Chris Sarro of Ellsworth (facing front) delivers a knockout punch against Ras Hylton during their Mixed Martial Arts bout at the New England Fights event held Sept. 7 at the Collins Center for the Arts in Orono. Sarro is embarking on a professional career in the new Bare-Knuckle Fighting Championship organization. Credit: Courtesy of Monty Rand Photography

Chris Sarro’s life changed Sept. 7 with one crisp, accurate punch.

That single right hand earned the 31-year-old Ellsworth High School graduate a stunning first-round knockout over Ras Hylton in his professional mixed martial arts debut with New England Fights at the Collins Center for the Arts in Orono.

It also prompted an immediate flurry of interest from combat sports promotions around the country in the reigning Northern New England Golden Gloves super-heavyweight boxing champion.

“I heard from kickboxing, multiple pro boxing and multiple MMA promotions,” he said. “For the first two weeks after that fight it was almost every day.”

While all the interest was flattering, Sarro had determined his career path long before fighting Hylton.

Next up is another debut, this time in the fledgling world of bare-knuckle fighting.

Sarro has signed a three-fight contract with the Bare Knuckle Fighting Championship, described as the first promotion allowed to hold a legal, sanctioned and regulated bare-knuckle event in the United States since 1889.

Bare-knuckle fighting was legal in the United Kingdom but was not allowed in the United States until 2018.

Based in Philadelphia and headed by former professional boxer David Feldman, BKFC seeks to preserve the historical legacy of bare-knuckle fighting with rules designed to emphasize fighter safety.

The promotion held its first show in Cheyenne, Wyoming, on June 2, 2018, and its roster includes such former Ultimate Fighting Championship combatants as Johny Hendricks, Vanderlei Silva, Antonio “Bigfoot” Silva, Artem Lobov, Chris Leben, Chris Lytle and Bec Rawlings.

BKFC also has staged shows in Florida, Mississippi and Mexico. Sarro is scheduled to make his bare-knuckle debut Nov. 16 at BKFC 9 in Biloxi, Mississippi.

Save for tape around the thumb and wrist, bare-knuckle fighting is exactly as anyone would imagine it, Sarro said.

“Most of the damage is cosmetic. Bones heal, in your hands especially, and cuts heal,” Sarro said. “To the average fan it looks more brutal than it is, but you take more damage with a 10-ounce boxing glove. You’re taking less with a 4-ounce MMA glove and you’re taking the least with a knuckle. My hand’s taking more damage than your brain, that’s for sure.”

Sarro’s interest in fighting goes back to great-grandfathers who were Golden Gloves boxers in New York and Connecticut.

“I’d always watch Friday Night Fights with my grandmother, my ‘nanna,’ and I was always taking out books on boxing from the Ellsworth library,” he said. “I got my first heavy bag at age 7, and I’d come home from school and beat that thing until I couldn’t swing anymore.

“I just always had the dream that I wanted to be in the ring in front of people and put on an amazing show.”

Those aspirations were motivated further by an appearance at his school by another Ellsworth High product, two-time UFC heavyweight champion Tim Sylvia.

“When I saw him with his title belt I thought, ‘This guy came from Ellsworth High School and he got himself to the world title,’” he said. “That’s never left me, seeing him walk around the gym holding that belt and knowing he came from a town of 6,500 people and he was No. 1 in the world twice.”

Sarro lifted weights and trained throughout his high school years before deciding at age 19 to join Team Irish, a Bangor-based combat sports training center operated by former boxer and UFC contender Marcus Davis.

“It’s awesome that my introduction to the sport was under someone who was the eighth-ranked welterweight in the UFC,” Sarro said. “It was a massive learning experience. If I had started anywhere else, God knows if I’d still be at it. I learned a lot from starting under Marcus.”

Sarro turned more toward boxing at age 25 when he began training under Ken “Skeet” Wyman at Wyman’s Boxing Club in Stockton Springs. He later trained at Gleason’s Gym in New York City before returning to Maine where he initially worked out at Cugno’s Boxing in Lewiston.

His interest in bare-knuckle fighting was piqued further last year when he learned that Dexter native Travis Bartlett, whom Sarro sparred with at Team Irish, had signed a contract with another promotion, the World Bare Knuckle Fighting Federation.

“I looked up BKFC by mistake because that’s who I thought Travis had signed with,” Sarro said. “I sent Dave Feldman a message through Facebook, and he didn’t respond at first, but he called back [in August 2018] and said he watched a few of my fights online and was interested in putting me on a card.”

There was one problem.

No athletic commission in a state that had legalized bare-knuckle fighting would put Sarro in a show until he fought at least once professionally, and Sarro still sought to add to his family’s amateur boxing legacy.

“I always wanted to win the Golden Gloves because it’s run in my family,” said Sarro, who went 7-1 in the amateur boxing ranks. “Mom’s father was a New York Golden Gloves [champion]. My father’s grandfathers on both sides were Golden Gloves on the New England circuit, and I just wanted to carry that on so I took the time to go for the Golden Gloves even though I wanted the pro fight, too.”

Sarro won the Northern New England Golden Gloves amateur title in January but his larger goal remained intact — a “BKFC” sign he placed over his bedroom door served as a constant reminder.

Sarro soon contacted New England Fights co-owner and matchmaker Matt Peterson seeking a professional MMA bout to fulfill that prerequisite for joining the bare-knuckle ranks. His one-punch knockout of Hylton led to him to become the first New England fighter signed by BKFC.

“Probably the biggest thing I like about [combat sports] is that it’s such an honest moment you share with somebody,” said Sarro, who now trains at MXA Fitness in Ellsworth. “You might think you’re the toughest, coolest thing around, but then you step in there and you’re stripped of all that stuff. You’ve got your family, your friends, your son watching and you find out who you really are.

“For me personally there’s nothing else in this world that can teach me lessons about myself like that sport.”

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Ernie Clark

Ernie Clark is a veteran sportswriter who has worked with the Bangor Daily News for more than a decade. A four-time Maine Sportswriter of the Year as selected by the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters...