100 degree heat and only ended when Kilrain’s corner man reluctantly tossed a sponge into the ring. After that, bare-knuckle fighting moved underground.
And so it remained until 2011, when the first modern bare-knuckle fight was staged by promoter David Feldman, who held the fight at an Indian casino outside Scottsdale, Arizona.
Because the fight took place on the Yavapai Nation’s 40-square-mile reservation, it didn’t require sanctioning by any other federal or state authorities. In the fight, Irish gypsy Bobby Gunn knocked out inexperienced fighter Chris Thompson in the third round to claim Sullivan’s heavyweight belt.
“Fans want it a little more extreme,” Feldman told ESPN at the time. “They want a little bit more brutality.”
With the rise of MMA and the decline of gloved boxing, Feldman says he “saw the way combat sports were going.” He has a good argument, too: MMA is the country’s dominant fighting sport and often includes brutal collisions between bare knees and exposed skulls.
Feldman’s own father — a respected boxing trainer — refused to watch the match, which was widely covered as a curiosity at the time. Feldman wasn’t deterred.
“The sound you hear when the fist hits the face, you don’t get that sound anywhere else,” Feldman says.
It took Feldman — who quit his own pro boxing career after five bouts and quickly moved into the promotion game — eight years of lobbying to find a state willing to give bare-knuckle fights a chance. He appealed to the sanctioning bodies in 28 states without success. In May 2018, Wyoming’s State Board of Mixed Martial Arts voted unanimously to approve the sport, finding that because the state had seen at least 30 unregulated bare-knuckle fights, it was prudent to get some oversight.
“We’ve got Wyoming fighters in sports where there’s not necessarily blood work or ringside physicians,” says Bryan Pedersen, chairman of the board. “It’s really about protecting athletes who are participating, who are citizens of our state. It’s a safety issue.”
In June 2018, bare-knuckle fans and fighters converged on Cheyenne’s ice arena. On the card was Shewmaker, making his bare-knuckle debut in an atmosphere he describes as “electric.” Shewmaker was antsy. He didn’t know what to expect competing in front of a crowd of 2,000. But he defeated MMA veteran Eric Prindle, who had more than 200 amateur fights under his belt. The chiseled Prindle had 25 pounds on Shewmaker, but it didn’t matter. Just 18 seconds in, Shewmaker knocked Prindle out with his very first punch, an overhand right.
“We just wanted to go in there, put on a show and make a statement,” Shewmaker says, “and the way we were able to do it and get that finish, it really elevated our career and skyrocket[ed] us ahead of what we anticipated at this point in time.”
The fight was short, but Feldman wasn’t disappointed. “He has a lot of explosiveness,” Feldman says of Shewmaker. “He’ll fight anybody at any time. That’s what we’re looking for in this sport.”
Shewmaker has now been in five of Feldman’s pay-per-view bare-knuckle matches, fighting with gloves in between. Fighting without gloves has made him better with gloves, Shewmaker says.
“That anticipation, that anxiety and that fear can drain you,” he says. “The more we were on the stage, the more comfortable that we feel, the better that I think we’re going to do in the future.”
In addition to Wyoming, Mississippi and Florida have voted to allow the sport. New Hampshire and Massachusetts are expected to follow suit. Tim Lueckenhoff of the Missouri Office of Athletics told 435 that the office is opposed to bare-knuckle boxing but did not offer further comment.
Kansas commissioner Roorbach, who witnessed the Wyoming fight in person and supports his state’s efforts to legalize, says that the data shows blows from a bare fist are actually less dangerous than repeated gloved strikes. Also, he says, the fights are shorter, meaning the fighters take fewer hits to the head. When he’s talked to fighters after bare-knuckle bouts, he’s found them far more coherent than boxers following a 12-round gloved fight.
“We were able to get the data, and the bare-knuckle punches have a lot less [pressure per square inch] than many other things we allow,” he says. “When you put a glove on a hand, it’s not to protect the person you’re punching; it’s to protect your hand.”
Still, he says, it’s plenty dangerous.
“No fighting is safe,” he says. “It’s fighting.”
Shewmaker’s hometown of Gravois Mills has a population of just 144. Shewmaker grew up chopping wood for heat and fishing for food. Boxing is an extension of that — his plan is to pay off the mortgage on the two-story home and 13 acres of land that he and his wife share with their three sons. Given that purses can go to the low five figures in his tier of pro fighting, every bout can make a big dent in that mortgage.
“I had to work for what I wanted,” Shewmaker says. “I had to work for my first car. I had to pay my own insurance, and sometimes it’s a good thing in life to have those things. It gave me the work ethic I have today.”
