‘Bigfoot’ Silva, Gabriel Gonzaga respond to critics of bare-knuckle boxing bout

“Bigfoot” Silva will face fellow Brazilian heavyweight Gabriel Gonzaga at BKFC 8. | Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Antonio “Bigfoot” Silva and Gabriel Gonzaga once challenged for the UFC heavyweight championship, but those days are in the past.

Now, “Bigfoot” and “Napao” prepare to enter a ring to meet each other in a bare-knuckle boxing bout, a decision that raises questions.

The two MMA veterans will clash over five, two-minute rounds in the main event of BKFC 8 in Tampa, Fla., on Saturday night, making their debuts in the burgeoning sport after multiple knockout defeats in MMA.

Silva, who turned 40 in September, had 10 of 12 MMA losses come by way of knockout and won just one of his past 10 fights. “Bigfoot” also competed once in kickboxing in 2017 and was finished in the second round by heavyweight star Rico Verhoeven.

Gonzaga’s recent record isn’t the greatest either. The 40-year-old jiu-jitsu specialist also has been knocked out 10 times in MMA, going 1-5 in the sport since 2014. “Napao” has boxed once in his life, defeating Alejandro Esquilin Santiago via majority decision two years ago.

The question about whether or not they should be competing again, especially in an aggressive ruleset like bare-knuckle boxing, arose on social media when BKFC announced the match-up in August, but the Brazilian heavyweights are not worried.

The damaged he has suffered in recent years isn’t a concern for Silva, who mentions the two-year layoff — forced by a knee surgery — as something that helped him recover his “chin” and absorb strikes better when he returned to the gym.

“I’m feeling great,” Silva told MMA Fighting. “Criticism will always come. There are people that don’t even understand or like the sport, but still criticize, but I don’t even read it. I went to Las Vegas once and did all the exams and it’s all beautiful, I’m like a 15-year-old boy [laughs]. I’m great. I definitely wouldn’t be fighting if I wasn’t, I wouldn’t take that risk.

“I’m speaking for myself here. I don’t know about Gabriel, but I’m on fire. I’ve been resting for two years, preparing for my comeback, and this is my time to return. Taking that time off was great for my mind, to absorb strikes. I spent two years doing more of cardio and jiu-jitsu to then get my confidence again after the knee surgery. the last time I felt this great was in 2013, when I was very hungry and excited.”

Gonzaga isn’t worried either. In fact, he defends bare-knuckle boxing as being safer than more popular sports like football, soccer and racing.

“If you stop and think about it, I don’t know if you ever played soccer, but when someone crosses the ball and you hit it with the head, that’s harder than one of these punches,” Gonzaga said. “People get knocked out in soccer and no one says a word. Same with football. People don’t know how dangerous ‘normal’ sports are, they don’t focus on that because it looks less aggressive.

“People say that because they are scared about the blood. If you stop and think about is, what’s more dangerous: Formula 1, with Ayrton Senna, or a bare-knuckle boxing match? How many people have died in motorcycle or car accidents and they keep racing out there? BMX, skate, surfing giant waves… People die and they aren’t afraid, meanwhile boxing is around for millions of years and not many people have died. People are afraid, but it’s not as dangerous as they think.”

A spokesperson for the Florida State Athletic Commission emphasized standard safety protocols in place for Saturday’s event. She added that Gonzaga and Silva both were required to clear additional hurdles given their age.

“Fighters over the age of 40, like the two mentioned in your inquiry, must also present an good EKG and a clean MRI of the brain,” wrote Karen Smith, Director of Communications for the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation, which oversees the commission.

BKFC promoter David Feldman acknowledged a request for comment, but didn’t provide a statement at the time of this writing.

Silva admits he had only watched one bare-knuckle boxing event before receiving the offer to compete against Gonzaga at BKFC 8, and thought it was an “exciting” idea. He decided to give it a go and “try something new” in Tampa years after starting his fighting career training with bare hands in Brazil.

“I’ve watched some fights later to understand how the sport works,” Silva said. “Rounds are short, so they are very aggressive right away since there are no gloves and one punch can land and end the fight. I’m ready to go five round if I have to, but I don’t like to go the distance. We never know what the judges are thinking, so we better guarantee the win ourselves in there.”

Gonzaga, who has been active in jiu-jitsu tournaments this year, was actually competing at the World Master IBJJF Jiu-Jitsu Championship in California — he won the gold medal in the ultra heavyweight class — when BKFC officials called and suggested a fight with Silva.

Back in 2016, Gonzaga told MMA Fighting he wouldn’t fight in MMA again unless he was paid six figures. In the bare-knuckle match, the Brazilian says his demands have been met, and he’s going to “challenge my boxing.”

“I have good boxing, and not many people know,” Gonzaga said. “I wasn’t looking for a fight, but they asked if I was interested. Boxing is easier than MMA, and that’s why I came back. It’s good money, a cool event, so it’s all good.

“MMA gloves are small and thin, so it doesn’t make much difference if we’re wearing them of not. MMA gloves are made for the TV, to avoid cuts. I’m old school, man. I’ve trained at Chute Boxe in 2004 and 2005, and back then we had a doctor that would stitch us up in the gym whenever someone had a cut. We didn’t even go to the hospital. Getting cut is not a problem.

“We’re two heavyweights with no gloves, so it probably won’t go five rounds,” he continued. “I only went the distance a few times in my MMA career because I go for the finish. Sometimes I lose, but all I care is giving fans what they want to see.”

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