Fan Questions | Martial Arts History

Why Do Boxers and MMA Fighters Wear Gloves?

With the rising popularity of MMA, there are many people becoming new fans of the sport. You may be one of them yourself, and probably have some questions about MMA competition. While watching fights, you may wonder why MMA fighters don’t just fight bare-fisted, instead of wearing gloves. Well in this post I will answer just that: Why do MMA fighters wear gloves?

MMA fighters and Boxers wear gloves during competition primarily to protect their hands, and prevent cuts on the face. The bones of the hands are very fragile, and can easily break when throwing hard punches, even with gloves on. Considering the fact that most punches are aimed at the skull, the densest bone in the body, the chance of hand injury is very high. And lastly, it creates more exciting fights, as the fighters can hit harder, increasing the chances of a knockout.

However, this is just a small glimpse into why the fighters wear gloves. In the rest of this post, I will answer lingering questions such as when gloves were introduced, why injuries are bad for promoters and fighters, and the safety regarding glove use in MMA.

How Do Gloves Protect The Fighters?

So as mentioned above, the primary reason gloves are used is to protect the fighters from hand injuries. Hand injuries are very common in striking-based combat sports, such as MMA, Boxing, and Muay Thai, despite glove use. In fact, a good way to emphasize just how much gloves protect the hands is by watching a bare-knuckle boxing match.

Bare-knuckle boxing has been around as long as boxing itself has, but only recently have there been legally held bare-knuckle fights. One promotion, Bare-Knuckle Fighting Championship (BKFC), has been gaining popularity recently in the U.S. In the promotion, fighters are allowed to wrap their wrist and thumb, but not their knuckles.

Former WBA Champion Paulie Malignaggi's swollen hand after his fight with Artem Lobov at BKFC 6.
Former WBA Champion Paulie Malignaggi’s swollen hand after his fight with Artem Lobov at BKFC 6.

In BKFC, a fighter breaks their hand in almost every fight. The picture above shows former Boxing Champion Paulie Malignaggi’s swollen hand after his fight with MMA fighter Artem Lobov (who also broke both hands) at BKFC 6. I should note that BKFC fights are very short, consisting of three 2-minute rounds, whereas MMA competition is usually three 5-minute rounds.

The reason hands get so injured during a fight is because of the density of the skull compared to that of the hands. The bones of the hand are small and delicate, allowing us to use our hands and fingers for precise movements, such as writing or catching.

In contrast, the skull’s only purpose is to protect and contain one of our most important (and fragile) organs, the brain. Due to the importance of our brain, the skull has become the hardest bone in our body. Thus, striking another person’s head with our fragile hands results in injured hand bones.

Clearly, it seems that the gloves are used for a reason after seeing Malignaggi’s injury. Even with the small 4 oz. gloves used in MMA, the injury rate is significantly lower than in BKFC. However, I must note that glove use only decreases the chance of a hand injury, and does not guarantee safe hands. Several MMA and Boxing matches have ended due to broken hands.

If you are someone who trains in Boxing or MMA, you should always wear both hand wraps and gloves. If you’re a beginner, I’d personally recommend the gloves I use, which are the Title Pro Boxing Gloves. They’re inexpensive, but still durable enough for tough training sessions.

How Safe Is Fighting With Gloves On?

Gloves are a very good way to prevent hand injuries in combat sports. However, fighting with any type of gloves is not safe for the fighters. The main reason glove use is unsafe is because of the increased risk of brain damage.

The protection of the hands allows the fighters to swing their hands harder, with more impact, without needing to worry about potential injury. If a fighter can hit harder without breaking their hands, then it makes sense to do so. However, while gloves decrease the risk of hand injury, they increase the risk of brain injury.

Boxer Manny Pacquiao hits Antonio Margarito with a strong jab.
Although Margarito (left) has sustained facial lacerations, the real damage is in the brain, which only becomes visibly noticeable later in life.

Because the fighters can hit harder, the brain is subject to harder punches. It is true that bigger gloves, such as those used in boxing, can decrease the impact of a punch (although this is not true for MMA gloves).

However, brain injury is caused by the quick acceleration of the brain, not the impact of the punch. This is why car crashes can result in brain injury, even if the victim’s head was never hit by anything.

This is also why you should limit your sparring sessions, something I cover in a post called How Many Times A Week Should You Spar? In the post, I also talk about brain trauma sustained from fighting, and hiw to stay safe while sparring.

So we know fighting with gloves on increases the risk of brain injury. But is bare-knuckle fighting the solution? Many noteworthy people in the MMA community believe so, a primary example being Joe Rogan, UFC commentator and lifelong martial artist.

