How to Train Like a Pro Bare Knuckle Brawler

A fist fight can leave your knuckles as bloodied as Rocky Balboa’s after training in the meat locker in the first Rocky film—but taking other aspects of bare knuckle fight training can shred up your whole body like Adonis Creed without all that mess.

Ricco Rodriguez and Bobby Gunn understand that well. They’re two of the fighters who will compete in the inaugural Bare Knuckle Fighting Championship (BKFC), which is slated to air live on pay-per-view June 2.

Gunn has tried to bring legal bare knuckle fights back the U.S. before (the sport has recently seen a legalized resurgence in the UK), but a 2016 match was canceled at the last minute, and might never have been on the books at all, according to a report. Now, the Philadelphia-based BKFC claims its debut show will be the first-ever legal, regulated, and sanctioned bare knuckle fighting event to take place in the States since 1889.

“We have been beating this drum for so long,” Gunn, a boxer and bare knuckle evangelist in the US, told He has also laced on gloves and boxed under standard rules against the likes of Roy Jones Jr. and James Toney, racking up a 23-7-1 professional record. “I believe it’s going to snow-ball and blow the roof off the combat world.”

“This is literally bringing it back to the old times.”

The June 2 card will have BKFC bouts taking place in a squared circle via a 22-foot circular ring encased in a 28-foot square platform. Fighters begin matches standing within the squared circle, each positioned behind markers just three feet apart, “toeing the line.” Once the referee gives the command to “knuckle up,” the combatants are free to slug it out (with punches only), working their way around the ring.

Fighters’ wrists and thumbs will be taped, with their knuckles left completely exposed for the “purest form of hand-to-hand combat,” according to the promotion. Bouts will be five to seven two-minute rounds, depending on the weight class. Championship bouts will extend to nine rounds. Like boxing and MMA, bare knuckle fight wins can be claimed by knockout, ref’s stoppage or judges’ decision.

“This is literally bringing it back to the old times,” said Rodriguez, a former UFC heavyweight champion. “You think about Tom Cruise in Far and Away, when they just draw a line and fight on the docks.”

Rodriguez (L) and Gunn (R) are poised to bring bare knuckle fighting back to the US.
Ed Diller/BKFC

We caught up with Rodriguez and Gunn in the lead up to the Bare Knuckle Fighting Championship pay-per-view event. The two explained the exercises they use to boost their cardio and strength in preparation for a bare knuckle fight.

You can try out the training techniques—but remember, some of these are fight-specific, so they might not fit your routine or fitness level. Be careful, and adjust accordingly. And unless you find yourself within the squared circle, leave the actual scrapping to the pros.

Bare Knuckle Scrapper Cardio Workouts

Ricco Rodriguez

Treadmill to Pads

Five to seven rounds

30 second treadmill intervals, two minute pad work

Whatever the exercise, Rodriguez tries to get his heart rate pumping while simulating a fight. He accomplishes both in one shot by running on the treadmill for 30 seconds, then immediately jumping off to hit pads for two minutes.

“Leave the treadmill running the whole time, so you don’t waste too much time turning it off and on,” Rodriguez advised. “Have a coach or pad person there waiting.”

Rodriguez added that doing five to seven rounds of this treadmill-to-pad work gets his explosive power up. He recommends hitting the pads with an assortment of punches in eight to 10-ounce gloves and only donning a heavier glove — say 16-ounce — to increase difficulty. As you get more comfortable, Rodriguez said you can also add a five-degree incline on the treadmill.

Jumping off and back onto a treadmill isn’t the safest idea, so feel free to stop and start the machine if you want to try this out. If you’re following Rodriguez’s plan to the letter, don’t say we didn’t warn you.

Resistance Band Shadowboxing

Five rounds, two minutes each

The same resistance band you’ve used for all types of exercises in the gym or your home can be used to increase your punching speed and overall striking prowess while shadowboxing.

Rodriguez says to get in front of a mirror and wrap the resistance band over your shoulders. “That cord will give you the resistance of retracting your punches, but at the same time you’re shadowboxing and keeping your elbows in,” he says. “It works on your hand speed, keeping your hands up and fast. Don’t think about what punches you’re going to throw, but throw them in repetition, so that it becomes fluid and natural.”

