Fan Questions | Martial Arts History

When Did The UFC Start Using Gloves?

As you already know, MMA fights typically require the use of a 4 oz. fingerless glove, which protects the hands while still allowing grappling exchanges. But if you’ve seen some early UFC events, you may have noticed that most fighters didn’t wear gloves at all!

So obviously at some point, the gloves were introduced and made a mandatory part of MMA. In this post, I’m going to talk about when exactly the gloves came into MMA, and where the glove style originated. So when did the UFC start using gloves?

The UFC first introduced gloves at UFC 14. The first fighter to wear MMA-style gloves in the UFC was Melton Bowen at UFC 4. Many people incorrectly attribute this to Tank Abbott, who also wore MMA gloves at UFC 6, although he was a very important catalyst in the gloves’ popularity. MMA-style gloves became mandatory at UFC 14, as a part of MMA becoming a regulated sport.

Let’s take a closer look at the gloves’ first appearance in the octagon.

The Gloves’ First Appearance In The UFC

Contrary to popular belief, Tank Abbott was not the first fighter to wear MMA gloves in the octagon. As already mentioned, the real pioneer of MMA-style gloves was Melton Bowen, at UFC 4.

Melton Bowen inside the octagon at UFC 4.
Melton Bowen inside the octagon at UFC 4.

There are several reasons why Melton Bowen is not remembered for his glove use. The most important however, is the fact that he lost his first MMA fight, and then never fought again.

All I could find on Melton Bowen’s MMA career is that he represented boxing at UFC 4, and was beat by Ninjitsu fighter Steve Jennum via armbar, at 4:47 into the fight.

On his boxing career, I found a bit more. In fact, his BoxRec page tells us most of the information that’s available. He had a boxing record of 35-9, with 29 wins by KO. He even fought for the WBF Heavyweight title at one point, and also had a fight with heavyweight champion Shannon Briggs.

Bowen’s history as a boxer most likely influenced his decision to wear gloves. He probably decided to wear the 4 oz. gloves after seeing fellow boxer Art Jimmerson struggle while using a big traditional boxing glove.

Art Jimmerson famously fought with a boxing glove on his jab hand at UFC 1.
Art Jimmerson famously fought with a boxing glove on his jab hand at UFC 1.

Fun fact: there was one fighter who attempted to wear 4 oz. gloves inside the octagon even before Melton Bowen. That fighter was Felix Mitchell, an alternate fighter who represented Shaolin Kung Fu at UFC 3.

Felix Mitchell replaced an injured Kieth Hackney to face Ken Shamrock in the semifinals. Apparently, Mitchell was actually wearing MMA-style gloves while he was walking towards the octagon for his fight. However, referee ‘Big’ John McCarthy would not allow him to compete with the gloves on.

Felix Mitchell was almost the first fighter to wear MMA gloves in the octagon, but was forced to remove them before the fight.
Felix Mitchell wore MMA gloves to the octagon, but was forced to remove them before his fight.

As you can see above, Mitchell was forced to fight with only the wraps he wore under his gloves. He lost the fight via submission to a rear-naked choke.

Tank Abbot’s Popularization Of The Gloves

At UFC 6, street fighter David Abbott made his MMA debut. Due to his intimidating appearance, and his constant street fights, he was nicknamed ‘Tank’, after the character of the same name from the film Every Which Way but Loose.

The one and only, Tank Abbott.
The one and only, Tank Abbott.

Tank Abbott (as previously mentioned) was NOT the first fighter to wear MMA-style gloves inside the UFC octagon. However, due to his success and popularity in the octagon, he played a big part in the popularity of MMA-style gloves.

His use of the gloves made it apparent to other fighters that some type of hand protection could improve your striking power. But there is an interesting backstory to his choice of wearing gloves.

As mentioned, Tank was notorious for his street fights. In his UFC introduction, he was billed as a pit fighter with over 200 fights. However, Tank learned something very important about bare-knuckle fighting. In short, he knew that it was very easy to hurt your hands by punching someone’s skull bare-knuckle.

