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How A Bareknuckle Boxing Match Became A Fight About Food

Two people eating. One is a boxer. The night before a fight.
Image courtesy Knuckle Up Media

Shawn Ulrich couldn’t believe it. He was hosting an event the night before a bareknuckle boxing card in upstate New York, and something unusual happened. It was supposed to be an eating contest between him and his co-host at Knuckle Up Media, a boxing outfit. But when workers at Marino’s Pizzeria brought out the food, David Morgan jumped up. He wanted to enter.

“David Morgan was just hungry, man,” Ulrich told Defector. “He jumped up and said, ‘Yeah, I want to do it.’” Morgan just wasn’t some fan. He was one of the boxers scheduled to compete on the card the next day.

Ulrich said he paused when Morgan wanted to enter. Weigh-ins had been held earlier in the night. Fighters do scarf down food after weigh-in. “I said, 'Listen, it’s five minutes,'” he says. “There’s no commission or doctor that’s going to say you can’t fight on a full belly. All these fighters carb up.” The eating contest was on.

Regardless of Ulrich’s explanation, people were surprised. A comment appeared on the livestream of the event: “Food competition the night before a fight? Wtf!” That commenter wasn’t the only one who noticed. By the next morning, the Bareknuckle Fighting Championship bout between Morgan and Zachary Johnson was off. But was it really off because of the eating contest? I tried to investigate.

For Zachary Johnson, BKFC New York was supposed to be his chance for a win in front of his friends and family. Johnson, 36, played football as a kid. He told me he played semi-pro in the U.S. and Europe. He got into MMA after, and then boxing. None of it went particularly well, results-wise. “I started out wrong,” he told Defector. “I did everything wrong. You know, just young, immature, just dumb—I started my career without a coach, because I thought I could do it on my own.”

Online records show him at 0-3 in MMA and 0-6 in boxing. He was KO'd in every pro boxing match he competed in. But Johnson says he thought was starting to improve. He says he has trainers and coaches now. Earlier this year, he went to an open tryout for the BKFC. Apparently he impressed. He got a fight on the Nov. 6 card at the Seneca Allegany Casino against Ka'Sim Ruffin. When Ruffin dropped out, Morgan was named his replacement.

Johnson, who goes by “Ziggy," was excited. He got a writeup in a local paper. He was going to fight in his home state, and maybe finally get a win. “Some people traveled 1,600 miles,” he said. “Some traveled seven hours, two hours … and they didn’t get to see me fight.”

He learned the next morning the fight was off in a text from his scheduled opponent. The reason was “unprofessional conduct” by Morgan. Johnson says he was incredibly disappointed, but doesn’t have any hard feelings. “There’s no animosity between us,” he said. “I don’t hate David Morgan. I’m just upset. I’m pissed off inside. It just sucks.”

David Morgan says he’s always in shape. “I stay ready,” he says. “Period. I’m in the gym every day. 24 freakin 7.” So when he got a call from BKFC to fight at the New York card earlier this month, he said yes. Morgan, 33, told BKFC’s website earlier this year he was a veteran of “43 or 44 fights between boxing, kickboxing, and MMA” as well as “100 underground fights.” Travis Thompson KO'd him in the second round at an event called KnuckleMania in February. In July, at an event for the BYB Extreme bareknuckle fighting promotion, an accidental foul meant his match against Spencer Ruggeri was a no contest.

Morgan made weight. He went on a hike to loosen up from the plane ride afterwards. And then he stopped at Marino’s Pizzeria. He was one of the stars of the livestream from the pizza shop. He and Ulrich competed in a “boxing” match where they attempted to fold pizza boxes. Ulrich won. But Morgan had his revenge in the eating contest. Ulrich says this is what Morgan ate in five minutes: “About six pieces of pizza and about six wings and maybe a chicken tender and a handful of fries.”

Morgan realizes that, yeah, it was a bad look being in an eating contest the night before a fight—but he also says the reaction was overblown. “Honestly, I didn't even see it as a contest,” he said. “I just saw it as dinner. You know what, it wasn’t the best choice of food to eat—I agree. But I was networking. I was just trying to get out there.” Well, it worked: A lot more people know who David Morgan is now.

Unfortunately, that’s because of what happened the next day. Morgan got a call from David Feldman, the Philadelphia-area boxing promoter who runs BKFC. “He asked me if I were doing an eating contest,” Morgan said. “I told him yes. He said, ‘Come by the ring.’” When Morgan got there, he was informed his fight against Johnson was off due to “unprofessional conduct.”

BKFC and Feldman did not respond to requests for comment from Defector. Morgan and his manager, former boxer Chosén Green, said that BKFC was cagey about the reasoning for the fight’s cancelation. “Their exact words were ‘unprofessional conduct,’” Morgan said. “No one ever said ‘pizza eating contest.’”

