A Night With the Undisputed Champ of Bare-Knuckle Boxing

Photograph: Bancroft/Getty; Collage: Gabe Conte

Bobby Gunn is pacing the concrete floor of an auto-body shop somewhere in the industrial badlands of a large northeastern city. “I’m worried,” he says, wringing his mallet-size hands. “I’ve heard this guy today is a head-butter.”

More pacing, more hand-wringing, as Gunn sinks deeper into a momentary funk amid the garage’s taxidermy heads and faded American flags. Today’s opponent, a former marine, has a reputation for dropping his head during matches—an old trick among gloveless fighters who can easily fracture a hand by striking the skull. Gunn has pulled the maneuver himself many times. He’s broken his right hand just as often. Another fracture could end his career.

“Everybody wants to take me down, brother, and make a name for himself,” he says, punching a wall of rubber tires. “I’ve gotta watch my back.”

Whap, whap, whap.

Gunn pounds the tread, keeping his hands slightly open until just before impact, loosening up the knuckles. He has black hair, blue eyes, and 235 pounds of muscle, his 5-foot-11 frame supported by the bowlegged gait of a cowboy. Every morning, he wakes up at six, shaves with a straight razor and rubbing alcohol, puts on his standard uniform—denim jacket, jeans, gray Henley, black Pumas, cell-phone holster—and bangs out two hundred push-ups. He has no tattoos and does not drink. His favorite book is the Bible. “I’m a hugger,” he’ll say, nearly crushing your torso in a full embrace. Gunn used to step into matches without so much as cracking a knuckle, but now he needs a warm-up. An extensive one. He is 42, an age when most fighters have long since retired. He has broken his right hand six times and dislocated his fingers so often, he now resets them with his teeth during matches. He has no cartilage left at all in his nose and can press it flat against his face like a rubber prosthetic. He’s also broken two bones in his back, fractured his elbow, and severely broken his right foot after falling from a two-story roof on a construction site in 2000.

After that last accident, one that left eighteen screws and bolts in his foot permanently, doctors told him he would never walk again. Within a year, he was back in the ring, fighting with a new stance.

Gunn usually knows what to expect from an opponent in the underground, but soldiers are wild cards. With pro boxers and MMA fighters, he can anticipate a real fight. With neighborhood toughs like bouncers and bodyguards—usually washed-up linebackers adept at tossing frat boys to the curb—he can finish it quickly. But military guys are different. They have formal training in hand-to-hand combat, but not the years inside a ring to temper it. Soldiers are unpredictable, and that makes them dangerous. “Anytime you get a marine or army guy, they’re usually a stupid ass,” Gunn says. “They make mistakes. They think with their heart more than their head.” Whap, whap, whap. Gunn is fighting in a midday match in October 2015, in a run-down neighborhood clinging like lint to the interstate. The auto-body shop is a long way from Caesar’s Palace. It is a cavernous space with twenty-foot ceilings, oil-stained floors, and tool chests lining the walls. A baby-blue vintage Mustang sits atop a hydraulic lift. A wild-eyed bear’s head hangs on the wall. In the corner, an industrial fan blows grease-soaked air. The shop’s double-bay rolling door is closed, so the only entrance is through the cluttered front office, where the owner admits the last of the stragglers, hangs the “Closed” sign, and locks the door.

In the center of the garage, about thirty men and one woman stand in a loose circle. As with most bare-knuckle fights, the crowd is blue-collar: old men with faded tattoos and beer guts, a construction foreman in a polo, a pair of roofing contractors on lunch break. The lone woman wears a black tank top and cut-off shorts. “This is exciting because it’s illegal,” a man says. For this match, the promoter sent a single email to a small group of regular fightgoers.

The crowd is not paying a cover charge, but they are gambling. Gunn and his opponent will be paid upward of $5,000 apiece.1 This is less money than Gunn usually makes for a fight, but it’s not about the purse. As champion of the underground bare-knuckle circuit, Gunn has an undefeated 73-0 record, a legendary status earned in blood from channel docks to highway overpasses, to mobster McMansion dens. He has his name at stake. “I’m going to pick my shots and take him out fast,” he says, breathing steadily. “My record is everything.”

Whap, whap, whap.