Artem Lobov during his bare-knuckle fight with Jason Knight.
Artem Lobov sustained several facial lacerations during his bare-knuckle fight with Jason Knight (left).

It should be obvious why bare-knuckle fighting is less likely to cause brain injury than modern MMA. If the fighters are more likely to break their hands they will throw weaker punches.

But you may initially be appalled by the number of facial lacerations the fighters receive due to lack of gloves, as seen above after a BKFC match between Artem Lobov and Jason Knight.

Although facial laceration is never a good thing, it is a small price to pay for a decreased chance of brain injury. As long as the cuts are controlled, and the bleeding does not get out of hand, bare-knuckle fights will not cause as much significant long-lasting brain injury as MMA or Boxing. Especially later in life, when the effects of conditions such as CTE become more prevalent.

When Were Gloves First Used In MMA/Boxing?

Now I’ll talk about the history of glove use. When modern boxing first began gaining popularity with the first lineal boxing champion John Sullivan, gloves were beginning to be the norm in boxing matches. But previously John Sullivan had fought under the London Prize Ring Rules, which did not require gloves.

First lineal Heavyweight Champion John L. Sullivan.
First lineal Heavyweight Champion John L. Sullivan.

Boxing gloves had been used around this time, but it was not a requirement until the introduction of the Marquess of Queensberry Rules. Under these rules, boxers were required to wear gloves.

The Marquess of Queensberry Rules quickly became very popular, and were the rules used when John Sullivan became the first Heavyweight Champion. The ruleset was introduced in 1867, and is very similar to the modern rules of boxing.

As for MMA, early competition did not require the use of gloves. For example, in UFC 1, participants were allowed to wear anything they liked, including gloves and wraps. Boxer Art Jimmerson famously competed in UFC 1 wearing one boxing glove to protect his jabbing hand (his left), earning him the nickname “One Glove”.

However, the first person to wear 4 oz. MMA style gloves was Tank Abbott at UFC 6. These smaller, fingerless gloves would later become mandatory for all participants starting at UFC 14.

Why Glove Use Is Good For Fight Promoters

Since we debunked the idea that the use of gloves somehow protects the fighters, you may be wondering who benefits from the use of gloves. The answer to that is the fight promoters! Here are several reasons why promoters would want their fighters to wear gloves.

The first reason is that their fighters get injured less often. Hand injuries are among the most common in MMA and Boxing, and these injuries require both surgery and time to heal before a fighter can jump back into competition.

An injured fighter is a bad thing for the promoter, because they want to have a wide selection of fighters available for upcoming fight cards. If one of their star fighters is suspended due to a hand injury, the promoter loses out on money to be earned from that fighter’s potential fight.

After Tyron Woodley injured his shoulder at UFC 214, he was not fit to compete. Him not being able to fight costs the UFC money, and so an interim Championship was issued at UFC 225.
After Tyron Woodley injured his shoulder at UFC 214, he was not fit to compete. Him not being able to fight costs the UFC money, and so an interim Championship was issued at UFC 225.

The other reason why glove use is favored by promoters is that fighters can hit harder with gloves, which we already addressed earlier. However, the real goal with this is to create more exciting fights, as with gloves on, the chances of a knockout are much higher than without them. The promoters need fights to be exciting in order to gain viewership.

Also, promoters want the fight to end decisively. A fight stopped due to an injury is not exciting for fans, much less when it is something seen as small, such as a broken hand. The use of gloves prevents fights ending by doctor or corner stoppage due to broken hands, which is seen as boring by the fans.

And lastly, promoters prefer fighters to wear gloves because there is a lower chance of facial laceration. The reasoning for this is pretty much the same as the reason why broken hands are bad for promoters. Cuts take time to heal, time in which the fighter is not making the promoter any money.

Fights can also be stopped due to cuts, depending on the severity, which is, you guessed it, boring for the fans. This whole section can be summarized by stating that promoters do everything they can to give the fans what they want to see.

In conclusion, gloves are worn in combat sports to protect the hands from injury and the face from cuts. This allows fighters to hit harder without breaking their hands, which unfortunately increases the risk of brain damage.

However, this is good for fight promoters, because it creates more exciting fights, therefore increasing viewership. Significant brain injury can be deterred by letting fighters compete bare-handed, as the punches are weaker.

In the case of the casual boxer, who just boxes to workout, then yes, glove use is always a good thing. Always keep your hands safe. Thanks for reading!