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Reviving a bygone, bare-knuckle era

Bobby Gunn arrived in Arizona on Thursday, a day before he was set to take part in what is believed to be the first sanctioned bare-knuckle boxing match since 1889, when John L. Sullivan had his hand raised after foe Jake Kilrain's corner threw in the towel -- following 75 rounds of hand-to-hand combat.

The 37-year-old hitter, who goes by the nickname "The Celtic Warrior"
when he gloves up under the Marquess of Queensberry rules, wasn't much worried that he would be thrown off by the gloveless fists of opponent Richard Stewart. Nor was he fretting that he might sustain an injury more severe than, say, the regulation busted nose that he had accumulated while amassing a 21-4-1 mark since turning pro in 1989. In fact, Gunn said he felt at ease because he had been fighting in events like this one since he was 13 years old.

"I grew up in this," Gunn told ESPN.com. "It's nothing new to me. It's such an honor to be in the footsteps of John L. Sullivan. And nobody will be arrested afterwards."

Presumably, Gunn is right. Promoter David Feldman, along with partner Len Hayko, will stage the show at the Fort McDowell Casino, a 40-square-mile reservation just outside Scottsdale, Ariz. The bare-knuckle match, along with some boxing and MMA fights that will round out the card, will be overseen by the Yavapai Nation, not the Arizona State Boxing Commission.

Feldman assured ESPN.com several times that all proper precautions would be taken to ensure that the fighters aren't hurt, and he insisted that Gunn and Stewart are less likely to be seriously hurt in a bare-knuckle fight than in a "regular" boxing match because, in a bare-knuckle tussle, a fighter is less likely to take a sustained beating.

"Safety is first," said Feldman, a former pro boxer who has tried for years to get the bare-knuckle event rolling but has been met with resistance from folks who cried barbarism. "With the gloves, people absorb more blows. But we're not going to let anyone get killed or let someone's eye fall out."

The promoter is trying to toe a line here, as he also believes that fight fans are looking for more in-your-face action -- more violence, less science, perhaps.

"Fans want it a little more extreme," Feldman said, after admitting that his own father, trainer Marty Feldman, told him he wouldn't watch Gunn-Stewart. "They want a little bit more brutality."

The last time a bare-knuckle boxing match was held in the U.S., the event wasn't widely publicized, as bare-fist fighting was illegal in most of the 38 states. Sullivan was the favorite in the eyes of the majority who came to see "The Boston Strong Boy" take on New York native Kilrain -- although Sullivan's detractors thought his penchant for boozing might give Kilrain an opening. When Sullivan vomited during the 44th round of a bout contested under the London Prize Ring rules, Kilrain's backers liked their man's chances a bit more.

But the men kept scrapping, tossing blows and throwing each other to the ground. Finally, after two hours and 16 minutes under a scorching sun, at the end of the 75th round, Kilrain's corner threw in the towel.

Gunn and Stewart will have to get through only 10 rounds or less, with each round lasting 90 seconds. No takedowns are allowed, as they were during the Sullivan era. Two referees will monitor the action, and if someone is badly cut, a cutman will be allowed to immediately work on the slice for 30 seconds. Fight fans can watch online at ustream.tv, for a fee.

Gunn said he has taken part in about 70 underground bare-knuckle fights since his first foray at Niagara Falls, Canada, when as a 13-year-old he took on a 17-year-old.

"A guy wanted to fight me," Gunn said. "My father spoke to him. It was in a field. We made a ring. I busted him up pretty good."

He was born to brawl, Gunn says, and simply enjoys everything that comes with the package. No, he hasn't broken through into the big time in the fight game yet, and smart money says it will be hard for him to jump up in class, as he hasn't been able to get over the high hurdle of world-class fighters like Tomasz Adamek and Enzo Maccarinelli when given the chance. But he is hopeful, as is Feldman, that bare-knuckle boxing will take off.

"I sure hope so, pal," Gunn said. "Listen, fighting to me is like a virus: Once you get it, it's hard to get rid of. And you don't want to get rid of it."

He doesn't see himself as the John L. Sullivan of the 2000s, he says. "I'm just Bobby Gunn. I couldn't carry John L.'s gym bag."

But Gunn's humility isn't infinite; he says he has never lost a bare-knuckle fight. The talent he has faced, he says, is top-tier.

"Some guys were better than top-10 contenders. It was a waste of talent. If they were trained properly… People say we don't have great American heavyweights. They aren't looking in the right place."

Gunn won't have to look hard to find Stewart, a 35-year-old Delaware resident who has a 14-9-2 mark as a pro boxer. Stewart has lost five in a row fighting under the Queensberry rules, but he didn't sound dejected, like a man merely on a mission to cash a paycheck, on Thursday.

"My God, I'm so excited," he said. "It's great to be taking part in something they haven't done in more than a hundred years.

"We'll be getting the linear title of John L. Sullivan. We'll come forward, meet in the center and see who's still standing. Neither of us has ever claimed to be a Roy Jones Jr. type. Whoever is less bloody and still standing will be the winner."

There will be some who will protest that this is proof positive we're all becoming less civilized, that Feldman's event is a return to the bad old days when there was less oversight of fighters. Stewart answers that men will be men, that we are all animals -- human animals, but animals nevertheless.

"As much as we've evolved, we're men, it's in our genes," he said. "We want to see who's tougher, just like we did back in the schoolyard. Me and Bobby are the kind of guys who, if they didn't have sanctioned fighting, we'd be fighting in some back alley."

Michael Woods writes about boxing for ESPN.com and ESPN the Magazine, and is the news editor for TheSweetScience.com.