Shewmaker now works as a production manager for Martin Metal out of Versailles, but he grew up working in his grandfather’s stone masonry business, which his father, uncle and brother took over. “That was definitely hard work growing up, especially around here at the lake and the hills, digging all the footings and stuff by hand and hauling rock by hand,” he says.
As a kid, Shewmaker played every sport he could. Boxing was “just one of those things that I fell right into.” At age 17, he started training with his uncle, Damon Shewmaker, now 75. Sam Shewmaker fought as an amateur until he was 20, winning three Golden Gloves titles. He stepped away from the sport until 2017, when he turned pro for a chance to “compete and make some money.”
Damon Shewmaker opened a small gym on family property two miles down a gravel road in 2000. The gym consists of a boxing ring surrounded by a hodge-podge of punching bags and weightlifting equipment. Posters from the Hammer’s fights adorn the back wall. A mock street sign for “Boxer Lane” rests atop the showcase of Sam Shewmaker’s fights while another wall has a sheet of paper that reads “To perform like a champion, you must practice like one!” duct-taped to it.
Damon Shewmaker never competed at the pro level, but he fueled his passion for the sport by training others, including Sam Shewmaker and his cousin,
Damon Shewmaker supports his nephew but doesn’t approve of bare-knuckle boxing, saying the sport is
“You’re going to have a short career,” he says. “Your hands are not going to hold up. And I’m not running it down, don’t get me wrong. But you get hit in them bare knuckles, it’s going to cut you. It’s going to hurt you. And there’s going to be more bad hand injuries.”
Sam Shewmaker says he has a plan — one even Mike Tyson couldn’t find a hole in.
“Not get hit, that’s kind of the point of my game,” he says, “Knockouts are always nice, but my brain, first and foremost, is what is important to me. So I try to get out of there without hardly any damage.”
So far, so good.
“I’ve been in five bare-knuckle fights,” he says, “and I think I’ve had almost the least amount of damage out of most people I’ve seen go in.”
Sam Shewmaker got into bare-knuckle fighting after seeing an advertisement for Feldman’s promotion company. He applied to fight, was accepted and flew out to Philadelphia. He and the other prospective fighters were asked to hit a punch meter. He hit it harder than anyone and was promptly scheduled to fight Prindle.
“He has a knockout punch and a knockout personality,” Feldman says.
Sam Shewmaker’s wife, Lauren, was initially “a little bit hesitant,” believing the fights were “a bit” more brutal. But she was impressed with her husband’s dedication to prize fighting: “I love that he makes that a goal of his and that he’s adamant about bettering our future and our lives and our boys’ lives.”
“We don’t want to do this forever,” Sam Shewmaker says. “I don’t want to have to take the long-term damage that can come and is a result sometimes of repeated damage to the brain. So we had a five-year plan: fight for five years, take a step back, see how we’re doing.”
Does the sport of bare-knuckle boxing have a future in an era where debate about traumatic brain injuries swirls around every sport — not just football but even concussions caused by headers in soccer? The sport’s supporters make the argument that bare-knuckle boxing is safer than traditional gloved fights. Pedersen, the chairman of the Wyoming board that first approved bare-knuckle fights, says that gloves make it so fighters “take
“All you’re doing is banging your head more times,” Pedersen said. “It’s been proven to have a negative impact on the brain in the long term. I think [bare-knuckle boxing] is safer than any other sport we regulate here in Wyoming.”
Other bare-knuckle believers include Scott Burt, a boxing historian who in 2009 founded the Bare-Knuckle Boxing Hall of Fame, which is housed in an old barn where John L. Sullivan trained outside of Buffalo, New York. Burt says it was time for bare-knuckle boxing to make
Slamming someone’s head into your knee in MMA is allowed, Burt points out, “but yet a straight punch with a hand into your cheekbone was not OK? That just didn’t make sense.”
Burt’s museum has a wide collection of artifacts from the bare-knuckle glory days, including medicine balls, weights and punching bags. He also has a collection of press coverage of bare-knuckle fighting in the 1800s, including newspaper articles and drawings of the fights. He blames that coverage for the sport’s bad reputation, saying the illustrators did “too good of a job.”
“Artists sketches were exaggerated in the gruesomeness part with eyes hanging out, heads dented in, ears torn in, all that kind of stuff,” Burt says.
Burt has worked with Feldman and boxer Bobby Gunn, “making commissions understand that bare-knuckle boxing was the safest.” In the seven events Feldman has organized, Burt says, there have been no brain injuries — only injuries to the hands and face.