Gunn grunts, increasing his tempo. Punching the tires takes him back to his childhood, back to the Shamrock Boxing Club in Niagara Falls, Ontario, the town his people, the Irish Travelers, would always circle back to come fall. Back then his father would wrap tire tread around a punching bag and make Gunn alternate between hitting the rubber and leather, working the bag until his knuckles bled, until they hardened.

In Niagara Falls, Robert Williamson Gunn—descended from a long line of nomadic brawlers—trained his only son to uphold the family legacy. He taught him to rub a leather belt over his eyebrows to toughen them up, and to pour kerosene on his cuts to heal them more quickly. He taught him how to take pain, wrapping a baseball bat with foam and duct tape and hitting his son repeatedly in the midsection to harden his abs. Most importantly, Gunn’s father taught him always to be ready for battle. Grinning, eyes like glass, a Marlboro Red dangling from his mouth, Robert would rouse him in the middle of the night from their motel rooms and trailer parks to fight grown men he had brought home from the bar. He gambled up to $1,000 on the child brawler he had molded since birth. “He would say, ‘Can you beat that boy right there?’” Gunn recalls. “‘How much do you want to bet?’”

Whap, whap, whap.

Gunn gives a clipped yell and steps back. He stretches his tree-stump neck from side to side. He opens and closes his mouth, dancing back and forth on the balls of his feet. “I’m nervous,” he says. “I don’t know what he’s going to do.” At Gunn’s side are his trainer, Dominick Scibetta, and his nineteen-year-old son, Bobby Jr. Bobby Jr. has attended all his father’s fights, from the pro boxing bouts in 20,000-seat stadiums to the darkened battles in abandoned warehouses, and worries about how much longer his old man can last. “I feel nervous,” he says, arms crossed, chewing gum, staring straight ahead. “It hurts my chest.”

Dom, an aging boxer from Boston with sleepy eyes and a growing paunch, has other concerns. He has been with Gunn through dozens of underground fights, seen scores more over the decades, and knows what it takes to win. More importantly, he knows how little it takes to lose. Once a promising pro boxer, Dom folded when he made it to Madison Square Garden in 1988, so nervous he could barely walk through the crowds after leaving the locker room. His career lasted only another year after that. He knows that Gunn shouldn’t be worried about today’s opponent, a relative nobody. But he also knows that in the fight game, anything can happen—especially if you let in doubt. “Anxiety can break you down,” he says. “But Bobby has dealt with it over the years and can wash it out. He’s an old-school tough guy.”

Dom leans in, putting his mouth right in Gunn’s ear. “He’s the one who’s pacing back and forth,” Dom says, pointing past the crowd, to the front office of the body shop. “He’s the one who’s worried.” Gunn shakes his head. “I don’t know.” “Trust me.” Gunn looks toward the door. He turns back to the tires.

Whap, whap, whap.


Outside the auto-body shop, Gunn’s opponent, Jim McClendon, sits in his car and meditates. “Before fights, some guys pray and some guys do breathing exercises, what I call the ‘woo-sa.’” He breathes in, holds it, exhales. Wooooosssaaaaaaa.

“You got to get mentally focused,” he says. “Or you’ll get knocked the fuck out.”

McClendon, twenty-eight, is the last guy you’d expect to find in a bare-knuckle fight. He is an accountant, a marine, and a devoted father to his eleven-year-old daughter. His favorite magazine is The CPA Journal. “I help small businesses who can’t afford a private accountant,” he says. “Have you ever tried to hire one? Those guys are expensive.”

McClendon is 6’3” and 200 pounds, a ropy, muscled natural athlete with a handsome smile and easygoing attitude. He wears a white T-shirt, acid-wash jeans, and black sneakers. He is the only Black man at the fight today. “Not a lot of Black dudes do this,” he says, shrugging.

After graduating from high school in Philly, McClendon played semipro basketball for a year in Japan. When the NBA neglected to call, he joined the marines, completing two campaigns as a corporal with the First Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion in southern Iraq in 2008–2009. There, he learned two skills: accounting and fighting. “It’s not like the army, where you do just one job,” he says. “If you’re a marine, then you’re an accountant and a killer, too.”

After the war, McClendon returned to Philly, got a CPA job, bought a car and a house, and began helping to care for his eight-year-old daughter, the one he’d had back in high school, back before he was ready to be a father. Everything seemed to be on track. But McClendon was tortured. “I have PTSD pretty bad,” he says. “It was some shit in Iraq.”