“I reached out and I asked David Feldman and [BKFC matchmaker] Nate Shook and said that if Morgan was in breach of contract, I need to know as soon as possible,” said Green, who signed Morgan last month. “That's when they told me no, it’s not because of an eating contest. It was because of unprofessional conduct—making the promotion look bad. The more I pushed with, ‘We keep talking about Morgan’s actions, what actions specifically?’ It’s almost like they were skirting around, like they’re using the pizza eating contest to say, ‘OK, the fight is out,’ but they don’t want to say it was a pizza eating contest.” Hmm.

I mean, it is pretty clear that it’s the pizza eating contest, right? The fight was on, one of the fighters did an eating contest, the fight was off. But while reporting on this fight, several people offered alternate explanations. Some said Morgan was possibly intentionally trying to scratch his fight with the eating contest. Some noted that all fights except the scuttled fight had been sanctioned, with Johnson-Morgan still pending, on the day before the fight. (The Seneca Nation Athletic Commission, which commissioned the fight, did not respond to a request for comment.) But because of that, some people figured the fight was never going to take place.

Most prominently mentioned theory was based on a video by C.J. Saftic, who goes by CJMMA. The day before the fight, Saftic posted a video with the title “Is BKFC Trying To Get Another Fighter Killed?”

BKFC was founded three years ago. It touts itself as having promoted the first state-sanctioned bareknuckle fight in the United States since 1889. Because rounds are two minutes and Muay Thai clinches are legal, fights tend to be more offensive-minded than gloved boxing. (“Each fight takes place in a specialized circular four-rope ring, referred to as the ‘Squared Circle’ even though it is a circle rendering the squared part pointless,” Wikipedia currently notes.)

Saftic’s video title was not mere hyperbole. At a BKFC event in August, Dillon Cleckler knocked out Justin Thornton in 19 seconds. Thornton was stretchered off and immediately hospitalized. He died in October. Defector’s Patrick Redford wrote that “BKFC’s business model inherently depends on ignoring the medical realities of their own product.” To put it mildly, BKFC has been dealing with some bad publicity.

In the video, Saftic describes meeting Johnson at an MMA card on July 25, 2015. (Per the poster, the headliner of that show was an appearance by a Playboy model.) Because Johnson didn’t have any coaches or corner men, Saftic ended up volunteering to corner him. Watching the video, it’s clear Johnson doesn’t really know what he was doing. You can hear someone, likely Saftic, yell, “What are you doing? Don’t put your hands down!” He’d only been training for a few weeks. He was KO'd in nine seconds.

Saftic said that, since then, he’s contacted promoters and commissions attempting to warn them against booking Johnson. He says Johnson has had “no less than a dozen” concussions, listing his speech impediment as a tell. He accused Johnson of just bugging BKFC until they finally let him fight. And, because this is 2021, he said the listed -115 odds on David Morgan were a great chance to make some easy money.

Johnson disputes the video. He said he’s only had three concussions in his life, not a dozen. He admits he was inexperienced and underqualified when he began his career, but says he is no longer the same fighter he was six years ago. “Yeah, I got beat up in 10 seconds, whatever,” he said. “I was nervous, it was the first fight that night. I wasn't experienced. It was a mistake … but now I have a team, I have management, I have coaches.”

I can’t fully evaluate these claims. As a stutterer myself, I do think Johnson sounds like a guy with a lifelong speech impediment. (He says he began seeing a speech therapist in first grade.) Saftic didn’t respond to a request for comment. But it’s easy to imagine someone at BKFC seeing that video, maybe watching some of the match videos online where Johnson is KO'd in the first round, and trying to figure out a way to call the fight off. Some of these fights were just last year. This eating contest would be a nice way to scrap it.

Ulrich, of Knuckle Up Media, thinks that’s basically what happened. “David Feldman, if he heard one of his fighters had a dozen concussions, he's gonna pull that fight,” he said. “I guarantee you that video was brought to him because he’s got a good crew that usually does good investigation work. And when they saw that … well, I guarantee you if that if anything pulled that fight, it wasn’t the pizza.”

Both fighters are now left disappointed and angry—and, despite the food consumed by Morgan, hungry for another fight. They are upset the story is out there without any comment from BKFC. The UK Mirror wrote a story just off Ulrich’s Instagram post about facing Morgan in an eating contest. The fighters both feel they’ve had their names dragged through the mud. “No, I did not get scared,” Johnson said. “No, I did not pull out.”

Morgan and his manager pointed out, just a few days after the canceled fight, the weigh-ins for a BKFC fight in Miami got chaotic, with one fighter flipping a table. “If anything, all my pizza eating contest did was bring views,” Morgan said. “I'm being punished as these other guys are being freaking, you know, crazed?”

Both fighters say BKFC has not given them a clear answer. But the promotion did give them something that, in my mind, is even better: Full purses for the fight. Feldman paid out both men despite the fact they didn’t fight. To me, this is incredible! A win for workers. One of the greatest moments in fighter history—two guys getting paid not to fight. But the fighters don’t feel the same way. “I don't want to say it's hush money,” said Morgan’s manager, Green, “but it's almost kind of like, ‘Here. Shut up and go away.’”

“I was there to fight,” Morgan said. “My kids could have told the story like, ‘My dad fought in the debut of bareknuckle fighting in New York,’ and it got taken from me.” For one reason or another.

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