Stephen A. Smith blasts bare-knuckle boxing. Stephen A. Smith blasts bare-knuckle boxing. (The Stephen A. Smith Show on YouTube.)

Stephen A. Smith is known for strong opinions, both on his ESPN platforms and on his Audacy The Stephen A. Smith Show podcast. Last week on the latter platform, Smith went in particularly hard on bare-knuckle boxing, specifically promotion BYB Extreme Fighting. That came after Smith saw a photo of fighter Mark “The Shark” Irwin sporting a large hematoma (where blood pools under the skin) following his loss to Julio Tanori-Rodriguez on Saturday, Dec. 2 at the Rocky Mountain Brawl event in Denver.

That photo led to Smith calling for the ban of bare-knuckle boxing. And he did so in some strong terms, with lines such as “Don’t allow that man in the ring again” and “Why do we have to have that? We got boxing, we got the UFC, ain’t that enough? Ain’t that enough? What the hell are we going to ask for next, lions to get back in cages with men?”

However, while Irwin’s injury certainly looked bad, he recovered quickly in the coming days. Here’s what he looked like Saturday, and what he looked like five days later.

BYB Extreme fighter Mark Irwin in a Dec. 2 fight and then five days later.
BYB Extreme fighter Mark Irwin in a Dec. 2 fight and then five days later. (BYB Extreme.)

And in an interview with Awful Announcing, BYB Extreme Fighting CEO Greg Bloom said the way many media in general and Smith in particular went in on bare-knuckle over this injury isn’t supported by injury data.

“It was totally not fair,” Bloom said. “In particular, the Stephen A. Smith piece, he sounded like an uneducated idiot. He sounded like he picked up a newspaper, read a headline, and started spouting off about things he knew nothing about. If you know anything about the sport and the medical data that’s come forth over the past 18 months, it’s been medically proven that bare-knuckle fighting is, at a minimum, four times less dangerous for traumatic brain injury than either boxing or MMA. So just off that, it’s unfair coverage, and extremely biased and uneducated.”

Some of the data Bloom is referencing there is from a “Epidemiology of professional bare-knuckle fighting injuries” paper, published last year in The Physician and Sportsmedicine, Vol. 50, Issue 5. That study, from Don Muzzi, Anna M. Blaeser, John Neidecker and Guillem Gonzalez-Lomas, used observational data collection from all 141 state-sanctioned professional bare-knuckle fighting bouts from June of 2018 through November of 2020, then categorized and analyzed it.

The study found 98 lacerations (34.8 percent of injuries), eight concussions with symptoms (2.8 percent), and five transfers to hospital (twice for orbital fractures, three times for traumatic brain injuries). Bloom said those numbers on concussions stack up very favorably against other combat sports, and BYB takes pride in running a sport where there’s a lower risk of brain injuries.

“The medical data shows that MMA is five times more risk for traumatic brain injuries, boxing’s four times more risk for traumatic brain injuries. Let me just put that into numbers. The data study that was done showed that concussions in bare-knuckle happened at about a 2.83 percent rate, so if you extrapolate that out to four or five times as much, you can see the difference.”

Bloom said BYB takes pride in those low concussion numbers. And they feel that makes their sport safer than other combat sports and football, despite how it may look.

“This is something that our ringside physician, told me on the phone: imagine when you’re playing football, the amount of kinetic energy that it takes for a man standing to get hit by someone running full speed at him with his head and with a helmet on him, it’s night and day. The real amount of injury that our guys suffer, compared to any other combat sport or even professional football, it’s a leap year away. Because it’s a cut and because there’s blood, it looks a lot more worrying and gruesome, but the true medical science behind it shows it’s way less concussive and there’s way less risk of a traumatic brain injury.”

Mark Irwin during a BYB Extreme fight against Julio Tanori-Rodriguez on Dec. 2, 2023.
Mark Irwin during a BYB Extreme fight against Julio Tanori-Rodriguez on Dec. 2, 2023. (BYB Extreme.)