When his best friend from his platoon committed suicide, McClendon suffered a nervous breakdown. He lost his job, his house, his car. He fell just about as far as a man can go, homeless and living on the streets for years, arranging to meet his daughter in public parks. “My PTSD went untreated, you know, because, as marines, we’re tough, we don’t want to go to the hospital, that’s being a pussy, blah blah blah,” he says. “But then, when my best friend killed himself, I was like, ‘Maybe I should get some help.’” After a two-year wait, McClendon got into a VA hospital, began treatment, and secured a loan to rent an apartment. He parked cars to pay the bills and eventually started his own business, keeping the books for small and midsize companies. On Instagram, he recently posted a photo of himself with his now-teenage daughter, both of them smiling as they go over tax forms in his apartment. “Tons of transactions to do, and guess who is helping me?” the caption said.

So after enduring such hell, after finally coming out on top, why on earth is McClendon fighting in a seedy underground bare-knuckle match, risking jail and serious injury? The answer is complicated. Yes, the PTSD he battles stems from the carnage he witnessed overseas. But it’s also born of the anxiety and depression he feels since returning to an antiseptic world of Costcos and swipe-right binge dating where everyone texts but nobody talks. A world where total strangers thank him for his service but no one knows the difference between Sunnis and Shiites. McClendon knows that it sounds strange, but he misses war. He misses the bonds he forged in battle, where decisions truly mattered, where he and his platoon members lived and died for each other. He misses that cocktail of adrenaline and purpose, that primal satisfaction he can now find only in bare knuckle. “It’s weird, but I love to fight,” he says. “I’m not a marine anymore, so bare-knuckle boxing gets the ‘I just want to fuck somebody up’ out of me. And it’s in the name of brotherhood. People think bare-knuckle boxing is barbaric, but dudes shake hands afterwards.”

McClendon saw his first underground fight as a marine stationed at Camp Pendleton in California—a roped-off match in a nightclub basement. He was mesmerized. Now he’s working on making his own name in the sport. So when the promoter reached out about today’s bout—a last-minute call-up, as often happens in the circuit—he knew that it was a rare opportunity. If he beats Gunn—a man thirty-five pounds heavier, fourteen years more experienced, and with sixty-five more underground victories—he will make money and achieve instant fame. He will take the title.


McClendon stops meditating, steps out of the sedan, and enters the body shop’s front office. Standing amid the metal file cabinets and out-of-date calendars, he looks through the shop’s grimy interior window, his eyes moving to a hulking man in the corner. Gunn.

“It was the first time I’d seen him in my life,” McClendon later says. “He’s built like a wall. He took his jacket off, and I was like, ‘Oh, my God.’”

“I’m the boss, I’m the boss, I’m the boss, I’m the boss.”

Gunn mutters his mantra over and over and over and over. It’s the closing lines from Martin Scorsese’s 1980 film Raging Bull, the ultimate boxing movie, starring Robert De Niro as middleweight champion Jake LaMotta. At this point in the movie, LaMotta is an overweight has-been still hungry for the limelight, quoting lines from Marlon Brando’s “I could have been a contender” dialogue from On the Waterfront while shadowboxing in front of a mirror, unable to accept the ravages of time.

But Gunn sees the scene differently. Growing up, he watched the film constantly on a VHS tape in whatever run-down motel room or trailer his family was living in, drawing inspiration from LaMotta’s defiance, his refusal to give an inch to a world that told him he was a failure. Now before every fight, Gunn repeats the line to himself like a prayer, dancing back and forth on the balls of his feet while punching the air, jacking up his adrenaline. “I always say that because I am the fucking boss,” Gunn says. “Nobody else.”

Even in middle age, Gunn is a spark plug of muscle and pent-up energy, a bullet with a flattop shaved head. Wearing a black tank, jeans, and sneakers, he looks straight ahead as Dom gets right in his face, whispering instructions. Typically a laconic lug, Dom looks as if he is about to have a seizure. “Hands high, hands high,” he says. “Chin down.”

Gunn nods, shifts his feet, moves his mouth. Dom fakes a punch to the gut and then spreads his arms like an ump calling a runner safe. Gunn nods. That’s it, the killing shot.

