Finding books on sports that I have never heard about is always a treat, and this one on underground bare knuckle fighting is one of those. I had never heard of the sport or of one of the greats in the genre, Bobby Gunn. His story is told in an excellent book – here is my review of “Bare Knuckle.”
Title/Author: “Bare Knuckle: Bobby Gunn, 71-0, Undefeated, a Dad, a Dream. A Fight Like You’ve Never Seen” by Stayton Bonner
Rating: 5 of 5 stars (outstanding)
Review: Brutal as they may be, fighting sports have long been popular not only for spectators but also participants of all races, sizes and socioeconomic statuses. While boxing and mixed martial arts are the more well-known organized fighting sports, bare knuckle fighting has a life of its own. It is popular and lucrative – and underground as it is illegal in most places and is often tied with organized crime. One of the most successful bare knuckle fighters is Bobby Gunn, who never lost a match – at least by the unofficial records kept – and is a completely different person when not fighting. His story is told in this excellent book by Stayton Bonner.
Gunn came from a family of fighters, most notably his father, a successful professional wrestler, who trained him originally to be a boxer. While Bobby had some success in boxing, even winning a cruiserweight championship, his greatest success and fame came in the bare knuckle circuit. Bonner does a terrific job of not only giving the reader the story of Gunn, but also a up-close look at the underground world of bare knuckle fighting. These include the quick-cash bouts that can make a good fighter like Gunn become flush with money quickly, the training ground and fight sights that double as organized crime hangouts, and the sheer brutalness of the sport. The sections that describe some of the fights, especially those stories shared by Gunn, are not for the squeamish as there are many serious injuries suffered by fighters of all skills. It should also be noted that many of these fights are very short. A five-minute brawl between combatants would be considered a very long bout in this world.
As for Gunn himself, his story is as complex as his chosen athletic endeavor. He would hustle for construction jobs, mainly laying down asphalt for driveways and parking lots, in many locations. This is consistent with his upbringing as an Irish Traveler. The Traveler lifestyle, complete with the marginalization and fierce loyalty to their groups separated by ethnicity or religion, is a hard, nomadic one and Bonner brings this lifestyle to the reader just as well as he describes the bare knuckle fighting world. While Gunn eventually settles down (mostly) in New Jersey with his wife and two children for work, he maintains his presence in the fighting world for both underground bare knuckle and in boxing. For the latter, he not only tried an unsuccessful comeback in middle age but he also trained his son as well.
Gunn’s story about his family and personal life is touching. This is especially true when he talks about his daughter and what he will do for her, which was the main reason he kept fighting. Given the world where he earns that kind of money so he can take her to Disney World or to provide her with a good education, it also seems like a contradiction. But then, nothing ever came easy to any Gunn family member and this book is one that describes his life and his professional in a complete and wonderful manner. Even if a reader is not a fan of fighting or combat sports, it is one that most will enjoy for the family bonding. Even if that family is connected with a brutal, mostly illegal sport.
I wish to thank Blackstone Publishing for providing a copy of the book via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.