Igor Vovchanchyn: King of bare-knuckle fighting
There was a time when Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) was called No Holds Barred (NHB) and it really was. No gloves, no time limits, no referee standups, no Affliction t-shirts. This was before MMA become dominated by West Coast cookie-cutter douchebags with questionable facial hair, tribal tattoos and sloppy kickboxing. Back in the old NHB days (circa 1993-1998) promotions held one-night 8-man tournaments stacked with genuinely interesting fighters with contrasting styles.
The sport was more intriguing in it’s infancy. It was spectacle but it was also psychologically different to it’s modern sanitised incarnation. Murillo Bustamante, himself a great bare-knucle fighter, put it best in an interview with the old Full Contact Fighter newspaper:
Imagine two similar scenarios, that differ in only one detail. A guy flies you by helicopter 100 miles into the desert and leaves you next to a big rock. The sun is high in the sky. He gets back into the helicopter and says “I’ll be back for you tomorrow.” Now imagine the same scenario but his parting words are simply “good luck.” It’s a massive difference. In the first case you hunker down till the time expires. In the latter case you have to start walking.
That’s what time limits and busybody athletic commissions did to ruin NHB. Just compare the vibe and rawness of these two different fights. Don’t get me wrong, the modern fighters are highly skilled athletes and under the modern rule set they’d beat the old timers. But feel the difference between a fight and a sport. NHB is nature red in tooth and claw.
The annals of NHB greatness are stacked with the names of great men: Jose Pele Landi Jons, Mikhail Avetsyan, Dan Henderson, Vanderlei Silva, Kareem Barkalev, Amar Suloev…. but one name stands above all others. The man who won the most 8-man tournaments in history, who put together an unprecedented undefeated streak (his wiki is incomplete), the first kickboxer to regularly beat BJJ players and wrestlers, a short tubby light-heavyweight who consistently fought and beat the best heavyweights on the planet. Gentlemen, I present Igor Vovchanchyn. The greatest bareknuckle fighter who ever lived.
My favourite Igor moments:
- He fights a one-night tournament in Israel (Absolute Fighting Championship 3) with a ten minute win over, then comes back for a titantic struggle to edge past Mihkail Avetsyan (himself a great fighter), and with only ten minutes break takes on a fresh Nick Nutter. He’s beaten on for half an hour until his face runs out of blood to bleed from and then he starts headbutting Nutter from the bottom until he breaks his nose and Nutter taps out from the top.
- In the rematch in Recife, Brazil he meets Nutter in the final of the 8-man tournment. Nutter dives for a double-leg and takes a full-on knee to the face. The fight is over in 10 seconds.
- Mark Kerr is the next big thing in American NHB. He’s won two UFC tournaments, an 8-man tournament in Brazil, and is looking unstoppable. He’s a herculean figure. Igor meets him in Japan for Pride in 1999. Kerr takes him down, dominates position but just cannot hurt the man. Igor grinds him down with rabbit punches from the bottom, kicks himself free, and finishes the fight with knees to the head. Due a recent rule change the fight is declared a no-contest (though everyone knew who got beat up and who did the beating). In a rematch a year later Kerr fights very scared and lays’n’prays for the distance to hand Igor an official decision win.
I love his attitude, his gameness, his heart, his will to win. And that sneaky way of teasing the left hand to draw opponents onto his money right hand. Igor, we salute you!