Bare-knuckle fighting may have roots that date back centuries but the current version of the sport has only really been relevant since the BKFC first launched back in 2018.

Over the past five years, the fledgling promotion has welcomed veterans from across MMA, boxing, kickboxing and Muay Thai while still building roots with homegrown talent. Perhaps the best example is 22-year-old featherweight Kai Stewart, who didn’t necessarily intend on becoming a full-time bare-knuckle fighter but after three consecutive wins, he found a taste for it.

Stewart actually started out as a wrestler at 4 years old and he continued all the way to college until he decided to pursue fighting with MMA as the most logical next step. That was until he got an unexpected call from the matchmaker at BKFC.

“I was a ticket seller in Montana and one of the matchmakers said ‘ticket sales are s***, you want to do it?’ and I said do I want to do it?” Stewart told MMA Fighting. “I had a bunch of long conversations with my coaches and my girlfriend and I’m all about everything falls into place and they came to my home state, they needed ticket sellers and ticket selling is what I do. So I just did it and it was the most fun I’ve ever had.

“The promotion, the people I met, the clout on Instagram, I can’t even lie, I love it. It just made sense so I did it. I did not think I was going to do it so much. I thought I was going to be one and done. I loved it too much and I’m here to stay.”

What Stewart believes separates him from the majority of fighters currently competing in BKFC is the fact that he’s really just now starting out his combat sports career.

He’s 1-0 in pro MMA with an extensive amateur background as well as his roots in wrestling, which gives him an advantageous base for that sport. Despite his grappling pedigree, Stewart fell in love with bare-knuckle fighting so he’s making a conscious decision to call BKFC home but he doesn’t believe that’s the same for a lot of the veterans on the roster.

“I chose bare-knuckle,” Stewart explained. “Most of the people in bare-knuckle, this is their last chance. That’s the difference between me and all of those guys, especially my opponent [Louie Lopez]. He’s 0-3 in MMA. This is his last option. This is my first option. This is my first choice.”

On Friday, Stewart faces Lopez to crown a new BKFC featherweight champion and he believes it’s just the first step towards real success in bare-knuckle competition.

Perhaps the scariest part about dealing with a fighter like Stewart is that youth is on his side so he knows got plenty of time to grow into an even better and more dangerous competitor in the coming years.

“Everybody wants to talk about he’s not even a striker, he’s a wrestler,” Stewart said. “Yeah because I never focused on it but now that I’m focused on it, my growth is so exponential since I started in BKFC, you’re going to see a completely different fighter out of me than you did in my last fight.

“I credit that to my age because I’m still young, I’m hungry and I’m willing to learn from everybody. I’m willing to learn whatever it takes.”

The future is bright but Stewart is always looking at the bigger picture where his career is concerned.

He knows a day will come when he’ll probably compete in MMA again and maybe even test himself in another combat sport but Stewart understands there’s plenty of time for that in the future.

Right now he couldn’t possibly imagine a better place to spend his time than the BKFC ring because Stewart truly feels like this is a match made in heaven.

“I will probably find my way back to an MMA cage sometime but right now I’m bleeding black and yellow and I don’t want them to think that I have other plans,” Stewart said. “I truly do feel like I found a home and a place in bare-knuckle.

“I’m just mentally built for it. Being a wrestler, I’ve just seen so many different scenarios of hard work and toughness and where I had to show true grit. I didn’t see why I couldn’t do bare-knuckle and just be very successful in it.”

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