What protection do boxing gloves provide?

What protection do boxing gloves provide?

When it comes to combat sports, there’s almost always some form of glove involved. There are a load of different types of glove, but they all share a common purpose – making things safer. That said, there are negative sides to using boxing gloves, leading some groups to agree that bare knuckle boxing is actually safer overall.

In this article we’re going to take a closer look into why we use boxing gloves in the first place. To understand what protection boxing gloves provide, it’s important to look back at what the sport of boxing was like before the introduction of boxing gloves and other safety measures.

Before Boxing Gloves

Boxing is undoubtedly one of the biggest combat sports in the world. As well as crossing over heavily with the mainstream media (I’m sure even your Nan knows who Muhammad Ali was), it’s also had a dramatic impact on how other martial arts are trained and even competed.

Boxing is one of the most widely known martial arts in the world, and is widely practised worldwide. Boxing as a sport has been practised longer than records themselves, although the first records of any form of hand protection date back to Ancient Greece, where the fighters’ hands were wrapped in rawhide, although these were also intended as a method of causing more injury to the opponent as well.

panathenaic amphora; prize/trophy
© The Trustees of the British Museum

The style of boxing gloves you would recognise today were introduced in England in the 18th century, where boxing was regaining popularity and recognition as a sport. At the time, gloves were only used for training, and fights were still performed bare knuckle. It wasn’t until the late 1800s when protective boxing gloves were made a requirement, thanks to the Queensbury Rules established in 1867 which are still the basis of sport boxing rules today. The changes moved the sport away from being an unsavoury sport with an element of brutality, with large brawls and gambling as frequent occurrences, and prompted it’s first steps into being the widely accepted sport it is today.

Today, the International Boxing Association (IBA) approves new designs of gloves according to rules around weight and the amount of leather, padding and support allowed.

What protection do boxing gloves provide
José María Gatica vs Luis Federico Thompson, 1952

Boxing gloves are used in a variety of martial arts and combat sports in addition to boxing, which has led to numerous variations of gloves depending on the sport. Muay Thai for example uses a glove which is only slightly different to boxing gloves, while MMA gloves are much smaller and less padded, with open fingers to allow much better use of the hands.

So how do boxing gloves work?

Unlike most other martial arts, boxing is incredibly restricted in its move sets, with only the fists being allowed for striking. In a sporting sense this is great as it forces an emphasis on skill, however it does lead to an incredibly high intensity of strikes to the head and body. Before the modern rule set was introduced, boxing was much more dangerous. There are many factors for this – environment, lack of proper health care and medicine, no standards in refereeing and also the lack of gloves. When boxing without gloves, the speed of a punch is much faster and without any padding it creates a much more condensed impact, which means there’s a far higher risk of cutting/tearing your opponent’s skin and breaking your own bones. It was also more common for dirty tactics to be used, and without gloves, both accidental and intentional eye gouging with the thumb is always a possibility.

Boxing gloves solve a lot of these issues. The gloves fit around the hand, naturally forming a fist shape, with a layer of protection over the whole of the back of the hand and fingers and the thumb too. The padding slightly reduces the speed at which the fist can accelerate, and hugely reduces the intensity of the impacts on both the hands and the opponent. In the moment, these drastically increasing the safety of the sport.

What protection do boxing gloves provide
Ingemar Johansson vs Floyd Patterson, 1959

Where things get messy however is when we start to look at the long term effects. You would think that the padding of the gloves helps to reduce the sudden shock from punches to the head, however it isn’t quite that simple.

Think about this – how hard would you feel safe punching a wall without any hand protection? And now how hard could you hit it if you knew that your hands were well protected?

A lot harder, right?

The same principle applies to boxing. In bareknuckle boxing you need to really place your shots carefully to avoid breaking your wrist on the opponent’s skull. With boxing gloves on, there isn’t the need to worry about that, leading to boxers aiming to hit the head harder and more frequently which means that the risk of concussions and brain injuries may even be higher. Every year we learn more about the prevalence of CTE (Chronic traumatic encephalopathy) in combat sports. Many boxers from the sport’s ‘golden era’ are now suffering with severe mental illnesses and permanent brain injuries as a result of less importance placed on protection.

Although fighters will have a number of fights in their lives, the gym is where the impacts slowly build up over time. Years of hard sparring take their toll, and the general attitude has changed over the years. While smaller boxing gloves are used in competition, it’s important to remember that in training boxers use far more padded gloves, which further slow down punches and give far more padding, which makes things a lot safer. During sparring it’s always advised to reduce the power of your punches so that you’re practicing your skills without causing any invisible injuries.

Boxing is a sport which requires attacking your opponent, and as such is never going to be completely safe, but understanding what boxing gloves do and don’t protect you from is vital to reducing the risk of long term damage.

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