Bloom said it can be tough for BYB to speak about safety given how many bare-knuckle injuries are those cuts and lacerations that make for ugly photos that spread quickly. But he said it’s important for the promotion to get the message out that while these injuries look bad, they’re not actually as serious as less-easy-to-see head trauma.

“It has a level of difficulty, because people look at it and it’s a bit grotesque to see if you don’t know what you’re talking about. But the truth is, and people don’t understand, the week of our shows, we bring in an extra doctor to do sutures, because cuts are the No. 1 injury. They make up 85 percent of the injuries in bare-knuckle fighting. And I was talking to our ringside physician, who is a board-certified neurologist, and he was saying if people understood what a hematoma is, in the boxing world or the MMA world, doctors don’t worry about hematomas.”

And Bloom said this illustrates the problem with Smith’s comments, which did include a definition of hematomas, but didn’t really discuss their severity or lack thereof.

“The way Stephen A. Smith was describing it and going into the definition, to the layman who doesn’t know any better, they’re going to say ‘This is the most brutal thing in the world.’ But to anyone with any knowledge of the medical field, especially when it comes to combat sports, they’re going to know that most hematomas are non-issues in fights. They look horrible, and they’re visually non-pleasing, but doctors don’t worry about them.”

He said the key for BYB when discussion like this around their fights comes up is to try and get the story out on the medical precautions they do take and the relative severity of the cuts people are talking about, but it’s harder to do that when someone with a giant platform like Smith is driving the conversation another way.

“The best way to do it is to try to educate the public. People usually talk about things that they don’t know in grand fashion. And it’s disappointing when you see someone like Stephen A. Smith, a world-renowned journalist who should really be doing his research, open his mouth and say things like that. It’s disappointing.”

Bloom said he appreciates Smith’s overall work, but finds it unfortunate Smith went on bare-knuckle boxing this way, especially in an over-the-top way claiming incredible danger and suggesting a ban.

“Just like any other news outlet, whether you’re talking sports or politics or whatever you’re talking, the general masses are going to listen to the headline and take it as the gospel. So for a guy like Stephen A. Smith to jump up on there and say something in an extremely uneducated fashion is disappointing, because he’s one of the top journalists in sports. To say the things he’s been saying, which are totally false, without even doing his own research, it’s a discredit to him and a discredit to what we’re trying to build here.”

Bloom said BYB does take injuries and injury prevention seriously, and they go above and beyond athletic commission requirements.

“We work in conjunction with every single athletic commission that we deal with. Internally, we bring in an extra ringside physician to make sure there’s enough doctor presence there to help with stitches and the things that are most critical to us, with 85 percent of the injuries being cuts. We at a minimum double the amount of insurance that is state-regulated with the commission. We do everything in our power at BYB Extreme to make sure our fighters are protected and well taken care of.”

“And even though the risk is much less medically that there’s going to be some type of traumatic brain injury or any serious injury, we are doing everything as a preventative measure to ensure the safety of our fighters. They’re fighting, they’re getting punched in the face for a living, and there’s a modicum of risk that comes with that, everyone agrees with that. But we as an internal organization have done everything in our power to mitigate that risk.”

Bloom said he finds some similarities between the talk now and the early talk about MMA, which Smith is now citing as an example of what kind of combat sports should exist. And he said he wishes people would look into bare-knuckle boxing more before writing it off.

“This is an up-and-coming and emerging sport, just like MMA 20 years ago. And people are going to have a negative view about it when they see it on his face. But I encourage everyone to watch BYB Extreme, to see what we do, to see how exciting our fights are, to talk to our athletes, to see how quickly they recover.”

“Even if you take a look at Mark ‘The Shark’ Irwin, who had ‘two heads’ walking out of the fight, he’s pretty as a picture right now and looks like a million bucks. So before you make an opinion of things, do your due diligence, do your research, come watch what’s going to be the most exciting sport with the most exciting organization in the world, BYB Extreme.”

About Andrew Bucholtz

Andrew Bucholtz has been covering sports media for Awful Announcing since 2012. He is also a staff writer for The Comeback. His previous work includes time at Yahoo! Sports Canada and Black Press.