Bare Knuckle: Bobby Gunn, 73-0 Undefeated. A Dad. A Dream. A Fight Like You’ve Never Seen.

  • By Stayton Bonner
  • Blackstone Publishing
  • 370 pp.

Meet the unlikely hero of an unseemly sport.

Bare Knuckle: Bobby Gunn, 73-0 Undefeated. A Dad. A Dream. A Fight Like You’ve Never Seen.

Just one look at the photo of Bobby Gunn on the cover of Stayton Bonner’s Bare Knuckle is enough to convince me that I wouldn’t want to meet him in a dark alley. That, and the fact that — as the book’s subtitle reveals — he went 73-0 in his brutal, ungloved battles with other men.

Bare-knuckle fights, like cage fights, aren’t known for following Marquess of Queensbury rules. “Grab the tip of the ear and it rips right off,” Gunn, now 50, says in one particularly colorful passage. “Take your thumb and stick it in someone’s eye — done it many times.”

In one fight, Bonner recounts, Gunn was being suffocated while in a headlock. To get out of the jam, he reached down and grabbed his opponent’s testicles. The other man was naturally distracted, which allowed Gunn to bite his ear and quickly punch his lights out. (For someone who’d just had his crown jewels mashed, the KO was probably a blessing.) In another fight, Gunn knocked an opponent’s eyeball out, which, Gunn recalled, swelled “like an egg.” He later bumped into the man at a gas station. The guy had an eyepatch but no hard feelings.

These fights were usually illegal, staged in rundown venues often so far off the grid that even GPS couldn’t find them. Mobsters were the rule. There’s an anecdote in the book in which Irish mobsters pulled guns to steal a prize purse. Only a quick-thinking fight promoter who mimicked (with his finger in his coat) having a gat saved the day.

Reading Bonner’s descriptions of bare-knuckle fights and the characters involved in them paints a vivid historical picture of the dark underbelly of the United States over the years. Some of the best prose — and the author, a lauded sportswriter and former editor at Rolling Stone, writes terrifically — describes the life stories of managers and promoters, and how they got into the bare-knuckle game. These same managers and promoters are now trying to legitimize the “sport,” which would presumably make the IRS happy. A ton of illegal cash changes hands in these fights.

Bonner also tries to make Gunn himself appealing. He portrays the Canadian as a man with an unbelievably tough background, who, at 13, was forced by his father to brawl with grown men in parking lots for chump change (which the old man kept). He shows Gunn to be someone who even gave broke opponents — whose brains he’d just beaten out — an extra share of the purse. And he emphasizes that Gunn, an allegedly devout Christian, loves his daughter and worked multiple manual-labor jobs to support her.

It’s hard not to root for Gunn, even in his regular gloved fights with professional boxers, who occasionally cleaned his clock. But in an era when we put a lot of lipstick on a lot of pigs, Gunn still stands out. Bonner notes in an epilogue that Gunn was arrested four years ago after he was in a car accident that killed a 51-year-old woman. The cops claim Gunn was on drugs, crossed a median, and crashed head-on into her car. Gunn and his attorneys — he’s gone through several — have delayed the vehicular-homicide trial, citing Gunn’s ill health and police irregularities. (In one instance, Gunn failed to show up for a hearing, and a bench warrant was issued.)

It’s a compelling, sad, hopeful, and sobering story all at once, and one with photographs, chapter notes, a bibliography, and an index worthy of a WWII biography. Bare Knuckle is an excellent, serious book. In it, Stayton Bonner has given us a history we may not like but should know.

Lawrence De Maria has written more than 30 thrillers and mysteries, including, most recently, Sandy Ground.

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