Because the sport of bare-knuckle boxing is so small and was only recently legalized, there are no studies comparing its safety to that of other combat sports including gloved boxing.
Dr. Don Muzzi, a neuroanesthesiologist who is president of the Association of Ringside Physicians, has served as the fight physician for some 2,500 matches. He will be working his first bare-knuckle show in Tampa this October.
“What we as ringside physicians have to accept is that this is happening, it’s not going away, and what we have to do is the medical thing and collect data, study the events, the fights, and see how it shakes out,” he says.
Muzzi, who has a background in medical academia, says that “we really don’t know” if bare-knuckle fighting is more or less dangerous, and that “we need to collect the data.” However, he suspects that the “worst case scenario” is that there is no difference between gloved and ungloved fights, and sees merit to the argument that ungloved fighters won’t inflict or suffer so many brain injuries.
“It needs to be looked at,” he says. “You could make an argument that there will be softer blows to the head because you can’t quite punch as hard. Also, in bare-knuckle boxing there’s a smaller target. I’ve seen boxers break their hand by throwing a punch and hitting someone in the forehead. If you do that with a bare-knuckle you are definitely going to damage your hand.”
While cautious to say he doesn’t have data to support it, Muzzi suspects that the sport is growing because blood “gets people’s attention.”
“I could be doing a boxing match and the boxer is getting pummeled where he has taken multiple shots to the head and I’m starting to get very concerned it may be too much for the fighter and the crowd, they ‘ooh’ and ‘ahh,’ but not much,” he says. “As soon as there is a tiny laceration that occurs in an innocuous place on the fighter it gets everybody’s attention. Even the sports announcers are saying ‘Oh, he’s cut! The fighter’s cut!’ Frankly, that’s not a big deal. I can stitch that at the end of the fight…. Bleeding is not a problem, it’s repeated blows to the head that are
Either way, there’s no question that interest in bare-knuckle boxing is growing. Last year, Feldman struck a deal to get his promotion onto pay-per-view. In August, he offered a free live stream of Bare-Knuckle Fighting Championship 7 and says hundreds of thousands of people viewed the broadcast from Mississippi.
“I see it growing,” Burt says. “It survived its infancy of anything terrible happening, proving that terrible things don’t happen, proving that it’s exciting, nonstop action.”
For his part, Sam Shewmaker says he believes that, due to the structure of bare-knuckle fights and the rounds, the possibility for negative health repercussions is more prevalent in gloved fights.
“I definitely think there are dangers in both sports,” he says. “I feel like the prolonged effect of gloved boxing [involves] a higher rate of brain damage.”
Feldman’s promotion has two-minute rounds, and title bouts have five, seven or nine rounds. There are doctors at every event and “cut men and cut women” to help fighters between rounds.
“If they were to use [those guidelines] back in the 1800s, there wouldn’t be gloved boxing today,” Burt says, arguing that bare-knuckle fights would’ve been safe enough to avoid the advent of gloves.
For now, Sam Shewmaker is following both paths, fighting both gloved and not. Among those advising him are Larry Edgar, who owns Authentic Boxing Club in Kansas City, Missouri. Edgar’s first impression of the young boxer, who traveled to Kansas City to spar at the boxing club, was that he is a “hard puncher.”
“He always had a lot of power,” Edgar says. “He would lack, maybe, some of the skills at the time. He’d make up [for it] with his power.”
Since then, Edgar says, the Hammer has progressed, learning to straighten his punches, use his jab more and throw combinations.
“I was impressed with him,” Edgar says. “I still am.”
Shewmaker is hoping to get another title shot soon. In October 2018, he fought for the bare-knuckle heavyweight title in Biloxi, Mississippi. He lost the bout via split decision to Arnold Adams.
“To get that loss, even with a split decision, it was so heartbreaking,” Shewmaker says. “My family was there to help me through that tough period because, mentally, it hurts you to lose something like that, and it was my first professional loss.”
For now, Shewmaker gets up at 4:30 in the morning to run before working all day and then training more. He’ll keep fighting as long as he keeps winning — and getting paid. He’d rather get in the ring, he says, than look back and wish he’d taken his shot.
“It’d be awesome to be able to make a little money along the way — and just look back on my life and know that I actually was able to do something that I wanted to do,” he says. “My father, in his life, he always had this shoulda, woulda, coulda, and I’ve had a few in my life … Luckily I’m 35 years old and still able to live out a dream and be a professional athlete and compete at this level.”