GREAT FALLS — Next Friday the Bare Knuckle Fighting Championship will make a third trip to Great Falls for BKFC 44 at the Four Season Arena.
The main event will feature two Great Falls fighters - Kai Stewart and Louie Lopez - fighting for the BKFC featherweight world championship.
They’ll compete under bright lights, in front of thousands of fans in person with potentially millions more watching from home on Pay-Per-View.
But the lead up to the fight is taking place as far from the spotlight as possible.
Stewart (3-0 BKFC) fights out of Team Wolfpack gym, which has a home next to a nail salon in the basement of the Times Square building in downtown Great Falls.
Lopez (3-1 BKFC) competes for Diesel’s Counter Punch MMA, started by combat sports legend Joe Riggs and operated out of a warehouse in the Black Eagle industrial district.
Neither venue could be mistaken for glamorous, but the work that takes place within those walls is effective. And the two headliners have spent countless hours working toward their goals within the confines of their respective gyms.
“It didn't feel right for me to win a world title out of a world renowned gym. It feels right doing it from my dusty gym here in Great Falls, Montana,” said Stewart who spent some time training at Jackson Wink MMA Academy in Albuquerque, NM during his camp. “And I wouldn't trade it for an office. I wouldn't trade it for the world, and I wouldn't trade my coaches, my teammates, or anything. We're here to get better every single day. And that's all that matters now.”
Lopez trains three times a day at Counter Punch, under the tutelage of Riggs.
“If I was swimming 30 laps before, now I’m swimming 40. If I’m sparring four or five rounds before, it’s usually now six or seven rounds,” Lopez said about his camp. “I've just one-upped or two-upped everything for this camp, just being at championship level.”
One things becomes perfectly clear when you talk to the two fighters: they really don’t like one another. They’ve been circling each other for years with several MMA bouts scheduled and then canceled, while warring on social media.
So this fight is a long time coming.
"I'm excited to get in the ring with Louie Lopez because it just needs to happen,” Stewart said. “I mean, between all the drama, between the beef, everybody gets to read it on Facebook. So might as well be able to watch it on the big screen. So it needs to happen.
"He's just another name. When we get in there, it's just all business,” Lopez said. “We could do what we want when talking on the internet and this and that. But when it comes time to step through those ropes, none of that stuff matters anymore."
They’re clearly different people and different fighters. But these two Montanans are fighting for a high profile, national promotion - they both have underdog stories in common.
Stewart, nicknamed the “Outcast”, won a state wrestling title at Great Falls CMR in high school. He wrestled collegiately while also competing in MMA, before focusing full time on bare knuckle fighting. He’s 3-0 in the Squared Circle and brimming with confidence and swagger.
"It's definitely gotten easier to put my head into what I'm doing,” Stewart said. “But the fight game is never easy, and you have to wake up every single morning knowing that somewhere around the planet somebody wants to take my head off and I'm going to train to make sure that that doesn't happen.”
Lopez is from Helena, but now lives and trains full time in Great Falls. He used fighting to overcome addiction and has worked tirelessly to become a top contender.
"You have to suffer to be successful. If everybody just patted you on the back every single day, told you you were going to be the best in the world every single day, I would be spinning my own wheels,” Lopez said. “But the fact is I have real people in my life. I have people like my coach and people like my fans. People that support me. That's what helps me the most.”
From the outside looking in, Great Falls feels like an odd place for a major fight promotion to host an event. But it’s no surprise to the folks in the fight community here.
“It’s hard to train here,” Lopez said. “When you wake up at 5:30 a.m., it's negative 20 degrees and there’s nothing going on, it’s hard to get up. So it’s tougher here and we’re tougher than nails. We have a tough breed here and the BKFC sees that.”
Great Falls also loves to support their own which is why the fight card is packed with contenders from both local gyms, and previous events at the Four Seasons have sold out.
“Montana is at the forefront of the BKFC, we are one of the original locations,” Stewart said. “And having that behind me is a huge driving force because I want them to come back. I’m very, very thankful and honored to be a front runner in the main event. Can’t get much better than that.”
No matter who loses at BKFC 44 this week, combat sports in Montana will win.
For tickets to BKFC 44 on Friday, June 9 contact local fighters orclick here.