Five rounds at two minutes per clip of this routine should make you a quicker hitter and Rodriguez vows that it also keeps your form correct. “If you get too wild, those bands will go underneath your elbows and that means you’re punching improperly,” he points out.

Sky Punch, Medicine Ball Ab Smash

As many reps as possible (AMRAP)

Rodriguez has a go-to ab exercise that he said “correlates most to the squared circle.” It entails Rodriguez laying down on his back with two eight-pound dumbbells in his hands.

“I’m punching to the sky, while my coach is hitting a 10-pound or 15-pound medicine ball on my stomach,” he said. Ouch.

“You got to control your breathing, so when you’re getting hit to the body, you exhale and you’re punching at the same time.”

Rodriguez does that for a grueling 200 reps twice a week, preparing himself to take the most-punishing body shots. You might not have the guts (literally) to match that, but he advised for beginners to aim for as many reps as possible.

Neck Ups
200 reps total

Now, that you’ve strengthened your ability to take a body shot, you’re going to need to be able to eat a bare knuckle sandwich without crumpling to the mat. To prep for upper body blows, Rodriguez trains his neck.

First, lay down in the ring under the ropes, so your neck is hanging off the edge of the ring. If your gym doesn’t have a ring, lay down on a bench, so your neck is hanging off it. Raise your neck up until your chin touches your chest in a controlled motion for 50 reps. Shift to lay on your right and then left shoulders and knock out another 50 reps each, before laying face down and hitting another 50 for 200 total.

“The reason why you do this is when you’re getting hit by a jab or punch, your neck will shift,” Rodriguez explains. “So, you have to strengthen those muscles in your neck.” The former UFC champ does this two days per week.

Bobby Gunn

Jump Rope

10 minutes

The ability to remain light on your feet while throwing solid punches is crucial to bare knuckle fighting. Gunn keeps his footwork sharp by jumping rope, a time-tested exercise synonymous with boxing.

His jump rope philosophy? Aim for 10 minutes straight—a mark you’re either going to achieve or fail trying to reach. If you need to, take short breaks while on the clock. Either way, “let’s see what kind of shape we’re in,” he said, and take it from there.


Five to 20 minutes, depending on ability

Gunn shadowboxes to increase his punching speed—but the exercise is also to build his overall stamina. Whether you’re interested in bare knuckle fighting, boxing, or MMA, Gunn vowed shadowboxing is “the finest exercise of all for your heart, cardio, blood flow, oxygen, lungs.”

He recommended starting out pumping the jab (front straight punch) in front of a mirror, before working in a variety of punches and combinations. Beginners should attempt to shadowbox for five minutes straight, Gunn advised, before building themselves up to the point where they’re doing it vigorously for 20 minutes per night.

“Pump your hands as fast as you can,” he said. “Do it like you’re going to fight. In one month’s time of doing it, your life will change.”

Slipping Punches/Bobbing And Weaving

10 minutes

At 5’11”, Gunn loved the way Mike Tyson slipped punches and bobbed and weaved an inch shorter at 5’10”. “Everybody was a Mike Tyson fan,” Gunn said. “When you know you’re going to fight a bigger opponent, slipping that jab to get inside on him is key.”

That’s why Gunn recommended incorporating slipping punches and bobbing and weaving into your shadowboxing regimen.

“Slipping back and forth, slip to the left, slip to the right,” he advised. “Slip” means to emulate a side-to-side evasion, while “bob and weave” means you’ll both bend laterally at the waist to change your head level and move forward and backwards in place.

“Any [opponent] who’s taller with a big jab, that’s how you get into them — move forward with short moves, to the left six inches, to the right six inches, slipping, slipping, slipping. You get in and that takes away his reach.”

If you don’t have any intentions of actually fighting or even shadowboxing, though, the moves can still help to hone your movement skills and your cardio endurance. If nothing else, training like a fighter is worth it just to imagine yourself making it in the ring.

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