This was what separated him from his fellow competitors at UFC 6. Tank Abbott was the only fighter that had real bare-knuckle fight experience, as most of the other fighters were more ‘traditional’ martial artists.

In a recent interview, Tank stated that at the time, he thought, “I wonder if they’ve really been in a street fight, or a fight at a bar”.

Paulie Malignaggi injured both of his hands during his professional bare-knuckle fight with Artem Lobov, which is very common in the BKFC organization.
Paulie Malignaggi injured both of his hands during his professional bare-knuckle fight with Artem Lobov, which is very common in the BKFC organization.

He continued by saying, “One thing I know, I might have beat the hell out of some people… but [I was] often left driving in my car holding on to the steering wheel [thinking] ‘damn, my hands hurt like crazy'”.

Due to his experience in street fighting, Tank knew it would be advantageous to wear some sort of padding on his hands. Of course, he didn’t want to wear a boxing glove due to his ability as a wrestler, meaning he still wanted the option to grapple if need be.

So according to Tank, he went to a sporting goods store, and bought some bag gloves. He modified them a bit to allow for grappling, and then took them to the fighters’ meeting for the event.

Tank tells the story of introducing the gloves in full detail.

“Big John McCarthy was giving the meeting, and so I pull up the gloves… and I said ‘Hey can I wear these gloves?’ And all these ‘so-called’ fighters at the time, ‘martial arts guys’, they all started chuckling and laughing. Big John McCarthy’s all, ‘oh if you want to wear those you can go right ahead, you wear them’. “

As it happens, the gloves were successful in protecting Tank Abbott’s hands, giving him unprecedented knockout power.

Tank Abbott seen here wearing his modified MMA-style gloves.
Tank Abbott seen here wearing his modified MMA-style gloves.

Tank went on to knock out his first two opponents, John Matua and Paul Varelans. Despite losing the final to Oleg Taktarov, the fighters took notice of the effectiveness of Tank’s gloves, and started using them themselves. Of course, the UFC eventually started enforcing glove use as part of the unified rules of Mixed Martial Arts.

The First UFC Card That Required Gloves

According to extremeprosports.com, the first event that required the fighters wear gloves was UFC 14, held on July 27, 1997. The gloves had to weigh between four and six ounces, and they had to be approved by the UFC.

This rule was added to make the sport more professional and for regulation purposes. In fact, UFC 14 was also the point at which mouthguards and groin protectors became mandatory.

Origin Of MMA Style Gloves

Apparently there were other organizations that enforced the use of gloves prior to the UFC, such as the Shooto promotion from Japan, all the way back in 1989. But what I really want to talk about is where the MMA glove actually came from.

It is unclear when the first MMA-style gloves actually came about. However, it seems that interest in this style of glove can be attributed to the legendary martial artist Bruce Lee.

Bruce Lee wearing Kempo gloves in his film, Enter The Dragon.
Bruce Lee wearing Kempo gloves in his film, Enter The Dragon.

In 1973 one of Bruce Lee’s most popular films, Enter The Dragon, was released. In the film, Bruce Lee can be seen wearing Kempo-style gloves, which are similar to modern MMA gloves. These Kempo-style gloves became popular due to Bruce Lee simply wearing them in the film.

They have several similarities to modern day MMA gloves, leading me to believe that MMA gloves are based (at least in part) on these Kempo gloves. For one, the padding is significantly less than that of a boxing glove, even an 8 oz. one. Second, the glove had spaces for the fingers, and even exposed the fingers at the very tip (although the glove covered most of the finger).

And although they are a bit more limited than modern MMA gloves, these Kempo gloves allowed for grappling sequences. Over time, these gloves likely evolved into the modern MMA gloves we know and love today.

So that’s the history of MMA gloves in the UFC. If you enjoyed this post, check out the Martial Arts History page, where I write other posts similar to this one. Thanks for reading!