Gunn is fearless in the legal boxing ring, where he won twenty-two pro bouts, including the 2006 International Boxing Association world cruiserweight belt, and took on world champions like Tomasz Adamek. But it is his reputation in the underground that has made him famous. Over the years, he has fought for cash in every underground venue imaginable, from midtown Manhattan bars to desert outposts to a Boston mobster den with a caged lion in the corner. He has been carjacked by the Latin Kings, had guns pointed at his forehead by the Russian and Albanian mobs, and been robbed at gunpoint by Irish gangsters. Even when bouts have become “rough-and-tumble”—that is, all rules are thrown out and anything goes—he has never backed down. “I’ve seen it all,” he says. “Scary things. Men trying to kill me. Unfortunately, this is the world we live in.”

Gunn claims not to be bothered by all this. “It’s nothing to me, pal,” he will say, shrugging his massive shoulders. But, of course, that isn’t true. All fighters get scared. The key distinction is that Gunn doesn’t worry about a battle until right before it begins. And it is then, in those moments when the world goes still and he looks at his opponent, the man threatening to take everything away from him in a fight that can always turn lethal, that Gunn allows himself to embrace the one fear he harbors deep within his battle-scarred body—that he will somehow fail his family.

He thinks about the simple terror he endures each morning as he walks his seven-year-old daughter, Charlene, into the private school he pays for with his bare-knuckle winnings. He prays the other suburban parents don’t discover his side hustle, prays the world never shuns his little girl for his own sins. “The other parents have no idea who I am,” he says, “and I don’t want them to.” Gunn pauses. “The last thing my little girl told me this morning was, ‘Please, Daddy, don’t come home with a black eye.’”

Gunn shakes his head and walks into the center of the garage. The chatter dies down. The crowd’s circle tightens. The only noise is the whir from an industrial fan. The referee, Danny Provenzano, an ex-con who served five years in a state prison and who also happens to be the grand-nephew of Anthony Provenzano, a key figure in the disappearance of Jimmy Hoffa, looks at the aging fighter. “You ready?”

Gunn nods.

The two men circle. McClendon seems jittery. He feints and jabs while dancing on his toes, exhaling loudly with each punch. A few land, but most miss. By contrast, Gunn has undergone a stark transformation. He is calm, relaxed, his feet planted squarely on the concrete, keeping time with his opponent, dodging and weaving with his upper body. He throws fewer punches—sharp jabs, mostly to the body—but lands all of them. “Oof,” McClendon says, shaking his head after a shot to the chin.

“Bring it to the body,” Dom calls.

About a minute into the fight, the men clench in a sweaty embrace, catching their breath, slowing their racing hearts, diagnosing each other’s exhaustion. Then Gunn pushes McClendon away.

The end is sudden. Gunn shoots a left hook to the stomach, a right hook to the kidney, and a devastating deep left hook straight to the heart. As his opponent doubles over, Gunn delivers a final jab to the chin. McClendon goes down. “Get him up! Get him up!” Gunn yells, jacked up, marching back and forth.

On the ground, McClendon shakes his head.

“That’s it, that’s it,” the ref says. “No fight.”

Gunn helps his opponent up. “Good punch, dog,” McClendon says. Gunn holds him by the shoulders, staring at him fully as if for the first time. They smile and embrace. The fight is over.

“I don’t know if you ever took a sledgehammer to the face,” McClendon later says. “But it was pretty equivalent to that. I’m actually surprised that my mouth is still moving.”

The crowd cheers. Gunn is some $5,000 richer, but he looks like a guy who just missed his train.

“I’m tired of fighting in the shadows like this,” he says, rubbing his knuckles while a mechanic slides the garage doors open and sunlight fills the room.

“I want to make this sport legal.”

1Gunn and other fighters are often cagey about the exact amounts of their purses in underground fights. In this book, I give a precise amount when verified. Otherwise, I give an approximation, when told to me, or no number at all. “They don’t want attention from the IRS,” says an underground fight promoter. “Bobby will tell you he’s only made enough off bare knuckle to buy a Subway sandwich. It’s more like he’s made enough to buy a Subway sandwich franchise.

From Bare Knuckle: Bobby Gunn, 73–0 Undefeated. A Dad. A Dream. A Fight like You’ve Never Seen. by Stayton Bonner. Used with the permission of the publisher, Blackstone Publishing. Copyright ©2024 by Stayton Bonner.

Originally Appeared on GQ