KnuckleMania: Chris Leben Retires in Style, Paige VanZant Falters in BKFC Debut

Britain Hart and Paige VanZant, BKFC KnuckleMania
Britain Hart and Paige VanZant, KnuckleMania Credit: BKFC

Kicking off the biggest weekend in sports, Superbowl weekend, was BKFC, with their biggest card to date: KnuckleMania. A play, rather obviously, on the pro wrestling world’s WrestleMania (complete with a “Road to KnuckleMania” video series leading up to the event), the in-ring product delivered Friday night.

The main card kicked off with a vicious back-and-forth scrap between Taylor Starling and Charisa Sigala, with both women bloodied by the end of the bout. Starling came out on top, winning one of the few decisions on that card.

Four consecutive knockouts and a TKO finish followed, which gave way to the retirement fight of former UFC star Chris Leben. Leben, known in his MMA days for his brawling style and fiery red hair, had found a second life in BKFC. After finishing his UFC run on a four-fight skid and struggling with substance abuse issues, Leben had arrived in BKFC to rewrite his own final chapter. Entering KnuckleMania, a clean and sober Leben had gone 2-1, and at 40 was ready to call it a career.

He did so in typical Leben style: a wild brawl with Quentin Henry that had both men swinging for the fences right out of the gate. Leben, once again sporting the bright red hair of yesteryear, caught Henry in a clinch early, landing several punches. One of which (clean) caught his opponent in the eye. Henry, unable to see, was given time to recover, and eventually proved ready to continue. Leben proved up to the challenge of dispatching him, however. Moments after the action resumed a Leben left put Henry down again, and this time, he did not make it back to his feet by the end of a ten-count.

Leben’s combat sports career ends with a 3-1 record in bare knuckle boxing, and a 22-12 mark in MMA. Most importantly, “The Crippler” gets to go out on not just a win, but a vintage Chris Leben performance.

The evening’s co-main event saw a high-volume, high-action, scrappy, and at times dirty affair between boxer Dat Nguyen and former UFC star Johnny Bedford. Nguyen ate a number of big shots, but employed activity and angles to take the lead on the scorecards — claiming the BKFC and Police Gazette lightweight titles in the process via unanimous decision.

The main event, of course, brought with it the long awaited bare knuckle debut of Paige VanZant. Once one of the UFC’s most marketable stars, “12 Gauge” had left the promotion in a dispute over pay, taking a bigger deal with BKFC.

Friday, VanZant learned just how hard it would be to earn those bigger paychecks. The former UFC fighter and opponent Britain Hart had nearly come to blows at weigh-ins on Thursday. In the ring, a very motivated Hart had VanZant on her heels most of the fight. Paige showed some solid lateral movement — but in the Thai clinch, where VanZant was expected to have to edge, it was instead Hart working over the body. At range, Hart continually found a home for her right hand. VanZant had her moments, but Hart always had an answer. VanZant, bloodied after a mouse opened up early in the bout, had her best moments in the fifth and final round, putting Hart under heavy fire for most of the frame. She could not, however, put Britain Hart away.

Hart would go on to take the win on the scorecards, with a trio of 49-46 scores. After the fight, she erupted with a scream of triumph, and later said that VanZant had knocked out her teeth. In that same wild post-fight interview, Hart referred to herself as not a person, but “a feeling” before fellow BKFC fighter Jenny Savage entered the ring to have a go at her. Savage was quickly removed from the ring, only to be seen jawing with someone in the crowd.